Freddie Freeman begins his Los Angeles Dodgers career when he reports to spring training Friday, officially making the improbable possible. A Dodgers team that won 106 games in 2021 and led the National League in runs adds a player who hit .300 with 31 home runs.
“On paper, it’s a great ballclub, it’s a great ballclub. The lineup is good a lineup as I’ve ever seen,” manager Dave Roberts told reporters Thursday.
“He knows how to drive in runs. That’s an art form, not just something that happens overnight. When you add that into our lineup … whew … it could be a pretty ridiculous year for him,” said third baseman Justin Turner.
“I’m excited to have him. I know he’s going to be excited to be here. He has the personality that will fit into any clubhouse. That’s good. We have a position-player lineup of all All-Stars,” said pitcher Clayton Kershaw — with a huge smile.
Indeed, that description of a lineup of All-Stars isn’t an exaggeration. Remember “The Simpsons” baseball episode when Mr. Burns recruits a group of major league All-Stars to play for the Springfield nuclear power plant softball team? It aired in February 1992. Here are the OPS+ figures for that lineup from 1991:
C Mike Scioscia: 112
1B Don Mattingly: 103
2B Steve Sax: 110
3B Wade Boggs: 140
SS Ozzie Smith: 112
OF Darryl Strawberry: 140
OF Ken Griffey Jr.: 155
OF Jose Canseco: 157
Average OPS: 129 (not including Homer Simpson).
Here are the 2021 figures for the Dodgers:
Average OPS: 131. OK, we left off Cody Bellinger … but surely he will outhit Homer, right? (Don’t answer that question, Dodgers fans.)
The rotation includes Cy Young candidate Walker Buehler, 20-game winner Julio Urias and Kershaw. The bullpen had the second-best ERA in the majors last season. In the past 24 months, Andrew Friedman has acquired not just Freeman, but Mookie Betts and Trea Turner — three of the best, most exciting players in the sport (with a Max Scherzer rental thrown in). Some franchises haven’t acquired three players of that stature in the past five decades, let alone in a two-year span.
Will this be the best team of the Andrew Friedman era? That’s a tall order since the Dodgers won 104 games in 2017 and 106 in 2019 and 2021 — and might have won that many in 2020 as well if not for the COVID-shortened season.
Friedman took over as president of baseball operations after the 2014 season. The organization he inherited wasn’t exactly bereft of talent. The Dodgers had won consecutive NL West titles in 2013 and 2014, featured the reigning Cy Young and MVP winner in Kershaw, and Baseball America ranked the farm system No. 3 heading into 2015 with a group that included Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, Urias, Alex Verdugo and Bellinger. But Friedman also inherited an old team — the Dodgers were the second-oldest in the National League in 2014 — and an expensive one with some bad contracts.
Let’s look back at the Friedman era …
2015: 92-70, +72 run differential, lost NLDS to Mets
Strengths: Zack Greinke and Kershaw went a combined 35-10 with a 1.90 ERA and finished second and third in the Cy Young voting.
Weaknesses: Eighth in the NL in runs scored.
Speaking of expensive, this team ran a $297 million payroll — still the highest of the Friedman era, and $56 million more than any other 2015 team. Really, outside of Greinke and Kershaw, it was just a .500 club; they went 49-48 in games those two didn’t start and went home when Jacob deGrom outdueled Greinke in a 3-2 loss in Game 5 of the NLDS.
2016: 91-71, +87 run differential, lost NLCS to Cubs
Strengths: Seager won Rookie of the Year and he and Justin Turner finished in the top 10 of MVP voting, Kershaw went 12-4 with a 1.69 ERA, Kenley Jansen recorded 47 saves.
Weaknesses: 11th in the NL in batting average and OBP, only three starters made 20 starts.
Out with Don Mattingly and in with Dave Roberts as manager. Despite the addition of Seager, this was still a mediocre lineup, finishing seventh in the NL in runs scored. Friedman trimmed the payroll some $45 million, but some of the veteran contracts he inherited — Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier made over $61 million while producing a combined 0.7 WAR — made it difficult to maneuver. They ran into the powerful Cubs in the NLCS and lost in six games, hitting just .210 with four home runs in the series.
2017: 104-58, +190 run differential, lost World Series to Astros
Strengths: Cody Bellinger hit 39 home runs as a rookie, Kershaw and Wood combined to go 34-7 with a 2.50 ERA, Jansen posts 1.32 ERA with 41 saves; allowed fewest runs in NL.
Weaknesses: Lineup was 11th in NL in batting average, sixth in runs; rotation was lefty-heavy until they acquired Darvish.
The first powerhouse team of the Friedman era, even though there were no big signings or trades in the offseason. You might remember the historic 50-10 run from mid-June to late August that had them on pace to tie the major league record with 116 wins, only to immediately lose 16 of their next 17.
Taylor, obtained the previous summer in a minor deal, blossomed into a valuable super-utility guy and Bellinger gave the Dodgers their second straight Rookie of the Year winner with one of the best rookie seasons in history. Hyun-Jin Ryu returned from missing two seasons with injuries.
They cruised into the World Series before losing to the Astros when Jansen blew a ninth-inning lead in Game 2 and Darvish got rocked in both of his starts — and obviously what we know about the Astros now vs. at the time has changed significantly.
2018: 92-71, +194 run differential, lost World Series to Red Sox
Major moves: Acquired Max Muncy (actually signed in 2017) and Matt Kemp; acquired Manny Machado and Brian Dozier in-season.
Strengths: Led the NL in both runs scored (first time for a Dodgers team since 1978) and fewest runs allowed.
Weaknesses: Seager missed most of the season after Tommy John surgery, second base was a black hole, Jansen allowed 13 home runs, no starter qualified for the ERA title.
This was a strange season. The Dodgers had the same dominant run differential as the season before, but underperformed their expected win total by 11 and needed rookie Walker Buehler to beat the Rockies in a Game 163 tiebreaker to win the NL West.
Muncy, signed as a minor league free agent in 2017, was the big surprise and team MVP after hitting 35 home runs with .973 OPS. They hit just .180 in a five-game World Series loss to the Red Sox and Jansen, who had struggled with the longball all season, blew two saves on eighth-inning home runs.
2019: 106-56, +273 run differential, lost NLDS to Nationals
Major moves: Signed A.J. Pollock and Joe Kelly.
Strengths: Once again led the NL in runs scored and fewest runs allowed as they produced the best run differential by an NL team since the 1944 Cardinals. Bellinger won NL MVP honors (.305/.406/.629, 47 home runs) and Ryu (14-5, 2.32 ERA) finished second in Cy Young voting.
Weaknesses: Jansen’s 3.71 ERA was a career-worst as he blew eight saves in 41 chances.
In the year of the juiced ball, the Dodgers pounded their opponents with an NL-record 279 home runs. Thanks to the plentiful riches of the farm system, Friedman managed to make his team both younger and less expensive through the years. The only regular position players older than 30 were Pollock and Justin Turner and after posting the highest payroll in the majors each season from 2013 to 2017, the 2019 Dodgers ranked fourth — $93 million below that 2015 figure. That’s an executive for an owner to love.
Unfortunately, it all went for naught in the first round of the playoffs, when Roberts’ understandable lack of trust in Jansen led to the fateful decision to use Kershaw in relief in Game 5. He blew a 3-1 lead and then Kelly lost it in the 10th.
2020: 43-17, +136 run differential, won World Series
Major moves: Acquired Mookie Betts (and signed him to a long-term contract), signed Blake Treinen.
Strengths: Most runs scored in the NL, fewest runs allowed. Betts finished second in the MVP voting.
Weaknesses: Does it count if it was a 60-game season?
Friedman’s increased payroll flexibility and continued development of the farm system allowed him to make the biggest blockbuster deals of his tenure: Acquiring Betts from the Red Sox and later signing him to a 12-year, $365 million extension.
We’ll never know if this could have been one of the all-time great teams. That plus-136 run differential prorates to plus-367 over 162 games and their 43-17 record to 116-46, which would match the 2001 Mariners for most in a 162-game season.
The peculiarities of the schedule (the Dodgers faced only NL West and AL teams) and the expanded rosters allowed the Dodgers to utilize their pitching depth in both the regular season and postseason in ways they otherwise wouldn’t have, but also didn’t serve as the truest of tests. It was a championship season … but we all know it wasn’t quite the same as doing it over a 162-game slate.
2021: 106-56, +269 run differential, lost NLCS to Braves
Major moves: Signed Trevor Bauer; acquired Max Scherzer and Trea Turner at the trade deadline.
Strengths: The Dodgers led the NL in runs and fewest runs allowed for an incredible fourth straight season. Buehler and Urias combined to go 36-7 and Scherzer went 7-0 with a 1.98 ERA in 11 starts.
Weaknesses: Bellinger hit .165, Bauer missed the final three months while on administrative leave due to sexual assault allegations, untimely injuries.
The Giants won 107 games, snapping the Dodgers’ streak of NL West titles at eight in a row. Not only did the Dodgers enter the postseason at less than full strength — Muncy and Kershaw got hurt the final weekend of the season and missed October — but Scherzer came up with a dead arm after Roberts used him to close out the final game of the NLDS against the Giants. Dodgers fans will always wonder what might have happened if Roberts had played Game 5 against the Giants more conventionally rather than using Scherzer — Jansen had rebounded to have his best season since 2017 and deserved more faith from his manager.
The Dodgers might not end their offseason with Freeman. Bauer remains on administrative leave, so it’s possible they still look to add to the rotation — although the current estimated payroll of $280 million would be the highest since 2015 (the Dodgers can afford it). The amazing thing is the Dodgers actually have a lot of payroll flexibility moving forward: Only Freeman, Betts and Taylor are signed beyond 2023, although players like Buehler and Urias are starting to get expensive and the Dodgers will want to lock them up long term.
The farm system has thinned out via graduation and trades, although the organization’s player development remains as good as any team. Friedman probably looks back and regrets two trades from years ago: trading away prospects Yordan Alvarez and Oneil Cruz for relief pitchers.
The Dodgers have money, they have depth, they now have Freddie Freeman. What they don’t have is a World Series title in a normal season. That would make this the best team of the Friedman era.