MLB On The Record: NL West GMs discuss the dynamic Dodgers, Padres battle

Hannah Keyser
·20-min read

Among the many — and perhaps least important — “unprecedenteds” that can be deployed in a facile attempt to explain the previous 12 months is an unprecedented lack of access at sporting events. I like to think we’re getting by — fans and reporters, both — through a healthy dose of innovation, perspective, and an unhealthy dose of time spent staring at various screens.

But for an in-depth look at each team ahead of the 2021 season, I wanted to talk to someone who’s allowed within six feet of the field. So for each team, division by division, you’ll hear from a top executive about expectations and evaluations. Are they biased? Absolutely, but you’re smart enough to see through that when it applies. And besides, we tried to provide an appropriate counterbalance.

All the quotes are based on exclusive interviews conducted by Yahoo Sports over the past six weeks and have been edited for length and clarity. The teams are ordered by the projected standings from the PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus.

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - MARCH 08: Mookie Betts #50 of the Los Angeles Dodgers runs to make a catch against the Chicago White Sox during a spring training game at Camelback Ranch on March 08, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Mookie Betts and the Dodgers will now chase a championship in a 162-game season that they can celebrate with their fans. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

With Andrew Friedman, president of baseball operations

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Dodgers?

Friedman: “To win a championship and have the full parade and celebration and the memories that come with that.”

What do the projections say?

That this is one of the best teams ever crafted, on paper. For all the glittery reasons you know — Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, the tightly crossed fingers for a healthy Corey Seager — PECOTA projects an obscene 104 wins. But as ever, the Dodgers’ true dominance lies in depth. Approximately no one would be surprised if the newly signed reigning NL Cy Young winner were merely the fourth-best pitcher on the team. Tony Gonsolin, likely their seventh starting pitcher, would be the ace of the rival San Francisco Giants, and they aren’t even that bad.

Did the Padres’ improvements over the offseason put pressure on you to improve the team even after proving it could win a World Series?

Friedman: “Yeah, somewhat. I think from our standpoint, we're intrinsically motivated to be as good as we can be. But, of course, we're noticing what's going on around us as well. If we were going to have an expanded playoffs or not, which very much changed the calculus, was something that was unknown for most of the winter. From our standpoint, it was trying to do everything we could to put the best team on the field while balancing the short-term and the long-term. When things line up, where that proper balance is struck, we were going to be aggressive to act. Oftentimes, we've had that mindset and things haven't lined up for whatever reason. But we did want to do everything we could to be as good if not better than we were in 2020.”

What won’t the team tell you?

The Dodgers are reigning World Series champions and the best team in baseball. The problem is, they’ve been the latter without achieving the former a few times now and would rather not return to that status. It’s been 20 years since a team won back-to-back World Series and the recent history has been especially unkind to those taking a victory lap. The Dodgers have been bounced from October by lesser teams before, and their road from preseason favorite to parade is that much more difficult now that the call is coming from within the house — or, at least, the division. Unless there’s another last-minute postseason expansion coming for the 2021 season, either the Dodgers or the Padres will have to survive a one-game wild card game to even get to the heart of October. That’s a hell of a lot for a whole year to potentially hinge on, and ultimately a single ring from a season overshadowed by global circumstances isn’t what they built this dynasty to do.

What went into the decision to sign Trevor Bauer beyond a baseball evaluation? Were there conversations about or any investigation into his controversial off-field behavior?

Friedman: “There were multiple conversations on that front. And I think it's something that we appreciated the risk involved. And I think, more than anything, we were making a judgment looking forward. That was the bet we were making was on one, two or three years. And we felt confident after the conversations that we had, our points landed, just the things that he had experienced that he was internalizing the right way. It didn't mean that at every turn he would make the exact same decision that I would make. I’m not saying I'm right or wrong, but just different. I think it's more about just evaluating what happens going forward and us having the ability to have those conversations and address things as they come up. And we talked to guys on our team who were excited about adding him and the homework that they've done with other teammates and that we had done in our digging that he would add real talent every fifth day that he took the mound, but also would add to our environment in terms of helping to make others better. And there are a lot of stories along those lines from his past.”

