Dodgers want to build next era of great teams. But can they be great in 2023, too?
Andrew Friedman sat with his newest star acquisition to his left, a group of enthusiastically trustful fans screaming his praises from nearby, and smiled as he made a bold proclamation about the Dodgers' fortunes 12 months ago.
“I can argue that the next five years' outlook,” Friedman said last March, during an introductory news conference for Freddie Freeman at the Dodgers Camelback Ranch spring-training complex, “is better than what we accomplished over the previous five.”
In other words, even after a run in which the Dodgers won one World Series, three National League pennants, and more games than any other club in Major League Baseball, Friedman envisioned a future that could be even better.
He hoped the next chapter of Dodgers baseball could match, if not surpass, the last.
And one year later, the organization is about to get its best indication yet of whether that goal — seen as aspirational by some, outlandish by others — might come true.
After perhaps the most extensive offseason roster turnover of Friedman’s nine-year tenure in L.A., the Dodgers are entering the 2023 season in the midst of a transitional phase.
They are still confident they can be a title contender. And they should still have one of the best teams in baseball.
But they are also cycling from one generation of franchise favorites to what they hope will be the next, resulting in a new-look squad facing as many unknowns as almost any Friedman and company have assembled.
“That's the fine line that we're constantly managing,” Friedman said, “in terms of, how to be as good as we can be in the present, while also maintaining a really strong future outlook.”
The process has been several years in the making.
It started with the departures of many familiar faces; from fan favorites such as Joc Pederson and Enrique Hernández, to beloved young stars in Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger, to franchise stalwarts such as Justin Turner and Kenley Jansen most of all.
It might not be over, either. Julio Urías will be a free agent this offseason. Walker Buehler could hit the market the winter after him. Max Muncy has no long-term contractual guarantee. And Clayton Kershaw could decide that this season will be his last.
When evaluating the Dodgers' future, only Mookie Betts and Freeman seem certain to play leading roles in the franchise’s next era.
And in order to figure out which pieces to place around them, the Dodgers felt they almost needed a season like this one — where new faces will dot the clubhouse, young prospects will get a legitimate pathway to the majors and the front office can take stock of where resources should be committed (A big trade-deadline splash? A run for Shohei Ohtani in free agency next winter?) as the club tries to reconfigure its roster on the fly.
“For me, it’s similar to 2019,” Friedman said, referring to that year’s 106-win team that also incorporated Will Smith, Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin and other young contributors into the roster — and emboldened the team to trade for Betts the following offseason.
“We structured our roster in a way to give some of our talented young players, who had reached the point where we felt like they were ready to help us, an opportunity,” Friedman added, “but we don't feel like it's in a way where we're overly reliant on them.”
Indeed, though the Dodgers didn’t join the record spending spree seen from other title contenders in free agency this winter, they sought other ways to plug holes in their roster.
Noah Syndergaard was signed to bolster the rotation. David Peralta and Jason Heyward were added for depth in the outfield. Even Justin Turner’s on-field role was quickly replaced, with J.D. Martinez signed to be the everyday designated hitter.
Faith has been placed in a forthcoming youth movement, exemplified by the three rookies set to make the opening day roster: Miguel Vargas and James Outman in the lineup and Ryan Pepiot filling in for an injured Gonsolin in the rotation — and the handful of others expected to contribute later this year.
Even after losing Gavin Lux, their starting shortstop, to a season-ending knee injury early in camp, the team stood pat during the final weeks of spring.
The Dodgers made no big splash. They took no big swing in the trade market.
Rather, they stuck to their plan for this year — hopeful their new-look lineup can keep them in the World Series hunt while they decide when and how to make their next big move.
“It’s way more art than science,” Friedman said. “There have been years where we have been, more obviously, really good [from the start]. And other years where we’ve ended up being really good, but it wasn’t as obvious in March.”
The Dodgers are banking on the latter again in 2023.
Still, the risk in that approach is as inherent as it is clear.
With Freeman and Betts still in their prime, Urías and Kershaw still anchoring the rotation, and more than $100 million in last year’s payroll freed up at the start of the offseason, this could have been a moment for the Dodgers to go all-in.
To make one more mega signing. To deal from their deep pool of prospect capital for another impact star. To make a full-blown push for an increasingly elusive second World Series this century, long-term consequences be damned.
But that’s not how Friedman or the Dodgers operate.
It doesn’t jell with their pursuit of sustained success.
So, they will enter this season hoping for the best of both worlds, trying to thread the needle of achieving future greatness for the franchise without sacrificing any in the present.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.