Dodgers: Rookie First-Quarter Report Cards

The Dodgers have reached the quarter-mark for the disappointing 2018 season, and have only a historically bad 19 – 26 record to show for it.  The team, just a few months removed from having played the first World Series in Los Angeles since 1988, is struggling to piece together adequate performances from their offense, defense, and pitching.  It’s easy to forget that the team was also off to a poor start in 2017, before rookie sensation and eventual NL Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger was called-up to face the Giants on April 25th. From that point on, Cody’s performance and the momentum of the team carried them to a historic 104 – 58 record – within one game of bringing Los Angeles their first WS championship in nearly 30 years.  

The strength of the Dodgers’ farm system has been key to the success they’ve been able to sustain over the course of the last half-decade, unsurprisingly, the front-office has been keen to keep their top-prospects in tact.  As a result, the Dodgers’ have produced consecutive NL ROY’s and have a strong chance to extend the streak to three and beyond. Last week I dove into ratings for the bullpen, and today we’ll take a look at the 2018 rookie performances.  

The “High Achievers”:

Walker Buehler: A

The Dodgers’ will need another ROY-worthy performance if they expect to turn this jarring start around, and perhaps no one is more suited to deliver that kind of performance than the top-prospect in their farm system (#10 MLB) Walker Buehler.  In 2017, Buehler had the opportunity to show off his electric stuff out of the bullpen – striking out 12 in 9.1 innings and at only 22 years old. This year, through 27 innings as a starter, he’s shown the progression of his skills and the potential to anchor the rotation over the coming years as an ace – with or without Clayton Kershaw.  The upper-90s fastball and electric slider make for an elite combination that keeps hitters off-balance and misses bats – so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Buehler’s averaging over a strikeout per inning. The combination has also lead to some interesting comparisons to Justin Verlander.

By almost every measure Walker Buehler is having a successful rookie campaign, and in many departments outperforming his fellow pitching staff.  He’s second to only Hyun-jin Ryu in ERA at 2.67, and his FIP is even better at 2.22, he has the lowest HR/9, and the staff’s best K/9 at 11.33. By fWAR he’s been a more valuable pitcher than Clayton Kershaw.  

Fangraphs recently released an article proclaiming “Walker Buehler is no longer a luxury for the Dodgers,” which is proving increasingly true.  Injuries to the starting rotation manifested in Buehler’s early-season call-up, and his performance has warranted him the right to stay.  One thing to keep in mind, is that management has been vocal about having an innings limit on Buehler, who’s just two years removed from Tommy John surgery.  So it will be interesting to see how strict of a limit they will have, particularly if down the road the Dodgers’ are chasing a playoff spot and Buehler can maintain his production.  After all, the Dodgers were similarly cautious with Julio Urias, who’s now on the long road to recover from a 2017 season-ending shoulder surgery.

Alex Verdugo: B

Verdugo was recently optioned to AAA Oklahoma City to clear a roster spot for Yasiel Puig after a short stint with major league team.  In his 37 plate appearances, he had a productive .265 BA and .303 OBP, while shuttling around all three outfield positions. Much like Buehler, the organization is high on their No. 2 prospect, who’s shown an elite ability to control the strike zone and subsequently draws more walks than strikeouts.  His plus-plus arm gives him the flexibility to play all three outfield positions well, a luxury that Dave Roberts doesn’t have with fellow outfielders Matt Kemp and Chris Taylor.

We should expect to see Alex back on the major league team before season-end, and sooner rather than later if Matt Kemp’s resurgence begins to fade, or if further injuries plague the outfield.  All in all, in his short 2018 stint Verdugo demonstrated his penchant for hitting doubles, his defensive versatility, and his ability to work deep into counts.

Max Muncy: B-

Max is a natural first baseman, playing there for a majority of his time in college and the minor league system for both the Athletics and Dodgers, nonetheless, he’s provided serviceable defense in the hot corner during Turner’s absence.  Offensively, he’s had difficult shoes to fill as Turner has been one of the most productive third basemen over the last three seasons, and unsurprisingly the team hasn’t received near the same kind of production during his time on the DL but nonetheless things could have been worse. Over 26 games and 77 PA Muncy is hitting a solid .258 with 21 strikeouts and 9 walks.  He’s reaching base at an even healthier .351 clip, leads the squad in slugging percentage at .515, and has driven in 14, while adding four home runs – including a clutch one off of Max Scherzer.

Granted Muncy’s prospect stock has never been as high as the others on this list, and at 27 years old it’s tough to expect his offensive numbers to match perennial all-star Justin Turner – still his offensive performance this year (particularly against LHP) has been a very nice surprise and a welcome addition for a team that’s seemingly struggled to drive runners in.  With Turner’s return, we’ll keep an eye on how Doc plans on utilizing Max’s bat – it’ll be a shame if he starts to lose at bats.

The “Needs Improvement”:

Kyle Farmer: C-

Much like Max, Kyle was brought up to help fill the void in Turner’s absence – but across virtually the same sample size Farmer’s .230/.304/.279 slash line has been lackluster in comparison.  He’s also driven in fewer runs, has yet to hit a home run, and has collected 13 strikeouts to 5 walks. Kyle certainly hasn’t helped the team’s woeful ability to hit with runners in scoring position, as he’s batting just .167.

Kyle gives Doc some defensive flexibility, although, it has been virtually untapped since he’s only played one game at catcher.  Like Max, Farmer’s never been a highly touted prospect in the Dodgers’ rich system; still he’s performed well below expectations for a guy who just a few months before delivered a few clutch hits and performed his way onto the postseason roster, and not to mention after the solid Spring he had.  

It will be interesting to see how both Kyle and Max’s roles on the team develop with Turner’s return. If we’re looking at it from a production standpoint, Max has probably earned the opportunity to stay in a utility role – Kyle will probably find himself back in AAA Oklahoma City.

JT Chargois: D+

I covered JT in Monday’s bullpen report card, so if you’re interested in reading more about his 2018 performance you can see that here.  I’ve subsequently downgraded his performance after consecutive appearances with 1+ ERs to the Reds and Marlins – shifting his ERA up to 4.80.  While I don’t think the quality of the “stuff” has changed, his fastball and slider are still generating whiffs and he’s improved his K/9 to 12, it’s becoming increasingly clear that he may be best utilized at this point in his young career as a righty specialist.   

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Isaac Castro

Born and raised in Southern California, his earliest Dodgers' memories are watching the games from his Grandmother's living room in Oxnard, CA and packing in on Friday nights with his family of 7 to Chavez Ravine. He graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Economics, and still resides in enemy territory. He plans on naming his first born after Chase Utley.

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