Friday, July 19

Rosenthal: Dodgers need to sign Ohtani and do more to change the narrative

If you’re a Los Angeles Dodgers fan, how exactly are you going to get fired up about the 2024 regular season?

Two words: Shohei Ohtani. Yet, even if the Dodgers sign the two-way superstar as a free agent, they would not be assured of a different outcome in October.

No matter. The Dodgers essentially took last offseason off while waiting for Ohtani to hit the open market. Now, after another crushing October disappointment, they need to change the narrative.

Their biggest need is starting pitching. Ohtani will not pitch next season while recovering from elbow surgery. Even if his only task initially is to replace J.D. Martinez at designated hitter, he will not dramatically improve a Dodgers offense that just scored 900 runs for the first time in 70 years.

Ohtani, 29, also will not be the answer to the Dodgers’ postseason woes. Not if he hits in the playoffs the way Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman did in going a combined 1-for-21 against the Arizona Diamondbacks. And not if the Dodgers fail to adequately address a 2024 rotation that presently includes only one proven starter: Walker Buehler, who will be coming off his second Tommy John surgery.

Strictly from the standpoint of team building, the above points are quite relevant. But the Dodgers this offseason cannot simply be concerned with simple roster construction. For all their regular-season success, if ever a franchise needs to give their fans a reason to stay engaged, it’s this one.

If you’re a Dodgers fan, you’re still likely to buy tickets to see Betts, Freeman and Co. next season, even if president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman does nothing. The Dodgers have led the league in attendance for each of the past 10 full seasons. Their average attendance of 47,371 this season was the highest in the majors by more than 7,000.

Then again, if you’re a Dodgers fan, you’re probably experiencing just a bit of October fatigue.

Your team has made the playoffs each of the past 11 years, yet secured a World Series title only in the shortened 2020 campaign.

Your team has won 100 or more games in each of the past four full seasons, yet advanced past the Division Series only once.

Your team, based on a comparison of regular-season records, has suffered three of the six biggest upsets in postseason history in the last three years!

That’s … a lot.

One can rationalize the true test of a franchise is its ability to build teams capable of repeatedly dominating the 162-game regular season, which the Dodgers have done.

One can rationalize that, in an era when teams play at least three and sometimes four rounds of playoffs, a team needs considerable luck to win the World Series.

One can rationalize in any number of ways, but many Dodgers fans will not want to hear it. Their team is this generation’s version of the 1990s and early 2000s Atlanta Braves, who won 14 straight division titles but only one World Series, in a 1995 season reduced by a player’s strike to 144 games. And really, enough is enough.

Clayton Kershaw was the Dodgers’ most expensive signing, for one year, $20 million. Noah Syndergaard, one of the season’s bigger busts, was next, for one year, $13 million. Then came Martinez, for one year, $10 million, and a few lesser moves, including one, Jason Heyward, that worked out quite well.

Friedman’s additions at the deadline (Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, Amed Rosario, Kiké Hernández) were mostly meh, though Eduardo Rodríguez’s rejection of a trade from the Detroit Tigers to the Dodgers deprived the team of a potential difference-maker. The thin trade market foreshadowed what will be a relatively thin free-agent market. But the Dodgers surely know they cannot exercise restraint for a second straight winter, and rely on all of their young pitchers to mature at once.

Dave Roberts will very likely get votes for NL Manager of the Year. (Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

Manager Dave Roberts will be a topic of discussion, as he often is after playoff disappointments, but this one isn’t on him. After coaxing 100 wins out of this team, Roberts almost certainly will get votes from the baseball writers for NL Manager of the Year, perhaps even be a finalist.

In the end, Kershaw’s bum shoulder, combined with injuries to Buehler, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin and the absence of Julio Urias, left the team’s rotation too vulnerable. Urías, the team’s Opening Day starter, was charged with a domestic violence felony after a physical altercation with his wife in early September. Major League Baseball placed him on paid administrative leave, and he missed the rest of the season.

The free agent who makes the most sense for the Dodgers, and every other club, is Japanese right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who will hit the market at 25. But Blake Snell, a pitcher the Rays drafted under Friedman, also will be available. Ditto for Aaron Nola and Sonny Gray, among others.

Kershaw’s uncertain status further increases the urgency to bolster the rotation, and Ohtani actually fits into that plan, if not for ‘24, then perhaps beyond. Ohtani is not a sure thing coming off a second Tommy John surgery, and that surely will complicate his market. But his work ethic is impeccable. His character seems to be as well. The offense he will provide, along with the marketing boost, still makes him a perfect fit.

This is about winning, yes, but the Dodgers have proven quite proficient at that. Even if they fail to sign Ohtani, they again should be the team to beat in the NL West. Well, been there, done that, for pretty much a decade and counting. No one should diminish Friedman’s accomplishments. But fans can be forgiven for wanting more.

Ohtani would provide not just the steak, but also the sizzle. And maybe, come October, the dessert fans are craving, too.

(Top photo of Shohei Ohtani and Mookie Betts: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)