Underdog Dodgers? LA in uncharted territory after quiet winter

PHOENIX — Look around the Los Angeles Dodgers clubhouse at Camelback Ranch, and there are stars everywhere you turn. 

There are three Most Valuable Player award winners in Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman. The room is filled with 13 All-Stars. 

There’s manager Dave Roberts, who has the best winning percentage of any manager with at least 1,000 games. 

There’s president Andrew Friedman, perhaps the finest executive in the game. 

There are nine division titles, three National League pennants and a World Series championship trophy sitting in their trophy case from the last 10 years. 

OFFSEASON GRADES: How did your team fare this winter?

They have won at least 104 games in four of the last five full seasons, including a franchise-record 111 victories last season. 

And yet here they are, dismissed like a Toyota Corolla in a National League parking lot full of Mercedes. 

The Dodgers no longer are baseball’s Shangri-La, overshadowed by the free-spending San Diego Padres in the West, and the New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta in the East. 

The Dodgers led the league in payroll the past two seasons, but decided to keep costs down this winter by spending just $44.5 million in free agency – and folks believe they have morphed into the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

It’s as if they spent the winter shopping at Walmart while everyone else hung out at Oscar de la Renta, letting free agents Trea Turner, Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger and Tyler Anderson walk and replacing them with bargain-basement deals for Noah Syndergaard, J.D. Martinez, David Peralta, Jason Heyward, Alex Reyes and Shelby Miller. 

How quickly they forget. 

“It’s just the nature of the beast,’’ Kershaw tells USA TODAY Sports. “I think the people that make the biggest splashes in the offseason have the most excitement coming into spring training. It just so happens that we usually are those guys doing that. 

“It is a little bit of a different perspective for us this spring training, which may not be a bad thing.’’ 

The Dodgers may still be be a juggernaut, but when you don’t know who will be your starting center fielder or closer, have questions at three infield positions and must rely on unproven pitchers for depth in the rotation, it’s easy to see why the Padres are considered the darlings of the West. 

The Dodgers, for the first time in a decade, back in the days when Frank McCourt nearly ran the organization into bankruptcy, may no longer be the overwhelming favorites to win the division.

“I don’t mind it,’’ Roberts says. “I think that the smartest people in the room know that you don’t win a postseason in the winter. So, a lot of teams are getting a lot of [attention], which is great, but I know our guys believe we still have a good ballclub.’’ 

Roberts doesn’t plan to come out and boldly predict the Dodgers will win the World Series like a year ago, but if you ask him, he still believes they’ll be the last ones standing. 

“I think the expectations might be more tempered in the media or the industry,’’ Roberts says, “but I don’t think the players or anyone else in the organization doesn’t expect us to be the champions.’’ 

The Dodgers will tell you they are more amused than angered by the disrespect. 

You want to count ‘em out, feel free. 

Just don’t expect to be invited back on the bandwagon when the Dodgers are rolling all summer. 

“It makes no difference to me,’’ catcher Will Smith says. “We still feel like we have the best team in baseball. We don’t really focus on any other team but ourselves.’’ 

Indeed, there are players in the Dodgers clubhouse who avoid uttering that dirty word: Padres.

“It’s kind of comical,’’ veteran reliever Blake Treinen says. “It’s interesting that when you think of teams that are successful year in and year out, people are looking for a way to crave new attention. You know the teams. At the end of the day, it’s all what happens on the field. 

“The way they handle things in LA, you can never count out the Dodgers, not with all of the great players and all of the talent in this clubhouse. There’s a lot of good teams out there, but at the end of the day it comes down to health, talent, and luck. 

“We’re going to be fine, just fine.’’ 

The Dodgers still have one of the best farm systems in baseball and can trade whatever assets they want at the trade deadline, but they also have some tricks up their sleeve – like Syndergaard. 

The way he looks this spring, with his velocity jumping back up to 96-mph and higher, he could turn out to be the free-agent pickup of the year for just $13 million. 

“The Dodgers are the best at player development,’’ Syndergaard says, “and turn guys around. I know I have a lot left in the tank, and there’s a lot to unlock. Last year, I went out and competed (10-10, 3.94 ERA) by most standards, but it wasn’t up to my standard of performance. I want to dominate, not just get by. I want to thrive, not just survive. 

“I feel completely different. Just being here, this aura, this vibe, this kind of swagger with the culture, it inspires all of us.’’ 

And, yes, a little chip on those broad shoulders doesn’t hurt, either. 

“We never really cared when we were the subjective favorite,’’ Kershaw said, “and we really don’t care that we’re not now. I think with [the Padres] getting their attention, it’s just a different vibe. 