MESA, AZ - MARCH 12: Infielder Fernando Tatis Jr. #23 of the San Diego Padres walks across the field before facing the Oakland Athletics at HoHoKam Stadium on March 12, 2021 in Mesa, Arizona. (Photo by Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images)
Fresh off a breakout 2020 and a massive contract extension, Fernando Tatis Jr. is the avatar of the rising Padres. (Photo by Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images)

SAN DIEGO PADRES

What would it take to consider 2021 successful for the Padres?

“I think the goal here is to win a championship,” A.J. Preller said in an interview with MLB.com in February. The wheeling and dealing president of baseball operations electrified the baseball world again this offseason — turning a question mark of a rotation into a powerhouse by pulling off rapid-fire trades for Blake Snell and Yu Darvish, followed by a deal for Joe Musgrove. And though his ambitions are obvious in his actions, Preller has been relatively muted about the jaw-dropping collection of talent he has assembled. Indeed, he declined to comment on the record for this series.

“If we’re gonna get to that level — that championship level the Dodgers got to last year — we’ve got some things we’ve got to work on, and we’ll see how things play out,” he continued in the MLB.com interview. “But we feel like we improved our roster.

“What was already a very talented roster, we feel like we’ve gotten better so far this offseason. We’ll see to what degree that is.”

On the flurry of trades that shipped out several prospects, but few among the organization’s elite, Preller said the focus of all the acquisitions was creating a longer window of contention.

“If we’re going to look to move quality, talented prospects, young players, etc., there may be times where you want the short-term rental fit,” Preller said. “But in general, with most of these deals, the attractive part for us is that they’re players who fit in the short- and long-term.”

What do the projections say?

PECOTA projects 95 wins — which would be the most for the franchise since its 1998 World Series run — and second place to the juggernaut Dodgers. Overall, this is expected to be the second-best team in the National League and third-best in MLB. There is a short, short list of teams that could stand up to the Dodgers and depending on who or what projection system you ask, the Padres may be the only team on that list. They just so happen to have at least 19 games to find out if they can do it.

What won’t the team tell you?

The least fun thing to do right now as a baseball fan is try to temper enthusiasm for the Padres, after they parlayed a dynamic 2020 performance into a frantic offseason of blockbuster improvements — including, but not limited to, guaranteeing that if Fernando Tatis Jr. someday enters the Hall of Fame it will be in a brown hat. They’re the dominant storyline heading into 2021, and the biggest downside is that all this hype has so far outpaced the proven track record that it’s hard to know exactly how high to set the expectations — that’s true of both the team and the famous face who has to live up to people talking about his eventual enshrinement before he’s even played a full 162 games. Just like the Dodgers have to worry about what the Padres mean for their postseason aspirations, the Padres have to worry about the Dodgers. The problem for the Padres isn’t that they might be bad — they won’t be — it’s that the whole baseball world might be disappointed if they’re anything short of the best.

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 28: Starting pitcher Zac Gallen #23 of the Arizona Diamondbacks throws prior to the Cactus League spring training baseball game against the Colorado Rockies on February 28, 2021 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Ascendant ace Zac Gallen will miss the start of the season, but is emblematic of Arizona's recent approach to roster building. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

With Mike Hazen, general manager

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the D-backs?

Hazen: “We set up our team to be competitive. We want to win baseball games. We've gone through the offseason between having certain amount of playoff spots and other certain amount of playoff spots, but given what we're heading for right now at the five, we want to be competitive. We built the team last year, last offseason, with sort of at least a two-year window in mind, given that we signed some guys the two-year deals. And so we at least felt like we had sort of that couple-year run. Now, last year wasn’t very kind to us and forced us to alter our direction at the deadline. So you know we traded Starling [Marte] and we traded Archie [Bradley], and probably those are two guys that would have penciled onto this team if we had not traded them. And yet, we still feel like we have a core of players that are very good baseball players. And so we intend to go out and be competitive. I don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves in terms of what that will mean at the end of the year. I'm hoping we are playing for a playoff opportunity in the second half of the season.”

What do the projections say?

Projections see the D-backs as a middling team that might be more “stuck in the middle” than “lying in wait” because of the tough competition in the division. PECOTA forecasts 77 wins.

What are you doing? What is the D-backs plan right now?

