The Los Angeles Dodgers have been a hot topic this offseason because their new ownership has shown that they have no budgetary restrictions. They have been linked with nearly every premier free agent available, from Zack Greinke to Korean sensation Ryu Hyun-jin. Whether they are able to sign any or all of them remains to be seen, but GM Ned Colletti has certainly been aggressive.
The Dodgers’ aggression has spawned inquiries throughout the industry about whether or not they have any limits. Current reports have them talking to outfielder Torii Hunter about a two-year deal, which has of course raised the question of where they would play him. With three starting outfielders already making at least $17 million per year, it’s difficult to imagine Hunter would have a starting job in Los Angeles, and indeed, the Dodgers have reportedly asked him to take a reduced role.
It is not difficult to imagine, however, a very near future where having two corner outfielders in their mid-30s that cannot hit lefties (Andre Ethier has a career .649 OPS against lefties, while Carl Crawford’s is .688—levels comparable to Mike Aviles) creates a difficult situation for Don Mattingly.
The Dodgers have committed $81.5 million to four players through 2017, at which point Matt Kemp will be 32 and Adrian Gonzalez, Crawford and Ethier will be 35. This doesn’t include a potentially massive extension for Clayton Kershaw or possible extensions for pre-arbitration players such as Dee Gordon or Kenley Jansen.
It also doesn’t include how the Dodgers would decide to fill their roster holes. They have a good core, but every star on their roster has questions: injuries with Kemp, Kershaw and Crawford, and declining performance from Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez. It isn’t a good enough roster to carry a team to the World Series every year, so Colletti will have to spend more money to fill in blank spots up the middle and in the starting rotation.
The rotation is another problem. Behind Kershaw, it’s filled with serviceable veterans that will never be the stars a team with this level of payroll would expect to have. Chris Capuano, Ted Lilly and Aaron Harang are decent back-of-the-rotation arms but aren't stars. To expect them to carry a team through the postseason—or even to the postseason—is asking too much.
But Capuano, Harang and Lilly are making a combined $25 million next season, and with Kershaw, Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley already slotted into the rotation, that leaves no empty slots for potential free agents such as Greinke, Hiroki Kuroda or Anibal Sanchez. I don’t expect that Harang’s $7 million fee will be too much for the team to eat if he gets forced out of a rotation spot, but it does raise a dilemma that the Dodgers will have to face soon.
All reports and actions indicate that the ownership group fronted by Magic Johnson and the Guggenheim company are willing to spend as much as they need to in order to win games. They have dedicated $690 million to just six players (Kemp, Gonzalez, Crawford, Ethier, Ramirez and Beckett), but those players are starters. What will happen when one or more of those players needs to be pushed to the bench for the good of the team? It just seems totally unfeasible that someone would be willing to pay Crawford $20 million to ride the bench.
To be fair, the Dodgers are reaching a level of financial commitment no one has ever seen before, so there’s no precedent to judge them on. But to expect a team to accept a $20 million per year player as a sunk cost seems like a sketchy business model, so a level of caution from the Dodgers’ front office would be a nice addition.
They are improving the team, though. If they manage to win a World Series with this group, all excess spending can be justified. But the standard comparison for this spending spree is the Yankees—and the Steinbrenner Yankees never reached anything close to the payroll the Dodgers will need to put forward a winning team.