Dodgers’ vaunted depth is failing an early season test

Edwin Rios. Photo by: Stacie Wheeler

For years, the Dodgers’ mantra has been depth. And not just depth as in people who can play baseball at the highest level, but those who can play baseball well at the highest level.

Guys like Pedro Baez, Dylan Floro, David Freese, Enrique Hernandez, Joc Pederson, Ross Stripling, Alex Wood have provided the Dodgers with a lot of quality depth over the years. All of these guys are either playing elsewhere now and, in the case of Freese, he has retired.

It isn’t realistic to expect every single player from a respective team is going to return because of roster limitations and self-imposed financial limitations. This is how it is in every sport. There’s turnover among the roster, and teams have to supplement and/or replace the loss of said players with external acquisitions or, in the case of the 2021 Dodgers, from the inside.

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When the team was 13-2 and running away with everything, guys like Gavin Lux and Zach McKinstry were performing, while Chris Taylor was off to the best start of his career. Then, injuries hit. Cody Bellinger has been out since April 6, Mookie Betts has missed some time and Taylor has missed a couple games. With those guys out, the youngsters have had to step up. But before Lux and McKinstry could, they both were hurt. Yes, Lux struggled in his last six games (1-for-17) before going on the injured list, but he was one of baseball’s top prospects just a year ago. McKinstry, on the other hand, wasn’t struggling. He was hitting .296/.328/.556 and played four different positions. And while RBI is a pretty garbage statistic, he has the third-most on the team with 14. He was producing the way we have come to expect from the Dodgers upper minor-leaguers.

Granted, with some of the bigger names hurt, some of the other bigger names haven’t exactly stepped up. Corey Seager has a .500 OPS in his last five games, and since hitting the eventual game-winning home run in San Diego on April 16, he’s hitting just .167/.189/.306. Will Smith is hitting well enough (.229/.397/.458) to warrant more playing time, but he’s in about a 59-41 split with Austin Barnes (who isn’t hitting well himself). And AJ Pollock has yet to rediscover his 2020 form (.242/.288/.339). However, the most glaring deficiencies have come from the bench in the form of Matt Beaty, Edwin Rios and Luke Raley. The trio has combined to hit .154/.290/.244 in 93 plate appearances. Sheldon Neuse has a couple of homers in 14 plate appearances, but DJ Peters — in a small sample size of 5 plate appearances — has looked completely overmatched. It’s not surprising to see Raley and Peters struggle, but it is a bit jarring to see Beaty and Rios — both of whom have enjoyed success at the MLB level — struggle as mightily as they have. I mean, Edwin Rios had a .260/.338/.634 batting line in 139 plate appearances from 2019-20. He also hit a couple home runs in the 2020 NLCS against the Braves. He might just be slumping, but it’s coming at an inopportune time for him and the Dodgers.

The bullpen isn’t immune to this, either. Corey Knebel, Jimmy Nelson and Dennis Santana haven’t performed up to their talent level. David Price has had mixed results as a reliever thus far, but that 5.59 ERA and 14 hits in 9 2/3 innings doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence. Three of the four are injured now, and Nelson hasn’t been able to build on his Spring Training performance. That was apparent in the ninth inning last night when he blew the save. Sure, it came on some weak contact at times, but he still didn’t get the job done.

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So, the Dodgers’ depth in the upper minors and on the fringes of the 40-man roster have been tested heavily early this season. For the most part, the depth has not shown up. It doesn’t help that some of the other big-name hitters are also struggling, but it just doesn’t seem like the guys on the roster now are as good as some of the guys in the past. And while there are some quality hitting prospects in the minors (Michael Busch, Omar Estevez, Kody Hoese, Andy Pages, Miguel Vargas, etc.), they’re not ready for The Show — especially after the lost developmental season of 2020. Maybe a non-roster invitee like Matt Davidson gets a look if the injuries and struggles continue.

I’m less concerned about the bullpen. Knebel is out for a while, which sucks. Nelson and Price have shown flashes, but Santana hasn’t been the same for the last couple years. There are some arms on the farm — vets and prospects — who could be in line for some work later this season (Brandon Morrow, Josiah Gray, James Pazos, Edwin Uceta, Mitch White), but there’s no guarantee they’re going to be better than who the Dodgers have now.

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The 2020 Dodgers were fortunate to be pretty healthy. Whether it’s a 60- or 162-game season, health is one of the biggest determiners of how well a team will go in the postseason. If the main guys are healthy come October, we’ll all forget about this early season rough stretch. If not, then there might have to be some moves at some point to strengthen the depth because the early returns have been discouraging.

About Dustin Nosler

Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosted a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He was a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times and True Blue LA. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.