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Full Count: How wide is the gap between the Diamondbacks and Dodgers?

Jesse Friedman Avatar
January 14, 2023

In many respects, the Los Angeles Dodgers are Major League Baseball’s powerhouse franchise. They have won nine of the last 10 NL West division titles, many of them by a mile. The only year they did not win it in that span was 2021. That season, the Dodgers finished second in the NL West behind the 107-win San Francisco Giants. The Dodgers won a meager 106.

But 2023 is a new year. And for arguably the first time in a decade, the Dodgers’ front office seems to have taken its collective foot off the gas. This offseason, the team has lost several key pieces to free agency, including Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Trea Turner, Craig Kimbrel and Tyler Anderson. The Dodgers have replaced those players with, well, not much at all.

Okay, maybe that sells them a bit short. The Dodgers did bring in starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard and designated hitter J.D. Martinez on one-year deals. They also just traded for Miami Marlins shortstop Miguel Rojas to add depth to the infield. They haven’t done nothing. Still, Syndergaard and Martinez are aging veterans coming off unspectacular years, and Rojas is a far cry from Trea Turner.

Some have speculated that the Dodgers are trying to stay under the luxury tax threshold ($233 million) this year, which would lessen their tax bill in future seasons. However, the Rojas deal calls that strategy into question. Frankly, we are not totally sure what is going on here.

What we do know is that the Dodgers are still a very, very good baseball team, and the idea that their relatively quiet offseason is suddenly going to thrust them into the basement of the NL West is obviously not true. The Dodgers still have three of the best position players in baseball in Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Will Smith. Both their starting rotation and bullpen project out as among the best in the game.

But there’s no doubt this isn’t the same team it was a year ago, nor of the last few years. It’s the most beatable Dodgers team we’ve seen in a while. In contrast, the D-backs have been relatively active this offseason, building on a young core that appears to be one of the best the team has ever assembled.

A cursory glance at the ZiPS projection depth chart for each team shows an obvious talent gap. That gap, however, is considerably smaller than one might expect. (Note that these graphics were released prior to several recent transactions for both teams.)

Diamondbacks ZiPS projections depth chart, via Dan Szymborski
Dodgers 2023 ZiPS projections depth chart, via Dan Szymborski

For a better idea of just how big that gap is, let’s take a closer look at how the two teams compare, position by position.

First Base

Advantage: Dodgers

After 13 seasons in the league, Freddie Freeman is still very good. In 2022, he slashed .325/.407/.511 with 21 homers, 100 RBI, a league-leading 47 doubles and 7.1 fWAR.

Christian Walker, meanwhile, had a breakout year for the D-backs, hitting .242/.327/.477 with 36 homers, 84 RBI, 25 doubles and 4.1 fWAR. By fWAR, Walker was the third-best first baseman in baseball, trailing only Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt. Granted, Walker was a distant third.

Looking ahead to 2023, ZiPS projects Freeman for 4.4 WAR compared to 3.1 WAR for Walker. That would be a positive outcome for the D-backs, with a gap of 1.3 WAR between the two compared to the three-WAR gap in 2022.

It is worth noting that Walker dealt with poor batted ball luck early in the season. His fortunes mostly came into balance by season’s end, but there is evidence to suggest that Walker could be more of a .260 hitter than a .240 hitter. Perhaps he is able to catch a few more breaks in 2023.

Even so, there is no getting around the fact that the Dodgers have a better outlook at first base. Maybe Freeman takes a step back in his age-33 season, but Walker is only a year younger.

Second Base

Advantage: Diamondbacks

With Miguel Rojas now in the fold, the Dodgers can slide Gavin Lux over to second base, with Max Muncy, Miguel Vargas and Chris Taylor also figuring to get some at-bats. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll focus our analysis here on Lux.

ZiPS pegs Lux for a .260/.332/.397 batting line and 2.5 WAR. His best asset is his defense, which will be of particular use with the new shift restrictions.

The D-backs will be hoping for a bounce-back season from Ketel Marte, who had a career-low .240 batting average last year along with a middling .321 on-base percentage and .407 slugging percentage. It was a far cry from Marte’s 2021 season, which saw him hit .318/.377/.532.

As far as 2023 is concerned, ZiPS essentially splits the difference between Marte’s past two seasons, projecting a .283/.352/.470 line and 3.1 WAR. If that happens, the D-backs would probably have a slight edge over Lux and the Dodgers.