“That might not necessarily be a bad thing.’’ 

Kershaw broke into an expansive grin. No further words were necessary.  

In loving memory

Center fielder Bernie Williams delighted New York Yankee fans for 16 years, winning four World Series championships, becoming a five-time All-Star, and having his plaque in Monument Park. 

He has had a brilliant music as a jazz guitarist, and has been nominated for a Grammy award. 

He still assists the Yankees today, and will be a guest instructor this spring. 

But perhaps his greatest satisfaction in life is honoring his late father, Bernabe Williams Sr., who died May 14, 2001, by raising awareness for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. 

“It was devastating,’’ Williams told USA TODAY Sports. “He became a shell of what he was. The disease ate him alive. He was drowning every day from it and ultimately died from it. 

“He never complained, always had a positive outlook, and had so much dignity to the end. I could not have possibly had a better father. I think about him every single day, and I knew the best thing I could do was give back one day.’’ 

Here he is now, raising awareness for the deadly disease with the Tune in to Lung Health campaign. 

If his father had been made aware of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, it just might have saved his life. 

“It was so devastating to see what my dad went through,’’ Williams said, “I don’t want to see it happen to anyone. I just want to educate people and gets a diagnosis because it’s so often misdiagnosed as a cough or asthma or something. 

“There were so many misdiagnoses with my dad. He had this dry cough, and he was always fatigued. We thought it was a bad cold that became bronchitis or asthma or pneumonia. It turns out he was misdiagnosed for five years.’’ 

Williams’ hero was his father. He was there playing catch and throwing batting practice to Bernie growing up in Puerto Rico. He was at all of Bernie’s World Series games, celebrating with him in the clubhouse and riding on the parade floats. And he was there playing and singing to his sons, teaching Bernie how to play the guitar and his younger brother, Hiram, the cello. 

“I remember him buying a guitar and bringing it home one day,’’ Williams said. “We would sit around and listen to him play for hours. He got me interested in music, showing how important music and art is, and helped me become who I am today.’’ 

Today, that music is being used for patients battling pressure, anxiety and depression from the disease, while also assisting in breathing techniques. 

“It wasn’t until this campaign came along that I got to re-live a lot of those emotions and feelings,’’ Williams says, “and process them in a way that’s healthy. The great part, the byproduct of this, is helping other people. This means everything to me. 

“As a baseball player, you never get the sense on what impact you can make on a daily basis. Here, I have the opportunity to see the impact of what we are doing for people. 

“It’s such a rewarding experience.’’ 

Around the basepaths

– Just how far apart are All-Star third baseman Manny Machado and the San Diego Padres in their contract extension talks? 

Would you believe a whopping $145 million? 

Yes, really. 

The Padres offered Machado a five-year, $105 million extension this week. The contract would begin in 2029, keeping his original 10-year, $300 million deal intact. Machado has five years and $150 million remaining after this season. 

Machado is  seeking a 10-year, $400 million extension that would begin in 2024, opting out of his original contract after this season. 

That would take him to the age of 41, the same age the Padres are paying shortstop Xander Bogaerts and the Philadelphia Phillies are giving shortstop Trea Turner in their new deals. 

If the Padres don’t pay it, well, don’t think for a second that someone like the New York Mets or Yankees or San Francisco Giants or the Chicago Cubs will hesitate. 

“There’s a lot of money out there,’’ Machado says. “A lot of money. These owners are making a lot of money, and we’re bringing a lot of money too. … We’re having a good time and filling up the seats. It’s about business. These are things that happen. 

“The market has changed from when I signed five years ago. It’s changed tremendously. Things change and evolve. And as a player that’s about to opt out, it’s pretty good to see.” 

– It was going to cost $200,000 for Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw to be insured to play in the World Baseball Classic because of past back injuries. There is a behind-the-scenes movement to reduce the insurance policy to $160,000, with Kershaw willing to pay part of the policy himself, but it’s unlikely that MLB and the Dodgers would cover the rest. 

– Friends close to Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Julio Urias, frustrated by the pitch limits that the organization has set throughout his career, are convinced that he’ll depart as a free agent after the season. 

– Phillies owner John Middleton is absolutely beloved in Philadelphia, and is making it perfectly clear to their fanbase that he wants the Phillies to be remembered as one of the greatest teams in baseball history. 

“My goal,’’ Middleton told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “is that we create a team that, 100 years from now, when people ask the question, ‘What are the greatest teams in the history of baseball,’ the Phillies are in the conversation.” 

The Phillies have spent more than $1 billion in free-agent signings since the 2018-2019 offseason and have a franchise-record $244 million payroll entering this spring – fourth-largest in baseball. 

