The Dodgers hold an edge over the San Diego Padres at a majority of positions heading into the National League Division Series, with the outfield and the bench leaning most heavily in their favor. However, the Padres hold an edge in the infield behind Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado, and their bullpen is coming off strong performances while the Dodgers' closer role is in question. A comparison:
The Padres infield doesn’t have a hole. Shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. and third baseman Manny Machado — two NL MVP candidates — give the Padres the best left side of the infield in the majors. First baseman Eric Hosmer missed some time with a fractured left finger but posted his best offensive season since signing an eight-year, $144-million contract with the Padres before the 2018 campaign. Jake Cronenworth, one of baseball’s top rookies in 2020, has established himself as the starting second baseman after bouncing around the infield to start the season.
The best way to absorb your reigning MVP outfielder’s down season? Get another former MVP outfielder who might be the best player in the sport not named Mike Trout. Center fielder Cody Bellinger failed to meet expectations in 2020, but right fielder Mookie Betts supplied the type of season expected when the Dodgers acquired him and gave him $365 million to stay for another 12 years. The Dodgers have seemed to settle on AJ Pollock as their everyday left field for October, pushing Joc Pederson to the bench even against right-handed pitchers.
San Diego acquired rookie center fielder Trent Grishman and left fielder Tommy Pham over the offseason to deepen the outfield, but right fielder Will Myers’ resurgence gave them the biggest upgrade there. Myers, 29, batted .288 with 15 home runs and a .959 OPS in 55 games during the regular season after combining for a .775 OPS in his first five seasons as a Padre. He slugged two homers in Game 2 of the wild-card series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Dodgers’ catching situation is the best it's been since the 2017 postseason. Will Smith emerged as one of the best sluggers in the sport during the regular season. He was so productive that the Dodgers carried a third catcher in the wild-card series so they could have Smith start as the designated hitter when Austin Barnes caught Clayton Kershaw in Game 2. Barnes, meanwhile, bounced back from a terrible 2019 and will continue serving as Kershaw’s backstop. If the Dodgers carry a third catcher this season, it’ll be rookie Keibert Ruiz.
The Padres overhauled their catching crop at the trade deadline, acquiring Austin Nola and Jason Castro to replace Austin Hedges and Francisco Mejia. Nola will get the bulk of the playing time. The former Seattle Mariner batted .273 with seven home runs and an .825 OPS in 48 games this season.
The Dodgers get the edge because they’re facing fewer uncertainties. But there’s still one significant question: How bad is the blister on Walker Buehler’s right index finger? Buehler will start Game 1 again after logging just four innings in Game 1 of the wild-card series against the Brewers. Julio Urías followed Buehler with three scoreless innings and the Dodgers could turn to him again Tuesday if Buehler can’t pitch deep into the game. But aggressively deploying pitchers in this five-game series could ultimately backfire with no scheduled days off. Clayton Kershaw will start Game 2. After that, Tony Gonsolin is the presumed favorite to start Game 3, but that will depend on how pitchers are used in the first two games.
The chances of the Padres advancing may depend on whether Mike Clevinger (elbow) and Dinelson Lamet (biceps), the club’s two best starting pitchers, are available. Both right-handers suffered their injuries in the last week of the regular season and missed the wild-card series. Without them, the Padres have Chris Paddack, Zach Davies and question marks. San Diego opted to use nine relievers in their Game 3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. But, again, that strategy could pose problems in this series.
Dave Roberts has said multiple times that this is the deepest Dodgers bullpen in his five seasons. The group was tied for the third-fewest runs allowed in the majors. It tossed six scoreless innings in the wild-card series. And yet they don’t have a clear-cut closer in October. Kenley Jansen secured the save in Game 1 against the Brewers, but he didn’t look right. The next night, the Dodgers had Brusdar Graterol pitch the ninth and record his first career save. Yes, Roberts said Jansen remains the closer, but then he also said someone else could pitch the ninth inning and Jansen could pitch earlier in the game. Jansen is the most accomplished closer in Dodgers history, but the ninth inning doesn’t belong to just him anymore.
San Diego’s bullpen wasn’t as good as the Dodgers’ relief corps during the regular season, but that doesn’t matter. The group is peaking now after nine relievers combined for a shutout in their Game 3 win over the Cardinals. The bullpen suffered a blow when All-Star closer Kirby Yates was lost for the season in August, but the team replaced him with Trevor Rosenthal at the trade deadline. Rosenthal allowed five earned runs in the regular season before allowing two runs in three innings across the three games in the wild-card round.
The Dodgers boast two bench players who have produced huge playoff moments for the franchise in recent years: outfielder Joc Pederson and utility man Kiké Hernández. They’ll be joined by Austin Barnes and Matt Beaty, and either Terrance Gore or Keibert Ruiz. The Dodgers are expected to replace either Gore or Ruiz with reliever Dylan Floro in this series. Gore was added to the wild-card series roster as a pinch-running specialist. Ruiz was included to serve as a third catcher so Will Smith could DH. Neither appeared in a game.
San Diego went with a five-man bench comprised of Jurickson Profar, Greg Garcia, Jorge Mateo, Jason Castro and Luis Campusano in the wild-card series. Castro and Campusano are catchers. Profar was an everyday player for most of the season. He primarily split time between second base and left field, but also appeared in right field, center field and first base. Garcia is an infielder who struggled in sparse playing time, batting .200 with a .529 OPS. Mateo went four for 26 in 22 games this season while spending time at second base and all three outfield spots.
PROJECTED GAME 1 STARTING LINEUPS
1. Mookie Betts RF
2. Corey Seager SS
3. Justin Turner 3B
4. Max Muncy 1B
5. Will Smith C
6. Cody Bellinger CF
7. AJ Pollock LF
8. Edwin Ríos DH
9. Chris Taylor 2B
1. Trent Grisham CF
2. Fernando Tatis Jr. SS
3. Manny Machado 3B
4. Eric Hosmer 1B
5. Tommy Pham LF
6. Mitch Moreland DH
7. Wil Myers RF
8. Austin Nola C
9. Jake Cronenworth 2B
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.