“This team is not going to give up,” Jansen said. “We’re going to bring a championship back to L.A. I promise you that.”
On any day before Wednesday — on Feb. 1 or July 1 or Oct. 1 — the words would have sounded like a pledge. But Jansen spoke on Nov. 1, minutes after his team lost to the Houston Astros in the seventh game of the World Series. In moments like these, all proclamations ring hollow.
The 2017 Dodgers won 104 regular-season games and accumulated enough accolades to fill a trophy case — a fifth National League West title, the best regular-season record since leaving Brooklyn, the team’s first National League pennant since 1988 — yet they headed into the winter without reaching the last goal on their checklist. They stood at the base of the summit, but could not reach the top. As the players packed for the winter, they struggled to acknowledge how difficult it might be to get back.
“I’m not really thinking about next year,” pitcher Clayton Kershaw said. “We all know the team we’re going to have coming back.”
The collection of talent does not guarantee a return to the Fall Classic. Houston assembled a similarly youthful roster. There will be healthy challenges from the Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals in the National League, while the New York Yankees appear to be a budding force in the American League, along with the Cleveland Indians. And history does not appear to be on the Dodgers’ side.
No team has won back-to-back championships since the Yankees captured three in a row from 1998 to 2000. Since 2000, four teams have appeared in the World Series in consecutive seasons: the 2000-2001 Yankees, 2008-2009 Philadelphia Phillies, 2010-2011 Texas Rangers and the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.
Only the Royals won a title in their return engagement — after falling in Game 7 the year before to San Francisco. Kansas City leaned on that agony throughout the following season. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts suggested his players could find similar motivation.
“I know our guys and I know that there won't be a hangover,” Roberts said. “They will be more incentivized, and I think they'll be hungrier.”
Except baseball does not always reward its best. The Indians blew a 3-1 lead in the World Series to the Cubs last October. Focused on atoning, the Indians raced to the best record in the American League this season. Yet they still fell in the first round to the Yankees.
When the heartache subsides, the Dodgers will still enter the offseason in an enviable position. They support the game’s largest payroll and run a well-stocked farm system. The overwhelming majority of their roster can return for 2018, and the front office may choose to make only cosmetic changes to the composition of this group.
Last winter, the Dodgers doled out $192 million to re-sign Jansen, third baseman Justin Turner and starting pitcher Rich Hill. It is unlikely to see the team repeat that splurge this winter. There are no gaping holes to fill. The most prominent departing free agent is Yu Darvish, who imperiled the team’s championship hopes with a pair of wretched outings in the World Series, including a five-out immolation in Game 7.
After the game, Darvish admitted his passion for baseball had ebbed during the last three years. When the Dodgers acquired him from Texas in July, Darvish felt re-invigorated.
“I just want to come back and pitch better,” Darvish said through his translator, Hideaki Sato. “It's tough, but personally I want to come back to the Dodgers.”
Darvish could command a nine-figure contract, and the Dodgers are unlikely to meet that price. But there may be a fit if Darvish takes a discount. Otherwise, the Dodgers may pursue Cubs starter Jake Arrieta to add to a pitching staff that already includes Kershaw, Hill, All-Star Alex Wood, Kenta Maeda and Hyun-Jin Ryu, with former top prospect Julio Urias returning from shoulder surgery.
The Dodgers are also expected to chase two-way Japanese star Shohei Ohtani, if he becomes available. Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball are haggling over the terms by which Ohtani’s team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, would make him available.
Ohtani would be a luxury item for the Dodgers. A tour around the diamond reveals the comfort of their position: First baseman Cody Bellinger, shortstop Corey Seager and catcher Austin Barnes will make the big league minimum in 2018. Turner is under contract through 2019. The Dodgers hold an affordable $9-million option on second baseman Logan Forsythe.
In the outfield, the team will return Joc Pederson, Chris Taylor and Yasiel Puig. The Dodgers can afford to shop either Pederson or Puig on the trade market, as former starter Andrew Toles is expected to return from knee surgery. The Dodgers may field offers for catcher Yasmani Grandal, who lost his starting role to Barnes in October. The team is also likely to part ways with veteran first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who did not make the postseason roster.
Many of the faces are likely to be the same in 2018. The Dodgers can only hope that the end result, despite the warnings of history and the difficulty of the task, will be different.