Image credit: J.D. Martinez and Max Muncy (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES — Entering the 2023 season, the overriding question was whether the Dodgers were still the class of the National League.
After losing to the Padres in the NL Division Series last year, losing Trea Turner, Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger in the offseason, losing shortstop Gavin Lux to a torn ACL in spring training and failing to make any star offseason acquisitions—all against the backdrop of the Padres loading up with another headline-stealing offseason—it seemed as if the Dodgers’ grip on the NL West and the league as a whole might finally be loosening.
The doubters should have known better.
The Dodgers beat the Nationals, 9-3, on Tuesday night. With the win, they strengthened their hold on the best record in the NL and took over the best run differential in the league. Just over one-third of the way into the season, the Dodgers are once again where they normally are: atop the senior circuit.
“It’s the guys in the clubhouse,” manager Dave Roberts said. “This is a very close group. I was talking today to (major league field coordinator) Bob Geren and how we’ve never had a group collectively that practices the way that we practice, mainly on the defensive side. That’s the sacrifice that guys make playing for each other, the pitcher and preventing runs, and they take it seriously. So it’s no surprise where we’re at in win-loss, but there’s a lot of baseball to be played.”
The Dodgers’ staying power is nothing new, but it never ceases to be remarkable.
In the past two and a half years, the Dodgers have subtracted Corey Seager, Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen, Cody Bellinger, Joc Pederson, A.J. Pollock and Kiké Hernandez from their roster, lost Walker Buehler, Dustin May, Gavin Lux and Blake Treinen for extended periods due to injuries and seen high-profile additions Trevor Bauer, Craig Kimbrel, Joey Gallo and Noah Syndergaard fail to make a positive impact, with Bauer’s record-long suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy a low point for the organization.
Such talent losses would sink most teams. Instead, the Dodgers won 106 games in 2021, 111 games in 2022 and are on pace to win 98 games in 2023.
“First off, I give a lot of credit to the players in here,” third baseman Max Muncy said. “And then secondly, I give a lot of credit to the front office. I just feel like they do a really good job of bringing in pieces that fit the mold and they know exactly what we need at all times.”
As usual, the Dodgers have gotten key contributions from low-cost veterans and homegrown rookies to replace their lost production and support established stars like Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts and Clayton Kershaw.
Veteran outfielder Jason Heyward, released by the Cubs last November and signed to a minor league deal, has an .830 OPS while playing standout outfield defense. DH J.D. Martinez, signed to a one-year, $10 million contract after his worst full season in nearly a decade, leads the NL with a .610 slugging percentage and has eight homers in his last 16 games.
“Some of the guys we brought in are veterans from other teams and they’ve seen it from the other side,” Muncy said. “And they get over here and we go through spring training and they’re immediately just like, ‘Oh, we get it. Like, we understand.’ And for those guys, it’s easy for them to buy in. They come over here and they want to win and they understand that and they just wanna be part of a winning culture. And that’s what we got over here.”
Then there are youngsters continuing the grand Dodgers tradition of impact rookies.
Center fielder James Outman, a seventh-round pick out of Sacramento State in 2018, won the NL Rookie of the Month Award for April and has been a defensive standout even as he’s slowed down offensively in May. Second baseman Miguel Vargas has posted an .814 OPS in his last 23 games after moving further away from a pair of hand injuries. Righthander Bobby Miller, the organization’s top pitching prospect, has come up and given the Dodgers rotation a much-needed boost by winning each of his first two major league starts.
It’s the same recipe the Dodgers have used for years under president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, and one that none of their competitors have been able to fully replicate.
“Just tip your hat to Andrew,” Martinez said. “He builds a team with depth. So, you have situations where you see around (that) we’re hurting in certain areas, but we’re able to bring guys up and impact the team right away.”
Indeed, the most promising thing for the Dodgers—and the most concerning thing for their NL competitors—is they’ve done this while far from full strength.
Betts is batting a career-low .249. Four different players have manned shortstop due to injuries. Three-fifths of the Opening Day rotation is currently on the injured list, including reigning NL ERA champion Julio Urias. Top offseason addition Syndergaard has struggled to a 6.27 ERA. Previous bullpen stalwarts Phil Bickford, Yency Almonte and Alex Vesia all have ERAs over 6.00. Rookie righthanders Michael Grove, Ryan Pepiot and Gavin Stone have been nonfactors due to injuries and/or ineffectiveness.
And yet, the Dodgers continue to roll along as they do year after year.
“You know when you look back, it’s pretty impressive,” Roberts said. “But with the 26-40 guys we have in a given year, our guys do a great job of being ready when called upon. Every team has injuries and things. But to view some young players I think for me, personally, that’s been a lot of fun to see and let them go through their growing pains, but have some veterans around them to kind of help them along the way.”
To be clear, the Dodgers are far from running away with the rest of the league. They lead the upstart D-backs by just one-and-a-half games in the NL West. Their run differential (+61) isn’t significantly greater than that of the second-best Braves (+56). Their 4.11 ERA ranks 20th in MLB. They’ve dominated at home but are 15-15 on the road. They are just 14-15 against teams with winning records.
And yet, for whatever their shortcomings, they still hold the mantle of the NL’s top team. In many ways, that has become the organization’s singular defining characteristic over the past decade. No matter who they lose in free agency, no matter how many injuries they suffer, no matter how many players underperform, they still find a way to rise to the top.
“You just can’t quantify effort and intentional practice and we have a slew of guys that have done it over the course of many years,” Roberts said. “And so the bar is the bar, the standard is set and everyone’s got to follow it.”