MLB 2024: Can anybody contend with the Dodgers?

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Everything that makes Shohei Ohtani the star he has become was on display in his Los Angeles Dodgers spring training debut when he struck out, grounded into a double play and then rebounded to hit a towering opposite-field home run to left field.

It was just a tune-up game that did not even attract a capacity crowd, and getting credit for digging out from a self-made hole is a dubious distinction. But the result was more evidence of what has become clear: Ohtani is as talented as they come and able to change his fortunes at a moment’s notice.

The Dodgers were so convinced that type of resolve could alter their own fortunes that they signed Ohtani to a massively deferred $700 million contract even though he was coming off elbow surgery and would not be able to provide the pitching side this season of his unprecedented two-way talents.

Ohtani has made the Dodgers the prohibitive favorite to win the National League West, while the club has the edge on the rest of the NL field to make it to the World Series and ultimately win it all.

“When you sign Shohei, (Yoshinobu) Yamamoto, trade for (Tyler Glasnow), just all the people we brought in, (the attention) is because something really, really special happened in the offseason,” Dodgers veteran Freddie Freeman said. “This is exciting. It’s fun for us. It’s fun to be playing in front of a lot more new fans this year.”

Yet Ohtani alone is not a reason to plan a championship parade. He partnered with Mike Trout on the Los Angeles Angels for the previous six seasons and those teams never made the playoffs.

What he gets with the Dodgers are fellow stars Freeman and Mookie Betts with him at the top of the lineup. Glasnow will start the season opener this week and Yamamoto will take the most expensive free-agent pitching contract ever into the second game. Both games are in South Korea against the San Diego Padres.

So where does that leave the rest of the National League in an effort to compete, or the rest of baseball for that matter?

As a Texas Rangers vs. Arizona Diamondbacks World Series showed last season, there is no foregone conclusion when it comes to a marathon baseball schedule and the sprint of a 12-team playoff. Arizona lost 110 games in 2021 and the Rangers had six consecutive losing seasons before 2023.

The Diamondbacks are poised to give the Dodgers an immediate challenge to their NL West dominance. And the San Diego Padres, who knocked the Dodgers out of the 2022 NL Division Series, have a retooled roster while retaining plenty of talent, with a rotation that just added right-hander Dylan Cease.

The San Francisco Giants, the only other team to win an NL West title since 2013, have made additions to address all areas of their game, especially power and defense.

Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo took his team through the Dodgers last season and into the World Series, and even he wasn’t shy to admit this spring that getting a close-up look at the new Los Angeles lineup offered plenty of intrigue.

“I’m a baseball fan, I get to watch Shohei Ohtani, Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman hit back of one another, but I want to play good baseball, too,” Lovullo said before a recent spring training game. “… It’s the Dodgers, and they’re ready to compete, and we will be, too.”

Those division teams will take the brunt of what the Dodgers have to offer in 2024, with L.A.’s mighty offense getting the most attention. Glasnow and Yamamoto are on board to help the Dodgers improve on an uncharacteristic 4.06 staff ERA last season.

A major concern is on defense, with Max Muncy at third base along with a plan at shortstop that will include Betts and Miguel Rojas, at least for the time being, after Gavin Lux showed fielding and throwing struggles upon his return this spring from knee surgery.

The Dodgers have averaged 103.2 wins over the last six full seasons, but they have been eliminated in the division series in three of the past five years. Taken another way, the Dodgers have a .641 regular-season win percentage since 2017 and a .548 postseason percentage in that time, which includes three World Series appearances.

The long regular season? The Dodgers seem to have that part figured out. The rush of the postseason? Those questions still linger.