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Dodgers-Padres Is Poised to Become MLB’s Next Yankees–Red Sox Rivalry

From star power to spending, the showdown between the NL West foes could dominate the sport for years to come

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Dodgers versus Padres has never been much of a rivalry—and especially not lately. Since 2013, the Dodgers are 97-49 against the Padres (including the playoffs), the most lopsided margin for any divisional matchup in that time.

Fan perception echoes these on-field results. A few years ago, a fan survey conducted by academic researchers concluded that Padres-Dodgers was the third-most-lopsided “rivalry” in the majors, because Padres fans considered the Dodgers their biggest rival while Dodgers fans placed the Padres fifth.

But now the Padres are a force the Dodgers, and their fans, must take seriously. The 2020 season was just the start of what looks like MLB’s new premier rivalry for years to come—and that was even before the teams added Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Trevor Bauer, and more to infuse the battle for the NL West with yet more star power.

The Dodgers and Padres were the two best teams in the shortened 2020 regular season, an impressive feat given that they had to play each other in 10 of their 60 games. In 52 seasons of the divisional era, there have been only seven times that the two best teams in the majors, as measured by Pythagorean record, came from the same division:

  • 1980: Orioles and Yankees
  • 1987: Blue Jays and Tigers
  • 1993: Atlanta and Giants
  • 2001: Mariners and Athletics
  • 2007: Red Sox and Yankees
  • 2010: Yankees and Rays
  • 2020: Dodgers and Padres

That sort of dual dominance should carry over to 2021 and beyond. According to FanGraphs, the Dodgers and Padres are projected for the most and second-most wins, respectively, for any team in 2021. (The Yankees are slightly ahead of the Padres in the schedule-agnostic projections, but San Diego has an easier slate.)

And aside from Corey Seager and Clayton Kershaw, both free agents after the 2021 season—though Kershaw, at least, will almost certainly re-sign in L.A.—the key members of both teams’ cores are under contract for at least two more seasons. Each team’s best player is signed for more than a decade.

Top Players on the Dodgers and Padres

Player Team Projected 2021 WAR Team Control Through...
Player Team Projected 2021 WAR Team Control Through...
Mookie Betts Dodgers 6.3 2032
Fernando Tatis Jr. Padres 5.7 2034
Cody Bellinger Dodgers 5.4 2023
Corey Seager Dodgers 5.3 2021
Trevor Bauer Dodgers 4.4 2022*
Manny Machado Padres 4.3 2023**
Walker Buehler Dodgers 4.2 2024
Yu Darvish Padres 4.2 2023
Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 3.8 2021
Trent Grisham Padres 3.4 2025
Joe Musgrove Padres 3.3 2022
Blake Snell Padres 3.2 2023
* Bauer has opt-outs after both 2021 and 2022; given the structure of his contract, he is exceedingly likely to opt out after the latter. ** Machado is signed through 2028, but can opt out after 2023.

The two Southern California teams could be embarking on a run reminiscent of the mid-2000s rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox. From 2001 through 2013, the Yankees and Red Sox ranked 1-2 in the majors in wins; from 2003 through 2007, when the rivalry burned hottest, the Yankees won an average of 98 games per year, the Red Sox 94, and nobody else in the majors above 90.

Similarities between the two eras of rivalry include:

The Favorite’s Overwhelming Finances and Success

From 1998 through 2002, the Yankees won the AL East every year, reaching four World Series, winning three. (They’d also win the division each year from 2003 through 2006.) From 2013 through 2020, the Dodgers have won the NL West every year, reaching three World Series, winning one.

The Yankees led the majors in payroll every year in the 2000s. The Dodgers led the majors in payroll in each year from 2014 to 2017 and rank no. 1 again for 2021. The Yankees supplemented all those high-priced players with incredible player development, from first-rounders like Derek Jeter to late-round draftees like Jorge Posada. The Dodgers, if anything, have an even more impressive minor league machine, applied to heralded prospects like Clayton Kershaw and castoffs like Max Muncy alike.

To this day, the Yankees haven’t had a single season with a losing record since 1992. The Dodgers might never have a losing record again.

The Underdog’s Star Duo

The leading duo in Boston’s lineup circa 2003 consisted of David Ortiz and Manny Ramírez. San Diego’s has Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado. Ortiz and Tatis were both overlooked and acquired for cheap: Ortiz had to sign a non-guaranteed deal with Boston after a stint in Minnesota, while Tatis famously went to the Padres in a trade for 34-year-old James Shields.

Both Mannys, meanwhile, came to their new teams as high-profile free agents, with remarkably similar contracts. In December 2000, Ramírez signed an eight-year, $160 million contract with Boston; adjusted for inflation, that $20 million average annual value is the equivalent of about $29 million in 2019 money. And lo and behold, Machado signed for $30 million per year, over 10 years, in February 2019.

The Favorite’s Star-Studded Staff

Entering the 2003 season, the Yankees already had Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, David Wells, and Jeff Weaver. (Weaver, the least illustrious name on that list, led the American League in shutouts in 2002.) But they still signed Cuban defector José Contreras to a record contract in free agency—leading to Red Sox president Larry Lucchino’s “evil empire” quote.

