Once in a blue moon? Why Dodgers could finally end World Series drought

LOS ANGELES -- Taking a break from signing autographs and making the rounds as team ambassador, Tommy Lasorda heaved a heavy sigh, lifted his "LA" cap and ran his opposite hand over the top of his head.

"Twenty-nine years," the former Los Angeles Dodgers manager said while sitting in a golf cart at spring training early in March, wearing a full uniform.

Lasorda was talking about the last time the Dodgers won a championship, which is also the length of time since the club last appeared in a World Series, period. Lasorda's 1988 Dodgers rode Kirk Gibson's magic and Orel Hershiser's right arm to a title over the Oakland Athletics.

There have been close calls since: 10 playoff appearances, including one in each of the past four seasons.

Now, coming off a run of NLCS, NLDS, NLDS and NLCS in succession, the Dodgers could have the momentum they need to crash their way into baseball's ultimate party. The Dodgers finished two victories away last season, finally succumbing to the Chicago Cubs' buzzsaw while seeing their season end in a game started by their best pitcher.

And while the Cubs' talent makes them the favorite to repeat in 2017, the Dodgers do not seem the least bit intimidated.

It is a club that is young and talented, while also being experienced and proven. Joc Pederson, Corey Seager and Julio Urias form the youthful core. Adrian Gonzalez, Chase Utley and Sergio Romo comprise the seen-it-all veteran unit.

In between sits a cadre of players in their prime years: Clayton Kershaw, Justin Turner, Yasmani Grandal and Kenley Jansen.

All played a major part in last season's success, save for Romo who was added to the mix along with his three World Series rings.

"One of the most challenging things we have to do at the end of each season is to critically assess the previous team, and look at strengths and weaknesses as you head into an offseason," team president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said when the spring began. "I have been a part of really good teams where we felt change was needed. That was not the case with last year's team."

So the Dodgers re-signed Turner and Jansen, even though their salaries might have pushed things budget-wise. Although his $80 million deal to return was lucrative, Jansen admitted he took less to come back to the Dodgers. The club also retained free agent Rich Hill, who was acquired from the Oakland Athletics for the stretch drive.

"The talent that we had in place ... the camaraderie among the group, we felt was a real asset going forward," Friedman said. "So our mindset and operating plan was to try and retain a lot of that core and bring it back; a very similar team and kind of supplement it here and there. We're very comfortable betting on this group."

Better health could have improved the Dodgers' fortunes last season, when an MLB-record 28 players hit the disabled list. They tied a franchise record by using 55 players. The club used 15 starting pitchers and 31 pitchers total, the latter number also tying a franchise record.

Kershaw was the biggest hit, spending 75 days on the DL because of a back issue. He returned for the playoffs, but he was still increasing his pitch totals when the postseason arrived and was far from his best after appearing in five games over 16 days.

And because the rotation's innings were low, it caused a heavy reliance on a bullpen that was among the best in baseball -- but also vulnerable by the time the postseason rolled around.

The lineup felt the pain as well. Andre Ethier and Trayce Thompson missed significant time, putting Howie Kendrick in left field for most of the year and rookie Andrew Toles there in the deciding game of the NLCS at Wrigley Field. Toles' first-inning defensive miscue came as the game started to go sideways early.

"I think everybody knows our team was plenty talented last year, we just had a lot of guys get hurt," Kershaw said on the first day of spring training. "So hopefully we don't get hurt, and it should be OK."

Could it really be that simple? It might be. And in a curious little twist, last year's injuries might make the Dodgers an even bigger World Series threat this year.

Because of all the maladies, the Dodgers were able to get a number of players experience that moved their arrival timetables forward. Toles was last seen struggling in the field, but his offensive contributions were critical, and the Dodgers now know what they can expect from him this year.

Urias got a chance at the major league level while still a teenager and did nothing to disprove the theory that a bright future lies ahead. Grant Dayton proved a capable left-hander out of the bullpen.

Even the arrival of Jose De Leon last year helped showcase the talented right-hander. The Dodgers, in turn, flipped him for veteran second baseman Logan Forsythe, who will be leaned on for steady defense and to take a bulk of the at-bats in the leadoff spot.

Forsythe is also expected to improve the Dodgers' fortunes against left-handed pitching, which was probably their biggest weakness in 2016. The Dodgers were not only deficient against lefties last year, their offensive numbers against them were historically low.

They are also expected to deploy outfield platoons to better balance their lineup, which is heavily left-handed.

Outfield is not the only place the club has options. The Dodgers started spring training with no fewer than 10 options for the starting rotation, as well as their 10 in the outfield. Depth was a saving grace last season. While the Dodgers hope to not employ it as much this season, it is there if needed.

"It's not how we start Opening Day, it's how we will finish the year," Friedman said. "We obviously have designs on first winning the National League West and then ultimately winning the World Series, so what will put us in the best position to win is obviously what we're going to do.

"But we have been very open and transparent with each and every guy as we have kind of been talking through it. Like [manager Dave Roberts] did last year, we will continue to communicate with our guys, letting them know exactly what is going on."

There has been no talk about the challenge that could lie ahead from the Cubs, or even the San Francisco Giants in the division, for that matter. That says nothing about the challenge that would arise from the class of the American League, providing the Dodgers could finally end their World Series-appearance drought.

The Dodgers remain supremely confident in their own abilities. After four consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in franchise history, it sounds like anything less than reaching the Fall Classic would be a disappointment.

Arriving at the penultimate series has proved vexing. Roberts is technically the eighth Dodgers manager since Lasorda last made out the lineup card. It is a list that has run from Bill Russell to Glenn Hoffman, Davey Johnson, Jim Tracy, Grady Little, Joe Torre and Don Mattingly before Roberts' debut last season.

As he prepared to sign baseballs and pose for photos, Lasorda seemed confident the long World Series absence will end. Roberts sounded confident that he has all the tools and a team with the right mindset necessary to make it happen.

"Everyone in that clubhouse wants to win a championship," Roberts said recently. "You look at our offseason, what the front office, and the players returning as free agents, what they sacrificed to be in that clubhouse shows a lot of unselfishness. I think ... on into the season, [unselfishness] is what it is going to take from each player."