World Series or bust! Here's what the Dodgers must do down the stretch

ByBradford Doolittle ESPN logo
Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Perhaps the most stark expression of pure joy I've witnessed during this long baseball season came last weekend in Detroit.

Before Saturday's game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles outfielder Yasiel Puig sat at a table in the visitors clubhouse of Comerica Park, with closer Kenley Jansen sitting across from him. Puig was watching the 1977 version of "The Bad News Bears," the one where for some reason they end up playing in the Houston Astrodome. Puig watched this for about five minutes, laughing and giggling the entire time as if it were the most uproariously hilarious piece of cinema ever created.

Jansen sat quietly eating while reading something on his phone.

"Kenley! Kenley!" Puig said, pointing at the screen.

Jansen maybe looked up once, but if so, that was it.

It's a good time to be a Los Angeles Dodger. The mood should be good for a club that, with an 11-1 run over their next 12 games, would hit 100 wins by Labor Day. The Dodgers have a 21-game bulge in the National League West, having already eliminated rival San Francisco from the division race. They are 13 games up on Washington in the race for the NL's top playoff seed, and 13 games better than Houston for the best record in baseball.

Folks, we've still got 44 days until the Dodgers will play in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, the first step in a journey the club hopes will end L.A.'s 29-year championship drought. The Dodgers' highest-stakes games lie weeks away, but that doesn't mean there is nothing to do for manager Dave Roberts and his history-making crew over the next few weeks.

"There is that keeping-sharp component," Roberts said. "There is the rest component. And there is also seeing how the lineup looks and seeing how guys play in the field, seeing what each player is suited for."

With that in mind, here's a checklist of things for Roberts to do between now and the postseason as he attempts to put his club in the best possible position for baseball's annual October crapshoot:

1. Clinch all the things

The leads are enormous, so unless the roster is replaced by those Bad News Bears that Puig was laughing at, this is a foregone conclusion. But you've still got to do it.

2. Get healthy

This is the big-ticket item. At this writing, the Dodgers' top three starters (Clayton Kershaw, Yu Darvish and Alex Wood) are all on the disabled list. Eventual NL Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger was limping around Detroit with a swollen right ankle suffered Saturday.

Managing these injuries is something the Dodgers do very well. Still, for all the high-quality redundancy L.A.'s front office has built into its 40-man roster, Kershaw, Darvish, the first-half version of Wood and Bellinger aren't interchangeable pieces. Those are core guys you want operating at an optimum level when the games matter most.

3. Make calls on rehabbing guys

Meanwhile, the Dodgers have a long list of players at various phases of the injury rehab process. OutfieldersFranklin Gutierrez and Andre Ethier, who hasn't played all season, have both seen recent minor league action.

"Andre, he's on his way back," Roberts said. "Seeing him as a bat off the bench is something we envision for him throughout September and potentially the postseason. I don't think the addition of Curtis [Granderson] changes that."

Lefty relievers Grant Dayton, a standout last season, and Adam Liberatore have been in the same rehab boat but have battled setbacks. And Scott Kazmir is still lurking somewhere, as the plug has not yet been pulled on his season.

Roberts needs to see all of these postseason roster possibilities before he has to make decisions on his 25-man October group. Either he can count on them or he can't, and the luxury of the Dodgers' huge lead is that you can throw them out there in big league situations and see if they are ready to help.

4. Figure out corner outfield/first base rotation

The recent additions of Adrian Gonzalez (back from the DL) andGranderson(acquired via trade from the New York Mets) give Roberts even more firepower, but he's got to figure out the best way to deploy some of these players. It's a complicated puzzle.

Gonzalez looked good in Detroit, both in the field and at the plate. If he can stave off the back trouble that knocked him out for about four months, he seems to be a good fit to play first against righties. Bellinger will be in the lineup every day, but because he can swing to the outfield corners, he can play first against lefties and move to left field or right field against righties.

Granderson figures to play left against righties, and you'd think Puig would be a no-brainer in right against lefties. However, the righty-hitting Puig actually has reverse-platoon splits over the past three years and he is having a Gold Glove season in right field. And you've got super utility player Enrique Hernandez, who murders lefties.

Roberts seems to like Chris Taylor and Hernandez in center field, but both can move around to several positions as well, including shortstop. And don't forget about Joc Pederson, who is trying to master swing tweaks and a new stance in Triple-A in hopes of a return to his former production.

