Column: Dodgers need to focus on truths rather than beliefs this offseason
During most of the last seven championship seasons, the Dodgers built their team around three unwavering beliefs:
Clayton Kershaw is unhittable, Kenley Jansen is invincible and their homegrown talent is untouchable.
Those beliefs have guided them to hundreds of victories, numerous champagne celebrations, two appearances in the World Series and one victory from a championship.
Those beliefs also have ridden them into ruin.
They have snatched losses out of October victories, drained Dodger Stadium of October magic and ultimately deadened a city with seven straight ugly October ejections.
In the wake of a fourth consecutive October boot by the eventual World Series champion, the Dodgers need to cast aside those beliefs and face their future with three new truths.
The truth is Kershaw is no longer your ace. He is best suited to pitch third in the rotation, and that leaves a glaring hole that can be filled only with the acquisition of a top starting pitcher to pair with Walker Buehler. (Gerrit Cole, are you reading?)
The truth is Jansen is no longer your slam-the-door closer. He must at least share those duties, and that provides the mandate to add bullpen pieces that can produce another closer.
And the truth is not all of your homegrown position players have matured into dudes who thrive in October, so if you need to trade Corey Seager or Joc Pederson to acquire a right-handed batter, do it.
Cody Bellinger received his first Gold Glove nod on Sunday for his play in right field.
The Dodgers’ biggest need this offseason isn’t a change in their roster, it’s a change in their belief system. Without these new acceptances, they cannot take new steps. Without a change in the story line, they cannot change the ending.
Kershaw will be forever slumped on the dugout bench, Jansen will be forever staring back over the outfield wall, Seager will be endlessly striking out, and strangers will be eternally celebrating on the middle of your field.
Andrew Friedman called this October’s sudden exit “heartbreaking,” and after five consecutive heartbreaks under his watch, here’s hoping the baseball boss is finally willing to challenge some of his Dodgers gospel.
They have the money; their payroll projects to be under the competitive balance tax. They have the trade chips; the organization has never been better stocked. Now they must rework their perspective to reshape the team.
“I think we have depth to make trades, I think we have financial flexibility,” Friedman told reporters at his season-ending news conference. “I think that’s a really good position to be in.”
Their position starts with the realities of Kershaw. He will be 32 next season, his earned-run average has climbed the last four summers, and his legacy is stuck on those stubborn October blues.
Even though he finished 16-5 with a 3.03 ERA this season, he’s not the same pitcher he once was. And he’s certainly not a pitcher to be completely trusted in the postseason, with his 4.43 ERA and so many predictable meltdowns.
The Dodgers surely know it. Now they need to act on it. The loyalty they showed by bringing out Kershaw in the eighth inning of a National League Division Series Game 5 with the Washington Nationals? That has to end, now.
After his two-pitch debacle against the Nationals, some of you — maybe many of you — would be fine if the Dodgers traded him. Forget it. It’s hard to imagine them ever trading Kershaw unless he demands it. But they can no longer build their pitching staff around him, and they certainly cannot blink about spending big money to find an arm to fill his top-of-the-rotation void.
Sometimes you’re the buzz saw. Sometimes you run into it. The Dodgers had a great season, but the World Series champion Nationals are a team that wasn’t a favorite.
“I think Kersh is not the same exact pitcher he was three years ago,” Friedman acknowledged, but added, “I still think he had a really good year.”
He continued: “I can’t remember feeling better about any one player than Kershaw in terms of how much he cares, how much he prepares and how much he pours into it.”
So, no, Kershaw is not going anywhere. But he does need to be taken off the pedestal so someone else can join Buehler there.
As for Jansen, well, Friedman pretty much said what everyone has been thinking. This is one belief that the Dodgers are ready to shed.
“I’m excited of what he’s capable of next year and feel like he’ll be a big part of us winning games,” Friedman said. “Exactly what that role is, I don’t know right now.”
The team’s new perception of Jansen was cemented when he didn’t enter Game 5 of the NLDS until the outcome was decided. But before that, the Dodgers seemingly spent the entire season afraid to acquire another closer because they didn’t want to make Jansen feel threatened.
That can’t happen again. It never should have happened in the first place. If they had another closer, the Game 5 implosion doesn’t occur. If they had another closer, neither Kershaw nor Joe Kelly would be pitching in those high-leverage situations.
Paying big money for the back of the bullpen is not always the best investment, as the Dodgers proved last offseason when they gave $25 million to Kelly. Maybe this offseason they don’t necessarily need to sign a free agent like Will Smith. But they need to rework the bullpen so there are enough viable arms that somebody other than Jansen can prove worthy of taking the mound in the ninth inning.
Finally, there is the issue of the kids. It might be time to pull some off the apron strings.
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Before Kershaw’s Game 5 gopher balls, the defining scene of that series with the Nationals was Seager striking out with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of a 4-2 Dodgers loss in Game 2. Seager batted .150 in the series. He has a .203 postseason average and has never conquered impatience at the plate.
The stalling of Seager’s injury-riddled career matches the frustration in Pederson’s career, which features a .239 postseason average despite seven postseason home runs.
The left-handed-hitting Pederson has hit 114 of his 123 home runs against right-handed pitchers, including all 36 last season. Like Seager, who had 19 home runs and 87 runs batted in, he’s a great guy to have around, but if the Dodgers can get a powerful right-handed hitter in a trade for either or both of them, that would be a deal worth considering.
No matter who is shipped out, expect the Dodgers to bring in a right-handed bat this offseason because Friedman wasn’t thrilled with another postseason bust by the left-handed-heavy lineup. The Dodgers had a .220 average and .303 on-base percentage against the Nationals.
Friedman thought he found the answer last offseason when he signed right-handed-hitting A.J. Pollock, who produced 11 strikeouts in 13 hitless postseason at-bats. Friedman is going to have to try again.
“It definitely fell short of my hopes in terms of how the team offense would kind of adapt and tackle the difficulties of October pitching,” Friedman said. “I think hopefully it’s another one of those areas we can focus on this offseason.”
Adapt and tackle. For a Dodgers front office facing another offseason of reckoning, that sounds like a plan.
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