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The Dodgers didn’t win the pennant the way they were supposed to

The Los Angeles Dodgers finally got to the World Series, and they needed their brains more than their wallets.

MLB: NLCS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Chicago Cubs Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

It started with the Nick Punto trade. After years of McCourt-related misery and general screwing around, the Dodgers had new owners. And that was exciting, considering the team wasn’t owned by Frank McCourt, but there are never any guarantees when it comes to new owners. Arte Moreno bought a World Series winner and dumped a bunch of money into it. It hasn’t worked yet.

But it was the Punto trade (and Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford, I guess), that really kick-started imaginations. The Dodgers were bought by a cold, steely investment firm for a billion dollars, and they immediately pantsed the baseball world with that trade. Then they signed Yasiel Puig and Hyun-jin Ryu for millions more than anyone expected. Then they signed Zack Greinke. The blueprint was obvious. Spend, spend, spend. Stack the winnings. Bully the rest of the league.

It worked, to a point. The Dodgers have won every division since new owners were in control of the offseason, but they weren’t able to get over that last, important hump. They couldn’t win the World Series. They couldn’t even win the National League Championship Series. They were stuck in the same postseason tar pits as the common teams, the Nationals and what have you, while their division rivals won another World Series. They couldn’t spend their way out of October, which subscribes to a brand of nihilism that capitalism can’t scratch.

They tried pushing Clayton Kershaw harder and harder. And, huh, it turns out he’s human and has limits. Well, they were all fresh out of ideas, then.

These are the 2017 Dodgers. Five years have passed. And before we go any further, we need to point out that the Dodgers’ MLB-leading payroll helps. It helps, it helps, it helps a whole helluva lot. It’s why the Dodgers could give Kershaw the contract his pitching deserved. It’s why they could keep Kenley Jansen and Rich Hill in the same offseason. It’s why they could outbid the world for Puig. It’s why they could sign Brett Anderson and Brandon McCarthy in the same offseason, even if they already had five starters. It’s why they don’t even notice that Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier are two of the three highest-paid players on the team. It’s why they can shrug off a Scott Kazmir injury. It’s why they can feel comfortable trading for Yu Darvish and whatever was left of Curtis Granderson’s contract.

That paragraph could have been a serious wall of text, I promise. We didn’t even get to the part where they spent an A’s payroll to buy Hector Olivera, who was exchanged for Alex Wood. The money helps.

But it’s not why the Dodgers are going to the World Series. It’s a reason why, certainly. It’s an important reason, just like the Cubs drafting Kris Bryant was an important reason why they won the 2016 World Series. But the Dodgers have had these advantages before, and it hasn’t worked out this sweetly.

If you pinpoint the difference, you can find it in a simple picture:

When the Dodgers made the Punto trade, Justin Turner was a 27-year-old fringe player on the Mets. He’d stumbled his way into 117 games of replacement-level baseball the year before, and he was just a guy the year after. He was always going to be just a guy. Every team has a Justin Turner. That’s the whole point of the “replacement” in the “wins above replacement.”

When the Dodgers made the Punto trade, Chris Taylor was a fifth-round pick of the Mariners, just about to start his pro career. Then he was just a guy, for years and years, a prospect-ish prospect, but nothing that would crack a Baseball America Top 300 list. The Dodgers traded away a former first-rounder to get him, but it’s not like his former team missed him that much.

Taylor and Turner are the face of the pennant-winning Dodgers. The hair, clothes, and nice car of the pennant-winning Dodgers are the money, but we’re talking about the face. These are players who any team could have had — the Pirates, Rays, A’s, Padres, whatever — but the Dodgers got them. They scoured the AutoTrader ads. They hired the right mechanics. And then they went right back to the AutoTrader ads looking for more.

It’s not just Turner and Taylor. Brandon Morrow was drafted ahead of both Tim Lincecum, Max Scherzer, and Kershaw, and he was available for a handshake, a non-guaranteed contract, and a chance to make the team. Tony Cingrani was an enigmatic mess for most of his Reds career, but the Dodgers traded for him, whispered in his ear, and now he’s the pitcher the Reds were hoping he’d be all along. They got Josh Fields in a trade with the freaking Astros, who really, really, really could have used a Josh Fields or two over the last week. The Dodgers don’t really need him, ha ha, but he’s there if they do!

This is the caulk that sealed all of the big-market bullying. The Dodgers hired a phalanx of GMs and former front office types (hands up if you aren’t a Dodgers fan and you remembered that Alex Anthopoulos was in the front office), and they got to work finding the Taylors and Turners and Morrows. And fixing them. And conning the Padres out of Yasmani Grandal. And plucking Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager out of the draft, where dozens of teams could have had them.

The money is something that any dummy can use as a weapon. And at the risk of dredging up my own personal greatest hits ... look at me call this damned thing:

No, if you're excited about (Andrew) Friedman, forget about the money. Focus on the things he did with the Rays that didn't take money, finding unpolished gemstones and looking under every rock for tools that might turn into production.

Ned Colletti signed Greinke, and it was a brilliant move. But I could have done that. Gimme Zack Greinke, I would have said, leaning into an intercom from 1963, and it would have been awesome.

It’s the margins that have made this Dodgers team the National League champs, succeeding where so many other versions had failed before. They’re drafting better, they’re trading better, and they’re fixing the players who need to be fixed. The money helps — imagine which teams Kershaw and Jansen would be on right now if they came up in the Rays’ system — but it will never be a panacea. If Warren Buffett buys the Twins tomorrow and decides he wants to buy the best roster baseball has ever seen, it won’t be that easy.

That kind of free spending is how the Dodgers started out of the gates, but they kept failing. Now, though, it’s Taylor and Turner, two players the Marlins could have had if they were industrious enough, who have helped lead the Dodgers to their first pennant of the internet era. This is where they’ve become extra terrifying. The money is for the mistakes they make while they’re looking for the best players in baseball, which they can find with enough effort.

It’s a terrifying combination. So, well, be terrified, baseball. The Dodgers are where they’ve been trying to get to for years, and this time they did it because they were smarter and richer than everyone else.

Good luck with that.