Vin Scully often referenced “the elevator ride from the penthouse to the basement” when a batter would strike out in their next at-bat after hitting a home run. This famous #Scullyism can also describe the Dodgers and their troubles this season. They went all the way to Game 7 of the World Series last year, but now are sinking fast. The scary part is that they haven’t completely reached the basement yet, sitting 1 1/2 games ahead of the San Diego Padres in the NL West. But if the Boys in Blue can’t get healthy and turn things around — and fast — they’ll find themselves in last place.
The Cincinnati Reds defeated LA again on Sunday, securing a four-game sweep. It was the first time the Reds have done so at Dodger Stadium since 1976. The series was a nightmare. They went 4-for-30 with runners in scoring position, left 26 men on base and scored only nine runs. It was a master class in futility, a frustrating inner struggle for a team that seemingly had it all just a year ago. Last season on May 15, the first-place Dodgers shutout the Rockies 4-0 giving them a record of 22-15. Seems so long ago.
Worse yet, it feels like the pain and disappointment of losing the World Series is dredged up every time the Dodgers strand the bases loaded or when the bullpen blows yet another save. Sure, the Dodgers threw a combined no-hitter against the Padres in Mexico, but that has been one of very few highlights on the year. The Dodgers are 16-24, their worst start over the first 40 games of the season since 1958. Their competition is far ahead at the moment, as the Arizona Diamondbacks are off to another hot start (24-16) and the Colorado Rockies have some fire power as well (22-19), so the Dodgers are going to have to figure it out soon. Although it’s still early in the season — with 122 regular season games remaining on the schedule — each series loss buries them deeper as the season carries on. As of right now, they don’t look like a playoff team.
The Dodgers’ unsuccessful start to the season is attributed to a devastating combination of injuries, poor performance and lack of moves made in the offseason to improve the team.
Everyone’s hurt: Tony Cingrani (left shoulder), Logan Forsythe (right shoulder), Rich Hill (left middle finger blister), Clayton Kershaw (left biceps tendinitis), Tom Koehler (right shoulder), Hyun-Jin Ryu (left groin), Corey Seager (Tommy John surgery), Justin Turner (left wrist fracture), Julio Urias (left shoulder surgery). The wind was knocked out of the collective fan base when Turner broke his wrist on March 25 during a Spring Training game at Camelback Ranch, and the Dodgers have been playing like they all have broken appendages since. Then there was the sewage spill at Dodger Stadium during the Freeway Series, an ill-omened mishap. The crap just keeps piling up.
Another contributing factor to the Dodgers’ deterioration was the focus by the front office to stay under the luxury tax threshold. They’ve paid over $150 million (14 Brandon Morrows) in luxury tax over the last five years. Obviously, I want to see both Kershaw and Bryce Harper in a Dodger uniform next season, and they should absolutely go for both. But what will the team look like once those decisions need to be made?
Morrow gets mentioned not only because I’m a big Morrow fan, but because the bullpen has been horrific. As of right now, the Dodgers’ bullpen has allowed the most home runs in the majors (23), they’re 13th in the NL in ERA (4.51), last in FIP (4.40), and opposing batters are slugging .422 against them. Still, even if they shelled out the cash and signed Morrow for two years and $21 million, he would be a very expensive set-up guy in a very mediocre at best bullpen. Of course he would have made the pen better, but almost every pen arm has underperformed to the point where Morrow’s 14 quality innings wouldn’t balance out the subpar contributions of the rest of the relievers, including one Kenley Jansen. It almost makes it worse to realize that the front office and the rest of us couldn’t have possibly predicted that the bullpen would be this bad. After all, the Dodgers’ bullpen was one of the best in baseball last year, was pieced together using the same strategy and ended up as one of the biggest reasons for their success and epic postseason run.
Then of course there’s the Dodgers’ struggles this year with an inconsistent offense. Even if management had signed Morrow to strengthen the bullpen, the Dodgers’ have been swinging through pitches down the heart of the plate, looking like statues far too many times and failing to come up with clutch hits when runners are in scoring position. Their pathetic offensive numbers tell the tale. They’re slashing .239/.320/.387 as a team with just 36 home runs. With men in scoring position, they’re hitting .242 and have grounded into 11 double plays. With the bases loaded, they’re hitting .179/.278/.321/.599 with 11 strikeouts and three double plays. After a career-year in 2017 (.288/.354/.496/.850), Chris Taylor has scuffled (.232/.301/.417/.718) this season. Cody Bellinger had a .933 OPS last year, but he’s at .788 in his sophomore campaign so far. Perhaps most worrying is that the offense has been this impotent despite resurgences from Yasmani Grandal and Matt Kemp.
Something’s gotta give eventually.
The Dodgers could ride this out with hopes that Turner and Forsythe return healthy and productive and that the bullpen starts performing to expectations, perhaps waiting to eventually provide a minor boost from a trade deadline pickup or two — a reliever is obvious, but perhaps another starter to help a rotation savaged by injuries.
They could chalk up the season as a loss, start selling off players and focus on offseason acquisitions to go for another World Series berth in 2019. Matt Kemp, team batting leader, could fetch them something and take some more money off the books, and Yasiel Puig and Yasmani Grandal have also been discussed as possible trade bait. However, there aren’t a lot of players to trade away that the Dodgers won’t likely need next year (probably even need Puig), which is why fans are even wondering if Kershaw could be a trade chip. If you think Dodger baseball is depressing now, imagine Kershaw in another uniform and winning in the playoffs.
They could go all-in and get an impact player like Manny Machado, but that sounds like a rash decision at this point in May when they don’t yet know if it’s a team decent enough to even be worth it. The thought of Machado and Turner in the lineup is admittedly tantalizing, and should Turner come back and produce at his gingery best, adding Machado could be just the boost the offense needs. The Dodgers do also have a lot of depth in the farm system, plus the Orioles have held onto Machado for a long time waiting for a payoff, but the Dodgers would have to actually start winning games for that scenario to be worth the price.
Things are bad right now, but the season isn’t a total loss just yet. It was just last summer this team went on quite a run, losing only 10 games in June and July of 2017. We’ve seen glimpses of last year’s Taylor and Bellinger, and Puig finally hit his first home run of the season on Mother’s Day. Turner and Forsythe are returning, and Jansen admitted he’s just now starting to feel like he’s in regular season mode. Kershaw will be back, and Buehler has been a bright spot. Even if they can’t catch the D-backs to win their sixth consecutive NL West title, there’s always the Wild Card. It’s not time for a sell-off just yet, but it’s a team with a crossroads approaching soon, and they’ll have to decide what kind of season they want to have and do it soon. The champagne is only for the penthouse.