Hazen: “We want to consistently compete, but focus on the short- and long-term. Some of the decisions we've had to make at deadlines have had to react to how we've been playing at the time. And those are not fun decisions to make. But we want to consistently compete. And that really should have no bearing on what the rest of the division is doing, I feel like we have that within our control if we do our jobs right. But at the same time, we are trying to build some level of consistency with the stuff that we're doing in the draft and player development. ...

“I don't like using the rebuild word. And it's not that we're avoiding it, we are trying to take a path where we don't have to do it. That we remain competitive, that we continue to push the envelope on competition. And that our young players, as they start to matriculate onto our team, will be better situated for having to come in and compete, for having to come in and have some pressure to win. Have some urgency to win. And not just play meaningless baseball games at times. Cause I don’t necessarily think that’s the optimal way to develop that. It’s hard to develop that, when you get off that treadmill.”

What won’t the team tell you?

Phoenix fans may have forgotten that the city even has a baseball team this winter as the Diamondbacks managed to make almost no news at all. If those fans are lucky, they won’t have heard about the 60-game season last summer either, when the team finished last, with a 2-19 stretch somewhere in the middle. They’re not actually that bad — which is how they ended up in the middle of this projections-ordered preview — but there isn’t a whole lot to get excited about, especially with Zac Gallen set to miss the start of the season after sustaining a hairline fracture to his forearm. That leaves Madison Bumgarner as their opening day starter. If you have fond memories of Bumgarner from his Giants days, I’d advise you against checking his Arizona stats.

What did you see in half a season from Zac Gallen that made you go after him when you did and willing to give up a top prospect?

Hazen: “We had always liked Zac Gallen. We had called Miami a few times on Zac Gallen, not just at that deadline. And we knew from prior conversations that they really liked Jazz Chisholm, and look, it's not easy trading your No. 1 prospect. Jazz is ridiculously talented and we knew that. We felt like we had a better chance of putting together our position player club than where we stood with pitching at the time. We loved Gallen. We had liked him in college and we loved him through the minors and just hadn't had the chance to get in at that point. And that was really some of the calculus that we were using at the time. Getting a young starting pitcher that we really, really liked in a trade is not easy to get, it's probably the hardest thing to pull off in a trade. And, yes, we sacrificed a lot of talent in trading our best prospect. But that was sort of what we were thinking and yeah he's been great for us, you know, he is so talented. And he is unbelievable — makeup and work ethic and desire and push to be better. We're lucky we have him.

“He’s surprised us, yes. If I sat here with a straight face and told you that he was gonna do this, then I waited too long to even go after him when we did. I'm not surprised given the talent, but I don't think you go into these types of things expecting this level of performance.”

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: San Francisco Giants right fielder Mike Yastrzemski (5) watches his two run home run during a MLB game between the San Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants on September 25, 2020 at Oracle Park in San Francisco, CA. The 2020 regular season has been shortened to 60 games due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Upstart outfielder Mike Yastrzemski is perhaps the first established member of the Giants' next core. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

With Farhan Zaidi, general manager

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Giants?

Zaidi: “A goal that we set for ourselves in 2020 — which we accomplished in its entirety, even though the ending wasn't what we wanted — was just to play meaningful baseball as deep into the season as possible. And we went down to the last game and the last strike. Being a team and organization in transition, like we are, we're still making the effort to compete and put together a team and a roster that we think can get on a roll and play some good baseball, so that's really our goal. We don't say that to say like, well, we don't want to make the playoffs or we wouldn't want to go deep into the playoffs, but I think for us that's a great way to define the role and define what success would mean for us this season."

What do the projections say?

The Giants have been frequent overperformers in recent years, but PECOTA once again sees this as a fringe wild card contender at best. The projection is 74 wins and fourth place, but the system sees upside in the bats San Francisco is assembling.

So you didn’t really enter into a rebuild when you showed up in 2018 despite, I think, a lot of people assuming that’s what the Giants were primed for at that point. And from the outside it feels like maybe that’s because the team has been able to eke out just enough success. But was sticking with the same core the plan all along? Would 2018 Farhan be surprised to see how many 2017 Giants are still on the team in 2021?

Zaidi: “San Francisco is a big market and we're coming off a string of success. We have some veterans with track records that made more sense to build around than necessarily to tear a roster down around. And so that’s guided the strategy.