It’s important to note, however, that Marte’s recent track record suggests that he should not be counted on for a full season. He has averaged 114 games played the last two seasons, in large part due to persistent hamstring issues. Those issues may also explain a significant drop-off in defensive performance. The D-backs will likely try to get him off his feet regularly, with Josh Rojas serving as the primary fill-in.

If second base is an advantage for the D-backs in 2023, it is probably not a big one. But given ZiPS’ optimism about a Marte bounce-back, we’ll go ahead and count this one a slight win for the D-backs.

Third Base

Advantage: Tie

Neither team has a clear everyday third baseman, with the Dodgers likely using both Muncy and Vargas and the D-backs using both Evan Longoria and Rojas. We don’t have a ZiPS projection for Longoria since the signing was announced after the D-backs’ ZiPS release, but suffice it to say Longoria should provide a modest improvement to the D-backs’ 2.5 fWAR projection at third base.

If the question is which team has a higher ceiling at third base, the definitive answer is the Dodgers. Muncy hit 36 homers with an .895 OPS as recently as 2021. Vargas is a highly-touted prospect with a career slash line of .313/.390/.488 in the minors, and many view him as a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate in 2023.

In terms of most recent performance, the D-backs have a slight edge. Rojas slashed a solid .269/.349/.391 last year with 23 stolen bases, and Longoria should help cover Rojas’ struggles with lefties. The D-backs also have Emmanuel Rivera, who might be the best defender of the group despite questions about his offense.

On the Dodgers’ side, Muncy hit some real roadblocks in 2022, hitting only .196/.329/.384. He could bounce back and become his old self, but he also could continue to struggle to the point that the Dodgers transition to Vargas full-time. Muncy turns 33 in August.

ZiPS seems to indicate a slight edge for the Dodgers here, but it’s small enough that we’ll call it a tie.


Advantage: Dodgers

The Dodgers have a new shortstop in Miguel Rojas, but Fabian Ardaya of The Athletic wrote that Rojas won’t play there full-time. Lux and Taylor should get opportunity as well. In Rojas, Lux and Taylor, the Dodgers have a trio of well-established, solid major-leaguers. The collective floor for that group is relatively high.

On the D-backs’ side, Nick Ahmed is the frontrunner for everyday at-bats with Geraldo Perdomo also in the fold. The quality of the D-backs’ shortstop play in 2023 might not be far behind that of Los Angeles, but it is clearly less reliable.

Perdomo really struggled last season, hitting .195/.285/.262 in 500 plate appearances. Despite striking out at a below-average clip and walking more than most, he was never able to consistently do damage on pitches in the zone. That said, he is still just 23 years old, and the book on his progression is far from closed.

As an impending free agent, Nick Ahmed has an important year ahead. However, there are a lot of questions with him as well. Coming off right shoulder surgery, it remains to be seen if Ahmed still has the marquee arm that made him one of baseball’s best shortstops over the last decade. His bat has never been great, but his numbers since the start of the 2021 season are particularly poor: .222/.278/.350 with eight homers in 146 games.

The gap between the D-backs and Dodgers at shortstop is significantly narrower now that Trea Turner plays for the Philadelphia Phillies, but it is significant enough to put this one in the win column for Los Angeles.

Left field

Advantage: Diamondbacks

In order to evaluate the D-backs’ outfield situation, we have to make some positional assumptions upfront. Nothing is certain, but for the sake of argument, we will assume that Corbin Carroll primarily plays left field, Alek Thomas primarily plays center field and Jake McCarthy primarily plays right field. Granted, there are a lot of mini-assumptions baked into that — not the least of which is that Thomas, who finished 2022 in the minors, will actually be an everyday big-leaguer — but it’s the safest bet we can make at this point.

According to ZiPS, Carroll will be the Diamondbacks’ most valuable player in 2023, hitting .253/.341/.428 with 16 homers, 83 RBI, 20 stolen bases and 3.9 WAR. Not bad for a rookie. Carroll was as advertised in 32 games in the big leagues last year, but it is admittedly bullish to expect that caliber of performance from a 23-year-old in his first full season.

Regardless, Carroll looks like a better option than what the Dodgers have in left field. At the moment, they are slated to use Taylor, Vargas and James Outman, a mid-tier prospect who hit well in the minors but has only logged four games in the big leagues.

