But all the same, the question awkwardly lingers. In this sport, the test of team’s mettle extends through that hated and revered 162-game schedule, and the Dodgers won in 2020 with a shortened season. So the picky observer could merely adjust the terms and ask again: Can the Dodgers win it all . . . in a full season? And perhaps more importantly, does the legacy of the defending World Series champions somehow require that they do so?
“Last year, the 60 games and all the stuff going on in the world, we didn’t really have that big parade, celebration kind of deal,” starter Walker Buehler said early in spring training. “So in some ways, you kind of feel like we half won the thing.”
The Dodgers, who open their season Thursday at Colorado, have no reason to believe they can’t fully win the thing this year, even though no major league team has repeated as World Series champion since the New York Yankees in 2000. But these Dodgers were already a historical rarity, and they may have gotten better.
As if Buehler and Kershaw did not provide enough firepower, the Dodgers signed reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer to join a starting rotation so deep that former Cy Young winner and World Series champion David Price will have to start the season in the bullpen. Elite hitting prospects such as Gavin Lux and Zach McKinstry are poised for bigger roles this season. The Dodgers did not lose major pieces of their championship team.
What they gained was more October experience, something they weren’t exactly lacking. Because the expanded playoff setup included an extra best-of-three series, the Dodgers won more playoff games (13) on their way to the title than any team before them. They also did so without any home-field advantage because of coronavirus restrictions.
“There’s a certain way we went about our business last year, and that was understanding the world of 2020 and understanding things we had no control over but still had to stay focused on winning baseball games,” Manager Dave Roberts said on the first day of spring training. No team has had to overcome the kind of external challenges the Dodgers did on their way to a title. But the virus also made parts of it feel less real.
For Justin Turner — who was pulled off the field during Game 6 of the World Series after learning of a positive coronavirus test, then violated protocols to return during the Dodgers’ on-field celebration, — the 2020 title counted. It also left him with unfinished business.
“For me, sitting back in that room and watching the guys dog-pile, personally it felt like it was the third time I had to sit and watch a team celebrate winning a World Series. That was tough. That’s something that is still at the top of my list,” Turner said. “I still have not been able to be on the field for the last out to celebrate a championship. And that’s something I’m determined to show up and work for every day and have that experience at the end of this year.”
That Turner has had the opportunity to witness three different World Series celebrations firsthand testifies to the dynastic nature of this Dodgers group. The Dodgers won the most games in baseball in two of the past four seasons and the most in the National League in three of the past four. At their lowest point during that four-season span, they won 92 games, more than the Miami Marlins have won in any of the past 20 seasons.
They have done it with a star-studded lineup and a steady clubhouse demeanor. None of their many stars seem eager to steal the spotlight from the others. Everyone from Turner to Buehler to former American League MVP Mookie Betts to former National League MVP Cody Bellinger seems content to trade intrigue for dominance. Even all-star shortstop Corey Seager, due for free agency at the end of this season and due for months of questions about it in the meantime, has taken the very Dodgers stance of simply declining to talk about it.
But Bauer is one to stand out rather than assimilate. Inconvenient questions still hover around him, too — among them, whether his résumé matches the record $40 million the Dodgers will pay him in 2021.
His tenure as an ace has been shorter than the Dodgers’ tenure as annual World Series contenders. His lone Cy Young Award came in that shortened 2020 season. He has been dominant, sure. But should he be earning more in a season than Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and the like?
“I know what kind of pitcher I am. I know how hard I work, how much knowledge I’ve amassed and how far I’ve come,” Bauer said after his first spring training start. “If I have something to prove, it’s to myself, always. I hold myself to a much higher standard than anyone else holds me to. People can say what they want to say — it doesn’t really matter.”
Since he signed with the Dodgers, Bauer already has been scolded by Major League Baseball for wearing his own branded T-shirt under his jersey, taken heat for pitching with one eye closed just to try it, gotten in Twitter spats with New York Mets star Noah Syndergaard and had to answer for past social media behavior in his first Dodgers news conference.
So far, everyone seems to be laughing off his eclectic approach. In his last spring training start, Bauer struck out his old Cleveland teammate José Ramírez with one eye closed after signaling to Ramírez that he would be throwing a fastball. When Ramírez swung through it, Bauer struck a “Rocky” pose to celebrate.
“I haven’t seen that one yet. I have a feeling there’s going to be some other things I haven’t seen before that I’ll probably see this year,” Roberts said.
“He just has an incredible way to refocus. He can make fun of himself. There’s some levity. There’s some humor,” Roberts added. “But when he needs to refocus to compete and make pitches, he can do that. It’s very unique.”
In some ways, Bauer can understand the unique position in which the Dodgers find themselves better than anyone. He, like them, made history in 2020. He, like them, will defend his achievements against all critics. He, like them, still has more to achieve.
“We showed up last year under an agreed-upon rules, and you crown the best under those rules. Just like people who say the Dodgers’ World Series wasn’t legitimate,” Bauer said. “Everyone had the same opportunity. In a given year, under the same set of rules, the Dodgers were the best team last year, just like I was the best pitcher in the National League last year. So whatever.”