For a time, 2015 seemed like the year the Los Angeles Dodgers finally had things figured out. After four years of trying under the current ownership group, their magic formula for winning the World Series looked like it was on the right track.
In the end, however, the Dodgers find themselves going back to the drawing board yet again.
The Dodgers' 2015 season came to an end at the hands of the New York Mets on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium. A back-and-forth series gave way to a back-and-forth Game 5, and it was the Mets who emerged victorious by a 3-2 final. They're moving on to the National League Championship Series. The Dodgers are going home.
Oh, L.A. had its chances in Game 5.
Zack Greinke, he of the superb 1.66 regular-season ERA, gave the Dodgers a shot to win by allowing just three runs in six and two-thirds innings. And well before Jacob deGrom exited the game, the Dodgers had the Mets starter on the ropes early and often. When he gave up two runs on four straight hits in the first inning, it felt like Game 5 was going to turn into a Dodgers rout.
That, of course, didn't happen.
Though L.A. made plenty of noise against deGrom, he made some huge pitches to stifle further damage. Eventually, he held the Dodgers to just two hits in 13 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
Each failed opportunity took more and more energy out of the 54,602 fans packed into Dodger Stadium. By the time Daniel Murphy's line drive to right field cleared the fence for a go-ahead home run in the sixth inning, they almost seemed resigned to the team's fate.
Dodgers players, meanwhile, weren't able to summon much energy of their own. After starting the game with all sorts of fire-and-brimstone electricity, at a certain point the air was out of the balloon.
It should. What happened in Game 5 was essentially a microcosm of L.A.'s 2015 season. It seemed like the club couldn't be stopped early in the campaign, hitting its peak at 22-10 in mid-May. But from there, adversity got in the way, and the Dodgers roughed it to a good-not-great 92-70 record.
The bright side? That 92-70 was still good enough to win the team a third straight NL West title.
The not-so-bright side? Well, here's Jon Morosi of Fox Sports to sum it up:
To be more precise, Cot's Baseball Contracts put the Dodgers' Opening Day payroll at over $270 million. That was their third straight Opening Day payroll of at least $200 million, and there's no overlooking that the Dodgers had also spent a ton of money by the end of 2012 after Magic Johnson and his partners had taken over the team and promptly opened their wallets.
When you're throwing around this kind of money, you're demonstrating a rare case of when the phrase "championship or bust" actually applies. And so, figuring out the right path to the club's must-have title will once again be the Dodgers' mission this winter.
And as always, choosing the right path will require some dramatic decisions.
Lest anyone get too carried away, L.A. presumably isn't headed for another top-down overhaul. The dream front office that was put in place last year isn't going anywhere.
But the manager? Yeah, he might go.
Don Mattingly wasn't much interested in talking about his future as the manager of the Dodgers immediately after Game 5. You can take it from Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News, who was there:
It's understandable that Mattingly didn't want to answer that question then and there. But in the weeks to come, whether he's the right manager for the Dodgers is a question that will need answering.
And unlike in the last few years, this offseason the answer might finally be "no."
Mattingly hasn't had a bad run as the skipper of the Dodgers, racking up a 446-363 record in five campaigns at the helm. And as Jonah Keri of Grantland argued in June, Mattingly might deserve more credit than he's gotten for the work he's done.
However, there's also no ignoring that Mattingly was not hand-picked by president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi. There's also no ignoring that while the Dodgers haven't been bad under Mattingly's watch, he hasn't taken them as far as ownership has wanted to go in each of the last three seasons.
There's also the reality that Mattingly only has one year left on his contract. Rather than extend him or let him become a lame-duck manager, it won't be surprising if the Dodgers cut him loose.
If that's what happens, L.A. will find itself in the market for a new manager. That's a pretty big priority. But odds are it won't be the only one on its list.
The Dodgers don't stand to lose many key players to free agency, but two are veteran second baseman Howie Kendrick and steady left-hander Brett Anderson. And after the year he just had, it's more than likely that Greinke will opt out of the final three years of his contract and head out onto the open market.
Thus are the Dodgers likely to find themselves on the prowl for a second baseman and at least two starting pitchers. And certainly, anyone who's watched L.A.'s bullpen recently will know that building a stronger bridge to stud closer Kenley Jansen will once again be a priority.
All told, friends, the Dodgers probably won't have a short shopping list this winter.
But now for the good news. While an outlook like this would spell doom for quite a few teams...well, come on. These are the Dodgers we're talking about here.
In the event that they do part ways with Mattingly, it's hard to say whom they might go after to replace him. One thing that's certain, though, is that they would basically have a dream job to offer.
After all, the Dodgers are not a team that just failed at some kind of last hurrah with their loss to the Mets. Even with some of the uncertainty clouding their upcoming offseason, they're still built on a foundation fit for winning. Unlike a certain pinstriped team in New York, for example, the Dodgers' roster is not built upon broken down parts that are sucking up all the payroll.
L.A.'s roster will still be built around Clayton Kershaw and Jansen on the pitching side of things, with Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy poised to return from injury in 2016 and top prospect Julio Urias waiting in the wings. The club's lineup, meanwhile, has two veteran cornerstones in Adrian Gonzalez and Justin Turner, as well as two high-ceiling youngsters in Joc Pederson and Corey Seager. We also shouldn't forget what Yasiel Puig and Yasmani Grandal can do when healthy.
As for what the Dodgers can do to fill their assorted roster needs, well, that's not really the right question. With their assets, a better question is what can't they do?
If L.A. wants to respond to a possible Greinke opt-out by re-signing him, they should be able to do so. His salary coming off the books would lower the team's projected 2016 payroll to about $220 million, which is well short of where they're capable of climbing.
Apart from Greinke, the Dodgers will have other options to choose from to round out their rotation. Between David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Scott Kazmir, Yovani Gallardo and quite a few others, this winter's market is slated to have more than enough talented starting pitching.
As for what L.A. can do about second base, it could probably also re-sign Kendrick if it so chooses. If not, Friedman could use his Tampa Bay Rays connection to lure old friend Ben Zobrist. Worse comes to worst, the Dodgers could give the job to well-regarded prospect Jose Peraza.
As for the undying bullpen question mark, potential answers on the open market include Darren O'Day, Joakim Soria and Tyler Clippard. There's also usually plenty available on the trade market, with possible targets including Craig Kimbrel and Drew Storen.
So though the Dodgers may now be headed back to the drawing board, what they need to draw isn't a completely new blueprint. They'll only need to fill in the notable gaps, and they should have more than enough resources to do so.
The Dodgers are going to look different in 2016, to be sure. And once again, the pressure will be on them to finally turn all their big spending into an order for so many World Series rings at the end of the year.
It'll be the same old story. Except this time, maybe the Dodgers' magic formula will finally prove to be the right magic formula.
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