The Think Blue gang has spent a lot of time in the prediction and prospect business over the past week. And why not? With spring training just a few days away and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ roster, for the most part, camp-ready (with a pair of major exceptions in Matt Kemp and Chase Utley), there’s not much more to talk about.
Andy Lane Chapman shared 6 Dodgers Predictions Sure to Come True in 2018. Dennis Schlossman wrote about hot prospects Keibert Ruiz, DJ Peters, Matt Beaty, Edwin Rios and righty strikeout specialist Shea Spitzbarth. Sarah Maninger dove into potential trade opportunities, and Andy took a look at National League Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger’s odds of avoiding a sophomore slump. All interesting thought experiments while it’s quiet on the West Coast front.
Things will heat up over the next few weeks. Utley will be signed, or he won’t, and either way, we’ll all want to have a discussion. Yasiel Puig just lost his representation over a “behavioral issue.” There should be serious position battles at catcher and second base. We have about 40 left fielders to watch.
We’ll have a starting pitching staff that includes a 37-year-old who struggles to hit 90 on the gun, a 31-year-old who hasn’t been completely healthy since 2014 and a 13-game winner with a rough HR/9 number in 2017 who may also be the team’s best middle reliever.
Oh, and we lost our eighth-inning guy along with a decent chunk of bullpen and rotational depth, and our hot young LHP prospect isn’t expected to recover from a injury to his pitching shoulder until July. At the earliest. There will be stuff to write about.
So today — one last time — let’s try to look into the crystal ball and see what the future may hold.
5 potential high-upside players on the 2018 Dodgers roster
Were you high on Chris Taylor last spring? At the end of February 2017, Taylor was joking that he hadn’t played center field since Little League, and was testing his range in the outfield as part of a long-shot attempt to squeeze Kiké Hernandez and Charlie Culberson for utility innings.
He lost. Despite a nice camp, Taylor ended up in Oklahoma City. He was called up when Logan Forsythe and Rob Segedin went on the disabled list on April 19. The rest was history.
How about Cody Bellinger? Sure, he was the team’s top prospect, but didn’t land in the Majors until the end of April. Baseball America projected him as a guy who’d have “misadventures in the outfield” but it “wouldn’t surprise if Bellinger shows he can hold his own.”
A nice write-up. Not exactly glowing praise. Even after murdering the Phillies with two home runs — the first of his career — in the final three innings of a 6-5 win over the Phillies on April 29, his own manager didn’t expect him to stick around.
“Cody is here by way of injury, and you have guys coming back,” L.A. skipper Dave Roberts told The Los Angeles Times after that victory. “I don’t think it’s up for discussion that because he’s performing in this short time — which is great for his confidence and for us — that someone else is going to be a casualty because of Cody.”
Things, of course, played out differently. Bellinger didn’t miss a game for the rest of the season, hit 39 home runs and won the National League Rookie of the Year award.
So who are the Taylors and Bellingers of 2018? Here are five players who may be the Dodgers’ high-upside guys for the season ahead:
Andrew Toles, OF
Toles is a bit of an X-factor. One of several candidates for the spot in left field, Toles is a left-handed batter who hits lefty pitching hard (.500 career SLG%, .778 OPS) and righties even harder (.481 SLG, .828 OPS). He’s a solid defensive left fielder with legit speed (he stole 62 bases in the minors in 2013) — at least he was, before blowing out his right knee in 2017.
Toles is an enigma because of that injury and the fact that he hasn’t put it all together in a full big league season. He looked good in 48 games with the Dodgers in 2016, slashing .314/.365/.505 with an OPS+ of 132 and earning a starting job, but played only 31 games in 2017 before missing the rest of the season with a his knee injury.
Is Toles a better left-handed platoon option than Joc Pederson or Alex Verdugo? Can he take the job outright over righty platoon candidates Kiké Hernandez or Matt Kemp (if he’s still around)?
To say it’s Toles job to lose is an overstatement, but it’s certainly there for Andrew to win. He could close the LF debate, give the front office the ability to make some talented players available in midseason trades and serve as a key chess piece that puts the Dodgers over the top with a strong 2018 showing.
Alex Verdugo, OF
The lefty Verdugo has consistently produced at the plate during his four years in the minor leagues, including a .314/.389/.436 performance at Oklahoma City in 2017.
While the Pacific Coast League is a notorious hitter’s circuit and Verdugo’s 15-game glimpse of The Show in 2017 was nothing memorable, the talent is undeniable: he’s the 33rd-ranked prospect in the Majors, according to MLB Pipeline. Verdugo’s entering the same age-22 season that saw Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager and first baseman Cody Bellinger blossom into legitimate stars. Maybe it’s Verdugo’s turn, too.
