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OC Register: Andrew Friedman trusting ‘talent in this room’ to help Dodgers find their stride

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CHICAGO — With each elite free agent they didn’t sign last winter, the narrative took root. The Dodgers were saving their money, trying to re-set under the Competitive Balance Tax, so they could go full bore to land a unicorn, Shohei Ohtani, when he reaches free agency next winter.

“I think we have shown consistently that we will do everything we can to put ourselves in the best position to win. Our ownership has backed that up at every turn,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said Sunday at Wrigley Field. “Obviously I wouldn’t get into specific players. But also – our mindset would never be, ‘Hey, let’s wait a year or two or three for this.’

“That would never be our mindset. We feel like we have the talent in this room to be a really, really good team.”

Nonetheless, as the Dodgers have gotten off to an “uneven” start – the word Friedman chooses for their 12-11 record through Monday – the narrative has sprouted a corollary. The Dodgers would even be willing to absorb a down year in 2023 with their modest offseason moves (maybe miss the playoffs for the first time in a decade) rather than make any move that would limit their ability to chase Ohtani for a second time — the Dodgers were reportedly one of the finalists when Ohtani jumped to MLB in December 2017.

“It’s not something I’ve paid much attention to because we’ve made a lot of splashy moves the last three or four years,” Friedman said. “Obviously it’s not something we can do every year. But the most important thing is, ‘Is the team talented enough?’ For us, we felt like we had the talent in that room and that it was the right time to introduce some of our younger players who had gotten to that point where they needed opportunity.

“The only way to do that is to carve it out in the offseason or go into the season and wait for injury to provide that opportunity. That’s kind of what we did last year. This year, it was more about creating that opportunity. It is really important to be able to sustain success to be able to do that. So we did it in ‘19 with Will Smith and (Alex) Verdugo, (Tony) Gonsolin and D-May. There were a lot of guys in ‘19 that we introduced onto the team.”

That 2019 team took over first place to stay on April 16 and won the division by 21 games (but lost to the Washington Nationals in the first round of the playoffs).

Friedman points to that team’s two predecessors – the 2017 and 2018 teams that won the National League pennant – as better comps for this year’s team.

“We got off to an uneven start in 2017 and 2018 and I think this team, talent-wise, is every bit as talented as those teams,” Friedman said. “I think it’s having the mentality of doing what we can to help each guy get back either to where they were or what our thoughts are in terms of expectations. We’ve gone through this exercise in the past. We’ve got a staff full of really talented people that are on it and I’ll bet on the talent in that room when we get to the end of the year.”

Friedman does admit one area of the team causes more concern – the bullpen.

The Dodgers’ relief corps has a 5.05 ERA through their first 23 games. That is the sixth-highest in baseball. Only two National League teams (the Giants and Phillies) have higher bullpen ERAs.

The Dodgers had the lowest bullpen ERA in the NL, second in the majors, last season (2.87) and made just two notable subtractions from that group – Craig Kimbrel and Chris Martin left as free agents. Only one of those was regrettable. But running it back has not produced the same results.

“It definitely is volatile,” Friedman said of bullpens in general. “We’re at the point right now where we still very much believe in the group. We’re just not doing some things as well as we did last year that we’re going to lock in on. And obviously, at some point if we’re not right about that then we’ll make changes and figure it out. But we’re still very optimistic in terms of where guys are, what those levers are to pull to help get them back to where they were.”

Offensively, the Dodgers have been buoyed by the precocious start of rookie James Outman and Max Muncy’s revival. But the veterans signed in the offseason (Jason Heyward and David Peralta) have been uninspiring. Trayce Thompson and Austin Barnes (getting more playing time with Smith out) are hitting below .200 as is Chris Taylor whose 5-for-45, 21-strikeout start is particularly troubling when paired with his poor performance in 2022. Even Freddie Freeman has slipped into an 8-for-46 slump.

Despite that, the Dodgers were tied with the Cubs for the most runs scored in the NL after Sunday’s win. Home runs (an NL-best 43) have been their savior but the scoring has been feast or famine – five games with eight or more runs, seven of two or fewer (including Friday’s near-perfect game).

“I think it’s the consistency of at-bat,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “When we’re good, we’re really good. When we’re not, there’s a lot of quick innings and a lot of games where there is three or less. So just finding that consistency, it’s what our guys want too. It’s not that we’re shooting to be inconsistent. We just haven’t hit our stride offensively.”

The loss of Gavin Lux to a season-ending knee injury and more recently Smith to a concussion have depleted that lineup. But the offseason moves that led to departures like Trea Turner and Justin Turner being replaced with veterans looking very much in decline (Heyward, Peralta and J.D. Martinez, the only one of three offering any production so far) are not decisions Friedman is ready to second-guess – “not in April,” he said.

“I think we have a really talented offensive team,” Friedman said. “Some nights it has shown more than others. I think some of that is the game of baseball. And some of it are things that we can help to improve on that. We’ve had some guys really emerge. We’ve also played a large percentage of this year without Will.

“This offense is more than talented enough to help us win a lot of games and help us win postseason series.”

That is as far as Friedman is willing to look ahead – and not beyond into another offseason.

“We haven’t put all facets of the game together,” Mookie Betts said over the weekend. “We’ll pitch and not hit or hit and not pitch or hit and pitch but not play defense or whatever the combo is. We’re just not putting it all together.

“Just gotta find a way to do it.”

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