Here’s the funny thing about the present-day version of the Los Angeles Dodgers chasing the ghost of the franchise’s last World Series champion — the Kirk Gibson/Orel Hershiser/Tommy Lasorda-led Dodgers from 1988.
That overachieving, but eminently lovable squad of 32 years ago would have had no chance of eclipsing the 2019 Dodgers throughout a regular-season pennant race, or even during a seven-game playoff series; and the same sentiment would have rung true for the 2020 campaign, when perusing Los Angeles’ stacked depth chart of a week ago.
And yet, the current Dodgers front office had apparently been feeling the pressure of living up to the fabled 1988 Dodgers, or at least displacing the memories of last year’s heartbreaking defeat in the National League Division Series.
How else to explain the Dodgers’ blockbuster trade on Tuesday (three-team, five-player swap involving the Red Sox and Twins) with Los Angeles landing star outfielder Mookie Betts and pitcher David Price — even though the former has just one more season before hitting unrestricted free agency?
(Shortly after the Betts-Price deal unofficially went public, the Dodgers subsequently traded outfielder Joc Pederson to the Angels, thus clearing an outfield spot for Betts.)
Did the Dodgers really need Betts (four-year average of 24 homers, 94 RBI, 122 runs, 24 steals since 2016) to capture an eighth consecutive NL West title this season?
Probably not. Even before Tuesday’s trades, Los Angeles likely had the National League’s most complete roster.
Did the Dodgers really need to acquire Price, who still has three years and $96 million left on his absurdly rich contract (total value $210 million), in order to complete the Betts blockbuster?
We’re guessing no, since the up-and-coming Padres were rumored to be the only other heavy suitor for Betts’ services; and with an army of 25-and-under studs (Fernando Tatis, Jr., for starters) at the MLB level and a top-5 farm system, San Diego likely won’t be operating under a win-or-else mandate this season, as a means of desperately appeasing its fans.
Do the Dodgers really need an outfield that includes a former All-Star/Gold Glove winner in left field (A.J. Pollock) … plus two recent league MVPs (Cody Bellinger, the 2019 NL MVP … Betts, the 2018 AL MVP) occupying the other slots?
Even with a stacked lineup of six former All-Stars, one blue-chip prospect at second base (Gavin Lux), and a supremely talented starting rotation of Clayton Kershaw (three-time Cy Young, five ERA titles, future Hall of Famer), Walker Buehler (arguably a top-5 pitcher in baseball), David Price (lifetime numbers: 150 wins, 3.35 ERA, 1,981/527 K-BB rate), Alex Wood (underrated lefty) and 23-year-old Julio Urias, who posted a 2.49 ERA and 1.08 WHIP last year, the Dodgers must create the aura of an invincible juggernaut this year, a firing-on-all-cylinders club that’s an early shoo-in for the NL West crown, the National League’s best overall record and home-field advantage in the World Series.
Remember how the Red Sox waited 86 years in between championships, before finally hitting paydirt in 2004? Or how Cubs fans (or their children and grand-children) endured 108 years of heartache before claiming the ultimate prize in 2016?
Well, the Dodgers’ 32-year championship drought serves as a microcosm of the Red Sox and Cubs’ previous pain.
It might not be the club’s longest streak of zero titles in the Live Ball Era — that distinction still falls to the 1920-1954 versions of the Dodgers. But given how Betts could command Mike Trout-level money in free agency, the Dodgers couldn’t really wait any longer; and because of that, the MLB Extra Innings package has more value this season.
Bottom line: Baseball often needs big-market teams to be great; and even better, it always helps to have one of these menacing power brokers to be feared, loathed or hated by the other MLB cities.
And as luck would have it … we have two teams filling this Black Hat role in 2020.
Which brings us to this …
CAN WE JUST SKIP TO THE FALL CLASSIC?
The 2020 season should be cool and unusual in many respects, but here’s one angle worth talking about right now:
When was the last time Major League Baseball had a foregone conclusion for the World Series … before pitchers and catchers even reported to camp in mid-February?
Seriously, if the Yankees and Dodgers (combined 209 victories last year) weren’t prohibitive favorites to capture the American and National league pennants starting the week … they’re certainly the odds-on championship bets heading into Wednesday.
Sure, the Red Sox still boast the likes of Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, J.D. Martinez, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Rafael Devers; but with this blockbuster trade, Boston suddenly seems a little light with its starting rotation (Sale, Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi) and outfield composition (Tuesday trade piece Alex Verdugo, Martinez possibly platooning in right field).
As such, it’s hard to envision the Red Sox (84 wins last year) being substantially better, if at all, than the Rays (96 wins last year) — especially if the rotational quartet of Blake Snell (2018 AL Cy Young), Charlie Morton (16 wins, 3.05 ERA in 2019), Yonny Chirinos (1.05 WHIP, 114/28 K-BB rate over 26 games) and Tyler Glasnow (1.78 ERA in only 12 starts last season) can remain consistent throughout the campaign.
(Tampa Bay’s maturing offense should be much improved this season, despite trading away Tommy Pham during the offseason.)
And regarding the Astros (three straight 100-win seasons, two AL pennants, one World Series title since 2017) … who knows how the club will rebound from a cheating scandal that rocked baseball during the offseason.
For the Dodgers, yes, they’ll have to overcome the mental anguish of falling to the eventual-champion Nationals in the NLDS round.
But right here, right now, it’s implausible to imagine any other NL team possessing better odds for 98-plus victories than Los Angeles, even with potential wild cards in San Diego, Colorado and Arizona sharing the NL West landscape.
Of course, the above sentiment could surely change, if the Atlanta Braves (last season’s No. 2 seed in the NL playoffs) made an earnest attempt to trade for Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant in the coming weeks.
However, at this point, especially for those living in Atlanta, it’s too early to tell if Braves ownership, uh, cares about going all-in for an imminent championship.
The Braves are like the East Coast version of the Padres: Too many cost-controlled stars, and high-level prospects in the minors … to push all their proverbial chips to the table for a superstar player who’ll reach free agency in two short years.
Plus, it’s been less than 32 seasons since Atlanta enjoyed its last World Series title. So, what’s the hurry?