"[Granderson] can handle center field, but I see him more on the corners," Roberts said. "With C.T. and Kike [Hernandez] getting more of the time in center field. When you're looking at foot speed and where they are at in their careers, I think that having Curtis be on the corners makes the most sense."

More complications: Roberts likes a healthy Ethier as a pinch-hit option, and for good reason: Over the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Ethier has a .966 OPS in 38 pinch-hit plate appearances. But if Gutierrez returns, he is a plus defender and proven lefty masher.

Sorting this out isn't just a game-to-game dilemma for Roberts when it comes to filling out his lineup cards. It also affects who makes the postseason roster in the first place. Right now, assuming the Dodgers go with 13 position players because of the number of health issues the pitchers have dealt with, one or two of Gutierrez, Ethier and Pederson won't have a spot.

"One part of [tinkering] is the lineup," Roberts said. "To see where Taylor and Granderson fit, to really figure out how the dynamic with Adrian and Cody. We have a lot of good players."

Poor Roberts. It must be rough to have so many good players.

5. Identify postseason rotation

Wood's troubled SC joint is the big wild card here. In his outing Monday at Pittsburgh, his velocity was down to about 90 mph, and he has dealt with this issue before. The Dodgers put him on the DL on Tuesday with no reason at all to risk it.

If Wood looks right by the start of October, then he seems like a good bet to slot behind Kershaw and Darvish in the playoff rotation. But the call on No. 4 will be difficult, as there are good arguments for both Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda.

And we can't forget about the presence of Brandon McCarthy, who has been dealing with a blister problem, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. It may all come down to who might be the best candidate to help in a long-relief role, which itself might lead to some September experimentation.

6. Set up postseason bullpen

Beyond Jansen, the Dodgers' bullpen is something like a baseball version of the Faceless Men of Braavos from "Game of Thrones."

"The bullpen is pretty much intact in that there are no roles," Roberts said. "Guys pitch according to matchups, and that's worked out really well for us."

It's not going to be about putting relievers into designated innings. It's going to be about setting up his bullpen to maximize the matchup advantages from either side of the plate.

The right-hand side of the equation is easier to envision. Pedro Baez, Ross Stripling, Brandon Morrow and Josh Fields all look like fixtures. As an added bonus, Jansen and Morrow both have very good numbers against lefties, not that the others have been hammered.

With Dayton's health a question mark, Luis Avilan having pedestrian metrics, and trade deadline acquisitions Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani both looking less than dependable, the picture is murkier when it comes to the bullpen lefties. Could Hill, Ryu or even Kazmir or Liberatore figure in here?

Or could Hill and Ryu figure into an amped-up long super-relief role?

For that matter, is there going to be a spot like that for prospect Walker Buehler, who recently moved into a relief role at Triple-A? So far the returns have been up and down, though he did have one outing in which he earned a save by throwing two perfect innings with five strikeouts.

Expect to see some of these scenarios played out during September.

7. Set the win record?

I put a question mark on this one because the Dodgers don't seem too concerned with the fact they are on pace to win 115 or 116 games, depending on the day. It's easy to understand why. The teams that share the mark for regular-season wins (1906 Cubs and 2001 Mariners) are remembered as much for not winning the World Series as they are for the record.

"Outside of the [tinkering], it's just trying to keep guys fresh and sharp, but not overworked," Roberts said. "Make sure that once we finish the season, guys are at their peak."

Still, if the Dodgers were to break that record and take the Series? Then you're in the conversation of the best single-season teams ever assembled. So why not go for broke? Why take the foot off the gas?

"I think [the risk of letting up] is real," Roberts said. "But for us as a staff, it's more about keeping our focus. Guys are still playing for their team, but guys in the clubhouse are professionals, and they're still trying to put together nice seasons. We understand that this is kind of a build-up towards the postseason."

This is quite a long laundry list for Mr. Roberts, and by the time you get to the bottom of it, you might think there are reasons to worry about the Dodgers. But there aren't.

"It's a high-class problem," Roberts said. "I appreciate it every single day. Our guys do. Just to look at our guys' playing time, in terms of at-bats and innings pitched, it's going to be pretty similar across the board with a few outliers. I think that's a good thing for morale.

"We talked about playing for October, I think we're doing a very good job of managing all this and keeping everyone relevant and mentally on board. It's all white collar. The whole irony is we try to classify ourselves as blue collar, but these are all white-collar problems."

Indeed. These days, it's good to be a Dodger.

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