Here’s Clayton Kershaw in Game 4 of the 2008 NLCS, making the second of his two relief appearances as a 20-year-old rookie.
Kershaw was the youngest player to appear in the majors that year, and though he was only a supporting player on that Dodgers team, he would soon become the face of one of baseball’s most successful franchises. Over the past 11 seasons, Kershaw’s Dodgers have made the playoffs eight times, gone to the NLCS six times, and won the pennant twice.
But after six straight division titles, and two consecutive unsuccessful trips to the World Series, it’s reasonable to wonder how much longer this golden age will last. Kershaw, now 30 years old and the longest-tenured Dodger, can opt out of the last two years and $65 million of his contract in the next three days. Even if he remains with L.A., he’s no longer the uniquely dominant ace he was in his mid-20s, when he won three Cy Youngs and an MVP from 2011 to 2014. This postseason, Kershaw continued his pattern of postseason inconsistency: He was fantastic in Game 2 of the NLDS and Game 5 of the NLCS, but he got torched in Game 1 of the NLCS and Game 1 of the World Series, and while he allowed only seven base runners over seven innings in the decisive Game 5 of the World Series, four of those base runners scored on the three home runs Kershaw surrendered. In 30 postseason appearances, Kershaw’s ERA is now up to 4.32, almost two runs above his regular-season average.
Some playoff losses, even World Series losses, feel like moral victories. Judging by the way Dodgers fans booed manager Dave Roberts before the decisive Game 5 even started, this isn’t one of them. Not after the 2017 Dodgers looked like one of the best teams in baseball history for four months, lost 16 of 17 at one point during the regular season, and lost a heartbreaker of a seven-game World Series. Not after this year’s Dodgers blew a four-run lead in Game 4 of the World Series, and not after Kershaw biffed it with the season on the line again in Game 5. Not after they went out and traded for Manny Machado, the best player to switch teams at the deadline, only to watch him spend the playoffs acting like a hockey pest and falling over while striking out to end the season.
The Dodgers had two great shots at a title the past two years, and they blew both chances. No team has won at least three straight pennants since the 1998–2001 Yankees, and no National League team has won three straight pennants since the 1942–44 Cardinals. History says the Dodgers won’t even get this far next year, so how can they buck the trend?
Teams that sustain success for more than a decade evolve. Since 2004, the Red Sox have gone through three front-office regimes and four managers as they’ve won four titles in 15 years. Dustin Pedroia, who played just three games this year, is the only player left from 2007, the second title year in that run, and David Ortiz was the only holdover from 2004 to win the title in 2013. The Atlanta Braves won 14 division titles in a row from 1991 to 2005, and changed out their entire roster but John Smoltz in the meantime. In fact, three of the stalwarts of those Braves teams — Greg Maddux, Rafael Furcal, and Andruw Jones — found their way onto Kershaw’s first Dodgers team in 2008. Even the turn-of-the-century Yankees, who won four World Series in five years and six pennants in eight on a team built around Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, evolved within that time span. Out went Paul O’Neill, David Cone, and John Wetteland, and in came Hideki Matsui, Roger Clemens, and Alfonso Soriano. Stability is death.
The trick is knowing when to cut bait on a beloved veteran and then how to identify youngsters or free-agent targets to take their place. Building a team that has World Series aspirations for 11 years is not a matter of building one title contender, it’s a matter of building several.
And the Dodgers have, to their credit, evolved fairly smoothly. They themselves are on their third manager and second front-office regime since 2008, and the entire roster, apart from Kershaw, has been turned over since then. (Matt Kemp was on both the 2008 and 2018 Dodgers, but he played for the Padres and Braves from 2015 to 2017 before coming back as a platoon bat this year.) Kemp, Andre Ethier, and Russell Martin were the heart of the 2008 and 2009 teams, but over time they gave way to Justin Turner, Joc Pederson, Corey Seager, and Cody Bellinger. The Dodgers supplemented Kershaw with Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, and eventually replaced Greinke with Rich Hill.
Seager, 24, will return for a full season next year after missing most of 2018 with a torn UCL. So will left-hander Julio Urías, 22, who missed most of the past two seasons with a shoulder injury before returning to action in mid-September and making seven relief appearances this postseason. Right-hander Walker Buehler, who threw seven scoreless innings in Game 3 of the World Series, stands to improve, as does Bellinger. And many of the Dodgers’ pending free agents — including pitcher Ryan Madson and infielders Brian Dozier and Machado — were midseason stopgaps to fill holes in the lineup or strengthen the bench.
