The Los Angeles Dodgers, pre-season favorites according to most baseball analysts and experts, are currently in first place in the NL West and have the best record in baseball after beating the Arizona Diamondbacks in a two game opening series in Australia. Significantly, this year the Dodgers have passed the New York Yankees in payroll, making them the highest paid team in baseball. For the Dodgers, who lost in the NLCS last year to the St. Louis Cardinals, the pressure to win this year is strong, and made stronger by an aggressive new ownership committed to doing whatever it can financially to make the Dodgers win.
The Dodgers are in a pennant drought that, by the standards of their team, is historic. Between 1941 and 1988, the Dodgers represented the National League in the World Series fully one third of the time. Even in the decades preceding 1941, the Dodgers occasionally won the pennant. However, since 1988, a period of more than 25 years the Dodgers have not made it back to the World Series. For many of these years they were not bad, finishing over .500 19 times and making it as far as the NLCS thrice.
The Dodgers are a very good team this year. Their starting pitching, led by the game's best pitcher Clayton Kershaw, as well as other standouts such as Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Greinke is excellent. Their bullpen, in this age of deep bullpens is certainly good enough. Their lineup should be among the best in the league despite question marks at second base and catcher. The Dodgers are favorites for a reason, but as with all favorites, things could go wrong.
Teams that spend a lot of money are almost always older teams; the Dodgers are not an exception. Yasiel Puig is the only significant offensive contributor who will be under 30 this year. Second baseman Dee Gordon will be 26, but he has not distinguished himself offensively during parts of his last three seasons with the team. Additionally, key players like Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez have lost large amounts of time to injuries over the last few years. It is not hard to see how age and injuries could become a problem for this team over the course of the season. Puig was one of the best and most exciting players in baseball last year, but has already begun to clash with Dodger manager Don Mattingly. This may amount to nothing, but if this conflict leads to a poor season by Puig, the Dodgers chances will suffer accordingly.
The Dodgers are also heavily dependent on three players, Kershaw, Puig and Ramirez who combined for more than WAR in 2013, a number that is more significant than it seems because Puig and Ramirez combined for only 190 games. If any of these players do not perform as well as they did in 2013, something that is a particular concern given Kershaw's very recent injury related issues, the Dodgers could very quickly reveal themselves a surprisingly lacking in depth.
These are the kinds of problems all teams face; similar narrative, identifying potential pitfalls, could be crafted for all contending teams. The Dodgers however, like the team they have just passed for highest payroll in the game, tare trying to build a champion by investing heavily in highly paid veterans either through trades or free agency, at a time when the rest of baseball is moving in a different direction. This means that if they fail to win this year, the Dodgers will have few options but to invest in more free agents and expensive veterans in a market where there are fewer top level free agents every year. However, acquiring more expensive and aging veterans through free agency or trades is not a good strategy for an already old team.
The Dodgers are a good team that narrowly missed the World Series last year and has a good chance to get at least that far again, but there are no guarantees and much that could go wrong for the team between now and October. They have become a contender through strong international signings, a farm system that has developed one of the very best players in the game, but most significantly an ability to take on contracts like those of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez that other teams do not want, and by signing free agents as needed. This is the model that the Yankees began to use after their 1996-2000 run, with mixed results. The Dodgers are employing that same strategy in a much more difficult context. They could get a few breaks and win it all as the Yankees did in 2009, but those eight years from 2001-2008, when the Yankees missed every year and kept spending more money on free agents could well be a more likely scenario for the Dodgers.