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Dodgers season could have gone off the rails, but instead they won the NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Given how the roster was built last offseason, 2023 was very clearly designed to be a transition year of sorts for the Dodgers, a step back from the juggernaut pace of recent seasons. A lot of things went terribly, disastrously wrong. But they still ran away with the National League West, again.

Of the five pitchers in the Dodgers rotation to open spring training, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin each had season-ending elbow surgeries that will sideline them for most or all of 2024, too. Noah Syndergaard was so bad that he was first banished to the injured list then to Cleveland, and that the Dodgers got anything in return — let alone the reasonably useful Amed Rosario — was a coup. We’d be talking about how bad Julio Urías was on the mound (4.60 ERA, 4.17 xERA, a career-worst 24 home runs allowed) if it wasn’t for his arrest and getting placed on administrative leave under MLB’s joint domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy for a second time, ending his Dodgers tenure.

The only one left standing is Clayton Kershaw, who was having a great season before a mysterious left shoulder injury knocked him out for six weeks, and he hasn’t been nearly the same since returning.

Opportunities abounded for a slew of young pitchers to take the reins. Rookies made 47 starts for the Dodgers, but put up a 5.27 ERA in 271⅓ innings. They’ve all taken their lumps.

Dodgers pitching was in such dire straits that they traded for Lance Lynn, the major league leader in home runs allowed with a 6.47 ERA at the deadline, and it actually made some sense!

Despite all of those troubles, the Dodgers cruised to another division title, the 10th in 11 seasons. They clinched the NL West with more than two weeks left in the season.

I did not think the Dodgers would win the division this season, but I thought they’d at least win games in the 90s and be one of the best teams in the league. The Dodgers still have a chance to win 100 games, which would make four consecutive full seasons doing so.

I thought the pitching was going to be the more stable side of the team, and that the offense would relatively struggle.

Look, we all make mistakes.

A key to the Dodgers entire plan this offseason, after moving on from Trea Turner and Justin Turner in free agency, and non-tendering Cody Bellinger, was having Gavin Lux seamlessly transition back to shortstop, his original position. But Lux didn’t even make it to March, blowing out his knee in spring training and ending his season.

Miguel Vargas, one of two rookies who earned opening day starting jobs, didn’t hit, and has been in Triple-A Oklahoma City since the All-Star break.

The Dodgers are the second-best offense in baseball anyway.

Having Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman play as the best version of themselves has been the driver, and can’t be overstated. They might be the best one-two punch at the top of a lineup in MLB history, as Mike Petriello at wrote about in August. Betts and Freeman will likely finish in the top three of NL MVP voting, along with Braves superstar Ronald Acuña Jr.

Freeman set the Dodgers doubles record for a season, and is also threatening the Los Angeles record for extra-base hits, and also leads the team in stolen bases. Nobody has more home runs or RBI out of the leadoff spot in major league history than Betts in 2023, and he’s added to his otherworldly bag of tricks by also playing expert-level defense at second base more than half the time since the All-Star break.

Jason Heyward was released by the Cubs after two terrible, injury-plagued years, and signed a non-roster deal with the Dodgers. He’s not only hit — 14 home runs, a 130 wRC+ that’s the third-highest of his 14-year career — but has provided excellent defense in right field in games Betts is playing second base.

“It’s hard not to say Mookie’s the most valuable player. But I have a hard time because I think that people look at the numbers solely,” manager Dave Roberts said last week at Dodger Stadium. “The numbers of what Freddie is doing, the runs scored, the runs batted in, the doubles, all that he brings to our club, I’m telling you he is right there with Mookie for me.

“But I think Mookie’s ability to come in and play on the dirt, which have the runway to Jason Heyward to play right field, I feel good in saying I’d give him a slight nod.”

James Outman, the other rookie to start on opening day, went through his own growing pains in May and June, but he’s steadily improved since on offense and defense, and will end up getting Rookie of the Year votes.

J.D. Martinez, one of three veteran position players signed to one-year contracts, had a nice bounce-back year, with 10 more home runs than he hit last year, even with getting sidelined for the better part of a month and a half with tightness in his groin and hamstring.

The stability the Dodgers lacked for the bulk of the season, they gained at the trade deadline, with Lynn providing much-needed length in his starts. Kershaw returned from the injured list, and Ryan Yarbrough’s hybrid role helped ease the burden off a taxed bullpen. Acquiring Rosario and Kiké Hernández gave the Dodgers more useful options against left-handed pitchers, giving the Dodgers a more complete and flexible roster.

They took off in August, putting the division to bed with a 24-5 month, by winning percentage the third-best calendar month in franchise history.

Bobby Miller has since emerged from the group of rookies, and might very well be the Dodgers’ Game 1 starter in October. Roberts already said Miller will start one of the first two games of the NLDS.

“We’re going to go into October in a little bit different spot than we’ve gone into in the past, in that on the pitching side we’re going to be less-experienced than we’ve been,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said on Saturday during the clinching celebration, as shown on SportsNet LA. “But we’ll be at the top of the list in terms of stuff. These guys are bringing big-boy stuff to the party.”

I have no idea how the Dodgers will order their rotation on October, nor do I know if they have enough quality pitchers to fill all the innings they will need. But they’ve gotten there, and have at least earned the benefit of the doubt.