Dave Roberts recently approached Freddie Freeman with an idea he knew his star first baseman would shoot down. The Dodgers manager recognizes a losing proposition when he sees one but understands that this was an idea he would need to get out in the open early and often for it to have any chance of working.
A year ago, the two came to an agreement. Freeman had not missed a game and wouldn’t until the Dodgers clinched the division. They clinched with three weeks to go. Freeman fought Roberts on it anyway (and lost, getting a breather the next day).
So Roberts started on Freeman early again this September, as the Dodgers’ magic number dwindled with a comfortable double-digit lead in a division. They finished the job behind a 6-2, 11-inning win against the Mariners on Saturday and have now won the National League West in 10 of the past 11 seasons.
“There’s a lot of slow-dripping, preemptive conversations that lead to a decision,” Roberts said with a grin last week. For the record, Freeman hasn’t backed down yet. But he’s giddy to even have the conversation.
Last year’s clinch was a tour de force, a near fait accompli for a juggernaut that won 111 regular-season games. But 2023? That brought new challenges after the offseason exits of Trea Turner, Justin Turner and even Cody Bellinger, who has reemerged as an MVP candidate with the Cubs. The Opening Day payroll, while still robust, wasn’t even the highest in their division. A pitching staff whittled down due to departures, injuries and off-the-field circumstances has made run prevention an uncharacteristic struggle.
That the Dodgers claimed the division again should not be a shock. The celebration Saturday is a testament to the track record, to the talent that has remained on this roster and to the machine that has been constructed within the walls of Dodger Stadium. But to claim the division this early?
“Is it surprising where we were at, and the level of talent in our division?” Roberts said to The Athletic. “I think it is.”
Los Angeles sat below .500 at the 21-game mark. The Dodgers “played middling baseball for two months,” Roberts said. As recently as late June, they resided in third place. Their lows include being swept at home by the Giants in resounding fashion in a series that included the most lopsided shutout loss (15-0) the franchise had suffered at home since the days that Brickyard Kennedy and Jack Dunn called Brooklyn’s Washington Park home in 1898.
Their entire Opening Day rotation has spent time on the injured list. Another key rotation cog, Tony Gonsolin, opened the season on the shelf and pitched for two months with a torn ulnar collateral ligament before succumbing to Tommy John surgery. Walker Buehler isn’t going to appear at all in the majors this season after undergoing his second Tommy John procedure.
In the wake of losing Gonsolin and Dustin May for the season with major elbow surgeries and now Julio Urías’ arrest on suspicion of felony corporal injury on a spouse (he has since been placed on paid administrative leave), the only member of the Dodgers’ potential postseason rotation who was expected to be a factor entering the season is Clayton Kershaw.
Their starting shortstop tore his ACL in spring training. They opened the season with three prominent rookies (Miguel Vargas, James Outman and Michael Grove) and saw countless more filter in at key roles over the course of the season. Nine Dodgers have made their major-league debuts.
“We’ve dealt with a lot of things that, man, were unforeseen, to put it mildly,” Roberts said.
Yet they’ve persevered. They made their 11th consecutive postseason with ease.
“(It’s having) good players,” Kershaw said. The longest-tenured Dodger is right. He was one of five Dodgers sent to the All-Star Game in Seattle this summer. Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman have enjoyed MVP-caliber seasons, J.D. Martinez bounced back in major fashion, Will Smith got the recognition several in the organization felt was a long time coming and Kershaw delivered another vintage season. Their payroll was trimmed this winter but they’ll still be paying a luxury tax check. This is an accomplished group.
But there is a counterargument to things being that simple.
The Mets rolled out the heftiest payroll in baseball history this summer and were sellers by July. The Yankees, poised to run it back with Aaron Judge and adding Carlos Rodón, have floundered. The Cardinals brought back two of the top-three vote-getters in NL MVP voting last year and are trying to avoid their first last-place finish since 1990. The Angels employ two of the most talented players on the planet and are tied for baseball’s longest postseason drought. Then there are the Padres, who toppled last year’s juggernaut in the NLDS, added more star talent and payroll than the Dodgers this winter and … firmly reside in fourth place.
So it’s more than just big names and big salaries.
“I can’t speak to other clubhouses,” Kershaw said. “But I just know that since I’ve been here, it’s not about one guy. It never has been. We have two guys that might win MVP. We’ve got All-Stars all over the place. But the buy-in to winning the game that day, it’s basically as simple as that.
