By Cliff Corcoran
Losing the World Series hurts. Losing Game 7 hurts even worse. Yet the Los Angeles Dodgers, who fell to the now-World Series champion Houston Astros, 5-1, in Game 7 of this year's Fall Classic Wednesday night, have no reason to hang their heads. They're in excellent shape to continue making deep postseason runs for years to come.
I touched on this in my World Series preview, but for all of the praise heaped on the Astros' young hitting stars, the Dodgers' lineup was younger and similarly stocked with emerging superstar talents. Six of the eight regulars in the Dodgers' Game 7 lineup will be 27 or younger next year, and only corner outfielders Yasiel Puig (27 next year), who will be in the final year of his seven-year contract, and Joc Pederson (26), who will be arbitration-eligible for the first time, will be making seven-figure salaries. Shortstop Corey Seager (24) and center fielder Chris Taylor (27) won't be arbitration-eligible until 2019. Catcher Austin Barnes (27) won't reach arbitration until 2020, and first baseman Cody Bellinger (22), who should win the National League's Rookie of the Year Award unanimously, will be under team control for six more seasons.
Not included in that group is outfielder Alex Verdugo (22), the team's top hitting prospect, who made his Major League debut this September, or utility man Enrique Hernandez and left fielder Andrew Toles, both of whom will be 26 next year, when Hernandez will be in his first year of arbitration. Toles won't be eligible until 2020.
The Dodgers have considerable outfield depth with Puig, Pederson, Toles (the team's Opening Day left fielder, who should be fully recovered from the anterior cruciate ligament tear in his right knee by the start of Spring Training), Hernandez and Verdugo, all of whom can play center field if needed. Given that depth, that team could opt to move former shortstop prospect Taylor back to the infield as its everyday second baseman in 2018. Doing so would give the Dodgers' a seventh player 27 or younger in their everyday lineup, with some combination of that outfield quartet replacing 31-year-old Logan Forsythe via Taylor's move.
Forsythe has a $9 million club option for 2018 that the Dodgers would be wise to pick up regardless of what they decide to do with Taylor. Even if Taylor does take over at second, Forsythe would make a good trade chip, or could replace free agent Chase Utley, who will turn 39 in December, as the team's primary reserve infielder (Forsythe appeared at all four infield positions and left field in 2017).
Of the Dodgers hitters who have options or have reached free agency this winter, Forsythe is the only one worth retaining. Curtis Granderson never hit for L.A. and will be 37 next year. Franklin Gutierrez can't stay healthy and will be 35. Andre Ethier might be a sentimental favorite in L.A., and may have driven in the only Dodgers run in Game 7, but he was healthy enough to play in just 38 regular-season games over the past two years and will be 36 next season. Buying out his $17.5 million club option for $2.5 million is an easy and obvious decision. In addition to those three and Utley, the Dodgers should cut bait on Adrian Gonzalez, who will be 36 and in the final year of his contract in 2018. Gonzalez was below replacement level when healthy in 2017, has lost his first-base job to Bellinger, and did not accompany the team on its October run. The Dodgers paid Carl Crawford more than $21 million to stay home this season and made it to Game 7 of the World Series. With Crawford's salary coming off the books, they can easily slip Gonzalez's comparable salary into that slot.
Free agency will have a greater impact on the Dodgers' pitching staff. Two of their top postseason relievers, righty fireman Brandon Morrow and lefty Deadline addition Tony Watson, both of whom will be 33 next year, are due to become free agents, as is Game 7 starter Yu Darvish. With Tony Cingrani, Luis Avilan, Edward Paredes and Adam Liberatore on the 40-man roster, the Dodgers are well stocked when it comes to lefty relievers, so they may let Watson find another home. However, I fully expect them to try to re-sign Morrow, who was one of the best relievers in the game in the second half of the 2017 season and into the postseason. Even if they do, they may want to add at least one more righty setup man, as Kenta Maeda, who filled that role in the postseason, will likely return to the starting rotation. This winter's free-agent market is well stocked when it comes to righty relievers, and the Dodgers need not spend big money on a closer type such as Wade Davis or Greg Holland. Yet, with Josh Fields and Pedro Baez the top righties behind closer Kenley Jansen heading into the offseason, retaining Morrow and adding another high-leverage righty seems like a necessity, and an obvious target for the Dodgers' front office.
The big question for the Dodgers heading into the offseason will be whether or not they add another front-end starting pitcher, either by re-signing or replacing Darvish. As things stand, they have one of the greatest pitchers in Major League history heading into his age-30 season in ace Clayton Kershaw, and considerable depth behind him. If they don't add another arm, their 2018 rotation projects to be Kershaw, lefties Rich Hill and Alex Wood, the latter a break-out star this season at age 26, righty Maeda, and lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu. However, there are injury and/or regression concerns regarding each of those five pitchers. Kershaw has failed to reached 30 starts or 200 innings in three of the last four years. Hill will be 38 next year, and his 135 2/3 regular-season innings this season were his most since 2007. Wood lost velocity as the 2017 season progressed. Ryu missed nearly all of the 2015 and '16 seasons following labrum surgery on his pitching shoulder. Ryu also has an opt-out in his contract that he could exercise this winter, though it seems highly unlikely that he will.
For depth, the team has the fragile Brandon McCarthy heading into his age-34 season, late-20s swing-men Ross Stripling, Brock Stewart and Wilmer Font and, if you're wildly optimistic, 34-year-old Scott Kazmir, who missed the entire 2017 season due to a hip injury. More compelling than any of that lot is Walker Buehler, who ranked 13th on MLB.com's midseason list of the game's top prospects, made his Major League debut in September (pitching exclusively in relief) and will be just 23 next season. Buehler, a slim righty who had Tommy John surgery in August 2015, throws in the upper 90s with an excellent curveball that he complements with a slider and changeup, but he has made just three starts above Double-A and will likely need some additional time at Triple-A next season.
If the Dodgers want to add another front-end arm to that group, re-signing Darvish, who will be 32 next year, will be the top choice. Jake Arrieta, who is a year older, is the only other pending free agent in Darvish's class, unless Masahiro Tanaka, 29 next season, chooses to opt out of his Yankees contract in the hope that teams will value his strong postseason over his disappointing regular season. Speaking of opt-outs, Kershaw has one after the 2018 season, so look for the Dodgers to open extension talks with their ace. Those negotiations could be more contentious than those that resulted in Kershaw's current deal given the lefty's recent injury history, but ultimately, I'd expect a deal to get done before Kershaw can join next winter's bountiful free-agent class.
For most teams, the need to extend Kershaw might preclude an effort to sign another front-end starter. However, the Dodgers not only have the financial might to support the largest payroll in the Majors, but the young talent on their 25-man roster, and in a farm system that was ranked the 10th-best in Baseball by MLB.com in the wake of the non-waiver Trade Deadline, is making their roster less expensive with each passing year. As the likes of Matt Kemp, Crawford, Ethier, Gonzalez, and Kazmir (also in his walk-year in 2018) drop off the payroll, they are being replaced by young, team-controlled stars, including what will soon be the last two NL Rookies of the Year in Seager and Bellinger. As a result, the Dodgers' Opening Day payroll decreased in each of the last two seasons, from a record $271.6 million in 2015 to $241.15 million this year. Meanwhile, the team's success has only increased, from losing the Division Series in 2015, to making the National League Championship Series in 2016, to 104 wins and a trip all the way to Game 7 of the World Series this year. That payroll trend should continue in 2018 and '19, and it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see the team's corresponding success result in that elusive seventh Dodgers championship.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.