Reaching World Series is a must for Dodgers — and so is winning it

Sorry, I must have missed the memo. When did finishing second suddenly become acceptable in Los Angeles?

What are we, Tampa Bay?

Bill Plaschke is right — to a point. The Dodgers have no excuse to not reach the World Series this year.

Only I’ll take a step further: They have to win it.

I wouldn’t have written that before the start of the season. Franchise cornerstone Corey Seager was about to enter his age-23 season. The organization’s top talent was still in the Class A. The Dodgers’ best days were still ahead.

The emergence of rookie Cody Bellinger strengthened that long-term view.

How the season unfolded changed everything. The Dodgers won their fifth consecutive division championship and claimed 104 victories, their most ever since they moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn.

Seasons like this don’t come around every year. There’s no guarantee next season will play out like this one, even with most of the key players still under contract or club control.

Progress isn’t always linear in sports. Reaching the World Series one season doesn’t necessarily position a team to win it the next.

What the Dodgers have in front of them is an opportunity, not a steppingstone.

Take the 2013 season, which was also supposed to be the start of something. That was when the Dodgers used their Guggenheim money to assemble the best team in baseball. Their lineup was downright scary, with a focused Hanley Ramirez and a healthy Adrian Gonzalez in the middle of the order.

Then Ramirez was injured in the opening game of the National League Championship Series, when his ribs were fractured by a fastball. The Dodgers couldn’t overcome that.

But there was always next year, right?

Not exactly.

Matt Kemp regained his form and Dee Gordon became an all-star the following year, but the Dodgers lost that something that made them special — the version of Ramirez that made him the Dodgers’ most dominant offensive player since Manny Ramirez.

The Dodgers failed to reach the NLCS that season. And when the 2014 season ended, Ned Colletti was out as general manager, Andrew Friedman was in as the president of baseball operations and the roster was dismantled, with Ramirez departing as a free agent, and Kemp and Gordon traded.

Three years later, here the Dodgers are again.

It’s possible some players will return next season as compromised versions of themselves. Clayton Kershaw and Justin Turner have plenty of mileage on them and had lengthy stretches on the disabled list. Seager played with an injured elbow that continues to bother him.

It’s also possible the trade market will never be as generous to them again. The Dodgers caught a massive break at the non-waiver trade deadline when they acquired Yu Darvish, a frontline starter, at a bargain price. The best prospect they traded to the Texas Rangers was Willie Calhoun, who never figured into the Dodgers’ long-term plans because of his defensive shortcomings.

As for the farm system, yes, the stockpiling of talent that started under Colletti and continues under Friedman is unquestionably a positive development. Seager and Bellinger are products of this long-term vision. Only the Dodgers aren’t alone. The Atlanta Braves, the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies have similar, if not superior, collections of talent and are looking to be in five years what the Chicago Cubs are now.

Perhaps most important, there are no assurances the team can again develop the self-belief that contributed to 47 comeback wins and 10 walk-off victories during this regular season. The team’s level of confidence was rare, even in the world of professional sports where the trait is necessary for survival.

Feelings like this come and go, and maybe they have already lost the magic.

Their late-season slump, during which they lost 16 of 17 games, was disconcerting. No World Series champion in history had ever lost so many games in so short a period, and there’s a reason for that. Championship teams have conviction and resolve that allows them to remedy problems.

Failure to win the World Series will lead to a close examination of how a team that was once on pace to set a single-season record for victories was the worst team in baseball for almost three weeks.

The guess here is that would result in some substantial changes, either in player personnel or in how the team is run.

As much as the front office likes to the point to the farm system and make a case that the Dodgers are positioned to be perennial World Series contenders for years to come, there is an urgency to win now.

This goes beyond baseball. The Dodgers have a chance to take back a city that has belonged to the Lakers for the last two decades.

Right now, the Dodgers are Los Angeles’ only major professional sports franchise that is viewed as a winner. But that is temporary. The Rams are making themselves part of the local sports conversation. The Lakers won’t be a lottery team forever.

The Rams and Lakers have one clear advantage over the Dodgers: Their games can be watched on television.

Dodgers broadcasts have been unavailable to the majority of local households for four years. Dodger Stadium has continued to attract more than 3.7 million fans annually during the market-wide television blackout, indicating fans have accepted the franchise’s controversial $8 billion deal with Spectrum as the price of fielding a winner.

However, fans won’t be as accepting of the situation if there are other identifiable winners in town. The Dodgers must find another method of distinguishing themselves.

Winning a World Series for the first time in 29 years would accomplish that.

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez

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