As the cliché goes, hope springs eternal on Opening Day, when every team believes — or at least hopes — that this is its year. But in Los Angeles, the start of the new baseball season brings as much desperation as optimism.
Star pitcher Clayton Kershaw and company came within one win of a World Series title last fall. But they fell short in Game 7, continuing the franchise’s championship drought that has now spanned a full three decades.
Thirty seasons doesn’t match the futility of the Cleveland Indians’ 69-year streak — still, L.A. won its last ring in 1988: just two years after the New York Mets’ most recent title. Only sustained competitiveness has spared the Dodgers from the ridicule the Mets receive almost every season, but when push comes to shove, it has been an almost equally long time since the Commissioner’s Trophy was in Chavez Ravine and Queens.
Fortunately for L.A. fans, it really does feel like the end of the drought is imminent: Dave Roberts’ squad enters 2018 as the defending National League champion coming off a 104-win campaign. The Dodgers boast a roster full of players entering or in the thick of their prime. Reigning Rookie of the Year first baseman Cody Bellinger is one of many studs in a stacked lineup, while perennial Cy Young/MVP contender Kershaw headlines an equally strong rotation. Oh, and Kenley Jansen — likely the best closer in the league — anchors the bullpen.
On the other hand, it’s easy to forget in retrospect how unlikely last year’s run to the Fall Classic really was. OK, I guess you can’t call it “unlikely” when the franchise with the highest payroll in baseball (by $30 million) wins a pennant. But I’m sure plenty remember the state of the Dodgers the day Bellinger made his big-league debut. About a month into the season, L.A. was floundering below .500 with an impotent offense — then the rookie sensation kick-started his team to the best record in the majors.
Now the Dodgers need Bellinger to avoid a sophomore slump and continue blossoming into one of the game’s top power hitters. Likewise, they will hope Chris Taylor isn’t a flash in the pan. Roberts got 22 home runs and 17 stolen bases from the utilityman, who had batted .230 in 120 career games across three seasons before hitting .288 in 140 contests last year. Matt Kemp is the team’s opening-day left fielder, and it remains to be seen how the 33-year-old will perform in his second go-around with L.A. after being unceremoniously dealt to San Diego in a salary dump in 2014.
There are question marks in the pitching staff, too, mostly due to personnel turnover. Yu Darvish’s rough World Series was a bitter final memory, but he was a valuable asset down the stretch in 2017 and will be missed after penning a deal with the Chicago Cubs. The bridge to Jansen got weaker over the offseason as well: Brandon Morrow also jumped ship to the Cubs in pursuit of a closing gig, and Tony Watson signed with the archrival Giants. The Dodgers acquired southpaw Scott Alexander from Kansas City to help fill the void, but they will largely lean on the likes of Josh Fields and Tony Cingrani to step into bigger roles this season.
None of these problems sre insurmountable. And no team in the league is without weakness and uncertainty. L.A.’s depth was one of its greatest strengths in 2017, and that will undoubtedly roll over to pay dividends in 2018. Another deep postseason run seems a near certainty, but in baseball, you can never be sure of anything.
That makes capitalizing on the Dodgers’ current rise all the more important. Though it appears as if Bellinger and shortstop Corey Seager will make up the franchise’s core for many years to come, it’s hard to imagine a title run becoming more likely once Kershaw hangs up his spikes.
Going into his age-30 season, the ace isn’t anywhere near retirement, but he is entering the twilight of his prime. Right now, Kershaw can single-handedly compensate for a host of issues in the offense, starting rotation and bullpen, and most importantly, it seems like he has exorcised his postseason demons, making him even more invisible than he already was.
Last October proved that L.A.’s championship window is open wider than it has been in decades. Though they couldn’t quite win it all then, the Dodgers can’t pity themselves for the blown leads in Game 2 and Game 5. The only way to erase those memories is to return to the Fall Classic and go one better. But a sense of urgency is imperative: The window can shut as abruptly as it flies open — just ask the Mets.
Ollie Jung is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Jung Money,” runs Fridays.