The impending return of baseball has fans everywhere excited, but it has also set off a series of more specific, if still tentative, celebrations. Yankees fans hope to get their first look at Gerrit Cole, Angels fans at Anthony Rendon and Joe Maddon, everyone else at the sight of the Astros facing opposing pitchers (if not hearing opposing crowds). Dodgers fans make up maybe the most relieved subset; they’ll likely get to watch Mookie Betts, acquired from the Red Sox in a February trade, suit up for their team after all. Betts arrived with one year left on his contract, and a canceled season might have meant the 2018 American League MVP would never play a game in blue.
That outcome would have been of a piece with an era of L.A. baseball marked by squandered promise. The Dodgers of recent vintage have employed the most decorated pitcher of his generation (Clayton Kershaw), a still pre-prime MVP (Cody Bellinger) and an auto-refreshing cast of high-end complements. They’ve won the National League West for seven straight years, a stretch during which they’ve transitioned from a luxe stars-and-scrubs outfit to one of the sport’s most accomplished developers of talent. Had they capped even one of those seasons with a title, they would have stood as the most consistently successful team of the 2010s, and the upcoming 60-game slate might have meant little more than an opportunity to burnish established bona fides. But as things are, no franchise has more at stake, with the truncated 2020 season representing L.A.’s weirdest, best chance at salvaging an almost-dynasty.
From 2013 to 2015, the Dodgers weren’t baseball’s premier team, maxing out at 94 wins in 2014, but they may have been its flashiest. In the afterglow of Frank McCourt’s long-awaited sale of the franchise in 2012, L.A. had swung big trades for Hanley Ramírez and Adrián González, retooling the middle of its batting order on the fly. That offseason, the Dodgers signed Zack Greinke to join Kershaw, pairing Cy Young winners at the top of the rotation. In June 2013, the team called up Yasiel Puig, whose auspicious debut ended with him running down a warning-track fly ball and, still backpedaling, firing it to first for the game’s final two outs. Pitching powered things; Kershaw and Greinke combined over those three seasons to produce 44.5 wins above replacement,1 and González’s 12.8 WAR led L.A.’s position players over that stretch. Still, in name recognition and salary — their nearly $240 million payroll led baseball in 2013, and that number ballooned to $246 million and $303 million over the next two seasons — the outline of a superteam was there.
But so too were the archetypal superteam’s flaws. In 2013, the Dodgers lost a National League Championship Series to the Cardinals (payroll: $121 million) that was close until it wasn’t; in the deciding Game 6, Kershaw allowed seven earned runs and Puig committed two errors in a 9-0 loss. In 2014 and 2015, L.A. lost in the divisional round to the Cardinals (again $121 million) and Mets ($116 million), with both deciding games ending 3-2. Kershaw’s playoff struggles gained narrative traction, never mind that six of his eight outings over the three postseasons were quality starts, but the Dodgers asked more of him than a team with a quarter-billion-dollar budget had any business doing. During the regular seasons, L.A.’s offense had trended closer to league average than its reputation suggested; in the playoff series it lost, it floundered, putting up only 3.1 runs per game.
In October 2014, Andrew Friedman arrived as team president and set about addressing that point. Friedman had made his name with the Tampa Bay Rays, and he brought that franchise’s talent for patience and opportunism to the club with the sport’s deepest pockets. “I think large-revenue teams can sometimes fall into a trap of focusing too much on the current,” Friedman told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. “We feel like our responsibility is to do everything we can to sustain a certain level of success — as you look at it over a five-year period, a seven-year period, a 10-year period.”
