After veteran departures, how will Dodgers fill the leadership void?

Rowan Kavner

With every free-agent departure this winter, the Dodgers’ group chat lit up.

“Yeah, man!”

“There you go!”

“Congratulations, guys!”

The words of affirmation belied the conflicting emotions felt by the contingent of returning Dodgers players who were happy for their former teammates but sad to see their friends go. The exits included Trea Turner, Cody Bellinger and Justin Turner, a Roberto Clemente Award winner who made such an impact on and off the field in his nine years with the Dodgers that he had a day named after him by the city of Los Angeles. 

“He was definitely a voice for a lot of people,” Austin Barnes, now the longest-tenured Dodgers position player, said earlier this month. “It’ll be hard, but we’ll figure it out. We’ll adapt and figure out who we are as a team.”

That is the challenge now as the Dodgers wait to see which leaders emerge while simultaneously trying to avenge last season’s early playoff exit. In filling the leadership void, manager Dave Roberts anticipates a group effort.

A number of candidates could step up. All-Stars Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts are locked in as Dodgers for the long haul. This year is Barnes’ ninth, Chris Taylor’s eighth, Max Muncy’s sixth and Will Smith’s fifth with the team. It’s also Year 5 for Gavin Lux, who’s stepping into the full-time shortstop role in a spot previously occupied by All-Stars Corey Seager and Trea Turner. On the pitching side, Clayton Kershaw and Julio Urías guide the rotation after a combined 22 years of major-league service all spent in Los Angeles. 

“I think if you look around the clubhouse, there’s a lot of guys that have been around, and I don’t see the culture with a couple guys being departed should be affected,” Roberts said. “But I do think that it’s, I wouldn’t say a call to action, but it’s an opportunity for guys like Freddie and Mookie to step up with their voices and not only lead by example but if there’s something that needs to be said, they’ve earned that right.”

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Betts is entering his fourth season in Los Angeles. In Year 1, on the first day of full-squad Spring Training workouts in 2020, he set the tone for the Dodgers’ championship season with a speech challenging his teammates for more. 

His leadership style isn’t always that vocal, but he said he’ll do whatever it takes to win or whatever is asked. 

“It’s just a natural thing,” Betts said. “I just kind of read the situation. I’m not here to try and be the leader, try and do this, try and do that. Whatever the situation calls for, you just be ready for it.”

Added Freeman: “If anybody was going to come in here and say, ‘I’m going to be the leader,’ everyone else is going to eye-roll you.”

The Dodgers first baseman understands the leadership questions in the absence of Justin Turner, who played a major role in Freeman choosing to go to Los Angeles last spring, but he also said that process will develop on its own. He expects those questions to “fade really fast.” 

“People will take over,” Freeman said. “They’ll gradually do it. Naturally, it’ll come. Young guys, some guys you won’t even think, voices will be louder. They’ll come in, and that’s what happens. As an older guy, you just try to create the environment for everyone to feel comfortable and succeed.”

So what, exactly, does that entail? What traits does a leader possess? 

“There’s different types of leadership, in my opinion,” Freeman continued. “I’m not going to top-step rope it and yell and rah-rah, but you’re going to see me in the same spot in the dugout … I’m cheering my teammates on, I’m in it, I want to be out there every single day. It’s hard to lead if you’re not out there, that’s one of my biggest things. Play the game the right way. Treat everybody the same, with respect. I think those little things go a long way in this game. 

“And then if you do have to rah-rah at some point, as you’ve done the little things behind the scenes, people will listen.”

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In Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, the Cubs got their “rah-rah” moment during a rain delay in an iconic speech by Jason Heyward, who sensed a team in need of a jolt. He reminded his teammates how good they were and how highly he thought of them. An inning later, the Cubs ended their championship drought. 

Seven years later, the veteran outfielder was summoned by Roberts on Monday morning to make another speech, this time to talk to his new Dodgers teammates about why he chose to join the team before their first full-squad spring training workout. 

“It was me and a few guys he called on,” Heyward said. “I just said, ‘Expectation is a beautiful thing about somewhere like here. Every year, you expect to win. You expect to win a World Series.'”

That is no different now, despite a quiet winter in Los Angeles that saw more free-agent losses than additions. Roberts is excited to see who steps forward, particularly after a 111-win season was marred by a first-round exit in which he felt his team’s intensity didn’t match his opponent’s. 

“I hate the phrase ‘changing of the guard,’ but I do think changing, mixing things up, presents opportunities for guys and roles to kind of change, evolve,” Roberts said. “The guys that have been with us have really helped us to create a culture. Like the progression in anything, I think this is good for guys like Will Smith, in particular, to continue to grow and take on a bigger role.”

Roberts said he views leaders as people who hold themselves and others accountable. Leading can be making yourself available to talk after every game. Leading can be calling a team meeting when the time feels right. Leading can be about consistency, doing the right thing in a way that makes teammates want to follow. 

It is that last part that Smith values and seeks to emulate. 

“To me, the best leaders are the guys that show up every day, get their work in, do what they need to do and also try to bring others along,” the 27-year-old catcher said. “It’s not forcing anything. Maybe it’s calling a guy out or something like that, but they’re doing their part. They’re showing what other guys should be doing by example.”

That does not necessarily mean being the loudest in the room. 

Evan Phillips, who developed into one of the most trusted arms in the Dodgers’ bullpen last year, said the best leaders he’s been around have often operated under the radar. 

“You want that to be the kind of guy that just goes about his business the right way and takes care of things on a day-to-day basis consistently,” Phillips said. “So, I think losing some guys that we did, that void can be filled within the clubhouse by guys honestly just learning from what they’ve done and trying to continue to grow with each other in that way. I think what makes the Dodgers unique is we get those players all over the place.”

That’s what Roberts is counting on, particularly as the Dodgers prepare to introduce a bevy of rookies and prospects into the fold. But the process, as Roberts, Betts and Freeman all reiterated, can’t be forced. 

“It’s going to happen organically,” Freeman said. “It could be me. It could be Mookie. It could be Clayton. It could be Gavin Lux. You never know what it could be like. That just happens. When you’re creating an environment in the clubhouse where everyone feels comfortable to be able to do what they want to do, to me, everybody should be a leader in their own right.”

Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. He previously was the Dodgers’ editor of digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner. 

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