Los Angeles Dodgers part owner Magic Johnson knows a thing or two about winning titles. The famed basketball legend won five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, an NCAA basketball title with Michigan State, and a gold medal with the “Dream Team” at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
So when Johnson told the Los Angeles Times in Feb. 2013 that a season without a World Series title would be a bad one for the Dodgers, he proclaimed what many were thinking: new ownership has lofty goals, and winning is one of them. Ownership also made it known that they were willing to open up their wallets to do it.
Unfortunately for Johnson and majority owner Guggenheim Partners, the St. Louis Cardinals have so far spoiled the fun. The Cards eliminated the Dodgers in six games in the 2013 National League Championship Series, and own a 2-1 series lead in the best-of-five series NL Division Series entering Game 4 at Busch Stadium on Tuesday afternoon.
A series loss would be particularly frustrating for the Dodgers considering the sharp increase in payroll since the departure of former owner Frank McCourt and adding another year to the storied club’s postseason drought. The Dodgers, who have not competed in a World Series since winning the title in 1988, entered the 2014 season with a $238 million payroll, a $29 million advantage over the second highest team, the New York Yankees. Some of questionable contracts have stood out, like the combined $25.5 million commitment in 2014 for outfielder Andre Ethier and reliever Brian Wilson, and neither made much of a regular season contribution and both have barely seen postseason action. Reliever Chris Perez, who signed a $2.5 million deal in the offseason, failed to make the series roster.
But with their backs against the wall, the Dodgers still have hope, and from a high-priced player. Should they reach Game 5, Zack Greinke will be on the mound at Dodger Stadium. In a Game 2 win at Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers received an excellent performance from their 2013 free agent signing. Greinke, who inked a six-year deal worth $147 million in Dec. 2012, allowed just two hits in seven shutout innings.
While Greinke was masterful, the same cannot be said for the team’s ace. Manager Don Mattingly has decided to maintain his confidence in Cy Young award favorite Clayton Kershaw despite consecutive poor outings in postseason starts against the Cardinals. Kershaw will pitch on three days’ rest and after a dismal performance in Game 1 when he allowed eight earned runs in 6 2/3 innings. In Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS, the Cardinals rocked the left-hander for seven runs over four innings.
Mattingly may be right to keep his faith in Kershaw, an MVP candidate and a two-time Cy Young winner. During the regular season, he had an earned-run average of 1.93 in two starts against the Cards. Kershaw finished the season with 1.77 ERA and a 21-3 record, which is cleary the best numbers of any starter in the National League. The 26-year-old can truly prove his worth by bouncing back from two uncharacteristically poor performances against one team.
Mattingly might be also wise to maintain his faith in his hitters. The Dodgers finished the regular season sixth in runs (718) and have totaled a respectable13 runs in three NLDS games. Home-grown players like Dee Gordon, who is arguably the fastest player in baseball, and Scott Van Slyke, who finished the regular season with a .910 on-base plus slugging percentage, were valuable contributors during the season. While the Dodgers have overpaid several key players, they have also received solid production. Matt Kemp ($21.2 million in 2014) and Adrian Gonzalez ($21.8 million) combined to hit 52 homers, and Carl Crawford finished with a .300 batting average and 23 stolen bases.
The Dodgers can take some solace in at least reaching the postseason, something the clubs immediately below them in payroll can’t boast. The Yankees ($209.4 million) and Philadelphia Phillies ($175.9 million) finished 12 and 23 games behind first place in their respective divisions. But the Dodgers payroll is also in sharp contrast to the two American League representatives in the ALCS. The Baltimore Orioles finished 16th in payroll ($101.3 million), while the Kansas City Royals finished 18th ($90.9 million).
The overall takeaway is nothing surprising to anyone who follows baseball’s finances: having a high payroll rarely equates to winning titles. The last World Series winner to begin the season with the highest team payroll was the Yankees in 2009. The 2003 season was the most glaring example of how a hefty payroll can be unreliable, when the Florida Marlins had the 25th highest payroll yet won the NL wild card, and then went on an unexpected run to win the World Series.
Under Guggenheim Partners, the Dodgers were never positioning to play “Moneyball.” The global investment firm bought the team in 2012, and later sold their television rights for roughly $6 billion. The Dodgers had money to spend, and gave general manager Ned Colletti the resources to land free agents like Greinke, and sign Kershaw and Kemp to contract extensions.
Now the results of Colletti’s deals and Guggenheim Partners’ payroll rest on two win-or-go-home games. The Dodgers hopes of extending their postseason come down to holding off a Cardinals’ squad that will send 23-year-old Shelby Miller to the mound in Game 4, and if necessary, Adam Wainwright in Game 5 in Los Angeles. Miller had a strong September, but was shelled by the Dodgers in his only start against them in the regular season. Wainwright’s Game 1 poor effort might be slightly overlooked given the Cardinals won, and Kershaw was dreadful.
Mike Matheny’s squad finished the season with the third best offense in baseball (783 runs), and the fifth best pitching staff (3.42). Indeed, falling to the Cardinals only looks concerning given the Dodgers sky-high expectations. The Cardinals won the NL Central with 90 wins, and it came as little shock that they would give the Dodgers a competitive series.
But that doesn’t mean much to L.A. fans. In a city of glitz and glamour, where the "Showtime" Lakers won five titles in eight years with Johnson running the point and five more title since then, and after the Kings recent run of two Stanley Cups in three years, there might be dwindling patience for the Dodgers coming up short again.
Game 4 (Best of 5; Cardinals lead series, 2-1)
Start Time: 5:07 ET
Live Stream: A live online stream is available at Fox Sports Go
TV Channel: Fox Sports 1
Prediction: Cardinals over Dodgers, 4-3