“Culture is a really hard thing to, like, say what culture is in the clubhouse. Because no matter what you have to have good players to win the game regardless of how good their clubhouse is or not. But I think at the end of the day, there’s a humility with our superstars that trickles down and lets everybody do their jobs well. Mookie and Freddie take their fair share of the limelight and rightfully so, but they don’t project it. They don’t ask for it. They handle it really well. And then it allows everybody else to kind of do their jobs.”
Speak to those around the club, and they will point to examples of sacrifice.
When Gavin Lux injured his knee and left the Dodgers without a clear-cut replacement at shortstop, the organization’s decision-makers began hypothesizing about potential solutions. One of them was putting Betts, who was drafted as an infielder before thriving in the outfield, back on the dirt more regularly. It helped that Betts had actively voiced his desire to play there, to help ensure the superstar was more “bought in.”
The resulting move has helped the Dodgers’ lineup work. Betts has mostly started at second base against right-handed pitching, allowing the Dodgers to deploy three left-handed hitting outfielders — David Peralta, Outman and Jason Heyward — in their ideal platoons.
The Dodgers have stayed relatively strict with those platoons. Peralta and Heyward have combined for around 50 plate appearances total against left-handed pitching. The Dodgers’ deadline acquisitions of Kiké Hernández and Amed Rosario, along with Chris Taylor, give the club the ability to change lines depending on opposing pitchers’ handedness.
The moves have cut down on playing time for some players but also emphasized their strengths. Heyward has put forth the best full-season offensive campaign he’s had since his rookie season in 2010, but won’t have a full season’s worth of at-bats. An example that Freeman pointed to: Heyward started a July 18 contest in Baltimore and gave the Dodgers the lead with a three-run homer off of Orioles right-hander Tyler Wells — and when the lineup turned around an inning later, Heyward was removed for a pinch hitter because a lefty, Cole Irvin, was on the mound.
Heyward, a former All-Star, understood. He was signed to this club on a minor-league deal, unsure if another team would call. Does he want more opportunities? It’d be hard to blame him.
“I signed up to play winning baseball,” Heyward said that night. Things moved forward.
“The key word here is trust,” Freeman said in a dugout conversation this week. “You’ve got to trust the coaching staff and front office. If you don’t have players that trust, then none of this will ever work. You can always say you trust something, but then once a move happens and you have four guys behind their backs talking, that’s never going to be a good thing for a team or an organization. We don’t have that here.”
In the aftermath of the Dodgers’ collapse last October, the club sought out answers and found few. President of baseball operations Andrew Friedman has remarked on the slim margins that could have swung the series the other way. Circumstances are magnified in a short series. But Roberts, speaking at the Winter Meetings, put it more succinctly: The Padres seemingly had an edge, or a hunger, that never came to the surface in his dugout.
The resulting offseason acquisitions signaled as much. Heyward won the 2016 World Series with the Cubs but hadn’t made the postseason in a full season since 2018. The 36-year-old Peralta has played in a total of five career playoff games. Miguel Rojas has appeared in six. Each was a veteran with more incentive to fit into what had already been built.
“I mean you got a completely different perspective coming from losing,” Betts said in a separate conversation this week. “So you appreciate winning. Those guys appreciate winning. They bring the energy, because they had to when they were on those teams.”
When the Dodgers dropped two of three to the lowly Royals in July, it was Rojas who spoke up first. He urged the team to clean things up, and the Dodgers would win five of their final six games heading into the All-Star break
The club also embraced Peralta’s relentless optimism and adopted the outfielder’s signature “Freight Train” celebration as its own. Earlier in the year, Heyward wowed some within the organization with his generosity, from gifts to rookies to the bottles of expensive wine that sat in each of their lockers on Opening Day. That example, Betts said, has eased some of the load.
“You look at this team and say, ‘Oh, Mookie and Freddie are the leaders.’” Betts said. “Eh. We’ve got a really good group of guys. It just doesn’t need a leader. If something goes wrong, one of the (veterans) will get it handled.”
Charting a path through October remains challenging. The Dodgers’ rotation remains a mess, with many of the remaining healthy arms jockeying to make the staff of 13 the club will take in the NLDS. No matter the mix, the Dodgers will inevitably be relying heavily on pitchers with little to no experience in the postseason.
Their lineup has carried the load. Betts is in the midst of his best season since his MVP campaign in 2018. Freeman has smashed the franchise record for doubles and remains within striking distance of a batting title. He should also easily finish in the top five in MVP voting again.
The NL West has been won, but the club will need more.
“For us to do what we need to do, which is win 11 games in October, it needs to be more than the Mookie and Freddie show,” Roberts said. “It can’t be.”
(Top photo: Maddy Grassy / Associated Press)