Center field

Advantage: Tie

As I alluded to earlier, the D-backs’ center field situation is a bit murky, given the uncertainties surrounding Thomas. Nonetheless, Thomas was a Gold Glove finalist for a reason, and he doesn’t need to be a great hitter to be a valuable asset on the big-league roster. Regardless, expect Carroll and McCarthy to get innings in center field, too.

The Dodgers’ situation in center is also unclear now that Bellinger is no longer with the team. At the moment, it appears that their primary option will be Trayce Thompson, who quietly hit .256/.353/.507 in 255 plate appearances last year. Expect Taylor and Outman to get some opportunities in center as well.

Given Thomas’ recent struggles and Thompson’s recent success, center field would seem to lean in the Dodgers’ favor. However, ZiPS sees Thomas taking a significant step forward, to the tune of a .255/.311/.400 batting line. It also sees Thompson taking a big step back, with a projected batting line of .218/.299/.442. In light of those numbers — and Thomas’ status as the better defender — we’ll call this one a tie.

Right field

Advantage: Dodgers

No matter who plays right field for the Diamondbacks, it is hard to see any scenario in which they outperform Mookie Betts. Entering his age-30 season, Betts is coming off one of the best years of his career and continues to play like the marquee five-tool player that he was in Boston.

No matter how good Carroll, Thomas or McCarthy are, it would be foolish to project any D-backs outfielder to be better than Betts. He is the best position player on one of the best teams in baseball. Advantage Dodgers.


Advantage: Dodgers

In 2022, the gap between the D-backs and Dodgers at catcher was enormous. The Dodgers leaned on Will Smith and Austin Barnes, who combined for 5.3 fWAR and 32 homers. The D-backs, meanwhile, had one of the worst catching regiments in baseball, slashing a combined .197/.275/.302 with -0.3 fWAR.

In 2023, the D-backs could see a significant bump in catcher performance with the acquisition of prized youngster Gabriel Moreno from the Toronto Blue Jays. The team will also be hoping for a bounce-back season from Carson Kelly, who hit .240/.343/.411 as recently as 2021. ZiPS is bullish on the duo, projecting Kelly to nearly replicate his 2021 season with a .241/.325/.409 batting line and Moreno to hit a respectable .262/.320/.388.

Combined, ZiPS has the D-backs getting roughly three WAR from the catching position compared to five for the Dodgers. The gap is already way smaller than it was in 2022, and it’s not out of the question that it could close entirely if Moreno becomes the player the D-backs hope he will be. For now, advantage Dodgers.

Starting pitchers

Advantage: Dodgers

A starting rotation fronted by Julio Urías, Clayton Kershaw and Tony Gonsolin is very, very good. Urías led the National League in ERA last year. When healthy, Kershaw is still one of the best. Gonsolin looked like a Cy Young candidate before going down with a forearm strain last August. Dustin May and Noah Syndergaard, meanwhile, are reputable as fourth and fifth starters.

But somehow, the Dodgers’ rotation still feels less scary than it has in recent years. The fact that Walker Buehler is on the shelf in 2023 with Tommy John surgery is a big part of that. Meanwhile, Kershaw hasn’t reached 130 innings since 2019, Syndergaard has never been the same since having Tommy John surgery, and May is coming off Tommy John himself.

Even so, there is little doubt the Dodgers’ rotation trumps the D-backs’. The only question is by how much. D-backs ace Zac Gallen can hang with any of Los Angeles’ starters, but after that, the D-backs lack frontline options. Merrill Kelly was outstanding in 2022, but his peripherals were more indicative of a No. 3 starter than a No. 2. Madison Bumgarner was arguably one of the 10 worst starters in baseball last year. Newly re-signed right-hander Zach Davies provides much-needed stability, but is still more of a backend type.

The primary variable — and it is an enormous variable — is how well a rising group of young Diamondbacks pitchers acclimates to the big leagues. Both Ryne Nelson and Drey Jameson had sub-two ERAs in brief major-league stints last year, yet most scouts still view Brandon Pfaadt as the best starter in in the group. If all three become mid-rotation starters — which, granted, is a big if — the D-backs’ starting rotation could go from fringy to above average. Left-hander Tommy Henry is another youngster to watch.

