Los Angeles Dodgers vs. San Diego Padres: A rivalry filled with delicious anticipation
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
Opening Day this year might as well be called Unwrapping Day. Baseball is serving up an adventure in the making, and it feels like a gift.
Aside from the fact that the mere arrival of a full, 162-game season is something to be grateful for, the headlining item to consider when Major League Baseball gets going Thursday is a rivalry filled with delicious anticipation.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres will do battle for the NL West title, will quite possibly go at it again in the postseason and enter the campaign poised to also tussle it out for the status of the best team in baseball.
"There is a strong argument to be made that this is No. 1 and No. 2 across all of MLB," FOX Sports Baseball Analyst Ben Verlander told me. "With the moves they’ve made, the Padres are right up there, and they have a lot of people rooting for them, even fans of other teams. The excitement of this is spreading all across baseball."
There is something likable about the Padres’ attempts to overturn a bleak history that has included just six postseason appearances in 52 years. They are going for it, spectacularly, building themselves to directly challenge the Dodgers, the reigning World Series champions and winners of the division the past eight seasons.
The matchup is David vs. Goliath when it comes to tradition and recent triumph, but David fully intends to disrupt the status quo.
The Padres are spending big and swinging big, and every fiber of their being seems committed to rewriting their narrative. Locking in the most exciting player in baseball, Fernando Tatis Jr., to a whopping 14-year, $340 million contract was a signal of intent, but it was just part of it.
Big arms Blake Snell, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove came in over the winter, following a much-improved season that ended with a division series defeat to the Dodgers. In that series, some sparks flew in Game 2, reinforcing the sense that these two teams won’t be sharing coffee and a chitchat anytime soon.
The Dodgers are swinging right along with them — because that’s what they do, with the kind of mentality that says "why not?" when presented with the opportunity to sign a difference-making pitcher in Trevor Bauer, even at an eye-watering cost that could reach $40 million this season and $45 million next.
It is all getting serious.
The Padres have all but begged their fans to not cash in on the secondary ticket market by selling their seats to hosted games against the Dodgers, hoping to avoid the common scenario in which home-field advantage is wiped out by an influx of L.A. supporters. This time, San Diego will reward fans who hold on to their tickets with a series of special gifts.
The 19 games these teams play against each other will be events in themselves. Everything is there to play for. The other NL West teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the San Francisco Giants and the Colorado Rockies, are not expected to be in the hunt. FOX Bet lists the Dodgers at -275 to win the division, with the Padres at +200. The Dodgers are World Series favorites at +350, ahead of the New York Yankees (+550) and San Diego (+800).
"That’s actually one of the cool things about the division, how it is like a straight fight," Verlander said. "The NL East is the strongest division in baseball, but the NL West has these two teams that will just be going at each other all season."
In Tatis, the Padres have a player perfect for this generation, outrageously talented, young, bold, unapologetic, genuinely cool and extremely fun to watch. Choosing to build the franchise’s future around him was not an especially tough call, even with the tally making it the third-largest contract in baseball history.
The Dodgers counter with firepower and star power: Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, plus ace Clayton Kershaw topping a stellar pitching crew while coming off a World Series masterpiece that went a long way in fixing his postseason legacy of struggle.
And, yes, there's Bauer, who could end up as the team's fourth-best pitcher, despite his price.
It is a funny rivalry in that the Dodgers, having held court for so long, don’t want to admit that it is one. The Padres, in appropriate retaliation, don’t want to talk about the Dodgers more than they have to.
Not directly at least. Thus, the two organizations speak around it in a code everyone understands.
"I think from our standpoint, we are intrinsically motivated to be as good as we can be," Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told Yahoo Sports. "But, of course, we are noticing what’s going on around us as well."
That’s as close as you’re going to get to "Good job, Padres. Welcome to the top table."
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts wasn’t prepared to go even that far, dismissing suggestions that the Dodgers-Padres scrap was gearing up to be one of baseball’s iconic groupings. "That’s a ways down the road," Roberts said. Shots fired.
For their part, Padres chief executive Erik Greupner recently described the Dodgers as "a team from a little ways up north," to the Los Angeles Times. Yep, this is going to be interesting.
There is a lot to love about this upcoming season. A string of mouthwatering divisional races, a return to a greater sense of normalcy and, frankly, the fact that it’s here, ready to be enjoyed.
But the tastiest treat of all is indeed out west, where the fun is about to get started, the lines in the sand have been drawn, and a race we should still be discussing near October is just waiting to burst into life.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.