The Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers had the best division race, and first playoff series, in their long history as rivals. But in the end, it'll end up being a small chapter of the 2021 Major League Baseball story.
Nine days after they eliminated the Giants in the National League Division Series, the Dodgers went down in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series in Atlanta. It will be the Braves, who reloaded on the fly after losing MVP candidate Ronald Acuña Jr. to a season-ending injury, who will represent the National League in the World Series, leaving the two best teams all season long to pick up the pieces and prepare for another six-month battle next year.
The Giants and Dodgers finished 19 and 18 games, respectively, ahead of the Braves during the regular season. But as they watch the World Series their focus will be on 2022, and specifically what they need to do to come out ahead against a rival that also will contend. For both sides, the initial checklist is massive.
The Giants have just about a full rotation to rebuild, and as they try to get through that, they'll also need to figure out if Brandon Belt or Kris Bryant are in their future plans. As complicated as all of that will be, it pales in comparison to what's about to happen in Los Angeles.
Clayton Kershaw, Corey Seager, Kenley Jansen, Max Scherzer and Chris Taylor are all free agents, and even for a team that spends like the Dodgers do, it will be impossible to bring them all back. Like with Buster Posey, it's hard to imagine Kershaw ever wearing another uniform, although he's coming off an elbow injury that kept him out of the postseason. Jansen, who quietly struck out 14 in eight scoreless appearances in October, has had wild ups and downs with the Dodger fan base, but he's still their best option in the ninth.
Seager said after the NLCS that he would like to return, but acquiring Trea Turner in July seemed to set the stage for letting Seager go. He could wind up elsewhere on a deal upwards of $300 million. The Dodgers would like to bring the 37-year-old Scherzer back, but his future may be tied to another right-hander's offseason.
While the Giants and Dodgers both have a lot of rebuilding to do, there's a huge difference in their outlooks. The Dodgers cannot just operate freely, they must first get a better idea of what the future holds for Trevor Bauer. The right-hander still has not been suspended by MLB, but a decision there could allow the Dodgers to slide that massive salary over to someone like Scherzer.
Finally, there's Taylor, who brings us to an interesting new subplot in this rivalry. For the first time under Zaidi, the Giants are in position to swing the NL West their way by actually just bringing some Dodgers up to San Francisco. Their payroll has been cleared, and multiple stars from the team they edged by one game figure to be targets.
Taylor's big postseason will raise his price, but he still would come a lot cheaper than Bryant. Taylor was acquired from the Seattle Mariners while Zaidi was Dodgers GM, and he has the type of positional versatility the Giants seek. Zaidi and GM Scott Harris chased Scherzer at the deadline and doing so again makes all the sense in the world. They could either pair him with Logan Webb atop the rotation or, at the very least, raise the price on the Dodgers.
Seager once seemed a perfect fit as the splashy free agent to add to the rebuild at Oracle Park. But the Giants got to contention before he could hit free agency in large part because of their own homegrown shortstop, who will be around for at least two more years. They still could potentially make a run at Seager with the idea that he'll be their third baseman, but that seems a long shot.
At the very least, though, chasing Seager -- and Scherzer and Taylor -- could make life a bit more stressful in the front office at Dodger Stadium, and the Giants just saw the benefits of that. Their shocking 107-win season forced the Dodgers, the most talented team in the league, to play a Wild Card Game and then bring Scherzer out of the bullpen to close out the NLDS. Perhaps the Braves would have gone on anyway, but there's little doubt that the Dodgers were hampered in the NLCS by having to use all those bullets just to get there.
They now turn to an uncertain offseason, and they do so after looking up at another NL West opponent for the first time in nearly a decade. Both rivals would also be wise to look further down the standings, too. The 2021 season was a disaster for the San Diego Padres, but they enter the offseason with the most starting pitching depth in the division, and with the right managerial hire they could turn this into a true three-team race.
After going down to the final day of the season and playing a hard-fought NLDS, the Giants and Dodgers know it won't get any easier. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts seemed to sense that Saturday night as he digested the final loss of the season.
"It's sort of the changing of the guard," he said of all his free agents. "If they're not back, whoever is not back, I'm certainly going to miss them personally and our team is going to miss them. The six years that I've been here, it's been a core group of guys that potentially could be turned over this winter. I'm not looking forward to it."