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How High Must Dodgers' Payroll Rise to Become a Championship Team?

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How High Must Dodgers' Payroll Rise to Become a Championship Team?
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Locking up Clayton Kershaw is a priority for the Dodgers, and it will only push their enormous payroll higher.

For the past year-and-a-half, money has been more or less no object for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Freed from the confinement and embarrassment that had come to be under previous owner Frank McCourt, the Dodgers and their new ownership, headed by Magic Johnson and the Guggenheim Partners, have once again established themselves as a big-market franchise that has been—and will continue to be—major players when it comes to player acquisitions.

It would be great to be able to put an exact figure on the amount that has been spent since the regime change, but then again, it's hard to even count that high. Here's one figure, from Brian Costa of the Wall Street Journal:

Since [the new ownership group purchased the organization for $2.15 billion in May 2012], the Dodgers have taken on more than $600 million in long-term salary commitments and replaced the New York Yankees as the sport's dominant financial power.

Here's another number: The club's 2013 payroll was about $217 million, second-most in Major League Baseball, according to USA Today's salary database. While the Yankees' $228 million payroll was actually slightly higher—by only about, oh, $10 million or so—the Dodgers' was more than twice as much as the amount they spent on player contracts in 2012. That kind of year-over-year jump is simply unprecedented at that scale.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
New owner Magic Johnson (right) hasn't been shy about spending on stars like Yasiel Puig (left).

Such splurging was made possible by the new owners, as well as a massive television deal that could bring the team as much as $6 billion in the end, according to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times.

"We needed to invigorate the club," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti told Costa. "We needed to invigorate the city. We needed to get a little bit of our reputation back, and we needed to act quickly."

Mission accomplished.

But what do the Dodgers do for an offseason encore now that the winter is here? Well, there's more money to be spent, both on bringing in new free agents and locking up their own players long-term.

Let's start with the latter avenue. Many of the players already under contract are signed for multiple seasons, but the club's best hitter and pitcher aren't among them.

Shortstop Hanley Ramirez, the team's offensive MVP while hitting .345/.402/.638 with 25 doubles and 20 homers in only 86 games during an injury-riddled 2013, is inked through 2014, but that's it. Both Ramirez and the team, though, have indicated an extension is a possibility.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Signs may be pointing to Hanley Ramirez signing on to stay in L.A. long-term.

Ace left-hander Clayton Kershaw, soon-to-be Cy Young winner for the second time in three years, is under team control through next season only, too. In Kershaw's case, there have been reports that the two sides have been trying to work toward a monster deal, perhaps even upward of $300 million.

Making sure those two stars stick around is more important to the Dodgers' future than bringing in new blood via free agency, but doing so would mean at least $20 million a year for Ramirez and at least $25 million per for Kershaw. That's tacking on $45-$50 million more per season to a roster that already has approximately $160 million on the books for 2014, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts via Baseball Prospectus.

If we can be so bold as to have those deals completed this offseason, that would bring the Dodgers' payroll for next year right around where they were this year. And that's not counting new signings, trades and raises via arbitration and performance bonuses, among other monetary obligations and roster additions.

Sure, the Dodgers can shed some salary, too. In fact, they already have by declining the options for second baseman Mark Ellis and left-hander Chris Capuano, which were $5.75 million and $8 million, respectively, according to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. The buyouts were for $1 million each.

In his story, Hernandez points out that newly signed Cuban import Alexander Guerrero, who inked for $28 million over four years, is expected to be in line to take over the second base job. Capuano, meanwhile, was deemed expendable because, as Hernandez notes:

The Dodgers have five starting pitchers under control for next season: Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett. Billingsley and Beckett are recovering from major operations, but the Dodgers are expected to attempt to re-sign Ricky Nolasco and pursue Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka.

The 25-year-old Tanaka, who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, is not a free agent, but his Japanese club is expected to post him this winter, giving all 30 MLB teams the opportunity to bid for exclusive rights to negotiate with him.

To that end, Steve Dilbeck, also of the Times, points out the following:

The fact that [the Dodgers] gambled on Hyun-Jin Ryu ($36 million) and Yasiel Puig ($42 million) last year and won, only figures to encourage their international efforts. They’ve already spent on Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero ($28 million) this off-season.

And now comes the next latest, greatest thing in Tanaka.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Masahiro Tanaka, who went 24-0 this season, is expected to be the next big Japanese import.

Whether it's landing Tanaka, re-signing Nolasco or hooking any number of other enticing, pricey free agents is pretty much a fait accompli for the Dodgers. Certainly, they can't afford every big name, but there are millions more to be spent. It's not a matter of if, but when.

L.A.'s payroll is bound to bump again next year, but what was a financial blastoff last winter likely will be merely another step or two up this time around. Maybe the number reaches into the $230-$250 million range, depending on how the Ramirez and Kershaw negotiations play out. That still would be the highest ever in MLB history, surpassing the Yankees, who may—or may not—be going a bit more cost-conscious this winter.

Regardless, this Dodgers team doesn't need a heck of a lot more help, considering 2013 ended with a trip all the way to the National League Championship Series even after the club was floundering for the first two months of the season. No wonder they're the odds-on favorite for next year's World Series.

They could use a key piece here, an under-the-radar addition there, with the most pressing needs being at third base, in the middle of the rotation and the back of the bullpen. But the roster is chock full of stars who are in their prime—if they're even there yet.

And that just might be what prevents the Dodgers' payroll next season and beyond from making even the New York Yankees look like cheapskates. No amount of money can buy another roster spot, so the Dodgers will have to work with 25 players.

When it comes to spending, that may be the one way they're just like every other team.

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