In one corner, you have the reigning World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers, the unanimous top team in baseball so far this season. In the other, you have the San Diego Padres, a 2020 playoff team loaded with exciting young talent.
Step aside, Red Sox-Yankees. MLB's next great rivalry is brewing out West.
Starting Friday night at San Diego's Petco Park, the Dodgers and Padres will meet in the most anticipated series of the young 2021 MLB season -- with fans in the stadium.
What will happen when the two Southern California neighbors square off for the first time since their 2020 division series clash? How will Fernando Tatis Jr. fare in his return from the injured list -- if he is activated for this series at all? Which of this weekend's three games features the one pitching matchup we are all circling? And will this series showcase not only baseball's new best rivalry, but baseball's two best teams?
We asked ESPN MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez and David Schoenfield to answer these questions and all things Dodgers-Padres to get you ready for the fun.
Is Padres-Dodgers the best rivalry in baseball right now?
Doolittle: No. Well, I mean this is a really subjective question and highly contextualized by geography. Trying to think of it systematically, though, the Padres need to keep winning at the level they've been at the past couple of seasons and there need to be more high-stakes clashes between them. Right now, I don't see why we'd rate this as a right-now rivalry any more heated than the Brewers vs. Cubs, Rays vs. Yankees, or Astros vs. anyone. There are a lot of great players on these teams and some quite famous ones as well. Both teams should be powerhouses for the foreseeable future. So I think at the moment, when we try to hang a "best rivalry" label on Dodgers vs. Padres, we're projecting what we hope it will become, more so than what it's been. I mean, the Padres kind of stunk before last season, right? Let's give this some time to take root.
Gonzalez: If we're specifying "right now," I don't think there's any question. Just look at the National League Division Series between them last year. The Dodgers swept in three games, but there was high drama (Cody Bellinger robbing that homer off Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado jawing at Brusdar Graterol). And look at what happened over the ensuing offseason, with the Padres adding Blake Snell, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove to their rotation, and the Dodgers blowing past the luxury-tax threshold to counter with Trevor Bauer. The Padres recognize the Dodgers as a powerhouse, but they are decidedly unafraid. And the fact that we're back to the traditional playoff system -- which makes winning a division title the difference between a traditional postseason series and, at most, one extra game -- makes this all the more compelling.
Schoenfield: It certainly has the potential to be, especially if we get more bad blood between the teams, such as last September when Trent Grisham pimped that home run he hit off Clayton Kershaw. I don't know if ANY rivalry can get to the level we saw between the Red Sox and Yankees back in the 2000s, but if the Padres and Dodgers go at each other for the next half decade it has a chance.
We've been waiting to see these two teams play each other again since October. What are you most excited to see when they meet?
Doolittle: The late innings of the games. The Padres' bullpen has been probably the best in baseball so far. The Dodgers have gotten some electric performances from Corey Knebel, which has led to Dave Roberts not relying on Kenley Jansen as his sole closing option, though Jansen has generated some old-Kenley vibes in recent games. I don't know that by season's end we'll regard the Padres' bullpen as superior, but I do know that if there is one area in which San Diego could forge a clear advantage over the Dodgers, that's probably it. If we get close games this weekend in which the Padres win late off the L.A. bullpen while their own firemen keep the ridiculous Dodgers offense at bay, this would set a nice tone for the rest of the campaign.
Gonzalez: Every game seemingly mattering so much. Justin Turner predicted during spring training that Padres-Dodgers would feel like "19 World Series games," and if last year was any indication, he'll be right. It's rare for April games to take on this level of importance, but every single one of these matchups will be critical as the Padres and Dodgers beat up on the rest of an otherwise mediocre division. Think of all the intriguing storylines contained within this rivalry, such as: Bauer against Machado, a guy he admittedly can't figure out; Snell against the Dodgers, the team he dominated before his abrupt exit in the World Series finale; Machado and Darvish against their former team; Grisham in a rematch against Kershaw; Dave Roberts, the Dodgers' manager, against the team he played for and coached on; Peter Seidler, the Padres' chairman, against the team his grandfather, Walter O'Malley, famously owned. And all that separates them is 120 miles.
Schoenfield: It apparently looks like Fernando Tatis Jr. will be activated for this series, so he's clearly the player to watch. One thing to keep an eye on: He had made five errors in the five games he played -- three on throws, two fielding the ball -- so was going through some defensive yips.
Which of this weekend's pitching matchups is most intriguing to you?
(Friday: Walker Buehler vs. Ryan Weathers. Saturday: Clayton Kershaw vs. Yu Darvish. Sunday: Trevor Bauer vs. Blake Snell.)
Doolittle: I'm never going to not look forward to watching Clayton Kershaw pitch, so it's hard to go against the Saturday game. It helps that Yu Darvish is fun to watch as well and has that legacy as the guy who lost Game 7 for the Dodgers in 2017.
Gonzalez: They're saving the best for last. Bauer once posted an 18-minute YouTube video explaining how Machado "has my number" (the slash line is .588/.667/.1.412 in 21 plate appearances, so, yeah). Snell recently penned a 2,300-word article for The Players' Tribune riffing on the shock of being pulled shortly after dominating the Dodgers through five innings in Game 6 of the World Series. This matchup can't come soon enough.
