Looking for a Star? Check the Dodgers’ Bench.
ATLANTA — The Los Angeles Dodgers are not for everyone. Sometimes, young players need to leave when they become eligible for free agency if they …
ATLANTA — The Los Angeles Dodgers are not for everyone. Sometimes, young players need to leave when they become eligible for free agency if they want regular playing time. And sometimes, accomplished players are brushed aside because the Dodgers have the ability and the will to acquire other, more accomplished players.
The Hall of Fame pitcher Waite Hoyt famously said, “It’s great to be young and a Yankee.”
To be young and a Dodger in an era of free agency, analytics, financial largess and sustained winning means sometimes reluctantly shuffling onto the injured list as the club manipulates its roster during the six-month grind of a regular season, or shuttling back to the minor leagues even if you were a contender for the Rookie of the Year Award.
Gavin Lux, who started Sunday’s Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, became familiar with the latter this summer. One of the top prospects in a system that has produced two recent rookies of the year in Cody Bellinger (2017) and Corey Seager (2016), Lux hit .286 with five homers and 19 R.B.I. in May but swooned later in the summer and was not getting the regular playing time he would have in a place like Pittsburgh or Miami, where he might have worked his way out of a slump.
So on Aug. 26, the Dodgers shipped him back to Class-AAA Oklahoma City.
“It’s pretty easy to look around the league and say, like, oh yeah, maybe on this team I wouldn’t have gotten sent down, obviously,” Lux said. “But there’s a lot of really good people here to learn from, a lot of really good players to learn from, and guys who have been around and a lot of superstars, Hall of Famers.
“So for me it’s, like, looking at it as a blessing as opposed to the other way around. And I’m still early in my career, so I’m just a being a sponge and trying to soak up as much as I can from these guys.”
Maybe one day Lux will grow into a mainstay like Seager or Justin Turner — a process that could be accelerated considerably should Seager leave Los Angeles as a free agent this off-season. Or, maybe he will become an October star for the Dodgers and still wind up somewhere else, like a handful of others scattered around this month.
Four years ago, Kiké Hernandez belted three home runs for the Dodgers in Game 5 of the N.L.C.S. against the Chicago Cubs, helping push the Dodgers into the World Series against Houston. Hernandez became the first player with three homers in a postseason game at Wrigley Field in that stadium’s 100-plus years of existence. His seven R.B.I. that night set an N.L.C.S. record.
But his path to regular playing time with the Dodgers was stymied by the team’s belief in platooning, and then was cut off entirely by players like Mookie Betts and Bellinger in the outfield and Seager and Max Muncy in the infield. So Hernandez signed a two-year, $14 million deal with Boston as a free agent before the 2021 season. Hernandez was one of the offensive stars as Boston took down the Tampa Bay Rays in an A.L. division series, and already has three home runs through two games of the A.L.C.S. against Houston. The Dodgers could see him in the World Series if they and the Red Sox advance.
In his postseason career, Hernandez now has a three-homer game, a five-hit game, a seven-R.B.I. game, a pinch-hit homer and a walk-off series-clinching R.B.I. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no other player in M.L.B. history has accomplished more than two of those five feats.
More immediately, the Dodgers are currently facing outfielder Joc Pederson in the N.L.C.S. Pederson, who had flashed some signs of stardom in Los Angeles, had a strange end to his time in with the Dodgers.
He was dealt to the Los Angeles Angels as part of a complicated trade that included Betts’s arrival from Boston just before spring training in 2020. But Pederson ended up staying with the Dodgers that season because the first itineration of that deal was called off. When it was redone, Pederson remained with the Dodgers.
So that fall, Pederson helped the Dodgers win their first World Series since 1988 by smashing a key home run in Game 5 to lead a 4-2 win over Tampa Bay. That was after he had produced four hits in Game 3 of the N.L.C.S. against Atlanta to help the Dodgers avoid elimination after losing the first two games.
And yet, the Dodgers once again said goodbye, this time for real. Pederson, who had been reduced to a platoon role, opted for a one-year, $7 million free agent deal with the Chicago Cubs, who gave him a chance to become an everyday player.
Atlanta then acquired him in a July trade after losing outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. for the season to a knee injury. Against Milwaukee in the division series, Pederson slammed a series-turning, three-run, pinch-hit homer against reliever Adrian Houser in Game 3. Having already homered in Game 1 against the Brewers, also off Houser, it was “Joctober” once again.
That flair for the dramatic continued with yet another home run on Sunday, helping give Atlanta a surprising 2-0 lead in the N.L.C.S.
“He’s been in these situations a lot, number one,” Atlanta Manager Brian Snitker said. “Number two, that guy’s got no heartbeat at all. It’s like he’s on the playground. Playing against him in the postseason the last few years, you could tell that.”
Pederson has walloped 12 homers in 165 career postseason at-bats, yet the Dodgers haven’t seemed to miss him all that much. Their current roster has at least three players who are expected to be first-ballot Hall of Famers: Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Albert Pujols. Then there are other battle-tested veterans like the 2021 All-Stars Betts, Justin Turner, Trea Turner and Chris Taylor, and more. The team has often brought in veterans like Chase Utley to serve as mentors.
“Going into the playoffs in 2019, J.T. pulled me aside, and Chase Utley was there, too, and he was just, like, ‘Every time you step up in the box, try to have that feeling that you’re 4 for 4,’” Lux said. “That’s the best feeling you can have if you’re a hitter. Going up there 4 for 4, there’s no pressure. You feel good. So that’s kind of the best take of advice I’ve gotten from anybody, I think, going into the playoffs.”
For the players who stay, knowledge is available at every turn. Sometimes, it comes from unexpected sources. When Bellinger won Thursday’s division series game with an R.B.I. single in the ninth inning it was his third game-winning hit in a winner-take-all game. This one, after a season in which the former most valuable player hit only .165, came after several conversations this summer with Scherzer.
“Belli had a tough year,” Scherzer said. “I’ve had some talks with him. Man, just keep grinding. I know you’re fighting through some stuff. Everyone in their career gets punched in the face. No one’s ever had just an easy career. There are always years where the game just comes back and punches you in the face.”
Scherzer told Bellinger that he had to keep working hard and fight through a down year and that if he continued to get opportunities, good things would come.
“He’s going to do absolutely big things for us in the playoffs,” Scherzer said late Thursday night in San Francisco. “I saw this coming a mile away. I just wanted that so bad for him. It’s so awesome to see him do it.”
Bellinger, who isn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2023 season, could be one of the homegrown players who stays, but he will have to show some improvement as the Dodgers won’t wait forever. There is always a Betts or a Trea Turner or a Scherzer who can be acquired to replace a player who is not at their best.
To play in what Tommy Lasorda, the team’s Hall of Fame manager who died this off-season, called “Blue Heaven” is to reside in a clubhouse with constant change, endless creative possibilities and a steady stream of new toys.
Nearly everyone, it seems, is replaceable.