The Los Angeles Dodgers have taken a wrecking ball to a team that set a franchise record with 111 wins last year, causing the current season to open with an uncommon sense of volatility.
The Dodgers have new players at second base, shortstop, left field, center field and designated hitter. Max Muncy is trying to plug a hole left by the departed Justin Turner at third base. Their starting rotation is plagued by injuries, and for the first time in generations, they don’t have a closer.
That situation was emphasized Sunday as right-hander Brusdar Graterol pitched the ninth inning, allowing the Arizona Diamondbacks to escape Dodger Stadium with a 2-1 win and a split of the four-game season-opening series.
“I think with the pen not having a designated closer, there’s a feeling out process on going with the rest of the pen,” manager Dave Roberts said. “As far as trying to figure out position players, I’m still trying to get a feel for our new players, some young players. Every day I’m trying to learn about them even more.”
Over the last two offseasons, the guts of the 2020 team that won the pandemic World Series in the Globe Life Field bubble have been replaced by James Outman and Miguel Vargas, called up from the team’s minor league affiliates, and by David Peralta, Miguel Rojas and Jason Heyward from elsewhere. Trayce Thompson, who was purchased from Detroit last year, had a three-homer, eight-RBI performance in a 10-1 win for Clayton Kershaw Saturday night.
The Dodgers outscored the D-backs 20-7 in the series, losing a pair of 2-1 decisions.
“It’s been fun to watch,” Kershaw said. “You see the young guys, and they’re doing a great job. We’re playing great defense, having god at bats. It’s a good start for a lot of guys right now.”
Several 2020 Dodgers left as free agents. Cody Bellinger is with the Chicago Cubs. Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen and Kiké Hernandez are with the Boston Red Sox. Joc Pederson and Alex Wood are with the San Francisco Giants. Corey Seager, the World Series MVP, is with the Texas Rangers. Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, both obtained by the Dodgers in a 2021 deadline trade with the Nationals, also left as free agents.
This coming offseason, the Dodgers could see top left-hander Julio Urías potentially leave as he enters free agency.
Roberts acknowledged how important Urías is to the Dodgers on a number of levels.
“You look at this fan base, you look at how they support Julio,” Roberts said. “I certainly believe in what Fernando Valenzuela did for baseball and the Dodgers. How Julio has embraced his Mexican background is much the same. It’s always fun to root for people who look like you. He’s a cult figure here. We wouldn’t have taco Tuesday nights without him.”
But you can’t ignore the alarming pattern of the Dodgers failing to re-sign their own free agents.
“I’m not going to go there,” Roberts said. “That’s a long ways away from now. I’m sure we’ll have a lot of time to discuss that.”
The Dodgers spent the offseason ducking under the $233 million luxury tax threshold in an effort to eliminate paying the repeater tax, which grows higher if a team exceeds the threshold in consecutive seasons. Their 2023 payroll is a fifth in Major League Baseball at $218.3 million, down from last season’s tops in MLB $270.3 million.
They had a luxury tax bill of $32.4 million, not too far above the average salary of $27.2 million that Turner is earning from the Philadelphia Phillies after signing an 11-year, $300 million contract this past offseason.
Though the Dodgers can be charged with tampering if they speak publicly about acquiring other team’s players, there’s an industry-wide assumption they are resetting their salary structure to make a run at two-way great Shohei Ohtani when he becomes a free agent after the World Series.
But signing Ohtani, who’s earning $30 million this year in what’s widely assumed to be his last season with the Los Angeles Angels, is a crapshoot. Contract estimates have ranged as high as $600 million for Ohtani, the MVP of the World Baseball Classic.
The Dodgers will have competition from other big-spending teams including the New York Mets, the New York Yankees and their National League West rival San Diego Padres.
The Padres tried to sign Ohtani after the 2017 season, when he came over from Japan as a free agent.
The same San Diego officials—owner Peter Seidler and general manager A.J. Preller—had productive meetings with Ohtani, who liked the club, liked Petco Park and liked the San Diego area. The Padres, in the early stages of building a winner, made a competitive offer, but the DH had yet to come to the NL and Ohtani didn’t want to regularly play the outfield on days he didn’t pitch.
That’s how the Angels became a viable option, and Ohtani signed an under-market contract to play with them.
Since then, two things have changed: The Padres have paid a number of players millions of dollars in long-term contracts to build a sustainable winner, and the DH is now ensconced in the NL. Ohtani wants to play for a contending team after five seasons of sub-.500 ball with the Angels.
And this question must be answered: Have the Padres gone right past the Dodgers? The Padres had lost 23 of their last 28 regular season games to the Dodgers before meeting in an NL Division Series this past October.
The Padres were hot after defeating the Mets in a NL Wild Card Series. The Dodgers were flat after winning the division over the Padres by 22 games and sitting for five days waiting for the best two-of-three Wild Card Series to end.
The result was a stunning Padres win in four games before stumbling to the Phillies in a five-game a NL Championship Series loss.
“I wouldn’t say the Padres have turned the tables on us,” Roberts said. “They beat us in a playoff series. Those guys can play, they are very talented. For 2023 I don’t expect to play as well as we did against them during the last regular season. I like our team. We’ll see what happens in the postseason.”
Ohtani could hang in the balance.