The Dodgers have reigned over the NL West for so long that the last time they didn’t win their division was Corey Seager’s draft year. But a surprise announcement about their All-Star shortstop on Monday makes a sixth straight division crown a much less likely proposition.
Seager needs Tommy John surgery and will miss the rest of the season, and in an unexpected flash, the Dodgers’ alarming April transitioned from a mildly morose slump into a full-fledged panic: Their best starting pitcher doesn’t look right, their best reliever is in a funk, their best veteran position player is already hurt, and now their best position player, period, is out, period. The Dodgers already trail the Diamondbacks by seven games in the NL West, with Arizona hosting L.A. for four games this week; it’s still early in a 162-game season, but the NL’s pennant favorites are already in a shockingly uncomfortable position.
Among the major team sports, baseball is the most difficult for a single player to determine a team’s fate; that’s why Mike Trout, the consensus best player for the past half-decade, has yet to win a single playoff game. But within the sport itself, it’s hard to overstate Seager’s importance to his team: Over the past two seasons, he was the fifth-most valuable position player in the majors, behind only Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, José Altuve, and Mookie Betts.
And Seager’s slumps over the last year have coincided with L.A.’s periodic teamwide scuffles. An elbow injury limited him down the stretch in 2017, as the Dodgers stumbled to a historic losing streak, and that (presumably) same injury had limited Seager to just a league-average batting line through the first month of 2018, just as the Dodgers—current owners of a 12-15 record and plus-12 run differential—have limped to a similarly league-average performance.
While some Dodgers have played above their means in the early going—Yasmani Grandal and Matt Kemp are crushing baseballs, and Kenta Maeda and Hyun-Jin Ryu are collecting strikeouts at a prolific pace—the team’s stars have uniformly underperformed, or not appeared on the field entirely. On the mound, Clayton Kershaw’s fastball velocity is down more than 1 mile per hour from last season, leading to his worst strikeout rate in five years and representing a frightening—by his lofty standards, at least—trend for the ostensible best pitcher on the planet, and closer Kenley Jansen’s ERA has reached puberty, as his own fastball issues and a home run problem have caused an unsightly growth spurt in his run-prevention numbers.
At the plate, too, L.A. is looking for better production from its top talent. A wayward pitch in spring training broke Justin Turner’s wrist, and he only recently began his rehabilitation process and hasn’t yet participated in batting practice. Yasiel Puig was hitting just .193/.250/.250 before hip and foot injuries forced him to the disabled list over the weekend, and even Cody Bellinger, despite reaching base at an acceptable rate, has lost more than 100 points of slugging percentage from his prodigious rookie mark.
Then there’s Seager, who was taking his own early-season lumps, but who now has an obvious, if frustrating, excuse for his power-sapped .267/.348/.396 slash line. Seager declared himself recovered from elbow pain in spring training, and he and Dodger manager Dave Roberts told reporters that team doctors had determined he didn’t need surgery to correct the issue. That assessment has changed for the worse, and while Seager’s long-term future shouldn’t be adversely affected by Tommy John surgery—Yankee prospect Gleyber Torres missed half of last season after undergoing the procedure to his non-throwing arm, and he was back at full strength this spring—the Dodgers will dearly miss his bat for the rest of 2018.
Center fielder Chris Taylor is a former infielder who can fill in at shortstop, and the Dodgers have sufficient depth that the likes of Kike Hernández can make appearances at the position, but no possible replacement brings the same consistency or ceiling as Seager. Taylor moving to short would also put the entire outfield, which is already missing Puig, on shakier ground. The trade winds will start whistling Manny Machado’s tune, as the Oriole shortstop plays out his final contracted year on a dreadful Baltimore team that should think about rebuilding, but it’s not clear that the Dodgers would commit to such a drastic new financial direction.
“This obviously sucks,” Seager said of Monday’s news, and he’s obviously right, from both an individual and team perspective. The Dodgers were already in a somewhat tenuous place before Monday, given the Diamondbacks’ and their divergent starts, but Seager’s injury puts a greater damper on L.A.’s rest-of-season chances than anything else that transpired in the season’s first month. Last season, the Dodgers had a losing record as late as April 27, and even that slow start and a September swoon couldn’t prevent L.A. from finishing with the majors’ best record. L.A. still has the potential to bounce back and contend for a repeat pennant in 2018, but it’s also hard to imagine those chances looking any worse than they now do.