It was close to midnight Saturday when Atlanta erupted. A sellout crowd erupted. Fireworks erupted. The players erupted, tossing off their caps and hopping madly around the infield. The mascot charged onto the field, waving an enormous red flag with the words “NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPS.”
But, as the Dodgers left the field for the last time this season, I was not thinking of the Braves. I was thinking of the New York Yankees. I could not help but think of what Aaron Boone, the manager of the Yankees, said after his team was eliminated in the playoffs this year.
“The league has closed the gap on us,” Boone said.
The Yankees did not fire Boone for saying that. They just signed him for another three years.
It is where the Yankees are, in a sport where financial might alone no longer guarantees success. It might be where the Dodgers are, at the end of the most glorious run in the history of a proud franchise.
After seven years of winning division championships and rebuilding an organization, the Dodgers and their owners went all in for the 2020 and 2021 seasons, committing half a billion dollars to Mookie Betts last year and Trevor Bauer this year, combined.
The Dodgers won the World Series last year. Flags fly forever.
They did not even get to the World Series this year — and, no, it was not Bauer’s fault. The Dodgers replaced him with someone even better: Max Scherzer.
And they got pretty close: within two games of a repeat appearance in the World Series, even as they lost Max Muncy to injury on the last day of the regular season, too late to acquire a replacement, and they lost a player a day to injury in the NLCS on three consecutive days: Justin Turner, Joe Kelly and Scherzer.
Now the bills come due.
The top prospects the Dodgers traded to get Betts and Scherzer — pitcher Josiah Gray, catcher Keibert Ruiz, infielder Jeter Downs, and outfielder Alex Verdugo — are no longer here.
Still here: David Price, whom the Dodgers accepted as part of the deal to get Betts, and who was not among the 13 pitchers the Dodgers used in the playoffs. Also still here: Bauer, at least until the commissioner’s office presumably suspends him after the completion of its investigation into sexual assault allegations against him. Until that unpaid suspension is either negotiated or upheld on appeal, the Price and Bauer contracts account for $80 million on the Dodgers’ books.
Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager and Chris Taylor all can be free agents. All are 30-somethings except Seager, for whom the bidding on a new contract might start at $300 million.
The league has cut off unlimited spending on international amateurs, which the Dodgers’ owners smartly leveraged in rebuilding the minor league system. The Dodgers’ farm system, thinned of top prospects and depth prospects through years of trades to bolster the major league roster, currently ranks 15th among the 30 teams, according to Baseball America.
Whether the Dodgers’ owners wish to continue spending a league-leading quarter-billion dollars on player payroll each year remains to be seen. Whatever the level of spending, the personnel decisions need to be smart.
For the Dodgers, so many decisions have gone right in this run of success that it is jarring to realize how many went wrong this year.
It is a testament to how strong a foundation Andrew Friedman and his baseball operations team have built that the Dodgers won 106 games this year, with their weaknesses largely obscured until the postseason.
Gavin Lux was learning center field in September and October because he could not hold down second base in April and May. Matt Beaty, Zack McKinstry and Edwin Ríos could not replace Kiké Hernandez and Joc Pederson on the bench. The pinch-hitter Saturday in the seventh inning, representing the tying run: Steven Souza Jr., 32, who has nine major league hits over the past three years.
The Dodgers started Corey Knebel in the first game of the NLCS and Kelly in an elimination game in part because Kershaw and Dustin May were injured, but also because Tony Gonsolin did not develop as expected, and because the Dodgers acquired injury replacements — Danny Duffy and Cole Hamels — that were injured themselves.
The Dodgers deployed Scherzer as a closer and Julio Urias as a utility pitcher in the playoffs, hampering their effectiveness in their primary role as a starter. A team that boasted eight starters in April tried to navigate the postseason with three. The front office unsuccessfully tried to mask the arms shortage by overthinking, and the team ended the postseason with two healthy starters.
All of that pales, of course, in comparison to the Bauer debacle — not because it prevented the Dodgers from repeating, but because it severely damaged the reputation of the team and its management.
“Hopefully, over the last six-plus years,” Friedman said when the Dodgers signed Bauer, “some trust and credibility has been built up in terms of the research that we do on players and the vetting process we go through.”
That trust and credibility was sacrificed – by the front office and by ownership — for the chance to sign a standout pitcher on a short-term contract.
In the bigger picture, the Dodgers play in an increasingly crowded league of “Moneyball with Money” teams. The two AL finalists, the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros, are run by alumni of the Tampa Bay Rays, same as Friedman.
The Braves are run by Alex Anthopoulos, who worked under Friedman in L.A. The San Francisco Giants are run by Farhan Zaidi and Gabe Kapler, both of whom who worked under Friedman in L.A.
The Dodgers’ analytics guru left to start his own firm. The Dodgers’ revenue guru left to help Fanatics try to dominate the sports business.
Perhaps the league has closed the gap on the Dodgers, as Boone said it had on the Yankees. Perhaps not. The Yankees have not made the World Series since 2009. The Dodgers have made it three times in the past five years.
The Dodgers still are blessed with plentiful amounts of smarts, and money. The rise of streaming means that viewers no longer have to pay for channels they do not watch, which was how cable companies could afford to throw millions and millions at teams for local broadcasting rights. While the league and many of the Dodgers’ rivals try to adjust their money-making models on the fly, the Dodgers are set with a record $8-billion cable deal that extends through 2038. They should continue to prosper.
But you never know in advance when the golden era might end. The Angels won one World Series and five division championships from 2002 to 2009. It seemed like the good times would roll on. They have not won a postseason game since.
For the Dodgers, for now and too soon, it’s time for waiting till next year.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.