I am not a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers, but I am fascinated by them. For years, while consistently winning the National League West and being among the sport’s biggest championship threats, the Dodgers were among the sport’s biggest spenders, but they were also building a juggernaut less through big-ticket free agents and more through developing homegrown talent and amassing relatively low-risk depth. That much of the Dodgers’ front office came up with the Tampa Bay Rays, limited by their financial constraints, should not be surprising. Even moreso than the Theo Epstein-era Boston Red Sox, the Dodgers proved what could happen if a big-market club operated under the same principles that helped to keep small-market clubs viable. It turns out that having a massive war chest is helpful.
Consider the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers, the first iteration of the current semi-dynasty. The only holdovers from that team in 2021 are Clayton Kershaw (who is injured) and Kenley Jansen. Walker Buehler was still two years away from being drafted. Corey Seager ended the season in high-A, two years removed from his September call-up. Even Justin Turner, who feels like a mainstay, was with the New York Mets. But the Dodgers, while refurbished with cheap deadline rentals like Yu Darvish and Manny Machado along the way, built a monster. But things have changed. And now I really hope Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray are awesome.
Ruiz, 22, and Gray, 23, were long-time jewels of the Los Angeles Dodgers farm system, the seeming next generation of reinforcements to the Dodgers’ death star. But after only receiving brief MLB cameos in LA, they are now members of the Washington Nationals, centerpieces of the July 30 trade which sent the duo, along with minor leaguers Gerardo Carrillo and Donovan Casey, to the rebuilding team for Max Scherzer, the Dodgers’ likely Wild Card Game starting pitcher, and Trea Turner, their likely starting second baseman.
Trea Turner will almost certainly be a Dodger next season, as he remains arbitration-eligible for 2022, and may shift to his natural position of shortstop, as Corey Seager is a pending free agent. But Max Scherzer is a pure rental–if he re-signs with the Dodgers, it will almost certainly be at his full market value. And that the Dodgers even needed to acquire him is an indictment of their original plan for a Wild Card scenario; the Dodgers signed Trevor Bauer, already a controversial figure, to a lucrative, front-loaded contract which paid him $40 million in 2021 and is scheduled to pay him $45 million in 2022. It was a deeply unnecessary move–the defending World Series champions already had Cy Young-caliber starters in Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw and emerging young arms in Dustin May, Julio Urías, and Tony Gonsolin. Acquiring Bauer, already a toxic personality whom I loudly advocated the Cardinals not acquire even though they had way more use for him than the Dodgers before he was accused by multiple women of assault, was overkill. And the loss of huge parts of their future was the price the Dodgers paid for their hubris.
Acquiring Scherzer, by all accounts a great guy and certainly a more consistently great pitcher in his career than Bauer, was more than overkill–it was a distraction. And assuredly, when the Dodgers’ move to acquire Scherzer is referenced tonight on TBS, the events which precipitated it will get the most adamant yada-yada-ing seen on the network since they had the Seinfeld syndication rights. The St. Louis Cardinals should destroy the Los Angeles Dodgers.
For much of the Dodgers’ run, they have been a likable juggernaut. The next person involved with Major League Baseball to utter a negative word about the character of Max Scherzer or Clayton Kershaw or Mookie Betts will be the first. But the fundamentals which built the Dodgers are rotting. Years ago, the hallmark of the Dodgers was their depth; because of Max Muncy’s injury in the final game of the regular season, the Dodgers will likely be forced to start either Cody Bellinger, whose 48 wRC+ and .276 expected wOBA have turned him from 2019 National League MVP to non-tender candidate seemingly overnight, or Albert Pujols, who despite improvement with the Dodgers was still a sub-Replacement Level player in 2021, and against right-handed pitching (which he would face tonight), he has been a below-average hitter in each of the last five seasons, including a 36 wRC+ in 2021.
This would have been unthinkable five years ago, but the Dodgers have sacrificed depth for star power. For years, Kiké Hernández, Max Muncy, and Chris Taylor were the secret weapons–utility players capable of providing a solid, well-rounded game across the defensive spectrum. But Hernández is now on the Boston Red Sox (at a shockingly manageable $8 million salary), Muncy is entrenched at first base against right-handed pitching when not injured, and Taylor, while still able to rotate around the field, is no longer a luxury for the Dodgers, but rather an absolutely essential starter. At this point, the Dodgers, when healthy, have an elite starting lineup–Will Smith, Max Muncy, Trea Turner, Justin Turner, Corey Seager, A.J. Pollock, Chris Taylor, and Mookie Betts are all above-average hitters with decent-to-elite gloves–but the fall of Cody Bellinger and to a much lesser extent Austin Barnes, and the prospect stagnation of Gavin Lux have made Matt Beaty far more depended-upon than is befitting any juggernaut.
The Dodgers are favorites tonight, and I totally get it–for as good as Adam Wainwright has been in 2021, Max Scherzer is clearly a level above him, and while Scherzer did close out 2021 with a couple mediocre starts, allowing five runs apiece to the Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres, it’s hard not to still give him the edge. I can’t make any sense of the betting markets and FiveThirtyEight’s projections making the Dodgers World Series favorites when their season could be over in twelve hours, but I understand picking them tonight.
But in a sense, the pressure is all on the Dodgers tonight. Unlike in, say, 2016, this is a Dodgers team built for right now. This is a team that won 106 games and believes an NLDS matchup with the San Francisco Giants is an inevitability. Meanwhile, the Cardinals are playing with found money. With Nolan Arenado (unsurprisingly) announcing he will not be opting out of his contract, and Yadier Molina re-upping for a final 2022 season, the entire starting lineup will be back next season if the Cardinals so desire, and despite the attention that Molina and Adam Wainwright receive, this is a team that is mostly young, with the exception of a Paul Goldschmidt who sure doesn’t look like he’s on the decline. This is a team that should have a healthy Jack Flaherty back next year, and ought to be able to use the money freed up by no longer paying Matt Carpenter and Carlos Martínez on a top-line free agent pitcher.
If the Cardinals lose tonight, it would be a bummer, but a 90-win season ended by a buzzsaw in the postseason is at or above the expectations of most fans. If the Dodgers lose, despite tying the 2019 team for the most wins in franchise history, it will be a disappointment. And there isn’t really a reasonable argument that the Dodgers are a team ascending. A loss tonight would crush the Dodgers. And for that reason, the Cardinals should destroy the Dodgers.