When Guggenheim Partners bought the Los Angeles Dodgers, the conventional wisdom suggested they would spend plenty of money in the offseason. The spending would come, but fans would have to be patient. Then the Dodgers absorbed nearly $260 million in contracts -- bad contracts, mostly -- just to get Adrian Gonzalez. The Dodgers weren't just going to spend more; they were going to be financial bullies, and they were going to do it immediately. It was one of the most stunning send-a-message trades of the last decade.
The Dodgers weren't shy about it, either. Here's the lede of an article from just after the trade.
If the Dodgers can add $260 million to their payroll in one trade -- and close to a half-billion dollars in four months -- is there a limit to their spending?
"Somewhere, I suppose," Chairman Mark Walter said Saturday.
And where might that limit be?
"I haven't found it yet," President Stan Kasten said. "I'll let you know when we get there."
"I haven't found it yet. I'll let you know when we get there," is such a tremendous quote. It's something to say as the schooner leaves the dock, and it's most certainly said with a wink. The Dodgers didn't have limits, see, and they were never going to stop spending. Never ever ever. A selection of moves after the Gonzalez/Crawford/Beckett/Punto trade:
- Signed Hyun-jin Ryu for six years, $36 million
- Signed Zack Greinke a day later for $147 million
- Signed Alex Guerrero for $28 million
- Spent a combined $43 million on Chris Perez, Brian Wilson, and Brandon League
- Signed Brandon McCarthy for $48 million
- Signed Clayton Kershaw to $215 million extension
- Signed Hector Olivera for $62.5 million
- Gave Hector Olivera away to get Alex Wood and Mat Latos
- Took Bronson Arroyo's contract to get Alex Wood and Mat Latos
- Took Michael Morse's contract to get Alex Wood and Mat Latos
- Decided they didn't want Mat Latos and buried him somewhere
Other than Kershaw, the biggest move is still the willingness to assume Carl Crawford's abysmal contract. All of the moves were shocking at the time, even if baseball collectively started spending enough money to make some of them seem quaint. The Dodgers could do whatever they wanted, even if it led to seven expensive pitchers in the starting rotation or an unproven risk like Guerrero not panning out. They would just keep adding players and worry about the rest later.
That "rest" came sooner rather than later. The Dodgers were outbid by a division rival for the services of one of their best players. That's an unthinkable sentence as recently as two weeks ago. The last time we checked in with the Dodgers and their cartoonish sacks of money was when they were moving Arroyo and Olivera around to essentially buy their big deadline trade. Now they're scrambling to replace Zack Greinke, because they didn't want to pay him as much as the Diamondbacks.
The Dodgers aren't destitute. They're not up against their payroll ceiling. They just signed Hisashi Iwakuma for three years, $45 million, and they're reportedly acquiring Aroldis Chapman soon, which means they'll pay their eighth- and ninth-inning pitchers about twice as much as the A's will pay their rotation. Don't take this as a note that the Dodgers screwed up and now they're broke. It's just that they've found their limit, and they're entering a more palatable mode of roster-building.
Here's the companion quote from Dodgers' ownership, just three years after Kasten's "I'll let you know..."
"We're looking toward building something long-term, and sustainable," he said.
Leading the league in payroll every year, he said, is not sustainable.
"I think sustainable is more like the league average," Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly said, "plus some, or plus a lot."
The Kansas City Royals had the median payroll in baseball last year, which would mean this translates to "The Dodgers will spend as much as the Royals ... plus some." That last bit could be an extra $400 million hidden under the mattress, so there's some room for fudging. Still, it's clear that the new-money Dodgers are revealing Phase II of their plan.
Here's what we assumed the Dodgers' plan was after the Adrian Gonzalez acquisition:
- Spend more money than everyone else
- If someone else spends more money, spend more than them
It wasn't a subtle strategy, but danged if it wasn't effective. That wasn't the Dodgers' plan, though. Losing Greinke confirms as much. The real plan was something like this
- Spend more money than everyone else, building goodwill and rejuvenating interest in the post-McCourt Dodgers
- Develop players to make their spending less urgent
- Eventually spend like a normal-rich team, not a super-rich team
They'll match the Yankees of yore with their spending. They'll still have the potential to be in on any and every free agent on the market. But they'll back away from sixth years, even if the player in question is exactly whom they needed. They'll let the top international prospects slip away if they aren't interested in adding +1 to every counteroffer. They're ... normal?
They're normal. If you needed proof, they decided that Hisashi Iwakuma for half the contract and a quarter of the money was a better deal than their own Cy Young candidate. It was practical and reasonable. It was someone getting the used Corolla instead of cashing out their 401(k) for a Porsche, which is what grown-ups do. Which is what the Dodgers don't do. At least the ones we got used to in just a short time.
Of course, they might be plotting something.
If you're looking for a team that's quietly making plans to go after, say, Bryce Harper three years from now, the Dodgers are it.
The Dodgers have just Clayton Kershaw on the books for 2019. They might be playing rope-a-dope. For now, though, we'd like to welcome the Dodgers back to the land of the obscenely wealthy, where they actually have peers. Phew. They were freaking us out for a bit, there.
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