You don’t have to look at the Dodgers’ roster to predict another championship for them in 2021. All you have to do is look at the odds.
Not since the New York Yankees’ 1998-2000 three-peat has a champion defended its World Series victory. In a 30-team league with no hard salary cap, that’s not what you would expect. We should have had another back-to-back champion by now.
That’s been especially true over the last five years, when a handful of “superteams” emerged in the San Francisco Giants’ wake to lay claim to a modern baseball dynasty. Had the 2020 regular season lasted 162 games, the Dodgers were on pace to win 116 of them. In the previous five seasons, 12 teams won at least 100 games. The 15 seasons before that gave us 14 100-game winners. Why were none of them able to repeat as champions?
No single answer is wholly satisfying, but a few smaller reasons get us at least partway there. Take them on merit and you don’t need to know much about the 2021 Dodgers to see why their path to a championship might be easier than the last 20 teams who tried and failed to repeat:
1 . Retaining star players can be tough.
Two integral members of the 2019 Washington Nationals became free agents after the season. Pitcher Stephen Strasburg re-signed. Third baseman Anthony Rendon left for Anaheim. (Whoops on both counts.) The postseason didn’t expand enough to include the Nationals in 2020.
You can look back over the past 20 years and find similar decisions that impeded a defending champion. Albert Pujols hasn’t won a playoff game since he last paid a state income tax in Missouri. Neither has Johnny Cueto. The Dodgers aren’t exempt from the ebb and flow of free agency, but having a top-five payroll really helps.
That figures to be even more true while the economic uncertainty fostered by the COVID-19 pandemic persists. Commissioner Rob Manfred recently told Sportico that the 30 major league teams will combine to lose $2.8 to $3 billion this year. Some teams will be able to weather such a storm. Those with lucrative local television contracts are, if not in good shape, in better shape than most. What does that mean on a practical level for the Dodgers?
Outfielder Joc Pederson is a free agent. He hit .382 in the postseason, with two homers and eight RBIs in 16 games (10 starts). In an ordinary year, you could potentially foresee a small- or mid-market team on its way up making a competitive bid for such a player – not a star, but a useful player in the right outfield. The Giants and Reds, for example, would make sense in a typical offseason.
Maybe Pederson will leave Los Angeles, but this is not going to be a typical offseason for mid-tier free agents. You’d rather be the Dodgers than the Giants or Reds right now. You definitely don’t want to be a mid-tier free agent.
2. Teams don’t always retain the right stars.
The 2018 Boston Red Sox ran a payroll north of $230 million. The team’s ownership group decided that could not continue in perpetuity, so something had to give. That something now patrols right field for the Dodgers.
How did that happen, exactly? Slugger J.D. Martinez exercised the player option in his contract prior to the 2019 season. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts signed a six-year, $120 million extension in April 2019. Pitcher Nathan Eovaldi parlayed his brilliant World Series performance into a four-year, $68 million contract. Infielder Dustin Pedroia wasn’t healthy enough to be a factor in 2018 or 2019, but he was owed more than $42 million when he played nine games over the two seasons. He was still owed $13 million in 2020 when the pandemic paused the season.
Once the dust had settled, the best player in a Red Sox uniform still didn’t have a contract for 2021. The Red Sox offered Mookie Betts an extension, but at that point they could only offer so much. Rather than allowing him to leave as a free agent, they traded him to the Dodgers.
The 2019 Red Sox weren’t in the same boat as the 2012 Cardinals or 2016 Royals. Boston brought back its key World Series performers. It still wasn’t enough. The financial flexibility gained by trading Betts didn’t arrive in time to provide a course correction when the 2019 season went sideways in Boston. Within a year, their manager and general manager were gone, and a potential multi-year title run never materialized.
The Dodgers aren’t necessarily immune to this trap. They have important decisions to make on Pederson, third baseman Justin Turner, pitchers Blake Treinen and Pedro Baez, and infielder/outfielder Kiké Hernandez, among others. Andrew Friedman, the team’s president of baseball operations, has a history of strong evaluations on his own free-agents-to-be. He also has a stout farm system rife with young (read: inexpensive) replacements who are able to step into starting roles, almost every year without fail.
3. Baseball is (usually) a marathon, not a sprint
There will be no asterisk next to the Dodgers’ World Series title. The more I think about it, the biggest potential advantage to having a supremely talented team in a historically short season lies not in 2020, but in the year after.
The 2016 Cubs coaxed 228-1/3 innings and 22 wins out of a 32-year-old Jon Lester between the regular season and the playoffs. The following season he regressed, posting a 4.33 earned-run average. He hasn’t thrown 200 innings in a single year since.
There are plenty of Lesters – pitchers who sold out in October only to fade at some point during the following season – on the rosters of our late-2010s superteams: Corey Kluber (Indians), Chris Sale (Red Sox), Brandon Morrow (Dodgers). Especially for pitchers, a hangover is an accepted byproduct of a World Series run, something no amount of Tylenol and water can cure.
The Dodgers went to great lengths to preserve their starting pitchers during the latter part of the decade. Only Clayton Kershaw has thrown 200 innings (regular season and postseason combined) in a single year since 2016. By design or not, they’ve tried circumventing the dreaded World Series hangover.
The better cure? Chopping 100 regular-season games off the schedule. The 2021 Dodgers need not worry about the effects of a possible hangover. They played more games than any National League team in 2020, and it was still half the length of a normal season.
For all the dark clouds the COVID-19 pandemic brought to sports, and the world at large, I think it can offer a silver lining to the Dodgers. They ought to have an easier time repeating as champions than any team in the last 20 years – provided the same forces of fortune that allowed a 2020 season in the first place cooperate again next year.