“If my legacy is that I didn’t lose any money owning a baseball team on an annual operating basis, that’s a pretty sad legacy. It’s about putting trophies in the cases. … 

“The day I wake up and I’m not thinking about what we can do to make ourselves the best team in baseball history, I’m retiring. I’m walking away. I’m really not interested in anything else.” 

– The Angels are cautiously optimistic that third baseman Anthony Rendon, who has been one of baseball’s biggest free-agent busts, will bounce back this season. 

Rendon, 32, who signed a seven-year, $245 million contract three years ago, has missed 219 games the last two seasons. He has hit just 20 homers with 89 RBI since his arrival, after hitting 34 homers with a league-leading 126 RBI in his final season with the Washington Nationals. 

“He’s certainly hearing the noise from a lot of people, and you can hear it in his voice, the way he talks that he’s ready to prove those guys wrong,’’ Angels manager Phil Nevin says. “I will not be shocked if he comes out and he’s playing all of the time, he’s fine, back being Anthony Rendon, and the injuries are behind him. … 

“He says he feels as great as he has in a long time. Our conversations this winter have been really good. Our workouts, he hasn’t missed anything. He’s ready to go. He’s excited. He’s at an age where he’s got a lot left, peak left. And he feels that way.’’ 

– Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts, 30, who still has 10 years remaining on his 12-year, $365 million contract, likely will end his career at second base, manager Dave Roberts predicts. 

“We have so much depth on the infield now, I don’t see it happening this year,’’ Roberts says, “but as Father Time takes it toll, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mookie play the last four years of his career at second base.’’ 

– The Phillies are trying to sign ace Aaron Nola to a contract extension before opening day. He’s eligible for free agency after the season. 

– Houston Astros GM Dana Brown informed agent Scott Boras that they want to make infielders Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman “Astros for life,’’ with extensions. They each are eligible for free agency after the 2024 season. 

– Dan Lozano and the MVP Sports Group was the big winner of the arbitration hearings this month by going 4-1, the most victories by an agency in arbitration history. 

Miami Marlins second baseman Luis Arraez: $6.1 million (Win) Marlins starter Jesus Luzardo: $2.45 million (Win) Los Angeles Angels infielder Luis Rengifo: $2.3 million (Win). Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Harold Ramirez: $2.2 million (Win) Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Josh Rojas: $2.575 million (Loss) Houston Astros starter Cristian Javier: five-years, $64 million (Settlement) 

– The biggest loser of the arbitration hearings were the Milwaukee Brewers, who angered Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes in their hearing, insinuating that the was the reason they missed the playoffs. 


The dude went 12-8 with a 2.94 ERA, and struck out a league-leading 243 batters. 

“There’s no denying that the relationship is definitely hurt from what [transpired] over the last couple weeks,’’ Burnes told reporters. “There’s really no way of getting around that …They basically put me at the forefront of the reason why we didn’t make the postseason last year. That’s something that probably doesn’t need to be said, we can go about a hearing without having to do that.’’ 

– The Scottsdale, Ariz., stadium stands at Salt River Fields were filled by scouts representing every team in baseball on Friday watching Tennessee Vols ace Chase Dollander, the potential No. 1 pick in this summer’s amateur draft. 

The game was so hyped that San Diego Padres All-Star outfielder Juan Soto even grabbed a seat behind home plate with former teammate Howie Kendrick. 

– The Negro League Family Alliance is announcing an initiative this week to help preserve the legacies of Negro Leagues’ Players to educate and empower inner-city kids interested in sports and history. 

The Alliance is hoping that MLB will celebrate May 2 as Negro Leagues Day, commemorating the first Negro Leagues Game on May 2, 1920, between the Indianapolis ABCs and the Chicago American Giants in Indianapolis. 

– Yankees ace Gerrit Cole has had six seasons in which he has made at least 30 starts. That’s two more than the rest of the rotation combined. 

Certainly, he’s needed more than ever with the Frankie Montas trade turning into a complete disaster. Montas, acquired by the Yankees from the Oakland A’s last summer, has been an embarrassing bust. 

Montas, who went 1-3 with a 6.35 ERA in eight starts with the Yankees, is headed for shoulder surgery on Tuesday that is expected to sideline him the entire season. 

“Clearly, it hasn’t worked out at all,’’ Yankees GM Brian Cashman told reporters. “We didn’t really get anything out of it.  

– Dr. Lawrence Rocks has established a new analytic stat called Torsion Recoil. It translates into pop-ups and ground balls per ball contact. It reveals the ball’s unintended flight path. The lower the score, the better. 

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale 

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