By Don Wanlass
For the first time in 32 years, the Los Angeles Dodgers open spring training this week as the defending World Series champions.
And judging by their moves in free agency in the past two weeks, they intend to repeat as world champions, becoming the first team to go back-to-back since the New York Yankees in 1999 and 2000.
The Dodgers have the highest payroll by far in the Major Leagues and they have the stacked roster to prove it.
They finished their roster pre-spring training roster moves by signing the 2020 National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer to a contract that could be worth as much as $102 million over three years and resigning third baseman Justin Turner to a deal that could be with more than $40 million over three years, if the Dodgers pick up the third-year option.
Bauer, a former star at UCLA, is from Santa Clarita and will add to the Dodgers already-stacked starting rotation.
The Dodgers now have three former Cy Young Award winners on their staff, including Clayton Kershaw and David Price. They also have young arms in Walker Buehler, Julio Urias, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin. May and Gonsolin are liable to open the season in the bullpen or Oklahoma City, but the way the Dodgers manipulate their pitching staff, both will see action somewhere for the Dodgers this year.
Although he is now 36, Turner was a player the Dodgers had to resign in the offseason. He has become the heart and soul of the team, a clubhouse leader and a fixture at third base and the third spot in the batting order.
He may have lost a step or two on defense and can probably use a day or two off each week, but the Dodgers need him in the lineup on a regular basis.
The Dodgers lost a few familiar faces in the offseason. Relief pitcher Pedro Baez, outfielder Joc Pederson and utility player Kike Hernandez all signed free agent contracts with different teams.
All will be missed, but all can be replaced, too.
In 356 career innings with the Dodgers, Baez posted a 3.03 earned run average, but he only recorded three saves in seven years here. He was good at getting outs, but he was not good in high-leverage situations. The Dodgers have plenty of innings eaters coming out of the bullpen to take his place.
Pederson has hit 130 home runs for the Dodgers over the last six years. In that time, he has gone from the team’s top minor league prospect who won the 2015 National League Rookie of the Year Award as a centerfielder, to a platooning corner outfielder.
Last year he hit .190 with only seven home runs and 16 runs batted in the COVID-shortened season after hitting 36 home runs the previous year. But Pederson does most of his damage against right-handed pitching and the Dodgers have young players waiting in the wings to take his place.
Hernandez will be harder to replace because of his versatility. He plays six positions extremely well and hits left-handed pitching the way Pederson hits right handers.
During his six years with the Dodgers he played 200 games at second base, 179 in center field, 127 in left field, 82 at shortstop, 75 in right field and 33 at third base.
In six years, he hit 68 home runs for the Dodgers and added eight more in the post season.
But the Dodgers have Chris Taylor, who also is comfortable in a utility role, and are grooming youngster Zach McKinstry to be the same kind of utility player. So Hernandez was allowed to sign a free agent contract with the Boston Red Sox.
If everyone stays healthy, the Dodgers should have one of the best batting orders in baseball to go with their standout starting rotation.
Will Smith and Austin Barnes provide a solid catching combination. Smith is better at the plate, Barnes is better behind it.
At first base, Max Muncy has hit 82 home runs over the last three seasons. Corey Seager is locked in at shortstop after winning most valuable player awards in the National League Championship Series and the World Series last October. Turner is at third base and the Dodgers have an outfield of A.J. Pollock, Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts.
The Dodgers hope Gavin Lux shows up in Glendale, Arizona, this spring and wins the starting second base job outright. If he doesn’t, he will share the job with Taylor, McKinstry and sometimes Muncy.
Matt Beatty and Edwin Rios were key performers off the bench last season and each can expect an expanded role this season with Beatty getting more work in left field with Pederson gone and Rios backing up Turner at third and Muncy at first.
The Dodgers only weakness is the bullpen and there team President Andrew Friedman is hoping that having a lot of strong arms throughout the pitching staff will sort itself out.
Kenley Jansen, in the last year of his contract, will have to win back the closer’s role he lost last year in the playoffs during spring training. If he fails, Blake Treinen, Brusdar Graterol and Victor Gonzalez will be given a chance to close.
If those three can’t handle the pressure that comes with closing, manager Dave Roberts could use matchups to determine who closes on a game-by-game basis or give Urias, May or Gonsolin a shot at the role.
Urias closed out the World Series last October and pitches with the kind of ice in his veins that a good closer needs.
The Dodgers have won eight straight National league Western Division titles and have played in three of the last four World Series. They start spring training this week with the best team in baseball.
It’s hard to see them not making the playoffs again next October. And it’s not hard to see them becoming the first team in 21 years to repeat as world champions.
DON’T HURRY BACK: That would be my recommendation to Anthony Davis, the Lakers star who will miss some time because of a strained calf.
The Lakers don’t need Davis very much in February or March. Or April when you get right down to it.
The Lakers need a healthy Davis for the playoffs, which don’t start until May 22 this season. The Lakers currently have the second best record in the NBA and the Western Conference right now and even losing Davis for three or more weeks shouldn’t affect their place in the standings much, barring some unforeseen calamity.
With Davis out of the lineup, head coach Frank Vogel will get to look at Talen Horton-Tucker more.
Horton-Tucker is a second-year shooting guard out of Iowa State who has made great strides this season after playing only 13 minutes spread out over six games last season.
Horton-Tucker is first and foremost a scorer. He can shoot from outside or take the ball to the rim. He hustles on defense and has forced Vogel to play him more and more as the season progresses.
The more he plays the better he is going to get.
Kyle Kuzma also will benefit from Davis’ absence by getting to start again. He is averaging only 10.8 points a game so far this season after averaging 15.4 points a game for his career, but his overall game has improved.
He will take up most of the scoring slack for Davis, while Dennis Schroder and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will also see more shots.
The Lakers still need to find a way to get LeBron James some more rest. He is averaging 34.7 minutes a game, which is too many for a 36-year-old, even one who has James’ physical attributes.
He continues to play at a MVP level, something the Lakers will need with Davis gone for an extended period.
The Lakers were fearful that Davis tore his Achilles tendon, an injury that would have cost him the rest of this season and the first few months of next season, too.
Letting him heal his strained calf and strengthening that part of his leg will hopefully prevent the Achilles from blowing out like what happened to Kevin Durant in the 2019 playoffs.
The Lakers can survive three to six weeks without Davis now. They need him healthy for the playoffs.