High-priced veterans were let go; Ramírez left after 2014, and Greinke followed a year later. The Dodgers’ new core began to emerge in the form of reclamation projects and whiz-kid prospects. L.A. had taken a flyer on 29-year-old Mets castoff Justin Turner in 2014, and, slotting his swing a few ticks higher on the protractor, he’s since put up a .302/.381/.506 slash line over his time in L.A. Corey Seager, the team’s top draft pick in 2012, was called up in 2015 to play a rangy short and crack doubles to all fields; Walker Buehler, 2015’s first-round pick, reached the majors in 2017 with a spiteful fastball/curve combo. What had been a top-heavy team has filled out with players for seemingly every purpose. Joc Pederson wallops righties. Chris Taylor provides quality play as a stopgap at whichever position. Max Muncy, formerly a Quad-A-er with the Oakland A’s, has turned into a strike-zone savant, and Bellinger progressed from Rookie of the Year to MVP in two seasons. Dave Roberts, who replaced Don Mattingly as manager after the team’s 2015 NLDS loss to the Mets, has a knack for converting roster depth to on-field flexibility, making liberal use of platoons and defensive shifts.
These more sustainable Dodgers have tightened their grip on the division, tallying 104, 92 and 106 wins from 2017 to 2019. But the postseasons have still disappointed, even if they’ve no longer had the feel of glitz vs. grit parables. 2017 ended with a loss to the Astros in an insta-iconic seven-game World Series that at the time felt unlucky — somebody had to lose — and that now leaves a more sour taste. The 2018 Dodgers made it back to the Series but lost to the buzzsaw Red Sox. In the deciding game of last year’s division series against the Nationals, L.A. reverted to unfortunate form. Kershaw came on in relief in the eighth inning and surrendered a pair of homers that tied the score. Some curious bullpen decisions and a Howie Kendrick grand slam later, the Dodgers became another in a line of teams with superior odds to fall to the eventual champs.
If anything, the airtightness of the franchise’s recent construction seems to have made the letdowns harder to stomach. “It’s a terrible feeling,” Kershaw said after the loss to Washington. “There’s no excuses.” He’s right. The 2019 Dodgers led the National League in both runs scored and runs allowed, setting an NL record for homers in the process; they had none of the below-the-surface weaknesses that sunk the team earlier in the decade. Their streak of consecutive division titles stands as the longest of all time without a championship.
In the most forgiving terms, things are still going according to plan. L.A.’s window of contention is unlikely to close anytime soon, and in a sport whose postseason involves more randomness than any other’s, maximizing opportunity remains the best strategy. “Winning seven division titles in a row is almost harder than winning the World Series,” Dodgers announcer and former ace Orel Hershiser told me. Hershiser, the Series MVP from the team’s last championship in 1988, noted the primacy of luck in the postseason: “Just keep giving yourself a chance on that smaller roulette wheel.”
Still, baseball has a unique ability to test conviction. Where the Betts deal looks from one perspective like a team of sizable resources simply seizing opportunity, it also suggests a certain all-in culmination. Every year, Kershaw is a little more removed from who he once was. The font of elite prospects can’t flow forever. Dream lineups succumb to injury; Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, the latest Best Duo Ever, have started just 117 games together over two seasons. The 2020 Dodgers may represent a rare opportunity, the crest of a franchise’s talent-rich era. Even before the Betts trade, as Travis Sawchik wrote for FiveThirtyEight, the Dodgers were projected to win 112 games, 10 more than the next-closest NL team. A simulated season run by Out of the Park developments has them sitting at an MLB-best 70-23 through July 8, albeit aided by a 2.60 ERA from David Price, who has said he will sit out the real-life 2020 campaign.
It’s easy to envision the Dodgers tearing through the upcoming short season, particularly with the addition of the designated hitter. They have the look of champs: Buehler’s four-seamer is a soldering iron, Kershaw’s slider a magic trick. Nobody has yet found a way to pitch to Bellinger’s left-handed uppercut swing or Betts’s right-handed slice, let alone deal with both in the same inning. “Depth is key, because [L.A.] could sustain that key injury where another team without depth cannot,” Hershiser said. “I think the DH is to the Dodgers’ advantage.” But even without the expanded postseason proposed in earlier iterations of comeback plans, the concentrated schedule figures to sand away some of the other benefits of excellence.
That might prove one more unlucky break for the Dodgers, or it might not matter. As is so often the case in baseball, the explanation will be retrofitted to the events. If they lift the Commissioner’s Trophy in October, even to an empty stadium, there will be a sense of tidy resolution, of processes paying off. If a short-season interloper takes them down, it will be just one more instance of baseball wriggling free of even the best-laid plans.
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