February 22, 2024

Dodgers don’t mind embracing title as villains of baseball: ‘Someone’s gotta be them’

LOS ANGELES — Spring training doesn’t start for another week. But, on Saturday at DodgerFest, Mookie Betts turned his attention to the upcoming World Series.

Not the actual World Series in the fall. But rather the daily dynamic that their team’s presence will bring to the opposition.

“Every game,” Betts told Spectrum SportsNet in an interview that quickly went viral, “is going to be the other team’s World Series. It is what it is.”

There is no doubt that the Los Angeles Dodgers’ frenetic spending this offseason has put a target on their backs. The Dodgers are baseball’s villains. Their decision to add Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Tyler Glasnow, Teoscar Hernández, James Paxton and Manuel Margot has improved a franchise that’s won 10 of the past 11 National League West crowns.

The Dodgers were going to be the hunted regardless. But, as Betts said, it’s put an even larger target on them. In a 162-game season where games and series don’t always carry significant stakes, Los Angeles will be up against that from March until the end of September.

“I just think it’s interesting,” said Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler. “Everybody says we can’t get it done, and then we get it done. And then we’re the villains because we went and got some good players.”

Buehler went on to note that this team wasn’t built solely on their willingness to write a check. Nearly half (19) of the players on their 40-man roster are homegrown, Buehler included.

While it is true that many of the Dodgers’ star players came via free agency, the roster has always been supplemented with homegrown talent.

“Believe me, I wish buying a championship meant we win a championship,” said first baseman Freddie Freeman, who’s heading into the third season of his six-year, $162 million free agent contract.

“But I think anyone in this game knows how hard it is to win a championship. I’m just glad our ownership gave us a chance to do it.”

The Dodgers have spent over $1.1 billion on payroll this year. That includes the $700 in mostly deferred money to Ohtani. If any team did buy a championship roster, it’s the Dodgers.

But they certainly aren’t going to apologize for it. While they might feel undeserving of the title of the game’s most hated team, they’ll embrace the infamy that comes along with it. And won’t apologize for the decision-making that went into it. As several noted on Saturday, this was always the Dodgers’ plan. It just happened to work out perfectly.

“For a market like this, yeah we’re going to sign some free agents,” said manager Dave Roberts. “But there’s still a lot of homegrown talent. (Emmet) Sheehan, (Bobby) Miller and (Gavin) Stone are going to be big for us this year. And obviously with (Gavin) Lux and Will Smith and (James) Outman, there are some guys that I’m proud to say are homegrown Dodgers.”

The Yankees have always held the “Evil Empire” moniker for their long history of success and propensity to spend money in pursuit of that purpose. But they’re entering their 15th year without a World Series. And their spot atop that stage has become saturated with more teams willing to embrace their strategy.

More teams and owners spending on players creates a healthy ecosystem in the game. It also highlights the disparity in how various teams approach roster building and maintaining competitiveness.

Los Angeles’ projected payroll is $295 million, according to FanGraphs. The Rays — where many of the Dodgers’ newest players used to call home — have a projected payroll less than one-third of that total.

“I don’t know, we don’t really pay much attention to that,” Dodgers GM Brandon Gomes said of his team’s budding reputation around the game. “All we can focus on is putting out the best possible team for our fans, who are the best in baseball. So we’re excited about what we added, and that’s what we’re focused on.”

Gomes was mostly dismissive of the premise. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to him or any of the Dodgers if they are good or bad for baseball. What does matter is that this franchise has consistently faltered in the postseason — they were outscored 19-6 in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ three-game sweep in 2023.

These moves to build a super team are in hopes of addressing those failures.

“How can you not go out there and try to get the best players possible,” said Lux. “Twenty-nine other teams could have done it. So I don’t see how it could be bad for baseball if everybody else could have done it.”

The shortstop added that he’s embracing their villain status, noting that “someone’s gotta be them.” But what comes through in his words is excitement. Regardless of perception, Dodgers players are appreciative to be a part of this.

Relief pitcher Evan Phillips is perhaps one of the least-known players on a roster full of household names. He saved 24 games last season and was one of the Dodgers’ most reliable arms. But still, he’s not Ohtani. He’s not Betts or Freeman. He’s a 29-year-old journeyman who’s found a solid home in Los Angeles.

Because of that, his experience and perspective are different. Phillips already understands that regardless of whether this team meets its expectations, he’ll have been a part of a roster that will live on simply because of the names that populate it.

“When I reflect on my career, this roster … there’s a lot of stars on this team,” Phillips said. “Hopefully it’s a memorable season that ends in a championship.”

(Photo of Mookie Betts: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)