For what it’s worth, ZiPS projects all three of Nelson, Jameson and Pfaadt to be above-average starters in 2023, with Jameson and Nelson posting ERAs around 4.05 and Pfaadt around 3.65. Extrapolating those projections to 150 innings each, ZiPS expects a combined seven WAR from the trio. Combine that with the six WAR ZiPS expects from Kelly and Gallen, and we suddenly have a starting rotation that is slated for 13 WAR. That is a respectable number, and only about three shy of the ZiPS projection for the Dodgers’ front five.

DodgersZiPS WARDiamondbacksZiPS WAR
Julio Urías4.5Zac Gallen3.7
Clayton Kershaw3.9Merrill Kelly2.3
Tony Gonsolin3.0Brandon Pfaadt2.8
Noah Syndergaard2.7Drey Jameson2.2
Dustin May2.0Ryne Nelson2.1
ZiPS projections for Dodgers top five starters versus the “ideal” Diamondbacks rotation

Nonetheless, that 13 WAR probably speaks more to the future than the present. With Davies all but guaranteed a spot and Bumgarner likely having an inside edge coming into spring — not to mention the inevitability of injuries throughout the season — the D-backs will not field their ideal rotation for a full season, whatever it may be. No team ever does.

However, depending on how Jameson, Henry, Nelson and Pfaadt develop in this and future seasons, it is conceivable that the D-backs could jump the ranks in the relatively near future. For now, that group gives the D-backs ample rotation depth, something the team has lacked in recent years.

In 2023, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who would take the D-backs’ rotation over the Dodgers’. With Buehler set to return for L.A. in 2024, that might not change any time soon.

Relief Pitchers

Advantage: Dodgers

This one is pretty cut and dry. By fWAR, the Dodgers had the best bullpen in baseball last year. The D-backs had the worst. Advantage Dodgers.

It is worth noting, however, that ZiPS actually foresees a relatively narrow gap between these bullpens for 2023, projecting 4.5 WAR for Los Angeles versus 3.6 for the D-backs. ZiPS is fairly high on Joe Mantiply, Miguel Castro, Kevin Ginkel and even the newly signed Cole Sulser.

Frankly, reliever performance is so volatile that these sorts of projections don’t mean much. It is relatively rare for ZiPS to project an ERA north of 4.00 or south of 3.00 for an established reliever. As such, it is not a huge shock that the gap between the D-backs and Dodgers seems small in a spreadsheet.

Nonetheless, the Dodgers have a variety of weapons — Brusdar Graterol, Alex Vesia, Evan Phillips, Yency Almonte, to name a few — who are arguably more reliable than any reliever the D-backs have. It’s hard to envision the D-backs’ bullpen matching what they have to offer in 2023.

Designated hitter

Advantage: Dodgers

The D-backs’ DH situation is currently very unpredictable, with Gurriel, Longoria, Marte, Lewis, McCarthy, Moreno and others likely factoring in at some point during the season. The Dodgers have a much more clear-cut situation, with newly signed free agent J.D. Martinez expected to get the lion’s share of at-bats.

Martinez is not the player he once was. In 2022, he slashed .274/.341/.448 with 16 homers and 62 RBI in 139 games. If anything, though, his peripherals suggest he underperformed.

The D-backs, meanwhile, have enough position player depth to regularly field a solid hitter at DH, but it’s difficult to imagine that group summing up to what Martinez could produce in 2023. ZiPS agrees with that sentiment. The difference is fairly small, but the Dodgers have the advantage here.

Combining every position on the diamond together, there is no getting around the fact that the gap between the Dodgers and D-backs is still relatively wide. The D-backs have advantages in left field and second base, but every other position is either too close to call or advantage Dodgers. A quick tally of ZiPS WAR figures for both teams suggests a gap of roughly 10 wins between them. Considering that the D-backs and Dodgers were separated by 54 games in the standings as recently as 2021, the minuteness of that gap is remarkable.

Projections, however, are fickle, particularly for a D-backs team that will be relying heavily on young, unproven players in 2023. Spreadsheets can’t win games. Nonetheless, the D-backs have made several meaningful additions this offseason — most notably building a deeper, more reliable roster across the board — while the Dodgers have mostly stood pat. The convergence of those facts has led us to a surprising place, in which the Diamondbacks — the National League’s worst team of two years ago — are seemingly within striking distance of baseball’s marquee franchise.

Follow Jesse Friedman on Twitter

Top photo: Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY NETWORK

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