Free-agent signings can simultaneously be discrete events and stacked dominoes. In the same way that if you were waiting for your meal to come out of the kitchen knowing you can eat now and have dog food or wait and possibly receive filet mignon, you'd be inclined to wait for the filet, if your choice is Masahiro Tanaka or some lesser, not formerly 24-0 arm, you would wait for the Tanaka situation to resolve before settling for your can of kibbles ‘n' Ubaldo.
While in some seasons the free-agent dominoes fall one after the other, this offseason's domino configuration has led to a stop-start winter with sensations ranging from overstimulation to boredom. Because of the Tanaka posting, the rest of the pitching pieces have been packed away in the attic until teams can figure out who the frontrunners for the Japanese ace will be. Maybe a deal or two will happen before Tanaka has landed, but what seems most likely is that teams will continue to wait a little bit longer, especially since the Tanaka negotiations have a firm expiration date of January 24th.
None of this is revelatory. The timing of things may be more like a remix than the original recording, but in principle it's the same as it ever was. Yet this year, even when winter seems like it's over, it might not really be over. Teams will head to spring training with their rosters seemingly set. The preseason publications will have their depth charts printed. Everything is, finally, what it is -- at which point the Dodgers will probably blow it all up again.
It's no secret that the Dodgers have a surplus of outfielders, and the possibility that they might deal one, specifically center fielder Matt Kemp, was openly discussed during the winter meetings. They've committed $317 million to four outfielders: Carl Crawford is signed through 2017, when he'll be 35; Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig through 2018 (when Ethier will be 36); and Kemp through 2019, his age-34 season. That they are all on expensive long-term contracts doesn't make trading them an easy sell, and those pesky rules only let you play three at one time.
As if the contract situation weren't enough of a bottleneck, the organization's top hitting prospect, Joc Pederson, is also an outfielder who could be ready within the year. Realistically, it's too much talent to comfortably accommodate in one clubhouse and too much expense for one team to lavish on just their pasture players. Trading one would seem obvious -- a team could choose to live in fear of injury and hoard its starting-quality outfielders like doomsdayers packing cans of pork and beans into fallout shelters, but in this case that kind of paranoia is expensive. Nonetheless, even if the Dodgers are ready to say au revoir to one of the pricey quartet, they might still be forced to hang back until after spring training demonstrates the health and readiness of all their outfielders.
If there are setbacks, the Great Dodgers Outfield Divestiture could be something that happens at the trade deadline. At either time, there will be risks for both buyer and seller. The Dodgers will gamble that depth does not become an issue as well as tempt the almost inevitable letdown that results when a star is traded, should it be Kemp who is moved-- it's hard to get equal value for a guy who was a prescription slip away from being the NL MVP. The buyer, should they settle on Kemp, will have to hope that the (micro)fractured ankle that largely aborted the second half of his season does not linger (think of Derek Jeter's abortive 2013 comeback from an October 2012 ankle fracture). This is an especially sensitive issue where Kemp is concerned because -- and this seems to be true regardless of your defensive metric of choice -- even on two good legs he was badly stretched to play center field; his -37 runs saved in 2010 is the worst defensive season on record by a center fielder according to Baseball-Reference (see right).
There isn't any less risk if the outfielder dealt is Crawford or Ethier, although the gamble will fall harder on the acquiring team. Ethier is 31, and entering the second season of a five-year, $85 million contract. As was apparent when Ethier was extended, his career splits are so severe that it's hard to see why anyone would want to pay that much per season for a platoon player. In his career, Ethier has hit .309/.388/.518 against righties and just .235/.294/.351 against lefties. All of his power comes from the right side; his home run power has been helped by Dodger Stadium, where he's hit 64 percent of his career home runs.
The only thing that's changed is that having successfully subbed for Kemp, Ethier now has a frisson of defensive versatility. In addition, last season, he struck out less and walked more -- normally a good thing, but sometimes indicative of slowing bat speed. He ended the postseason limping on a bad ankle.
If you started watching baseball after the 2010 season, you wouldn't believe that Crawford was once the epitome of speed and defense. His demise was swift and unexpected, a consequence of injuries and perhaps early aging. The most disappointing part of the downturn has been the loss of his speed as a weapon on the bases. Since 2010, Crawford has stolen just 38 bases, less than he stole in seven other seasons. Always a player who could spike his batting average with infield hits, Crawford still beats out his share of grounders (he had 25 infield hits in 2013), which shows that his legs haven't completely gone back on him. In fact, infield hits represent a rising proportion of Crawford's batting average as triples and home runs have declined.
Crawford's greatest value -- and Ethier's for that matter -- to the right-ward leaning Dodgers and other teams is that he bats left-handed. Think of a team like the Brewers, who had over 70 percent of their plate appearances go to right-handed hitters last season and just traded one of their few quality left-handed batters, Norichika Aoki, to the Royals, or the White Sox, whose only left-handed regular at this writing is Adam Dunn. Given that Crawford is set to early roughly $21 million per season (the highest salary of any left fielder except Vernon Wells in 2014) through 2017, it's going to be incredibly difficult to find a buyer. Crawford also has limited no-trade protection, including a proscription on being traded to the Yankees.
On paper, Kemp has the highest upside of the three, but the way his planned postseason comeback was aborted -- he was always a day away from being back until he wasn't -- seems to have scared off potential buyers. That reluctance could prove to be a blessing in disguise for the Dodgers, who have to be concerned about regression by players like Hanley Ramirez and Juan Uribe and the offensive potential of newly acquired second baseman Alexander Guerrero. The Dodgers have outfielders Mike Baxter, Nick Buss, and Scott Van Slyke on the 40-man roster, but while they might work in a pinch, there would be a lot of second-guessing about making a trade and then ultimately being forced to play one of the fringey reserves until Pederson, a left-handed hitter with good power and patience coming off a strong season at Double-A Chattanooga, is ready.
The possibility that Pederson can play conveys an overly flattering picture of the Dodgers farm system; there's a reason they've put up the cash to sign Cuban players like Puig and Guerrero. Trading a veteran outfielder might mean receiving prospects that can help restock their barren farm system. While the 2014 organizational rankings from Baseball America won't be publicly available until the end of the month, last season the Dodgers ranked 19th in the majors. The Dodgers are thin on prospects -- which is partially a development issue and partially a propensity to trade what they do develop for major-leaguers -- and this offseason they've made a concerted effort to keep some of their best like Pederson, Corey Seager, and pitchers Jose Urias, Chris Reed, Ross Stripling, and Zach Lee, in the organization.
If the Dodgers can keep that core intact and add more prospects by trading an outfielder, the organization will be closer to their goal of filling vacancies with young talent instead of continually splurging on free agents. That's an issue not just of stocking future rosters, but of the team's ability to compete as soon as this coming season. There are only so many times a team can take advantage of a Red Sox fire sale or call up a fresh-faced rookie who hits .400 for a month. The more ready depth the Dodgers have now, the better they'll be able to weather the coming letdown that right now they don't have the depth to absorb anywhere but the outfield.
If a trade does happen, the team the Dodgers save might be someone else. Imagine having a club in a competitive division like the AL Central, sitting pretty most of the way through March and thinking you have a chance, when suddenly a hitter with the potential to hit .320 with 30 home runs is suddenly dropped in your midst. You might as well tear up your preseason guide right there. When it comes to this winter, Yogi Berra was wrong. It won't be over when it's over, it will be over when Ned Colletti decides it is.