“It’s also just my personal belief that baseball is a sport that's less conducive to the teardown-and-rebuild model than other sports. In the NBA or the NFL, you can get a LeBron James or a franchise quarterback in the draft, and the baseball draft is way more of a crapshoot and is less of a guarantee of success. And, I think, in baseball, the way the industry is set up, the way our farm systems are set up, the depth of free agency, every team has opportunities to really turn their fortunes around every offseason. …

“There's always an opportunity to improve your team, and if you take every opportunity to improve your team, things can click for you at any time. So we've taken that approach over the last two or three years, and obviously not every move we’ve made or not everything we've tried has succeeded and, to your point, all of our success has been driven by players exceeding expectations and that's a tribute to their work, and the staff, and the infrastructure that we've built to support them. It really comes down to that: Just not feeling like, given our market, given our roster, given my indoctrination into baseball, that that kind of full tear-down model made sense for us. Other people in different situations may feel it works for them, but that approach never made sense for us.”

What won’t the team tell you?

That Buster Posey — glad to have you back, bud — and the Brandons are probably not going to win another championship together, unfortunately. It’s not yet clear how they plan to transition from still watchable and sometimes surprisingly productive Old-Timers to whatever the next contending iteration looks like. The position players are starting to come into focus with finds like diamond-in-the-Orioles-system Mike Yastrezemski, but that future is especially murky when you try to make out who’s atop the mound in 2022 and beyond. The team hopes this season will provide some clarity about who will pitch in the years that follow — an admirable and necessary goal. Unfortunately, what that means in practice is a 2021 rotation built on the hope that Kevin Gausman has finally figured it all out, that Johnny Cueto has a few more tricks up his sleeve, that largely unheralded Logan Webb’s absurd spring performance is real, and that they can uncover some untapped upside on a couple of their one-year acquisitions.

Does the behemoth status of two other teams in your division affect your roster plans for the near and maybe slightly more medium future?

Zaidi: “The honest answer to that is: No. Do people think we are going to not try to build a competitive team because we feel like the top of the division is spoken for? We have an obligation to our fan base — and frankly, we have a competitive nature within our organization — to just try to be as good as we can be. I have a lot of respect for both of those organizations and they're two of the best teams in baseball. It's gonna be fun playing 19 times a year! You always want to be able to measure yourself up against the best and I think those two teams are clearly two of the best teams in baseball. It's not going to stop us from taking our approach of just trying to do everything we can to be as competitive as we can be and taking incremental improvements every time we can. I want to say you get up for all 162 games equally because they all count the same, but it will be particularly fun to play those two teams. We talked about playing meaningful baseball as deep into the season as possible as a goal, and the games against those teams are going to mean something, that's for sure.”

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - MARCH 07:  Trevor Story #27 of the Colorado Rockies fields against the Chicago White Sox on March 7, 2021 at Camelback Ranch in Glendale Arizona.  (Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images)
With Nolan Arenado gone and the Rockies sinking, star shortstop Trevor Story's long-term future is an open question. (Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images)

COLORADO ROCKIES

With Jeff Bridich, general manager

Note: Bridich replied to questions via an email statement.

What would it take to consider 2021 successful for the Rockies?

Bridich: “Just like most seasons we are looking to be playoff-relevant by September. In order for that to happen for us in 2021, we will need to stay very healthy and we will need collective growth from some of our younger Major League players. Roster change has brought about incredible opportunity for our pitchers and position players alike. So there’s a good chance we will see new and talented faces helping us compete and win games over the course of a long, 6-month season. There have been a number of our prospects who showed up ready for Spring Training, and they put forward their best effort over the past 6 weeks. Coming off of a strange and unprecedented 2020, it was great to see that.”

What do the projections say?

Without Nolan Arenado, PECOTA currently has the Rockies just a smidge ahead of the Pirates, so only the second-worst team in baseball. The system sees a 61-win season on the horizon. And that’s of course if star shortstop Trevor Story — in his final year under contract on a Colorado team going nowhere — stays all year.

What won’t the team tell you?

That if you’re not good at being a baseball team, you should at least try to be a good business. The Rockies are a bad baseball team. Fans are pissed, they’ve won a single postseason game in over a decade, and it sounds like people don’t especially like working there either — we’re not just talking about Nolan Arenado. Trading a star player is never a popular move, but in this case the Rockies can't even attempt to sell it as a savvy investment in their future.

More from Yahoo Sports: