For the first time in nearly a decade, the 2023 Los Angeles Dodgers won't be saddled with the burden of sky-high expectations entering the season.
Sure, the world still believes they'll be among the top teams in baseball, and most projection systems are confident they'll figure things out while ushering in their youth movement and filling several voids (except FanGraphs, who pegged them for under 90 wins for the first time in the history of their current projection system). But they're no longer shoo-in NL West champions who can etch their road to the NLDS in pen before the season's first pitch.
Many prefer the Padres, and you don't have to stretch too far to see why that might be the case; the return of Fernando Tatis Jr. and the acquisition of Xander Bogaerts, slotted in around a full season of deadline acquisition Juan Soto, makes for a splashy picture (and, elephant in the room, they knocked off the Dodgers last October).
Hopefully, with all eyes on San Diego, the Dodgers can work on filling the leadership void left by Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger in relative privacy.
According to Rowan Kavner's reporting for FOX Sports, the Dodgers had an uncomfortable group chat filled with well-wishes for departing free agent after departing free agent this offseason. In the wake of the Turner Non-Brothers and Belli leaving for greener pastures, Dave Roberts plans to look to superstars like Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts to lead the way -- partially by example.
Dodgers leaders in 2023 will be Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts
"I think if you look around the clubhouse, there's a lot of guys that have been around, and I don't see the culture with a couple guys being departed should be affected, Roberts said. But I do think that it's, I wouldn't say a call to action, but it's an opportunity for guys like Freddie and Mookie to step up with their voices and not only lead by example but if there's something that needs to be said, they've earned that right."- Rowan Kavner, FOX Sports
2022 went smoothly on the field for Freeman; his 152 OPS+ and fourth-place MVP finish fell right in line with the rest of his larger-than-life Hall of Fame production. In the clubhouse, though, Freeman had to overcome an odd bit of coldness early in the season when the Dodgers' trip to Atlanta became an unwelcome distraction.
Freeman's emotions took over when he presided over media availability before the series, leading Clayton Kershaw to not-so-subtly question whether he was truly all in in Los Angeles. Add in Doug Gottlieb's erroneous report about his free agency, and the Dodgers' first baseman probably preferred to fade into the background and produce for a bit.
If the Dodgers are going to hit their ceiling, this year's got to be different -- and that goes for Betts, too, who's a natural leader in the community. He and Freeman will have to take ownership of some of the Dodgers' dicier moments and stand in the footprints once occupied by Turner, who'd been through endless tough landings before reaching the mountaintop in 2020 -- and being forced off the field with COVID-19 in a cruel twist of fate.
Or, if the 2023 season ends up the way FanGraphs envisions it, it'll be up to Freeman and Betts to reverse 2022's outcome and pull off a playoff upset against the Pads. Something tells us that'll be OK, too.