Should the Los Angeles Dodgers already be worried about getting too old?
Should the team be concerned about paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in salaries to players long after they've outlived their effectiveness?
It seems only fair to let the Dodgers and their new megabucks ownership at least enjoy a full season of being the big man on MLB campus this year. Let them take their new toy out for a spin. Break in those shoes and let the leather soften. Try whatever metaphor works for you.
Yet, with how the Dodgers are now spending money—and their ambitions to spend much more in the future—it's natural to wonder if the Guggenheim Baseball Management ownership group and general manager Ned Colletti will dig the kind of hole that the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies currently find themselves in.
In a piece for ESPN.com, Dan Szymborski expresses just such a concern, projecting that the Dodgers could find themselves in some trouble by 2017. That gives them three seasons to yield good value from the long-term deals given to Matt Kemp, Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier.
Ideally, the Dodgers will have won a World Series championship by then. If not, there will likely be some significant hand-wringing and hair-pulling in Chavez Ravine. With a payroll exceeding $200 million and overtaking the Yankees as the highest rollers in MLB, the expectations for the Dodgers have become World Series or bust.
But what happens when the Dodgers end up committed to several players experiencing the downsides of their respective careers? A glimpse into the future seems to portend a fate similar to what has befallen the Yankees and Phillies.
Will the lineup at Dodger Stadium suddenly look old and crumbling, with little room for youth that could revitalize the team? Though the team payroll seems limitless right now, will the Dodgers eventually be handcuffed by huge contracts, restricting them from pursuing new talent?
Most importantly, can this outcome be avoided?
No 10-Year Contracts
Gee, who could we be referring to when advising the Dodgers not tie themselves to an aging player for a decade?
Rodriguez was 32 years old in the first year of that contract, and his OPS (on-base plus slugging) has steadily declined—from .965 to .783—in each of the five seasons since he signed on for his second deal with the Yankees.
Now, of course, in light of a Miami New Times report that alleges that Rodriguez received performance-enhancing drugs from a Miami "anti-aging" clinic, there is plenty of uproar for the Yankees to get rid of their deteriorating star and avoid paying him $114 million over the next five years.
While it wasn't a 10-year deal, the Phillies have their own concrete block of a contract that's weighing the team's payroll down. In 2010, Philadelphia signed Ryan Howard to a five-year, $125 million extension.
Combined with the three-year, $54 million deal he signed in 2009, that amounted to an eight-year, $179 million agreement for the Phillies.
Howard was 30 years old in the first year of his contract extension. Like Rodriguez, his OPS has decreased in each of the past three seasons, going from .859 to .718. Part of that was due to Howard suffering a torn Achilles tendon injury at the end of the 2011 season. Even before then, however, the Phillies first baseman was beginning to show signs of decline.
The West Coast A-Rod?
Do the Dodgers have contracts that could turn into these sorts of dead-weight traps for their payroll?
Before the 2012 season, Kemp signed an eight-year, $160 million contract. In the first year of that deal, the Dodgers center fielder fought through hamstring and shoulder injuries that limited him to 106 games. Following the season, he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum, and the Dodgers hope he'll be ready by Opening Day.
On the plus side for the Dodgers, Kemp was 27 when he signed his contract, meaning he'll be 35 when the deal expires. That prevents the team from having to pay millions of dollars to a declining player by the time he turns 40 years old.
The Dodgers could have a problem with Gonzalez's contract, however.
He agreed to a seven-year, $154 million deal with the Boston Red Sox and was 30 years old in the first year of the agreement. But Gonzalez was already developing into a disappointment four months into the 2012 season, and the Red Sox ultimately unloaded the contract onto the Dodgers in last year's blockbuster trade.
Gonzalez's OPS took a major dive from .957 in 2011 to a combined .806 last season between the Red Sox and Dodgers. In 2010, he hit 31 home runs for the San Diego Padres. Two years later, he finished with 18 homers.
Perhaps Gonzalez will rebound during his first full season back in the National League. But his numbers in two months after being traded to the Dodgers weren't encouraging. Gonzalez batted .297 with a .785 OPS, three homers and 22 RBI in 157 plate appearances.
One more concern on the Dodgers' roster might be Carl Crawford. Before the 2011 season, he inked a seven-year, $142 million deal with the Red Sox. Two years into the agreement, Boston was ready to cut Crawford and his contract loose and let the Dodgers foot the bill.
Crawford was 29 when he signed his massive deal with Boston. But his numbers have declined since his final season in 2010 with the Tampa Bay Rays. Crawford's game is largely built around his speed and defense—two skills that are more likely to deteriorate as he gets older.
The 31-year-old outfielder also suffered wrist and elbow injuries that required surgery. His left elbow needed Tommy John surgery last August, and it's uncertain whether or not Crawford will be ready for Opening Day.
To Trade or Not to Trade Ethier?
Interestingly, it's Andre Ethier—the player the Dodgers reportedly want to get rid of—who might not have danger signs surrounding him and his contract.
Ethier signed a five-year, $85 million extension last year, in which the Dodgers appear to have vastly overestimated the market for a corner outfielder with his skills. Yet, following season-ending knee surgery in 2011, Ethier rebounded to hit 36 doubles, 20 home runs with 89 RBI last year. He also posted an .812 OPS.
However, Ethier will be 31 years old in the first year of his new contract. That will make him 36 in the final year of the deal. He'll be 37 if the Dodgers pick up his $17.5 million option for 2018, though it seems more likely the team will pay a $2.5 million buyout.
A decline seems inevitable for Ethier, though he's been remarkably consistent over his seven-year major league career.
It should be pointed out that the Yankees and Phillies won World Series titles with the players and contracts they would likely prefer to unload. Rodriguez and Howard were major contributors to their respective teams winning championships. Was the early payoff worth the later financial suffering?
The Dodgers could be facing the same question within the next three years. For their sake, the hope is that a World Series title of their own factors into that timeline.
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