Betts, Freeman Keep Dodgers Chugging After Payroll-Shedding Offseason

After some big-name offseason departures, the Los Angeles Dodgers appeared to be beatable heading into this season. But that’s hardly been the case. They obviously didn’t need Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Corey Seager, Trea Turner, Walker Buehler, Max Scherzer, et al. Many of those players took them to victory in the 2020 COVID-plagued World Series, but only Buehler from that list remains in L.A.

Yet as August turns into September, the Dodgers find themselves again running away with another National League West race, on their way to their 10th division title in the past 11 years.

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On July 30, the Dodgers led the San Francisco Giants by two games and the Arizona Diamondbacks by four. Less than a month later, that lead has expanded to 13 games over Arizona. Los Angeles is 22-4 in its last 26 games heading into its final tilt against the D-backs this season Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium.

“It’s great players having career seasons,” newcomer Jason Heyward said, trying to explain the August surge. “This is what they do.”

Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman have virtually carried the Dodgers. Betts was traded by the Boston Red Sox to the Dodgers in a February 2020 deal that many Boston fans believe is the worst for that franchise since Babe Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees precisely a century earlier.

Freeman signed as a free agent last year after a deal to remain with the Atlanta Braves fell through.

“The pitching has been much more consistent,” now-veteran manager Dave Roberts said about his club’s recent play. “And obviously you can’t discount what Mookie and Freddie have been doing at the plate.”

They have these things in common: Betts defeated the Dodgers while still in Boston to win the 2018 World Series. Freeman’s Braves defeated the Houston Astros to win the 2021 World Series before he came home to Los Angeles. Both were paid a boatload of money to be Dodgers for life: Betts a 12-year, $365 million extension in 2020 to keep him away from free agency, Freeman, now 33, a six-year, $162 million contract, with that sixth year making the difference in prying him away from the Braves.

Betts was part of the group that helped the Dodgers defeat Tampa Bay in the 2020 World Series. The pair together are trying to do it again.

“When you have two guys playing the way they are, it’s a joy for the rest of us to watch,” Heyward said.

This month alone, Betts has raised his average to .312 from .277 and overall has totaled 35 homers and 93 RBIs. Freeman has an ungodly slash line of .340/.415/.583 with 24 homers and 87 RBIs. Both are candidates for the NL MVP award.

The Dodgers offense has been clicking. They are second in Major League Baseball with 204 homers and 708 RBIs—behind the Braves, who lead in both categories with 246 homers and 734 RBIs. The Dodgers are also second behind the Braves in both team slugging percentage and OPS—.500 to .457 and .844 to .797.

If it sounds like another clash in the NL Championship Series is coming, that could happen. The Dodgers came from behind to defeat the Braves in the 2020 NLCS bubble and lost to them in 2021. Both teams were knocked out in their respective division series last year—but that’s another story. Atlanta has the better record right now by four games, putting it in position to own home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, for whatever that’s worth.

To be sure, most of LA’s starting rotation has dealt with injuries this season. Buehler is still recovering from his second Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, and Tony Gonsolin is scheduled to have his right elbow repaired on Friday. Clayton Kershaw and Julio Urías have missed weeks on end, but both seem healthy now for the stretch run.

It’s all there in the stats. The Braves have the top pitching in the NL with a 3.82 staff ERA. The Dodgers are eighth at 4.20. Their starters are even worse at 4.50.

The additions of Lance Lynn and Ryan Yarbrough at the trade deadline helped. But a decision to trim about $100 million in player payroll last offseason to move on from Bellinger and the Turners, and not add pitching depth, had its effect. The Dodgers didn’t even make offers to Seager and Trea Turner the last two offseasons, leaving a gaping hole at short. Bellinger, Seager and Trea Turner are having good years playing elsewhere.

The Dodgers left a big chunk of money in the budget to pursue two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani as a free agent this coming offseason, but then destiny stepped in. Last week, Ohtani tore his UCL for the second time and is now facing another Tommy John surgery, which would keep him from pitching until the 2025 season. Thus, the best laid plans of mice and men.

As far as this season is concerned, the dice fell in the Dodgers’ direction. The D-backs, Giants and San Diego Padres all collapsed after the All-Star break, and the Dodgers have had their way again with a sixth-ranked MLB payroll of $238.7 million. Only two of the five teams above them—the Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies—could make the playoffs. The other three—the New York Mets at $343.2 million, the New York Yankees at $279.4 million and the Padres at $252.9 million—will not.

For these reasons, the injuries and shortfalls at key positions thus far haven’t mattered. That’s why despite making the playoffs with the Dodgers in every one of his eight seasons managing the club, Roberts said this is his favorite team. The only division title they’ve missed in the last 11 years was 2021 when a 105-win team lost to the Giants by a game. And even then, those Dodgers beat those Giants in a five-game division series that came down to the final pitch.

That’s dominance. Now here they are running away with it again.

“We’ve overcome a lot,” Roberts said. “It’s my favorite in sense that as a manager when you see players get along, pull for each other, they buy in. All 26 of them. For me to see that, it’s a joy.”

There’s that word joy again. The playoffs “are a crapshoot,” Roberts added. Any joy from that stage of the season is still to come.

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