But Kershaw is only one of many core players the Dodgers will have to make a decision about in the next 12 months. Ryu, Kershaw’s virtual co-ace this year, will also be a free agent after the season. So will catcher Yasmani Grandal, and, despite his waking nightmare of a postseason, the 29-year-old Grandal is one of the best catchers in baseball. He’ll leave a significant hole in the lineup if the Dodgers don’t sign him. That hole would not be easy to fill, either, because baseball is in a dry spell when it comes to reliable catchers. Both Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus had Grandal as the second-best catcher in baseball this year, behind Miami’s J.T. Realmuto, and according to bWAR, there were only nine catchers in the entire league who were worth even two wins above replacement this year. And Hill, Alex Wood, and Yasiel Puig will all be free agents after 2019, so the turnover will continue.
There are, however, three reasons to be optimistic. The first is their immense financial might. This was the first year since 2012 that the Dodgers didn’t run a $200 million payroll. They cleared a few long-term contracts from the books, like Ethier and Adrián González, and didn’t reallocate the money to new players, as the Dodgers attempted to get under the luxury tax threshold. But that wasn’t just an indicator of ownership’s waning financial commitment to success, or so the party line goes. The tax rate goes up for teams that exceed the tax threshold multiple years in a row, so by coming in under budget in 2018, the Dodgers cut their tax bill from 50 percent to 20 percent the next time they go over. That means the Dodgers will have ample money to re-sign their own free agents or bring in help from outside the organization this winter. With Patrick Corbin, Machado, and Bryce Harper leading a stacked free-agent class, this is a good time to have money to spend.
The second reason for optimism is their developmental pipeline. The Dodgers have not only turned career bench players and minor leaguers into stars — Max Muncy and Chris Taylor are two of the more notable examples — but they’ve also done well in terms of traditional prospect development. Buehler, Bellinger, Seager, Urías, and Joc Pederson were all developed within the Dodgers organization. The most common way for runs like the Dodgers’ to end is when a team depletes its supply of promising rookies to replace its aging veterans, and perennial first-place teams frequently rate low in organizational prospect rankings. Years of trades, call-ups, and poor draft position will do a number on a farm system.
The Dodgers’ prospect pipeline isn’t as strong as it was when Seager and Urías were still making prospect lists, but it’s still in decent shape. Alex Verdugo, a consensus top-50 prospect, should see an extended big league run next year after getting only intermittent big league action in 2017 and 2018, and Grandal’s replacement at catcher might well be Will Smith, a 2016 first-rounder out of Louisville. Or if not Smith, perhaps Keibert Ruiz, a 20-year-old Venezuelan backstop who spent this year at Double-A, will get a crack at the job in a season or two.
But third and most of all, it’s not clear that any other NL West team is going to have the wherewithal to knock the Dodgers out of first place. Not a lot went right this year for the Dodgers — they slashed payroll, Seager got hurt, Kershaw took a step back — and they still won the division and went to the World Series. The Dodgers will probably buy substantial reinforcements this offseason. Even if they don’t, they probably won’t lose their best position player for the season in April, they probably won’t start 18–26, and they probably won’t underperform their run differential by 10 games — all of which happened this year.
The Rockies, who tied the Dodgers in the standings through 162 games, showed how out of their depth they were in the NLDS against the Brewers. The Diamondbacks, who won the wild card in 2017, regressed this year, have free agents of their own to deal with in A.J. Pollock and Corbin, and are contemplating blowing the whole thing up and starting over. The Giants are beginning a painful rebuild themselves, and while the Padres have amassed a truly frightening assortment of minor league talent, so far it’s translated to very little in the way of big league success.
So no matter how much of a public beating Roberts is taking, how weary Kershaw looks, or how dashed morale in Los Angeles is at the moment, the Dodgers remain heavy favorites to win a seventh straight division title in 2019. How heavily they’ll be favored, and how many more division titles they’ll win, remains to be seen. And it depends entirely on how well they continue to evolve.
This story has been updated to reflect new reporting about how many days Kershaw has to decide whether he’ll opt into his contract.