Schoenfield: I'm going with Saturday's game. Kershaw got hit a little bit on Opening Day at Coors Field, but he otherwise looks locked in for a big season and allowed one run over his next two starts with a 14-0 SO/BB ratio. It's fascinating to see how he continues to adapt without the blazing fastball he had a few years ago -- through three starts he has thrown his fastball 36.2% of the time; in 2016, he threw it 49.9%. As for Darvish, let's see how does in this showdown matchup. The question about him has always been his performance in big games. It's just an April game, but this is his first big test in a Padres uniform.
How big is the gap between the Dodgers and Padres on the field -- and what do the Padres need to do to close it this season?
Doolittle: It's substantial. Think of it like this: At which position are the Padres clearly better than the Dodgers? Even at shortstop, while I think in a vacuum most people would take Tatis over Corey Seager, they are close enough that it's entirely possible that Seager could win the NL MVP award this season and leave Tatis in the dust. The difference is marginal. You go up and down the organizational rosters and rank the players -- the Padres just don't win many of the comparisons. None of this is to slam a terrific Padres team capable of winning it all this season. But I don't think they can close the gap this season and probably not any season soon. They just need to do their thing, get into October, and steel themselves for a postseason meeting, where upsets aren't really a thing.
Gonzalez: The Padres might be the second-best team in baseball; they simply have the misfortune of sharing a division with the best team in baseball, by a fairly wide margin. The Padres are very deep and talented, but the Dodgers are unfathomably deep and talented. Obviously, the Padres will have to stay relatively healthy to give themselves a chance in this division. But I'll add this caveat: If Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers keep hitting the way they have (they had combined for a .333/.426/.621 slash line heading into Thursday), this gets interesting. The Padres' pitching staff is good enough to go toe-to-toe with that of the Dodgers. The question is whether their offense can keep up.
Schoenfield: Given the way the Dodgers have fired out of the gate, it's a sizable gap. I wouldn't be surprised if the Dodgers win the division by 10 games and -- I know it's early -- but if they end up pushing for the single-season wins record of 116, they could end up blowing away the Padres by mid-August. That said, the Padres need three things: (1) a healthy and MVP-caliber Tatis; (2) Snell to stay healthy and have fewer 38-pitch starts and more Cy Young-level starts, and Chris Paddack to find his 2019 form; (3) their bullpen to dominate all season while Kenley Jansen and the Dodgers' bullpen fall apart.
What do you expect from Fernando Tatis Jr. when he returns from the injured list -- possibly in this series?
Doolittle: If he's deemed ready to roll, I think we'll see the same dynamic Tatis to which we have so quickly become accustomed. The "ready" qualifier is the key there. Is he going to be truly "ready" or is it "as ready as he's going to be"? He's a fearless player, so I don't see him coming back and playing with hesitance, though, according to MLB.com, the Padres want him to be more careful about sliding headfirst. Also, they apparently want Tatis to maintain more of a two-hand approach with the follow-through on his violent swing. It doesn't seem like the kind of mechanical tweak that can be quickly incorporated, but I'll be interested to see if there is a difference. And if he is mindfully trying to change that aspect of his game, whether it has a temporary effect on his production.
Gonzalez: Scouts who watched him during the Padres' opening series against the Arizona Diamondbacks came away thinking he was compensating for that vulnerable left shoulder, which also gave him problems during spring training. They found him to be tentative with both his swinging and his throwing (yes, it's his non-throwing shoulder, but not being confident in it can cause errant throws when one really has to let one go). There's also skepticism that 10 days isn't enough time to build adequate strength in the muscles that would help stabilize that shoulder. But the Padres, who know his medicals better than anyone else, are confident that this is the best approach. We can only hope they're right.
Schoenfield: I don't think we know. If he's healthy, there's no reason he won't be great (assuming he fixes his fielding woes). But you can't help but worry that this shoulder issue will affect him all season.
Who is one player in this rivalry fans should know more about before sitting down to watch this series?
Doolittle: Wil Myers. He kind of gets lost in the shuffle on a team with so many big names, which is ironic because for a few years, he was San Diego's best hope for a star hitter. Then he became known for being injured a lot, underachieving and for signing a big contract that he didn't live up to. It's been a long road for Myers in San Diego. But since the beginning of last season, he has hit .296/.367/.613. He has created 56 runs during that time, tied with Nelson Cruz and Mookie Betts for the 10th most in the majors. In other words, Myers has become the player the Padres hoped he would become. But nationally, I don't feel like that many people have noticed.
Gonzalez: It's still a small sample size, but Corey Knebel seems to have recaptured some of the form from his spectacular 2017 season, allowing one baserunner and striking out seven batters in his first 5 1/3 innings. The key, Knebel said, has been a tweak to the grip on his curveball. If he stays on track, Knebel could be an option to close games if Kenley Jansen falters.
Schoenfield: Grisham has a chance to be a really good player. He missed the start of the season with a hamstring issue but has been hot with three home runs in his first five games. He won a Gold Glove in center field last season, draws walks and has some power.
Prediction time: Who is winning this weekend's first series between the two?
Doolittle: Los Angeles will win two of three, which will lower its winning percentage for the season and thus will be classified as the Dodgers' version of a slump.
Gonzalez: The Dodgers probably won't have Cody Bellinger (calf), but the Padres will be traveling from the East Coast and Tatis -- if activated -- will be working his way back from what looked like a traumatic shoulder injury. The Dodgers already seem to be clicking, their three best starters will be on the mound, and they'll take this opening series on the road.
Schoenfield: The Dodgers' starters are on a roll, the bullpen has been good, Mookie is back and Max Muncy is raking. The Dodgers send a huge message by going into San Diego and sweeping the series.