So celebrated was the Yankees’ rotation that the group—minus Wells, who declined—posed with owner George Steinbrenner for a Sports Illustrated cover with the tagline “You Can’t Have Too Much Pitching (Just Ask George).”

Eighteen years later, the Dodgers—who already had Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, David Price, Julio Urías, Dustin May, and Tony Gonsolin— still signed Trevor Bauer to a record contract in free agency. Like Contreras, Bauer—the 2020 NL Cy Young winner—is a luxury the dynastic power doesn’t really need, with some questions about his most impressive numbers given the low quality of competition (for Contreras, the Cuban National Series; for Bauer, the 2020 NL Central).

The only piece missing for the Dodgers is an SI cover shoot with all those pitchers and Magic Johnson.

An Arms Race

One main reason that the Yankees and Red Sox so dominated the mid-2000s is that they kept pushing each other to greater heights. The Red Sox couldn’t stand pat in a given offseason, lest they let the Yankees bound away, nor could the Yankees, lest the Red Sox catch and surpass them. Around this time, they ranked 1-2 in Opening Day payroll in more seasons than not.

Team Payroll Ranks

Season Yankees Red Sox
Season Yankees Red Sox
2000 1st 5th
2001 1st 2nd
2002 1st 2nd
2003 1st 6th
2004 1st 2nd
2005 1st 2nd
2006 1st 2nd
2007 1st 2nd
2008 1st 4th
2009 1st 5th
2010 1st 2nd

The Yankees added Contreras and Hideki Matsui. The Red Sox added Curt Schilling. The Yankees added Gary Sheffield, Javier Vázquez, and Kevin Brown. The Red Sox added Keith Foulke. This one-upmanship peaked with the Alex Rodriguez trade saga between the 2003 and 2004 seasons, when he almost went to Boston before landing, eventually, in the Bronx.

The Dodgers and Padres have embraced a similar exchange over the past two years. Machado went to the Padres after playing half a season with the Dodgers. Then Betts went to the Dodgers and signed an extension. Then Mike Clevinger, Snell, and Darvish went to the Padres. Then Bauer signed with the Dodgers. Then Tatis signed an extension of his own.

In part because so many of their key players are young and therefore underpaid relative to their production, the Padres aren’t yet in the Dodgers’ stratosphere in payroll—last year was their highest relative rank this century, at 15th in the majors. But after their spending spree this winter, the Padres rank no. 1 in 2022 salary commitments, while the Dodgers rank no. 2.

A Propensity for Brawls

The spiciest aspect of the Yankees–Red Sox rivalry can’t be understated, after memorable fights in the 2003 ALCS and the 2004 regular season.

This bit hasn’t yet materialized for the Dodgers and Padres, but it may well be coming; the two rosters have no shortage of excitable personalities. Brusdar Graterol, Machado, and Muncy exchanged heated words during a tense playoff moment last October, and Joe Kelly—who was himself involved in a recent, raucous Yankees–Red Sox brawl—is still here.

Not all facets of the two rivalries line up precisely. The timelines don’t quite match, for one. Just like the Dodgers steamrolled the Padres in last year’s playoffs, winning in a sweep with the Padres’ two best pitchers—Dinelson Lamet and Clevinger—injured, the Yankees cruised past the Red Sox in the 1999 ALCS. Boston won Pedro Martínez’s start and lost the other four games.

But the Red Sox foundered for a while thereafter, missing the playoffs in 2000, 2001, and 2002 before their resurgence under Theo Epstein. The Padres likely won’t take any time off after their initial playoff loss before challenging the favorites once again.

The greatest difference, of course, is that the Yankees and Red Sox already had a fierce rivalry before 2003; the two AL East teams had battled for decades beforehand. The Padres and Dodgers play in the same geographic area, but, well, the Padres never sold the Dodgers Babe Ruth.

Yet while the Padres don’t boast the same sort of tortured history as the Red Sox did before 2004, they’ve scrawled a rotten history in a different fashion. Having never won a World Series, for instance, the Padres are tied for the third-longest active championship drought in the majors; the only two times they made the final round, they lost eight of nine games, to the 1984 Tigers and 1998 Yankees.

That history makes for an extremely lopsided dynamic between the two rivals, not too different from New York and Boston. Since the Padres’ inception in 1969, they have the worst overall winning percentage in the majors; the Dodgers, for comparison, rank second.

And while the Dodgers and Padres need to inject their rivalry with more playoff oomph to approach the Yankees and Red Sox, who dueled over the course of seven games in the ALCS in both 2003 and 2004, the new rivalry has one element its predecessor never did: heightened importance for their regular-season games.

In 1995, 1998, 1999, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2009, one of the Yankees or Red Sox won the AL East while the other took the AL’s wild-card spot. They didn’t really need to fight for the division crown because they’d both start from the same standing in the playoffs. But with the new postseason structure since 2012, in which the wild card has to win a play-in game while the division winner automatically advances, the new rivals will be incentivized to push hard for the NL West title. The Padres could be the second-best team in the majors this year—only to be rewarded with a must-win game against the likes of Jacob deGrom in the wild-card round.

That clash for the West crown will start early this season, with seven games between the two NL favorites over two weekends in April. The Padres can prove they’re ready to take on the Dodgers for real—and make this budding rivalry the defining matchup of the 2020s.