Dodgers go into spring training knowing nothing is guaranteed

LOS ANGELES — Winners of 931 regular-season games over the past 10 years but just one short-season championship, the Dodgers have learned one thing the hard way.

There are no guarantees.

“I’m not going to guarantee it this year. I’m not going to do that,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said recently. Last March, he guaranteed his team would win the World Series in 2022 during an interview on a national radio show.

“But I still expect to win the World Series. I do. And I don’t think there’s anybody that’s part of our organization or our fan base that doesn’t feel that same way.”

For most of 2022, Roberts had gone out on a very sturdy limb. The Dodgers won 111 games during the regular season, a total only three teams in baseball history had exceeded. They were only the second team since World War II to score the most runs in the majors and allow the fewest in the same season, outscoring their opponents by 334 runs (the fourth-highest run differential in baseball history).

Then the limb cracked. The Dodgers were eliminated from the postseason in four games by the San Diego Padres in a National League Division Series.

It was the second time in the past three full seasons that the Dodgers had followed a 100-win, franchise record-setting regular season with a first-round playoff flop.

“Every year it’s tough. There’s only one team that gets to win the last game of the season,” utility man Chris Taylor said this spring. “It’s hard. It’s a tough game. There’s not many years where the favorite actually wins the World Series. It was not the way we wanted to end it obviously. But that’s the nature of the business.”

Indeed, it is. Only five times (including ties) in the past 23 full seasons has the team with the best regular-season record also won the World Series. And MLB’s pursuit of increased TV revenue has only opened the postseason to more variables.

It’s enough to make one re-think the importance of regular-season success, isn’t it?

“Look – what happened last October is not something that we felt like was impossible,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “You can have the best team in the regular season and it doesn’t guarantee you anything in the postseason. So, it wasn’t news to us that that can happen.

“The way we boil it down – and we talk about it a lot – is doing everything we can to put ourselves in the best position to accomplish our regular-season goal which is to win the National League West, which then increases our chances of accomplishing our ultimate goal. I don’t think we’re viewing that any differently than we ever have. It certainly didn’t change our desire to go out and win the National League West this year, which in turn increases our chances of winning 11 games in October.”

Friedman’s actions this winter didn’t necessarily reflect those words. The Dodgers let free agents leave by the bushel (including Trea Turner, Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger and Tyler Anderson), reloading not with top-tier stars but bargain-bin finds signed to modest one-year contracts (Noah Syndergaard, J.D. Martinez, David Peralta, Shelby Miller and Jason Heyward) and cloaking it with proclamations about the readiness of top prospects like Miguel Vargas, James Outman, Bobby Miller, Gavin Stone and others.

The result is a team that heads to spring training this week with more questions than there have been in years and a legitimate challenger in the Padres, who spent another winter in aggressive acquisition mode.

“Yeah, maybe with the younger guys,” Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes said, acknowledging that this year’s team presents more unknowns than usual. “But you know – the Dodgers always put a product on the field that seems to win games. I think everybody has belief that we’re going to go out there and play well, win the division and be in the hunt to win a World Series. I don’t think the standard is any different.”

Whether or not the Dodgers find themselves back in the hunt in October, some key questions should begin to be answered during spring training.

Who will replace Cody Bellinger in center field?

“I don’t (know). I think your guys’ guess right now is as good as mine,” Roberts said at FanFest when asked if he knew the answer.

Bellinger’s offense should be easy to replace. His defense? Not so much. Roberts listed Chris Taylor, Trayce Thompson, Jason Heyward, James Outman and Bradley Zimmer as options, assessing the non-roster invitee Zimmer as a “great defender, we’re going to try to clean up some things with the bat but he can really defend” – a familiar scouting report after the past three seasons with Bellinger.

Roberts will have spring training to try and sort out his options in the group.

Can Gavin Lux transition back to shortstop?

For the second consecutive winter, the Dodgers lost an elite shortstop to mega-bucks free agency (Corey Seager followed by Trea Turner). Lux will move back to his natural position to try and fill the void.

Lux had his issues defensively while progressing to the majors as a shortstop (primarily with his throwing) and occasionally as a second baseman in the big leagues. He started to come into his own offensively last season before a late-season neck injury sidetracked him. He will get a chance to put it all together this season – though the Dodgers hedged their bets by acquiring Miguel Rojas in a trade.

Is Miguel Vargas ready to be the everyday second baseman?

That the Dodgers are ready to give Vargas regular at-bats at the big-league level is no surprise. That they will apparently come while playing second base is.

Vargas was primarily a third baseman in the minor leagues and played only 28 games at second base in four seasons (none during his major-league time last season). But the Dodgers’ Plan A this spring is to have Max Muncy at third base and Vargas at second – where the new rules banning defensive shifts will put an emphasis on range and athleticism.

Vargas has put in the work this winter. But he knows where he feels most comfortable – in the batter’s box.

Are they really going to go without a designated closer?

When Kenley Jansen signed with the Atlanta Braves as a free agent last spring, the Dodgers said they didn’t need a closer, that they had plenty of good options to handle the ninth inning based on matchups – then they made a late-spring trade for Craig Kimbrel, the only active reliever with more saves than Jansen.

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Kimbrel’s shaky tenure ended short of the postseason and he also left via free agency. Once again, the Dodgers are saying they don’t need a designated closer, that they have plenty of good options to handle the ninth inning based on matchups. They did sign a former All-Star closer, Alex Reyes (who had 29 saves for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2021). But the oft-injured Reyes is recovering from shoulder surgery and won’t be ready to start the season. Evan Phillips will and Daniel Hudson (recovering from knee surgery) will join the bullpen at some point early in the season. They are the leading candidates to assume the role if need be.

Can they lock up Julio Urias with a contract extension?

Urias has emerged as the staff ace and one of the top pitchers in the National League, going 37-10 with a 2.57 ERA over the past two seasons. He can be a free agent after this season and keeping him around beyond this season should be a high priority for the Dodgers.

But Urias is represented by Scott Boras, who has no aversion to taking his clients into the free agent market in order to maximize their earnings. If the Dodgers can’t reach an agreement with Urias on a contract extension before the season starts, the odds of him leaving next winter increase.

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