Dodgers Need to Land Rendon, Cole or Strasburg to Keep Their WS Dreams Alive

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 26, 2019

Washington Nationals' Anthony Rendon watches his home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the eighth inning in Game 5 of a baseball National League Division Series on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Dodgers might—and the word "might" can't be stressed enough—be in the mood for a major offseason splash.

On Sunday evening, MLB Network's Jon Heyman reported the Dodgers are eyeing the top three players on the free-agent market, yet with an all-too-predictable catch:

Jon Heyman @JonHeyman

Dodgers are looking at Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon. But while they can afford to go big, word is they have set valuations for each star and intend to remain disciplined.

In theory, the whole point of the Dodgers' offseason is to acquire what they need to finally snap a World Series championship drought that dates back to 1988. They lost in the World Series in both 2017 and 2018 and failed to win a single playoff series in 2019.

The three superstars on the Dodgers' radar would boost their chances of winning it all in the near future. Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg are two of MLB's best pitchers, and Anthony Rendon is one of baseball's best third basemen.

And yet it isn't surprising that the Dodgers have "set valuations" for each of them. 

Since becoming the Dodgers' president of baseball operations in 2014, Andrew Friedman has made it a priority to cut their payroll down to a manageable size. To wit, it's opened at under $200 million in each of the last two seasons after opening at well over that mark in each of the previous five seasons.

An aversion to risk on the open market has been a key part of this effort. Though the Dodgers haven't sat out free agency entirely under Friedman, they've mostly stuck to three- and four-year deals. Kenley Jansen's five-year, $80 million contract is the lone exception.

The Dodgers will have to spend far more to land Cole, Strasburg or Rendon.

MLB Trade Rumors estimates Cole and Rendon are likely in the market for $200-plus million deals. Strasburg might fall short of that, but he could be looking at $180 million.

Still, it's notable that the question here is whether the Dodgers will spend that kind of money, not whether they can.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

The Dodgers' current $176.9 million payroll projection for 2020 is nearly $100 million short of the whopping $271.6 million payroll with which they opened the 2015 season. At last check, there's no rule that says they can't spend that much again.

It's more realistic to expect the Dodgers to spend only insofar that they don't create a luxury-tax crisis. But even to this end, their $181.4 million projected tax bill (which is based on their players' average annual values) for 2020 puts them $26.6 million short of the first threshold of $208 million. The second and third thresholds are $46.6 million and $66.6 million away, respectively.

No matter which luxury-tax barrier the Dodgers ultimately cross, they would get the weakest possible penalty. That's the result of them getting under the threshold in 2018 and staying under it in 2019.

If the Dodgers consider all of this and conclude it's time to spend $30-plus million per year on Cole, Strasburg or Rendon, they'll just need to decide which one they like the most.

Rendon would seem to be the least natural fit. The Dodgers are set to return all of the key members of an offense that led the National League in OPS+ and runs per game in 2019. To boot, said offense already has an All-Star at third base in Justin Turner.

Yet according to Andy McCullough of The Athletic, Turner has indicated a willingness to move to first base in deference to Rendon. And while his bat isn't necessarily needed, it would surely be welcome.

After all, the 29-year-old did establish himself as one of baseball's elite hitters in 2019 courtesy of a 1.010 OPS and 34 home runs in the regular season, plus a 1.003 OPS and three homers during the Washington Nationals' championship run.

That Rendon bats right-handed is still another potential advantage for the Dodgers, whose lineup got significantly more production from the left side than the right side in 2019:

Data courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com

For their part, one need not jump through hoops to justify how Cole or Strasburg would fit the Dodgers.

Their starting rotation led MLB with a 3.11 ERA this past season, but free agency has since claimed major league ERA leader Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill. What's left is an in-his-prime Walker Buehler, but then a past-his-prime Clayton Kershaw and a handful of guys who worked as swingmen in 2019: Kenta Maeda, Julio Urias, Tony Gonsolin, Ross Stripling and Dustin May.

Mike Ehrmann/Associated Press

Cole and Strasburg, meanwhile, have six All-Star selections between them. According to Statcast's xwOBA metric—which is based on strikeouts, walks and contact quality—they were also the best and fifth-best pitchers of 2019, respectively:

  • 1. Gerrit Cole: .238
  • 2. Justin Verlander: .248
  • 3. Max Scherzer.251
  • 4. Jacob deGrom.252
  • 5. Stephen Strasburg.263

Cole, 29, and Strasburg, 31, were even better in the postseason. The former posted a 1.72 ERA and 47 strikeouts in five starts for the Houston Astros. The latter racked up a 1.98 ERA and 47 strikeouts in six appearances for the Nationals, culminating in an MVP-winning turn in the World Series.

Granted, if these players' prices don't give the Dodgers pause, the competition in the NL West might. They won the division by 21 games in 2019. Looking ahead to 2020, none of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants spell imminent danger to the Dodgers' streak of seven straight division titles.

However, the Dodgers can look out across the rest of MLB and see at least one clear-and-present threat in the National League (the Atlanta Braves) and two more in the American League (the Houston Astros and New York Yankees). And the less willing the Dodgers are to add aggressively, the more likely it is that still more threats will pop up as other teams harvest the market's best fruits.

Rather than take that chance, now is as good of a time as any for the Dodgers to break their pattern of not splurging in free agency. And out of Cole, Strasburg and Rendon, there's no wrong choice for them.


Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Payroll data courtesy of Roster Resource and Cot's Baseball Contracts.