One of the biggest surprises during the early part of the MLB season is that the Los Angeles Dodgers aren’t dominating as expected. In fact, they aren’t even in first place in the NL West while barely being above .500.
Los Angeles started the season well enough, only to lose nine of their last 12 games at the end of April. Even when the calendar flipped to May, the Dodgers continued to struggle.
To be fair, we’ve seen this before, so it’s far from impossible to see the Dodgers get their act together and dominate the NL West during the second half of the season. But it’s far from a guarantee that the reigning World Series champs will retain their crown.
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why the Dodgers should be concerned about their struggles over the last few weeks.
Where in the World is Cody Bellinger?
More than a month after Cody Bellinger went on the IL with what the Dodgers thought was a minor calf issue, he remains sidelined with what was later diagnosed as a hairline fracture of his fibula. There’s still no timeline for his return, which is a continuing concern for the Dodgers. At this point, Bellinger will need a considerable amount of time to ramp up in the minors before returning to the majors. Returning before June seems unlikely, meaning Bellinger is likely to end up missing at least a third of the season.
Needless to say, Bellinger missing this much action was not in the team’s plans for 2021. The former MVP is expected to be a major part of one of the most dynamic lineups in baseball and his absence has surely contributed to the entire Los Angeles lineup going through a prolonged slump. It hasn’t helped that Mookie Betts has started slowly and players like Max Muncy have slumped after a fast start to the season.
The bottom line is that the Dodgers won’t be anywhere close to full strength until Bellinger is back and playing like a former MVP, and it might be a while until that’s the case.
The Dodgers have rarely been one of the elite defensive teams in the majors during their recent domination of the NL West and even their World Series title last year. But with their offense struggling, shortcomings on defense have become more difficult to hide and overcome.
Corey Seager, in particular, has failed to make routine plays at shortstop, leaving some to start questioning whether he should be the team’s future at the position after he reaches free agency next winter. Justin Turner has also seen his fielding stats decline over the past couple of years as he begins to grow longer in the tooth.
Manager Dave Roberts has expressed his confidence that the Dodgers will turn things around defensively. However, he’s offered no concrete evidence why he believes that will be the case.
The Dodgers could be going through a period when their defense just seems worse than it is, sure, but that doesn’t mean that the team’s infield defense is going to suddenly become a strength. The Dodgers are likely to remain a subpar defensive team all season, which is going to keep holding them back and give them something else that they need to overcome during the second half of the season.
The Los Angeles bullpen has been front and center in the team’s recent slide.
The rotation continues to pitch well, but the bullpen isn’t holding up its end up of the bargain. The Dodgers have the most losses among relief pitchers in the National League. They also have just 10 saves on the season while blowing 12 (!) saves, which is easily the most in the National League. While some of the bullpen’s numbers are solid, the LA relievers have the second-highest WHIP of any bullpen in the National League, meaning there’s a lot of traffic on the base paths.
For what it’s worth, David Price, Corey Knebel, Brusdar Graterol, Joe Kelly and Scott Alexander have all spent time on the IL this season. The loss of Dustin May from the rotation is also putting a little more strain on the bullpen. As a result, Kenley Jansen and Blake Treinen are the only reliable options these days. If the Dodgers can get healthy, the bullpen may be able to turn things around. But this could also turn into a long-term option because Roberts can only ask Jansen and Treinen to do so much. Plus, every game the bullpen blows in April or May is an extra game the Dodgers have to win later in the season to make up for it.
In the past, the Dodgers have used their incredible organizational depth to their advantage. However, that’s being tested this season.
Outfielder Joc Pederson and utility man Kike Hernandez both found new teams during the offseason. With Bellinger out, Chris Taylor has practically been a full-time center fielder rather than a versatile utility player. Younger players like Edwin Rios and Zach McKinstry being on the IL have also hurt the flexibility and depth that the Dodgers have been accustomed to having in the past.
It’s even a similar situation with the starting rotation, which began the season as one of the deepest in baseball. Dustin May is out for the season, Price is on the IL, and Tony Gonsolin is yet to pitch in 2021, creating questions about the backend of the Los Angeles rotation.
Of course, bullpen depth is also an issue because of injuries. This is another area where the Dodgers have had a clear advantage over most teams in past years but they are lacking this year. If they can get healthy, things should improve.
On the other hand, the Dodgers may not have the organizational depth they’ve had in past years, making it more difficult to make up for their April and May swoon later in the season.
The NL West is Better Than Expected
Heading into the season, the Dodgers knew that the San Diego Padres were poised to give them a run for their money. But they didn’t count on the San Francisco Giants being a serious contender, much less leading the NL West in the second week of May. Even the Arizona Diamondbacks can’t be ruled from making things interesting if they can get healthy.
It’s clear that the NL West is a little better than expected this season, which could complicate things for the Dodgers. It’d be one thing to get into a two-horse race with the Padres, but if the Giants can continue to play winning baseball, the path back to the top of the NL West becomes a little more complicated for the Dodgers. They won’t be able to beat up on the teams in their own division as much as in past years.
The Dodgers will also be hoping that at least two other teams falter if and win they start to heat up. In other words, the Giants and Padres are two big reasons why the Dodgers should be concerned about their recent struggles and their ability to overcome the deficit they’ve created for themselves in the NL West.
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