But will it be in Dodger Blue? Jeff Sullivan wrote an interesting post on the concept of prospect-buying, in which a team agrees to eat a lousy contract (like, say, Matt Kemp’s $43.5 million albatross) in order to land a blue-chip prospect like Verdugo.
Kemp appeared to be the stumbling block that prevented the team from re-signing Darvish; a Kemp-Verdugo combo could’ve free up the cash needed to keep Yu from going to the Cubs, or, in the future, pry someone like Chris Archer or Jake Odorizzi from the Rays or Danny Salazar from the Indians. Is Verdugo’s highest Dodger upside as a trading chip? Time will tell.
Brock Stewart, SP/RP
Remember when Brock Stewart got shelled in the first two starts of his career, way back in the summer of 2016? He’d been pitching for less than two years at that point. I don’t mean professionally — I mean, at all.
Stewart was a decent infielder who dallied as a pitcher at Illinois State (he through 27.2 innings as a Redbird) when the Dodgers drafted him in the sixth round of the 2014 MLB June Amateur Draft. Two years later, on June 26, 2016, Stewart made his MLB debut and was promptly smacked around by the Brewers’ Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Ryan Braun and Aaron Hill at Miller Park.
Brock had his clock cleaned again, this time by the Rockies, in early August before getting his act together. Over his final five appearances of 2016, Stewart posted a 2-0 record with 17 strikeouts in 19 innings and a 1.89 ERA. He surrendered only two home runs over those five outings as opposed to five home runs in the first nine innings of his career.
Stewart put together a solid, if unspectacular, performance at the big league level in limited 2017 action after recovering from a spring shoulder injury (34.1 IP, 7.6 K/9, 3.41 ERA).
Stewart could be the glue guy the Dodgers need to hold a staff of pitchers who struggle to go past the five-inning mark, or stay consistently healthy, together. He was a proven strike-thrower in the minors and was compared favorably to hot Astros — now Pirates, thanks to the Gerrit Cole trade — RHP prospect Joe Musgrove (of 2017 World Series Game 5 fame). Stewart throws a four-seamer around 94 miles per hour and has a good changeup and slider. He’s 26 years old, about to hit his athletic peak.
Who else would like to see him work with Rick Honeycutt for a full season? Would it be a shock for Stewart to notch some quality starts and earn a few big wins when one of the current five inevitably goes down? I don’t think so.
Hyun-jin Ryu, SP
I mentioned this in my first Think Blue post — and I’ve seen a similar sentiment pop up around the Dodgers blogosphere — Ryu is due to break out this season. The last time Ryu entered spring training injury-free was in February 2015. Bruce and Kris Jenner were still a married couple. That feels like a different decade now.
Ryu showed significant improvement in the second half of 2017 after a shaky start to the campaign. He was excellent for a two-month stretch from July to September, striking out 45 batters in 49.2 innings and posting a 2.36 ERA.
Despite the dominance, Ryu was left off the postseason roster, ostensibly because he didn’t have the bullpen experience necessary to be a trusted reliever in the season’s biggest situations.
Ryu is a free agent after the 2018 season and certainly has a lot to prove. I’d be shocked if he didn’t come out of the gate fast this spring.
Cody Bellinger, 1B
Admittedly, this is kind of a gimmick pick. The lefty first baseman slashed .267/.352/.581 with 39 home runs and 10 stolen bases as the 22-year-old NL Rookie of the Year in 2017.
Think Blue’s Andy Lane Chapman writes that “Cody has made his nutrition and workouts a priority this offseason. He has added 15 pounds of muscle which will serve him well for the grind of a long season.” She adds that Baseball-Reference projects Bellinger to slash .271/.355/.564/.919 with 23 doubles and 31 home runs in 2018. Terrific!
So where’s the room for upside? Bellinger’s greatest weakness at the plate — breaking pitches thrown low and inside — was exposed and exploited in the postseason. The power-hitting youngster set an MLB record with 29 postseason strikeouts, swinging through the Astros’ steady diet of inside breaking balls 17 times in seven games.
Houston’s pitchers were just doing their homework. Heatmaps from the 2017 regular season show that Bellinger’s contact percentage and ISO drop significantly on all pitches low in the zone, inside or otherwise.
And while no one who actually watches the games would claim Bellinger is a bad fielder — we all saw him make terrific plays at first base and even in left field last season — his defensive metrics aren’t great. His error in Game 7 of the World Series gave the Astros the first run of the contest, a head start that the champs later pointed to as the key moment in their victory.
If Bellinger can learn to lay off low pitches outside of the strike zone and put better wood (or any wood, frankly) on inside strikes, he might crush 50 home runs. If he can continue improving his play at first base, he might win a Gold Glove.
And if Bellinger can make those improvements, maybe he’ll earn some nice jewelry at the end of the 2018 season, too.
(FOLLOW BEN ON TWITTER: @BK77)