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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The Dodgers raise the bar, but the mandate never changes

The Los Angeles Dodgers are a powerhouse created through, from left, free agency (Freddie Freeman), trades (Mookie Betts) and the draft (Gavin Lux).

By Tyler Kepner

There was no fanfare in early August when the Los Angeles Dodgers earned their 70th victory of the season. They held a double-digit lead in the National League West and had outscored their opponents by hundreds of runs. It was part of a 12-game winning streak in a season of 111 victories, the most in the NL since 1909.

For Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, 70 wins was once a milestone. At least it was to his team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who had never reached that mark in their young history. It was 2004, Friedman’s first season in baseball, and he did not need his finance background to calculate that 70-91 was a terrible record.

“They won 70 games, and they did a Champagne toast after it,” Friedman said. “And I remember thinking: This is really not something to celebrate. We’ve got loftier goals than that.”

Soon, the rebranded Rays would do more than just meet Friedman’s initial goal of playing meaningful games in September. They raced all the way to the World Series in 2008, setting a new standard for efficiency and innovation, and making Friedman a star.

When the Dodgers hired him after the 2014 season, Friedman had a jewel franchise in a major market to sculpt as he wished. The result is an annual masterpiece; the latest edition hosted the San Diego Padres on Tuesday night in the opener of an NL Division Series.

“It’s pretty amazing, really,” said first baseman Freddie Freeman, who starred in his first year as a Dodger. “If you take a step back and see the success that’s been sustained — that is so hard to do, especially in sports in general, to keep running a ship that produces talent. But it’s just what they do.”

The Dodgers are the first team to win at least 106 games in three consecutive full seasons. They recently completed the best 1,000-game stretch of any team in the expansion era, which began in 1969, with 636 victories. This year, they outscored opponents by 334 runs, the widest run differential for any team since the 1939 Yankees.

Those Yankees, led by a young Joe DiMaggio, might have been the greatest team in baseball history. They advanced directly to the World Series — playoffs were still decades away — and won their fourth title in a row.

And that is where the Dodgers’ legacy gets complicated. They have won the NL West in nine of the past 10 seasons, and went 106-56 as a wild card last year. Yet, they have captured just one World Series title in three appearances in that time, against the Rays in 2020. Their mandate never changes.

“The Dodgers need to continue to show the world that it wasn’t just that single ring that they got,” said Pedro Martinez, a Hall of Fame pitcher and a postseason analyst for TBS. “They are too good. They are too deep. They have invested a lot to make that franchise the kind of franchise that they are.”

Friedman, 45, grew up in Houston rooting for the Astros. He still laments a wrenching loss to the New York Mets in the 1986 NL Championship Series, when the Astros’ 16-inning home loss robbed their ace of a chance to win the pennant.

“Little Andrew was crestfallen in that crazy extra-inning Game 6,” he said. “Mike Scott was teed up to pitch Game 7.”

It was an early lesson in the capricious nature of the baseball postseason, which now includes six teams and four rounds per league, although the Dodgers got a bye from the new wild-card series. In seven postseasons under Friedman, the Dodgers have gone 46-36 in the postseason — impressive enough, considering the competition, but light on championship bling.

“I try to compartmentalize that as much as possible,” Friedman said. “We have a regular-season goal, which is to win the division, which puts us in a better position to accomplish our ultimate goal. But I can’t subscribe to the theory that there are 29 failures each year and only one success.”

It is important, Friedman added, to appreciate “the art of trying to do all you can to be as successful as you can in that current year, but keeping yourselves in the best position possible to be able to maintain. We’ve seen a lot of large-revenue teams go on a run of success and fall off the side of a cliff.”

The Mets eliminated the Dodgers in 2015 but have not won a division title since. The Chicago Cubs knocked out the Dodgers in 2016 but now are mired in a rebuild. The Boston Red Sox stomped the Dodgers in the 2018 World Series but have finished in last place in two of the past three seasons. (Let’s not even mention the woes of the neighboring Los Angeles Angels.)

The team that comes closest to approaching the Dodgers’ high-level consistency has only one title itself: the Astros, who edged the Dodgers in the World Series in 2017, the year of their electronic sign-stealing scheme.

Friedman could have made more win-now trades early in his tenure, but the mission then was to add depth to the farm system while holding on to top prospects such as Julio Urías, Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager. By 2017, high-impact talent started arriving regularly in trades: Yu Darvish, Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, Max Scherzer, Trea Turner.

“Over the last five years, we’ve been as aggressive, if not more so, than every other team in baseball in terms of trading away young talent, and we’ve obviously held on to some key ones,” Friedman said. “I can’t say enough about our amateur and pro scouting department, as well as our player-development group, for our ability to trade as many young players as we have and still have our farm system in as strong of a position as it is — especially with the current system that is designed to make that next to impossible.”

The Dodgers’ resources — polite baseball-speak for money — have been prodigious: a payroll of about $248 million in 2021 and $281 million in 2022. Those riches, however, led to a notorious overreach: a three-year, $102 million contract in 2021 for pitcher Trevor Bauer.

The Mets also tried to sign Bauer, whom the Dodgers did not really need; they were coming off a championship and already had a deep staff. Bauer made 17 starts last season and is now serving a two-year, unpaid suspension for violating baseball’s domestic violence policy. Friedman would not comment on Bauer, citing Bauer’s unresolved appeal.

Last offseason, the Dodgers made a safer high-end investment: Freeman, who got a six-year, $162 million deal to leave Atlanta, where he had deep roots as a franchise cornerstone. From the start, Freeman said, the Dodgers empathized with him and did not try to rush his transition. His tearful news conference in Atlanta, when the Dodgers played there in June, was a turning point.

“I called Andrew and I was like, ‘I’m sorry it took three months,’” Freeman said. “And he said, ‘Sorry? I didn’t think you were going to do it for a year, to get that closure.’ That’s just how wonderful they are. They knew what I was going through. They let me go through my feelings. And I think that’s why I played so well, because of how amazing they were with me and my family in getting us acclimated.”

Paying Freeman — who ended up leading the NL in hits, runs, doubles and on-base percentage — was the easy part. The trick was building an infrastructure where Freeman and so many others could thrive. That is why the Dodgers have the best chance to toast a whole lot more than 70 wins this November.

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