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It’s been 5 years since the Dodgers trade that changed everything

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Adrian Gonzalez wasn’t cheap, and the Dodgers were suddenly concerned about winning again.

San Francisco Giants v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

In 2011, I felt sorry for the Dodgers. This was six years ago. We had phones that recorded videos, electric cars, and everything. It wasn’t that long ago at all, and it stuns me to look back at how pitiful the Dodgers were. Here, dig through this StoryStream™ and pick out some headlines:

Los Angeles Dodgers' Finances To Be Placed Under MLB Control

Los Angeles Dodgers Financial Update: Team Makes Payroll With Help From Corporate Sponsors

Los Angeles Dodgers Don't Interest A's Owner Lew Wolff

Los Angeles Dodgers Lawyers Will Put Bud Selig Under Oath

All sorts of different names were floated as potential owners, from the O’Malley family (again) to Mark Cuban to Steve Garvey and Orel Hershiser. And as we’ve learned from the Marlins’ transition from Wayne Huizenga to Jeffrey Loria, a new owner isn’t an automatic panacea. There was always the potential that the new owners would come in and screw everything up just as much.

The new owners took control at the start of the 2012 season, so we had to wait to see what kind of splash they would make that following offseason, if any.

I was at a train station when I felt it.

A cold wind blew.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

Clouds covered up the sun.

A dog howled.

Something was different.

Here’s a clip showing Stan Kasten at the podium, ready to announce that the Dodgers acquired Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and Nick Punto:

The trade isn’t less stunning five years later. To get Adrian Gonzalez, the Dodgers were willing to accept Crawford’s absurd contract. They were willing to take Beckett’s contract and 5.23 ERA. They were willing to employ Punto on purpose. The Giants had just lost one of their better hitters to a PED suspension, and the Dodgers were willing to pay a $150 million finder’s fee to get one of the better first baseman in baseball.

It was one of the most declarative trades in baseball history; a billboard that spanned the entire circumference of the moon, reading, “So, we’re rich, and we’re willing to spend to make this a better team. Your prayers won’t work.” The willingness to absorb that much money for a midseason deal, the ability to gamble on two expensive players who had red flags where ligaments should be, was unprecedented. Even the Yankees made the Rangers pay Alex Rodriguez’s contract down. The Dodgers got a little cash from the Red Sox, but not enough to make the deal seem reasonable.

Three months later, they signed Zack Greinke for $155 million, just to emphasize their point.

But the Punto trade wasn’t the Dodgers’ final form. It was a statement, yes, but it was a big ol’ puppy feet trade, with the team stomp-clomping around and money spilling from their pockets. It didn’t really work. Gonzalez hit a three-run homer in his first at-bat with the Dodgers, and the team crawled within two games of first place. They would finish eight games back, though, and Gonzalez wasn’t the same dominant force that he was with the Padres and Red Sox.

His career OPS+ before the trade was 140, and it was 119 with the Dodgers. While he was still productive, he wasn’t the same kind of perennial MVP candidate. He was worth a lot, but it’s hard to argue that he was worth his huge contract and the contract of Crawford and the contract of Beckett and the penalties they had to pay for the luxury tax. It was the equivalent of paying $300,000 for a nice Camry.

You can also draw a direct line from Crawford’s contract (which they’re still paying) to their decision to let Greinke go, and you can draw a direct line from that to the prospects they gave up to get Yu Darvish. If Willie Calhoun becomes a star, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if he’s the true cost of the Crawford tax that the Dodgers had to pay.

At the same time, the Gonzalez trade didn’t really have to work. The Dodgers have won every NL West title since 2013, and their margin of victory has always been comfortable enough to where they would have won if Gonzalez were replaced with a replacement-level player. They got a nice player, and it didn’t matter if they overpaid. They could work around it. And they have.

When the trade went down, what we couldn’t possibly have known is that this wasn’t the Dodgers’ final form. They looked like the kind of team that was going to spend its way out of whatever hole it might have dug. The only reason they spent around $250 million to get Gonzalez is because the new owners weren’t around to give $300 million to Albert Pujols yet. They were going to have money, yes, but teams with money can also end up being the teams that give ludicrous deals to Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright when there’s no one else on the market. They can be the teams that get caught with Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and C.J. Wilson.

The Dodgers looked like they were going to be one of those teams, forever vacillating between boom and bust periods with whatever expensive free agents were thriving or decaying on the roster.

Instead, they took that money, applied it to their own best players, like Clayton Kershaw, Justin Turner, and Kenley Jansen, and then they became much smarter, much more efficient, much deadlier. For all of my hot takes that are worth making fun of, this one about Andrew Friedman’s hiring held up particularly well. The thesis was that any goofball can spend money on the best free agents, but where the Dodgers would get extra scary is if they got someone who could build a robust farm system and give them the supremely unfair advantage of young, cost-controlled players to go with their payroll:

Where Friedman will help the Dodgers is by bringing over his skills from his days as a pauper -- stepping in front of other teams to amass as many bullpen lottery tickets and undervalued and overlooked talents as possible, while expanding the search for the next frontier in scouting and analytics. The money will help, but the money + Friedman doesn't help as much as you might think. Almost everything that's good about the Dodgers right now had to do with decisions that weren't all about money.

That’s all still true. The real path to an unbeatable team came with the Dodgers figuring out how to turn the lightning bat of a fourth-rounder into the Rookie of the Year. It came with turning an 18th-overall pick into an MVP candidate. It came with turning Chris Taylor and Justin Turner from organizational depth into lineup pillars.

And all of that could happen while the Dodgers could do things like give Brandon McCarthy, Kenta Maeda, and Brett Anderson a lot of money to round out an already deep rotation. They could do things like spend money on Hector Olivera, then use him as bait to acquire Alex Wood. They have the smarts. And they have the money to make those smarts go way further than they did for Friedman in Tampa, with far more margin for error.

The Gonzalez trade was where that all started. It was an announcement that the Dodgers had changed, that the Frank McCourt era was over, but they didn’t look like it was a unique blueprint. They were going to be a variation on a big-market archetype that we’ve seen before, no big deal.

We had no idea, though. The Gonzalez trade was a start, but it wasn’t the end. The Dodgers have evolved, and it’s scary as all hell. Five years ago, we knew they were different. We couldn’t have known how different.