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Dodgers shed salary and clear roster in blockbuster trade, but it has to lead to more

Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, and Alex Wood sent to Reds in 7-player, salary-clearing deal

MLB: World Series-Los Angeles Dodgers at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

For the second year in a row, the Dodgers have made a Christmastime trade that was more financially motivated than anything else.

The Dodgers traded outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, pitcher Alex Wood, and catcher Kyle Farmer to the Reds for the salary of Homer Bailey plus minor league prospects Jeter Downs and Josiah Gray. Bailey — who has battled injuries and has a 6.25 ERA over the last four seasons in just 46 total starts — won’t pitch for the Dodgers. As a condition to waive his no-trade clause, Bailey was granted his release and is now a free agent. The Dodgers owe him $23 million in 2019 plus a $5 million buyout of his 2020 option.

Even in taking on Bailey’s $28 million in guaranteed money, the Dodgers from a cash standpoint saved about $7 million in this trade. From a competitive balance tax standpoint, the Dodgers’ 2019 payroll decreased by roughly $16 million.

The threshold for the competitive balance tax in 2019 is $206 million. The Dodgers, should their remaining arbitration-eligible players get paid their projections, will be at roughly $185 million or so after this deal, leaving them room to maneuver.

In reality they have as much room as they choose, with any amount over the threshold taxed at a 20-percent rate. That rate reset after the Dodgers paid a total of $150 million in competitive balance tax from 2013-17, having the highest payroll in the sport for five years running. But they stayed under the $197 million threshold in 2018 thanks to a different December trade involving Kemp, this one a five-player accounting trick with the Braves that was cash neutral but lopped roughly $24 million off the Dodgers’ CBT number last season.

This is where we are at now. The Dodgers, with their $8.3 billion (with a B) television contract while playing in the second largest market in the country, are making moves to save money.

Put another way, a two-time defending National League pennant winner traded three regulars a year away from free agency for a player they released and two prospects. This isn’t the type of moves big market teams make, unless followed up with something else.

This trade with the Reds has to be the first domino in a series of moves for the Dodgers this winter. Los Angeles had a surplus of both outfielders and starting pitchers, so a move like this was definitely predictable.

“I just think they’re talented enough where things will lineup and make sense, where it works out well for our team and an acquiring team,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said at the winter meetings less than two weeks before this trade. “I can’t see [not making a trade] happening.”

The knee-jerk reaction to the Dodgers clearing salary is that this clears the way for making a run at free agent Bryce Harper, but even that seems implausible if the club plans to avoid paying the competitive balance tax again.

As it stands, the Dodgers after dealing Puig and Kemp still have Joc Pederson, Chris Taylor, Cody Bellinger, Kiké Hernandez, Alex Verdugo and Andrew Toles in the outfield, with Taylor, Hernandez and Bellinger capable of playing the infield as well.

“We needed to make some moves in the outfield. With [Max] Muncy coming on and Bellinger moving more to the outfield, we had enough depth to field two starting outfields,” Friedman said Friday. “It’s much more functional at this point. Having six-plus outfielders isn’t fair to anybody.”

Maybe this move clears a path for Verdugo, a consensus top-50 prospect in baseball who is still just 22 with two years of Triple-A experience under his belt.

“I think he’s done everything he can control to put himself in a position to take down a significant role at the major league level,” Friedman said of Verdugo.

On the whole, second base was a dud offensively for the Dodgers last season, hitting just .209/.307/.332 as a group, ranking last in MLB in batting average, 29th in slugging percentage, 28th in OPS (.638), tied for 23rd in wRC+ (78), and 22nd in home runs (13).

The position could in theory be filled by Taylor and/or Hernandez, though they only started a combined 27 games at second base in 2018.

“I think we have some very good options at second base,” manager Dave Roberts said at the winter meetings. “Kiké is a plus defender at second base. We like Taylor over there.”

Someone D.J. LeMahieu at second base, or A.J. Pollock if they still want to add an outfielder, seems more like someone the Dodgers would bring on board than a big-ticket item like Harper. But neither is the biggest hole on the team.

The Dodgers’ biggest need is at catcher, a position the club has excelled at for the last few years.

Dodgers MLB catching ranks

Year HR BB OPS wRC+ Adj. fielding runs
Year HR BB OPS wRC+ Adj. fielding runs
2015 23 (t-5th) 97 (1st) .771 (2nd) 120 (1st) +24.4 (3rd)
2016 28 (3rd) 79 (2nd) .740 (13th) 102 (t-7th) +28.0 (1st)
2017 29 (5th) 71 (2nd) .822 (3rd) 118 (3rd) +42.1 (1st)
2018 28 (2nd) 91 (1st) .738 (1st) 117 (1st) +27.2 (2nd)
*Adj. fielding runs above average Stats: FanGraphs & Baseball Prospectus

Yasmani Grandal was the primary driver of those catching numbers the last four years, starting two-thirds of the games, but is now a free agent. He declined the Dodgers’ qualifying offer and is expected to sign a multi-year contract somewhere else.

The Dodgers are looking for more of a short term solution at catcher, with top prospects Keibert Ruiz and Will Smith waiting in the wings.

Ruiz is the more offensive-minded of the two, but the switch-hitter is just 20 years old. Both would be best served with more development time in the minors, though Smith especially could contribute at some point in 2019.

“I think he could catch defensively in the major leagues right now, and be upper echelon,” Freidman said. “We think he’ll grow more potential with the bat by getting more at-bats and more reps, we think it will be helpful to put him in better position to get to the major league level and hit the ground running.”

The bridge to Smith and Ruiz is also dependent on Austin Barnes rebounding after a terrible season. He followed up an excellent .289/.408/.486 year in 2017 by hitting just .205/.329/.290 in 2018.

“He had a bad year offensively, and he knows it,” Roberts said. “Him behind the plate, blocking, receiving, relationship with the pitchers, is next level, is elite. So I expect him to come back ready to compete. I trust Austin, and he’s a winning player for me.”

The big fish in the backstop market is J.T. Realmuto of the Marlins, with two years before free agency and coming off a stellar season in Miami. His cost would be mostly in prospects, with the Dodgers adding two more minor leaguers in the trade with the Reds.

“The catcher spot is still something we have to address,” Friedman said Friday. “I still expect us to add someone from the outside.”