The Los Angeles Dodgers are a storied organization that was once the creme de la creme of baseball and wasn’t afraid to let the world know it. As of 2017, they are 29 years removed from their last World Series win and their last pennant. And it’s not for lack of trying.
Their all-in attitude of spending whatever it took to put a championship club on the field went into overdrive since the group led by Mark Walter, Magic Johnson and Stan Kasten bought the team from Frank McCourt. No one can say their commitment to putting the best product on the field is lacking.
Mentioning McCourt, however, is relevant in that despite his status as one of the most hated owners in baseball history, the on-field success under the new ownership has not surpassed what was achieved under McCourt. They had four playoff appearances and two NLCS losses under McCourt; they’ve had four playoff appearances and two NLCS losses under Walter/Johnson/Kasten.
Being compared to McCourt is not something these or any owners would like, but it’s a results-oriented business and these are the results.
While the Dodgers’ searing streak of 31 wins in 37 games essentially has put the National League West to bed before July is out, their 2017 success is predicated not on simply making the playoffs. Nor is it sufficient to reach the same heights they did in 2016 and get to Game 6 of the NLCS before losing. Their best chance to win the World Series is in 2017.
For this season to be a success and to validate everyone in the organization, they must win it.
There’s rampant parity throughout baseball; they have enviable depth; their experienced veterans are rejuvenated; there are stars at key positions; their main cogs are at the high point of their careers; they have young, hungry and energetic newcomers; they’re looking to boost the club with high-end names at the trade deadline with the money and prospects to do it.
Although the Dodgers have consistently been in this position, making the playoffs every year from 2013 onward, 2017 is different. In previous years, regardless of their massive payrolls and star-studded rosters, they were in constant turmoil on and off the field. Since hiring Andrew Friedman as president of baseball operations, the club has undergone a philosophical reconstruction. After nearly three years on the job, the Dodgers are a reasonable image of what he and general manager Farhan Zaidi want. It’s a sabermetrically inclined club that also flexes its financial muscle, supposedly the ideal situation for today’s game.
But this is a dual-edged sword for Friedman and Zaidi. They’re not in Tampa or Oakland anymore. Whereas they could accept the accolades for overachieving with terrible ballparks, low attendance, draconian payrolls and bargain-bin pickups, there’s no grading on a curve in Los Angeles. As the Rays and A’s continued to adapt and win regardless of all obstacles, there were expectations tempered with the understanding of those hindrances. They were credited when it went well and granted a pass when it didn’t.
With the Dodgers, it goes beyond expectations. There are demands. They have everything they need to win and if they fail, there are no acceptable excuses for that. A failure is not going to be meekly acknowledged with a limp shrug that the playoffs are a “crapshoot” — also known as a flimsy excuse designed to protect a brand from judgment.
The Dodgers can whisper how they’re simultaneously trying to win while restoring fiscal sanity; that the days of spend-spend-spend are over; that their club is still a work in progress as they remake their development system and wait out contract expirations so they can truly implement the strategies to formulate precisely the kind of roster they want. None of that matters. What matters is that this is their best chance to win that elusive World Series for the first time in three decades.
There’s no superseding the reality that since the new ownership took charge of the Dodgers, they have spent more than $1.2 billion on payroll alone and won a grand total of two playoff series, none of which was enough to win a pennant, let alone a World Series. In that time, they also have watched their most hated rivals, the San Francisco Giants, win three World Series.
They can swallow money for contracts of players they don’t want to get players they do want. They can give Rich Hill $48 million when they were bidding against themselves, accept an average of five innings per start and nagging injuries. They can pay their closer Kenley Jansen $80 million. They can have a disabled list with more than $65 million worth of contracts on it without blinking. They can release Carl Crawford with almost two years remaining on his contract in which he will be paid more than $43 million.
The Dodgers do not have the built-in excuses that other clubs do because they have the money, they have the supposed brains and they have the depth. When the goal goes beyond making money and maximizing an investment, failure to win a title or even a pennant and being relegated to the “yeah, but” of having achieved the on-field equivalent of what the despised former owner achieved, there’s no participation trophy, and that’s falling short.
The Friedman regime was hired to streamline the organization and create a financially sound, well-run business that made decisions based on objective information rather than checkbook baseball with recognizable names in the Hollywood blockbuster fashion and paying scant attention to the actual story. The end has yet to be written. Will it be a celebration or a study in irony?
Judging by the construction of the roster and that beyond Clayton Kershaw and Jansen, the key players are youngsters, role players or veterans on the back end of their careers, they have succeeded in changing the template. But can they expect the same results year in and year out? Or is 2017 unique with a relatively wide open field and the end zone in sight?
Although they have the foundation of youngsters around whom to build with Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers are predominately old. Kershaw has accumulated a lot of innings and isn’t getting any younger. Their young pitching “phenom” Julio Urias was lost to shoulder surgery and is not expected back for at least a year.
Is Justin Turner going to continue hitting like George Brett circa 1980?
Will Bellinger maintain his torrid pace or will the pitchers eventually find his weak point and exploit it?
With the number of accumulated innings and approaching age 30, how many more years of vintage, Hall of Fame-level greatness can they expect from Kershaw?
Is this the best Jansen will ever be? Can he possibly pitch better or match 2017?
There are viable questions about many of their key components for 2017, thereby increasing the sense of urgency that has sparked talk that they’re looking for big-name relief help like Zach Britton and checking in on Justin Verlander and Sonny Gray, among other starters.
For the Dodgers, 2017 has evolved as if the season was a formulaic feel-good screenplay adapted from a familiar work of creative nonfiction by Michael Lewis that has a shaky at best basis in truth (The Blue Side? Moneyblue?). But will it be critically acclaimed? Will it get the gold?
When a team is on a blazing run like the Dodgers are now, it’s a familiar trap to believe that it will never end, but it always does. The key is whether it ends after hoisting the World Series trophy or before. They’d surely accept the former. The latter won’t be tolerated by anyone associated with the club. Nor should it.