Sometimes the “unstoppable” Champions of February do prevail. But not usually. This is MLB, not the only-three teams-can-win NBA. Last year two popular preseason picks, the Astros (107 wins) and Dodgers (106), got no rings. The offseason champion Phillies, after adding Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura and David Robertson, went 81-81 and fired another manager.
Some team from D.C. won it all. One reason: The Nats finally learned their lesson about bragging, assuming and listing accolades. As recently as 2017, after 97- and 95-win seasons, the Nats fired a manager for not winning it all. D.C. had to learn the hard way. But the inverse is also true: Don’t cancel the 2020 season yet.
Remember two years ago when the Yankees couldn’t possibly avoid winning the World Series. They had combined Giancarlo Stanton (59 homers) and Aaron Judge (52) with a cadre of young slugging stars. What happened? The past two seasons, Judge missed 110 games. In ’19, Stanton hit just three home runs, but the Yanks still owe him $214 million. Barely known Luke Voit and Gio Urshela saved the season. But the Bombers ended the decade without a World Series visit.
Why the whole thing was almost as shocking as 2011, when the Phillies unveiled their Four Aces — Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt — plus a stellar lineup that had won the 2008 title. And they never got out of the first round.
Early in my career, I covered the Yankees vs. the Dodgers in the World Series three times in five years. (No, not in ’52, ’53 and ’55.) It was fun. But I also thought, “So, this is going to be my life, the same thing over and over?”
Those two teams, despite leading the sport in financial resources, have not met in a World Series since ’81. And they probably won’t this year, either.
It took me years to learn but you should pick against preseason favorites, especially if they are “overwhelming.” Just predict they won’t meet in the World Series. It’s a layup. You’ll usually go from crazy to smart in seven months.
Are the Dodgers now the favorite to win the National League pennant this year? Yes. But they already were before they got Betts and Price while subtracting outfielders Joc Pederson (36 homers), stellar prospect Alex Verdugo (.294) and steady starter Kenta Maeda (10-8). But it’s important to look at the Dodgers’ entire winter.
Until Tuesday, they’d been eviscerated for inaction. They’d lost free agent Hyun-Jin Ryu, with the second-best ERA in the majors the last two years (2.21) and useful lefty Rich Hill while adding three reclamation project pitchers who, in this WAR-worshipping era, had a combined value of minus-1.0 wins.
Funny thing about trades: They’re usually fairly even. You know, “trades.” Not free agent signings that cost only money. L.A. knows you seldom “win” trades; you just make a choice between instant and deferred gratification. But after a 31-year wait since their last World Series win, Dodgers fans now vote 100 to 1 for “instant,” even though Verdugo, Maeda and Pederson were under team control for a total of 10 more seasons.
If Betts is just a one-year rental — he couldn’t work out the $400 million extension he wanted in Boston — so what? For love of their fans, and to keep those Dodger Blue pitchforks at bay, L.A. acted.
By now, you’ve been lectured that L.A. robbed Boston in what was largely a Bosox salary dump. But is that true?
Betts had a 6.8 WAR year in 2019, normal for him, while Price was 1.8, typical of the past three years as he has aged and and averaged just 21 starts a season. Wow, an addition of 8.6 WAR — or wins — in a day!
But how does the whole Dodgers offseason look? How much did they lose in Ryu (5.1), Pederson (3.3), Verdugo (3.1), Hill (1.3) and Maeda (1.3)? Add it up. The Dodgers’ roster changes this winter have subtracted 5.5 wins!
Maybe there’s still no free lunch.
Yes, I’m WAR-weary, too. But this stat may slow down our conclusion-jumping.
In a year, if Betts leaves L.A. as a free agent, we may see Price — the replacement, in theory, for the elegant Ryu — as the true key to this trade.
Buehler is a superb young ace. But Clayton Kershaw’s Fielder Independent Pitching progression the past four years tells a blunt story: 1.80, 3.07, 3.18 and 3.86. The Claw window is closing, and his postseason jinx — 4.43 ERA in 32 playoff games vs. a career ERA of 2.44 — has helped nail the coffin on five Dodgers seasons. The Dodgers can’t even name their fourth and fifth starters. So, Price, who’s essential to an October Big Three, is a very big deal.
After an elbow cyst in ’19, he’s healthy now. The Red Sox will pay half his $96 million salary the next three years, turning him from an albatross deal into a fair “price.” Exiting the AL East for the no-DH NL would help any pitcher. While plenty of eyes should be on Price (7-5, 4.28 last year), who shed an awful playoff history with fine work in the Red Sox title run in 2018, the national obsession will be Betts.
Desperation leads to forced decisions. The Dodgers didn’t get the man they needed and wanted — Gerrit Cole — to form a trio with Buehler and Kershaw. The Cole Train chose the Yanks, his boyhood favorite.
So instead the Dodgers improved the one area where they were already most loaded: outfield.
Last year, Betts hit .295 with a .915 OPS, 29 homers and 186 runs produced (runs plus RBI, minus homers). But in the same playing time, the platoon of Verdugo and A.J. Pollock hit .282 with an .807 OPS, 27 homers and 156 runs produced. L.A. got better, and added a needed right-handed bat. But how much better?
Betts is a five-tool marvel. But his career home/road splits — .930 OPS vs. .858 — say that Fenway Park helped him plenty. Also, his outlier MVP season in 2018, when he hit .346 (.364 at home) vs. .293 in the rest of his career, coincided with the year for which MLB is investigating Boston for sign-stealing.
My view is that the Dodgers had to pull the trigger on this deal. Like the Nats, who hear the clock ticking with Max Scherzer, now 35, becoming a free agent after 2021, the Dodgers know Kershaw and Kenley Jansen, who has allowed 25 homers in relief in the past two years (including playoffs), have a limited win-it-all shelf life.
The Dodgers also no doubt have spotted the dominant trend of this free agent offseason: an acute talent drain away from NL contenders into the AL or to less competitive NL teams. The 2020 NL pennant is sitting there to grab.
If you are perched in Chavez Ravine, only the Nats and Braves, both somewhat weakened, still look like plausible pennant roadblocks. Hence, Mookie.
Baseball teaches us that it’s often hard to spot a season’s true key factor. If you tell me Betts’s stats this season, I’ll have no idea how many the Dodgers win or their chances in October. But if you tell me the innings, ERA and the state of health on Sept. 30 of Buehler, Kershaw and Price — the range of outcomes on that are vast — then I’ll tell you if this “prohibitive favorite” stuff came true.
After the way the Dodgers got robbed by the cheatin’ Asterisks in the 2017 World Series, it would make a great wheel of karma story. But with a glance back at history, just don’t bet too much on it.
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