Despite heartbreaking playoff exit, the Dodgers window is still wide open

I can’t imagine how Dodgers fans are feeling after that brutal loss in Game 5 of the NLDS last week. The team was coming off a franchise record 106-win season, they had the likely NL MVP in Cody Bellinger, and they were arguably the best team in baseball. Yet, the sad truth about baseball is than none of that matters in the playoffs. Even the most talented teams are subject to the chaotic randomness of short series baseball. If they were playing a best of 75 series— ridiculous, I know, but bear with with me— they would have been locks to win. In a best of five, however, anything goes.

As if losing to a Nationals team that won 13 fewer games was not painful enough, the Dodgers suffered a first round exit after back-to-back World Series losses. Not to pile on, but watching manager Dave Roberts bungle the end of that game by failing at basic baseball tactics must have been extra frustrating. I would listen to arguments defending the use of Clayton Kershaw out of the bullpen, but using Joe Kelly and leaving him in for more than one inning was indefensible. Kelly is a mediocre reliever at best and is prone to inconsistencies. Kenley Jansen is not what he once was, but he was a far better option at that moment of the game.

I took a rare visit to Twitter after the managerial meltdown, and the reactions were pretty much what one would expect. I saw multiple people calling for Roberts’ job, even with the caveat that it would be an extreme response to one game. Despite having finished his fourth season managing the Dodgers, and my not having any emotional attachment to this team, I understood the rationale at the time. The Dodgers have not won a World Series since 1988, and this team had big expectations going into this season and even bigger expectations going into the postseason. All that, and the manager with a few years experience failed tactically in an embarrassing fashion.

It has since been announced that the Dodgers intend to keep Roberts for the 2020 season. I think letting some time pass to evaluate Roberts rationally was the right decision, and after having time to mull it over more myself, I agree with it. Firing a manager for bungling one game, even though it was a playoff game, is pretty harsh.

The onus is now on the front office to improve Roberts’ in-game decision making. In the past, when a manager had repeatedly demonstrated poor tactical skills, I criticized the GM as well as the manager. Just like in any other line of work, an employee’s failings reflect poorly on their boss. Honestly, after four years with the Dodgers, Roberts’ mismanagement of the end of Game 5 reflects just as poorly on Andrew Friedman.

The good news for Dodgers fans is that the team should still be one of the best teams in baseball next season. The core of this team is still intact, and only a few of their players are entering free agency. Hyun-Jin Ryu is one of them, and he is doing so after the best season of his career. His 3.3 percent walk rate was second best only to Mike Leake. He has been credited with winning the ERA title, but that should come with an asterisk. If you don’t cherrypick which runs count and which don’t, Jacob deGrom edged him by a hair with a 2.60 RA9 compared to Ryu’s 2.61 RA9!

(Coincidentally, something similar happened in the AL. Gerrit Cole won the ERA title, but Justin Verlander had the better RA9 (2.66 to 2.80). Also, insert rant about me having to make RA9 comparisons manually. Neither Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, nor Baseball Reference carry comprehensive RA9 data.)

Rich Hill is also headed to free agency after an productive but injury plagued season. Ryu and Hill are entering their age-33 and age 40(!) seasons respectively, but their departures would leave a hole in the rotation. Walker Buehler, Kenta Maeda, and Kershaw will continue to be mainstays in this rotation, but if some combination of Ross Stripling, Dustin May, or Julio Urías can’t step up to fill the other two slots, that is going to be a problem.

I am of the belief that it is tough to say that a competitive team to overpaid for a player they really need. The problem with Ryu and Hill is that they are awfully injury prone. I will not be the least bit critical if the Dodgers bring one or both of them back, but I think they would be better off breaking the bank for Gerrit Cole, luxury tax be damned, or Stephen Strasburg if he opts out. It would be a great move to show the fans that the organization is taking the playoff exit seriously.

Russell Martin will also be a free agent, but with Will Smith and Austin Barnes on the roster, I am not sure there is room for him anymore. He will also be 37 years old and coming off a season where he hit .220/.337/.330. He is still a useful player, though, and I am sure he will land somewhere.

The bullpen was not bad by any means, but it could use some help. The problem is that free agency is not a good place to look to fix that, especially this year. Friedman is best suited to look elsewhere.

Despite being one of MLB’s top teams for years now, the Dodgers still maintain a strong farm system, even after the graduations of Gavin Lux and Dustin May. I am not a prospect expert by any means, but this might still be a top ten farm system even after promoting those two.

There is no way that you can expect a team to duplicate a 106-win season, because everything needs to break right for a very talented group for that to happen. We will likely see a fair amount of regression, but the Dodgers should still win the NL West easily next season, and likely achieve the best record in the NL again. This is a strong team with few holes in it. I know it hurts, Dodgers fans, but you will definitely get another bite at the apple next season.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.

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