How dynasties die: Dodgers tiptoe toward an abyss Braves fans know all too well

In a slightly different timeline, Clayton Kershaw would be gearing up to face the Atlanta Braves and fend off elimination in Thursday’s NLCS Game 5.

The bedrock of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ current, wildly successful era exited his last start of the season early with an elbow problem and is missing the playoffs for the first time in the Dodgers’ nine-year run as an October fixture.

His presence, so long taken for granted, could have dramatically altered the Dodgers’ now-teetering path. Sliding doors, the beats of a butterfly’s wings, it’s all impossible to untangle. But it feels less likely a team with Kershaw (and thus four trusted starting pitchers) would wake up Thursday in a 3-1 hole against an 88-win Braves team, their 106-win season riding on whether they can navigate a bullpen game to get the baton back to Max Scherzer and Walker Buehler.

The exercise is just as distressingly effective when applied to Max Muncy’s injured elbow. Or to Justin Turner’s stiff neck, or his slump or the hamstring injury that ended his postseason on Wednesday night.

Of course, in another entirely different timeline, the New York Mets put juuust enough distance between themselves and the rest of the NL East. Even after Ronald Acuña Jr.’s injury, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos is dissuaded from attempting the trade deadline talent excavation that allowed Eddie Rosario, Joc Pederson and Adam Duvall to shine in the October light — a raid of the bargain bin that now looks like a season-shifting tour de force.

The Dodgers are somehow in this timeline, though. The one where they dealt for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, still didn’t catch the San Francisco Giants in the NL West, finally managed to triumph over their rivals in an NLDS tug-of-war, and are still staring down a winter of questions and reassuring statements sagging with that all-too-familiar qualifier.

“Even though they didn’t win the World Series.”

Chipper Jones absorbs the Braves' loss to the Yankees in the 1996 World Series. The dominant team he spearheaded won the title in 1995, then never reached the summit again. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

A dynasty that won't bloom

The difference between a team that is good enough to become a dynasty and a team that actually becomes one is often perilously little — sometimes nothing more than timing.

Just ask Braves fans.

Step one of dynasty-building is regular season dominance. The Dodgers have that. Over the past 810 games — the equivalent of five normal regular seasons — Andrew Friedman’s fully operational Dodgers Death Star is 510-300. Since the expansion era began in 1961, only those late-90s Braves have put together a better stretch. You know the teams.

As it turns out, regular season dominance is also step one of building a crushing monument to what could have been.

This Dodgers' golden era that began in 2013 and kicked into high gear with Friedman’s hire prior to 2015 was, until 2020, defined by its lack of consummation. Adding Mookie Betts and fully wielding their organizational superpowers, they ended that conversation by capturing their rings in the COVID-shortened season.

Bobby Cox’s NL East titans — built on the arms of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, the bat of Chipper Jones and the glove of Andruw Jones — mastered the regular season to a degree that even the current Dodgers core would have to envy, yet managed only one World Series triumph. That also came in a shortened season, the 1995 campaign that started late due to the strike. They are remembered fondly, but also wistfully.

The frustrating thing these two teams could likely sympathize over is that the only object of the game you can actively pursue is winning games. Find a way to win more than anyone else in MLB’s grueling 162-game regular season, the logic goes, and you’ll also be the team most prepared to win the dozen or so October games that can satisfy the actual cultural object of the game — winning the World Series.

The Dodgers had baseball’s second-best bullpen this season. They are more than capable of stifling the Braves in Game 5, handing the ball back to Scherzer and Buehler and breaking Atlanta’s heart for the second straight year. But there’s no illusion here.

The early 2010s Giants never won 95 games or made the playoffs in consecutive seasons. The 2000 Yankees won 87 games.

Teams that can claim dynasty status aren’t distinguished by any intrinsic superiority, but by a blend of timing and talent that conspires to emerge when the moment is ripe, when those dozen wins mean exponentially more.

Winning as much as they do in the regular season does not grant the Dodgers any special privilege in October. It just kicks up more dust when they fall.

Clayton Kershaw is among several key Dodgers mainstays who will reach free agency at the end of the 2021 season. (Wally Skalij/ Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Clayton Kershaw is among several key Dodgers mainstays who will reach free agency at the end of the 2021 season. (Wally Skalij/ Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

How many more shots do Dodgers have?

On the other side of the ledge looms the nebulous threat of time and necessary change.

Difference-making cogs who the Dodgers couldn’t offer a starter’s playing time (or wouldn’t offer a starter’s salary) are sprinkled around the league now. Pederson is hitting huge playoff home runs for their opposition in the NLCS, while Kiké Hernández is doing the same for the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS.

Chris Taylor — who walked off the wild-card game to keep the Dodgers in these playoffs — will be a free agent at season’s end, and perhaps the next useful complementary piece in L.A. who finds he can be a main attraction elsewhere.

On a larger scale, Kershaw will be a free agent. The team has said he won’t require elbow surgery, but the injury interruptions and setbacks have been coming faster lately.

Kenley Jansen, the closing bookend to Kershaw’s Hall of Fame starter, is also set to reach free agency again. Both have been there before, only to re-sign with the Dodgers, but there are no guarantees.

Corey Seager, the shortstop who has so often lifted playoff hopes with a bat that runs hot in October, is also set to hit a drooling shortstop market with a readymade replacement already on the team in Trea Turner.

The beauty of Friedman’s Dodgers has been their ability to regenerate new, often better, versions of crucial parts lost to free agency or injury or trade. There are just no guarantees that the same track will roll on beyond this season. And for this historically excellent Dodgers group that, by all of the measures we would use to decide such things, deserves to go down as one of the best teams ever built, that means there are no guarantees beyond Thursday night.