The National League West is about to get wild. The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres — two powerhouses predicted to battle all season long for the division crown — play six times in 10 days. The start of the season has been full of ups and downs for both teams, so what have we learned about each during the first month?
We asked ESPN MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez and David Schoenfield to weigh in with what has defined the 2023 season — so far — for each team, plus update their preseason predictions.
What is one number that defines the Dodgers — and will it last?
Doolittle: 125. This is the AXE rating for James Outman. (Which means, roughly, that he has been 2.5 standard deviations better than the average MLB player this season.) That’s the top rating among all rookies, though I don’t expect it to remain that way, simply because Arizona’s Corbin Carroll isn’t that far behind and is phenomenal. Still, I picked this number because this is the season of the rookie in Los Angeles, which corresponds to an offseason in which the Dodgers temporarily eased up on the payroll firehose that has been just one of their traits in recent seasons.
Outman has been outstanding, and Miguel Vargas has been coming on and looks like a lineup fixture. We’ve already gotten a glimpse at other rookies like Michael Busch and Gavin Stone, while Ryan Pepiot should join the club when he’s healthy. Bobby Miller is back in action in Triple-A. Based on what we’ve seen, the Dodgers have already gotten more production from rookies than any other team, though that title changes hands every few days. Outman might not end up as the top overall rookie, but the Dodgers have a chance to lap the field in rookie value, which, coming from this well-established powerhouse, is a frightening thing.
Gonzalez: 35. That’s the amount of innings Mookie Betts has played at shortstop this season. Yes, shortstop. It’s a position he had not played since 2012 for the Single-A Lowell Spinners, but one he has nonetheless handled competently at the major league level. A transition like this is no doubt a testament to how special an athlete Betts is — but it’s also an ominous sign with regard to the Dodgers’ depth at such an important position.
The Dodgers passed on the big free agent shortstops this offseason because they wanted Gavin Lux to take over the position full-time. Lux’s subsequent ACL tear put them in a really tough spot, with Miguel Rojas and Chris Taylor struggling offensively and nobody in the farm system ready to take over. Betts playing shortstop highlights the uncertainty throughout the Dodgers’ roster (an uncertainty, granted, that L.A. continues to overcome).
For now, Betts’ presence at shortstop lengthens the lineup because it allows the Dodgers to put an extra outfielder in it. But eventually they’ll have to acquire someone full-time. Tim Anderson, perhaps?
Schoenfield: 1.89. Clayton Kershaw‘s ERA. We could have also chosen Kershaw’s 0.763 WHIP, which leads the NL. Batters are hitting .175/.208/.285 against him. The point is that Kershaw is as effective as he has ever been — and, in fact, his average fastball velocity is the highest it has been since 2017. That’s still relatively pedestrian by today’s standards, but Kershaw is such a master in all phases of the game — command, deception, two-plus breaking balls — that it doesn’t matter.
Alongside Julio Urias, who looks back on track after a couple of rough outings, the Dodgers have two ace-level starters. The key for Kershaw, of course, is how many games he can start. He has started 22 each of the past two seasons, which makes him Old Hoss Radbourn compared to Jacob deGrom, so maybe that should be viewed as the expectation. But getting to 28 or even 30 starts could be the difference between the Dodgers winning the division or not winning it.
What is one number that defines the Padres — and will it last?
Doolittle: 139. That’s points of OPS. Namely, it’s the difference between the combined career OPS numbers of Manny Machado, Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. (.874) and what they’ve done this season (.735). Much of the positive aspect of that 2023 number is Soto’s .400 on-base percentage, and indeed, being a .400-OBP player is a pretty high floor for anybody. The main point though is there is an awful lot of star-level production missing from the Padres’ ledgers. I would not bet on that continuing.
Gonzalez: 30. That was Xander Bogaerts‘ on-base streak, which ended in a weird way on Wednesday (on a base hit to right field that saw Soto get thrown out because he thought the ball had been caught). Bogaerts’ signing was initially deemed excessive. The Padres already employed two shortstops in Tatis and Ha-Seong Kim, and yet they were splurging $280 million on another in Bogaerts? One month in, the more relevant question is this: Where would the Padres be without him?
