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Dodgers-Padres promises to be the marquee rivalry in Major League Baseball in 2021 and beyond
Last October, the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres met in a highly-anticipated National League Division Series. The Dodgers, champions of the NL West for eight consecutive years, were trying to avenge years of heartbreaking postseason losses and win their first title in 32 years; the Padres, behind a young, flamboyant lineup, were trying to prove that they belong in their first postseason appearance in 14 years.
The series, with so much promise at the start, was a blowout. The Dodgers proved they still reigned supreme in California and the NL, outscoring the Padres 23-9 in a three-game sweep on their way to the World Series.
The Padres showed they were perhaps too young and inexperienced on the big stage to beat the Dodgers, so General Manager A.J. Preller spent the offseason making sure the Padres wouldn’t be the little cousin to the big-spending Dodgers again. On Dec. 29, he traded for Tampa Bay Rays ace left-hander Blake Snell. Then, less than 24 hours later, the Padres acquired Yu Darvish in a deal with the Chicago Cubs.
And that wasn’t even their biggest deal of the offseason. On Wednesday, the Padres locked up superstar-in-the-making Fernando Tatis Jr. with a 14-year, $340 million contract. Tatis, still just 22 but already one of baseball’s premier talents, will handle shortstop duties in San Diego thru the 2035 season. Beside him on the left side of the Padres infield is third baseman Manny Machado, who is a veteran compared to Tatis but is still just 28 and signed thru 2028. Machado set career highs in batting average and OPS last season, his ninth in the league, and would’ve been on pace for 43 home runs (another career-high) over a 162-game season.
The Padres are not only stocked with talent, they will keep that talent for the foreseeable future. Snell and Darvish have another three years of team control. Mike Clevinger, another potential ace acquired at the trade deadline who won’t pitch until 2022 following Tommy John surgery, is also under contract beyond this season. Dinelson Lamet, who emerged as a breakout star in 2020, will be in a Padres uniform until 2024.
Snell knows what it’s like trying to dethrone the Dodgers. Pitching for the Rays in the World Series last October, he started Game 2 and didn’t surrender a hit until the fifth inning while striking out nine. In Game 6, he struck out nine of the 18 batters he faced before inexplicably being lifted in the sixth inning. For the series he gave up four hits in 10 innings while striking out 18, looking every bit like the pitcher who won the AL Cy Young Award in 2018.
There is also help on the way. Despite making deals for three high-caliber starting pitchers since August, the Padres still have the seventh-best farm system according to The Athletic’s Keith Law. They have three of the top-50 prospects; the Dodgers have none.
Dodgers core shows signs of crumbling
It’s a lineup built to beat the Dodgers, but Los Angeles isn’t going to surrender their crown that easily. Mookie Betts is signed until 2032 and had an MVP-worthy season in 2020, his first with the Dodgers. Betts and Tatis are two of the league’s most popular players and will compete against each other 19 times a season for the next decade. Hard-throwing right-hander Walker Buehler has supplanted Clayton Kershaw as the ace of the Dodgers pitching staff. Los Angeles is also loaded with their own young players like Cody Bellinger, Will Smith, and Julio Urias.
But there are troubling signs ahead for the Dodgers. Kershaw is a free agent after 2021 and openly wondered earlier this week whether this season will be his last. Corey Seager and Chris Taylor are also slated to hit the free market in 2022. In contrast to the Padres, the Dodgers starting third baseman, Justin Turner, is 36 and just signed a two-year deal.
The Dodgers have owned the NL West for so long that it’s difficult for many of the Padres young stars to remember a time when they didn’t win. Tatis was just 13 the last time a team other than the Dodgers won the division. The Padres haven’t won since 2006.
That’s all changing. The Dodgers may be the defending champs, but the Padres are heading into the season as the most promising, exciting team in baseball. It’s a rivalry that will play out over 19 games this season—seven in April alone—and countless more over the coming years. Betts and Tatis will compete with each other for the title of best player in the league; the two franchises, separated by just 120 miles of Pacific coastline but light-years in terms of accolades, will battle for supremacy in the NL.