MLB hot stove: Dodgers still look like baseball’s best team, but they have some question marks

The 2020 World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers‘ offseason has been mostly quiet, and the attention they have gotten this winter has been focused on their notable departures and lack of moves. In the National League West — a division they’ve dominated for eight consecutive seasons — the San Diego Padres have been on the opposite side of the offseason spectrum, with their trades for Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove among other big moves.

Meanwhile, as of now, the Dodgers have lost Enrique Hernandez, Pedro Baez, Alex Wood and Joc Pederson via free agency. They have bolstered their bullpen, trading for relief pitcher Corey Knebel; signing Tommy Kahnle (likely to miss most of 2021 due to Tommy John surgery) and re-signing free-agent reliever Blake Treinen; and L.A. has handed out some minor-league contracts.

Don’t get me wrong, the Dodgers are going to be great in 2021. But there are still areas they need to address before spring training ramps up later this month. The Dodgers could just be playing the waiting game. After all, last year, the club’s trade for Mookie Betts didn’t happen until mid-February last year. 

But let’s take a look at some of the remaining question marks for the reigning World Series champions.

Why is Turner is still a free agent?

The Dodgers’ biggest name in free agency from the title-winning 2020 team is third baseman Justin Turner. His return wasn’t and isn’t guaranteed, but it was (and still is) certainly expected. Turner and the Dodgers are a great fit, so it is odd why a reunion hasn’t happened already. Los Angeles needs a third baseman and the right-handed hitting Turner helps balance the left-handed heavy batting lineup.

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With DJ LeMahieu off the board and Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, a reunion with Turner remains the likeliest outcome. Aside from the Dodgers — the club he’s spent the last seven years with — Turner has garnered interest from the Braves, Nationals and Blue Jays. Part of the holdup in the negotiations could stem from Turner’s reported desire for a four-year contract. That would keep the veteran in L.A. through his age-39 season.

The Dodgers do have internal options in infielders Edwin Rios, Matt Beaty, Max Muncy and Chris Taylor if Turner were to depart in free agency. This late in the offseason, the Dodgers external options are quickly dwindling. A possible trade for Cubs star Kris Bryant seems like a stretch, but it’s still a possibility and would be a good fit.

How do they replace Pederson, Hernandez?

The Dodgers saw the departures of utility man Enrique Hernandez and outfielder Joc Pederson in free agency in recent weeks. The good thing for L.A. is that the team has so much depth that they won’t necessarily feel the pair’s loss so much that it’ll hurt them significantly. Pederson’s exit was expected after the Dodgers already tried to trade him last offseason, and letting Hernandez go means the club is willing to go with some sort of combination of Gavin Lux, Chris Taylor, Rios, Beaty and, even, prospect Zach McKinstry to fill-in the utilityman role for the future.

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The 23-year-old Lux might need some more development to his approach at the plate, but he’s primed for a bounce-back year and could win the starting second base job in 2021 this spring. Taylor had an impressive 2020 season, he hits well against lefties and he can play shortstop, third base and all over the outfield. Rios would presumably be spending the most time at the hot corner if Turner does in fact leave for another club, but some improvement to strikeout and walk rates would be necessary if he is to get a bigger role next year. Beaty could become a reliable bench player for added depth, and McKinstry might see more playing time in 2021, especially if team rosters stay at 28.

The Dodgers might have pursued Nelson Cruz or Marcell Ozuna, or even decided to hold onto Pederson, if the NL was getting the designated hitter in 2021, but that seems unlikely. The club will look to turn to their remaining depth pieces to offset the losses. 

Is their bullpen set?

Longtime Dodgers reliever Pedro Baez joined the Houston Astros as a free agent this winter, but L.A. did manage to hold on to free agent right-hander Blake Treinen, one of the club’s most trusted relievers, for another two years.

The Dodgers also added Corey Knebel (trade with Brewers) and Tommy Kahnle (free agency), two relievers both with recent Tommy John surgeries on their resume. Knebel missed all of 2019 after his procedure and Milwaukee sent him to L.A. at the non-tender deadline. Kahnle underwent his surgery last August, so he’s likely to miss most or all of the 2021 season. The Dodgers — like they did with Treinen last winter — can afford to take reliever risks thanks to their depth. And starters Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May always have the ability to fill-in for relief.

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Knebel will try to step in and fill the Baez gap, but it’s not guaranteed that he can regain his pre-Tommy John form. Once in possession of an upper-90s fastball, Knebel didn’t touch 96 mph until the end of the 2020 season, a bit off from his 97.3 mph mark back during his 2017 All-Star season. He should figure to look better in his second year back from the procedure. It’ll especially help that he’ll be aided by an elite pitching coaching staff in Los Angeles. 

At the back of the bullpen, 33-year-old Kenley Jansen is set to begin the year as the closer, but there were questions about his job security in the playoffs. L.A. has a strong bullpen as it stands, but they are the Dodgers and could always add more arms. On the market now, Trevor Rosenthal, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon are the top free-agent relievers still available for the taking.

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