Bogaerts is slashing .291/.378/.479 through his first 135 plate appearances with the Padres, unsurprisingly leading them in FanGraphs wins above replacement. With Tatis still finding his footing and Machado and Soto struggling out of the gate, Bogaerts’ production — along with nice contributions from Trent Grisham and the DH platoon of Nelson Cruz and Matt Carpenter — has been essential.
Schoenfield: 4.47. The Padres’ rotation ERA. The Padres’ two best starters have actually been Seth Lugo, who has never pitched a full season as a starter, and Nick Martinez, who is back in the bullpen with Joe Musgrove off the injured list. For all the concerns about the Dodgers’ rotation, the same concerns hold for the Padres. Blake Snell is not the pitcher he was when he won the Cy Young Award for the Rays in 2018, and it’s time to stop expecting a higher level from him. Michael Wacha has one season with at least 25 starts and an ERA under 4.00, and that came way back in 2015. Even Musgrove has been hit hard in his first two starts, and as dominant as he was in the first half in 2022, he had a 3.62 ERA and allowed 13 home runs in 77 innings in the second half. I think this rotation has a lot to prove before we assume it’s good enough to win a division.
Which team will win the most of its head-to-head games this month and why?
Doolittle: It’s a trap! (That’s Disney intellectual property, so it’s OK.) Picking any small subset of a baseball regular-season schedule is a dicey proposition at best. The Dodgers have a big edge in run differential. The Padres had a small edge in my preseason projections but the Dodgers would have the small edge if I redid that exercise now. Both teams have been playing well but the Dodgers have been one of the hotter teams in baseball. So I’ll say L.A. wins four and San Diego two.
Gonzalez: Don’t let a four-game NLDS upset by the Padres this past October make you forget about what happened right before that. The Dodgers dominated the Padres, winning 26 of 39 regular-season games from 2021 to 2022, and I would guess they take four of six from them this month. The Dodgers are rolling at the moment, coming off back-to-back sweeps of the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies, while the Padres are seemingly just getting going. The Padres have more upside, but the Dodgers are playing better lately.
Schoenfield: I’ll go with the Dodgers if only because we know Kershaw is healthy and the Padres’ big four hitters haven’t quite kicked into gear yet. Oh, and don’t forget the Dodgers were without Will Smith for 13 games. They’re 12-4 this season when he starts. Austin Barnes is hitting .104, so catcher was a big hole without Smith. Adding him in the middle of the Mookie Betts/Freddie Freeman/Max Muncy trio gives the Dodgers their own formidable foursome.
Who will win the NL West?
Doolittle: I’ve more or less revealed that my metrics favor the Dodgers a little more going forward and they already have a small lead. But I’m going to disagree with my objective brain and go subjective here and pick San Diego. I think that lineup has potential for some long stretches of very special things this summer. And I think the Dodgers will have some fallow stretches because of this slight veering off into youth. It’ll go down to the last month, but I’m picking the Padres. This pick disappears by tomorrow like on Snapchat, right?
Gonzalez: The Padres have had Tatis in their lineup for less than 40% of their games. They’ve also received a combined OPS of .744 from Soto and Machado and a combined ERA of 6.51 from Snell and Musgrove, the latter of whom is only two starts into his return. And yet the Padres have a winning record. I worry about their next layer of depth, but I think their immediate major league talent is overwhelming and they aren’t even close to hitting full stride. I’d still pick the Padres to win that division.
Schoenfield: I picked the Dodgers before the season and I’ll stick with that — not that I expected Muncy to be leading the majors in home runs or Jason Heyward to have an .879 OPS. I still prefer the Dodgers’ overall depth to San Diego’s and I think we’ll continue to see the young players grow — not just Outman, but Vargas and Stone, who just made his first major league start. And they have Miller down in Triple-A as even more rotation insurance when needed.