All winter, there were rumors that the Dodgers were open to trading Andre Ethier. All winter, the Dodgers declared that there was nothing to those rumors, and that they weren’t having second thoughts about the five year, $85 million contract they gave him last June. When spring training rolled around and Cuban import Yasiel Puig became The Hot New Thing, those rumors picked up again, since the Dodgers will need to open up a corner outfield spot for Puig at some point in the not too distant future.
But, LA remained patient and optioned the 22-year-old Puig to Double-A, giving him some experience against professional pitchers without throwing him immediately into the fire. They also gave Ethier a chance to play most everyday, and while they were unlikely to admit it publicly, they likely hoped that he could get off to a strong enough start to re-establish some trade value after his power fell off in the second half last year.
Today, though, manager-of-the-moment Don Mattingly sent a pretty clear signal that he is not Andre Ethier’s biggest fan, and you can probably start the clocking ticking on both of their exits from Dodger Land.
Manager Don Mattingly benched Andre Ethier for the Dodgers’ series finale at Miller Park on Wednesday, saying he did so because he wanted to field a lineup “that’s going to fight and compete the whole day.”
This will be the third time Ethier is out of the lineup on this six-game trip. The Dodgers are off on Thursday.
Asked if he was trying to send a message to Ethier, Mattingly replied, “We’re last place in the National League West. Last year, at this point, we’re playing a lineup that basically has nobody in it that fights and competes and battles you every day for every inch of the field. We talk about it as an organization. We’ve got to find the club with talent that will fight and compete like the club that doesn’t have that talent. If there’s going to be a message sent, it’s going to be over a period of time.”
Mattingly wouldn’t say if Ethier is now a part-time player.
“For me, today, I’m putting out my lineup that I feel is going to be the most competitive and going to compete the hardest,” he said.
Asked if Ethier is no longer a player he automatically writes into the lineup every day, Mattingly said, “Well, he wasn’t today.”
Does Mattingly think Ethier won’t fight?
“I can’t really say that,” he said. “I don’t really want to say that, but we’ve got to compete.”
Scott Van Slyke drew the start over Ethier today, even though a right-handed pitcher is on the mound. Ethier has traditionally gotten his days off against left-handers, as he has struggled against southpaws in his career. This is clearly not a match-up decision, though. Mattingly has basically told the world that he doesn’t think his best line-up against right-handed pitching involves his $85 million left-handed hitting right fielder.
Mattingly doesn’t seem long for this job, with his comments today likely being the final icing on the cake, and most national columnists see him taking the fall for the Dodgers struggles sooner than later. It is possible that Mattingly’s replacement will restore Ethier to the starting line-up. More likely, I think, is that both of them are soon shown the door.
If there’s one thing the Dodgers clearly don’t have any shortage of, it’s money. As challenging as moving Ethier’s contract might seem — he’s hit just .270/.346/.415 over the last calendar year, spanning 619 plate appearances, so this is no longer just a slump — the Dodgers have the financial capability to eat a significant chunk of his contract in order to move him and create a spot in the line-up for Puig. And while Ethier is certainly not worth his full salary, it’s not so far removed from the realm of reason that he couldn’t possibly be traded.
Even over those last 365 days where Ethier has demonstrated marginal power, he’s still put up a 111 wRC+, and both ZIPS and Steamer forecast him to hit at about that level for the rest of the season. Disappointing Andre Ethier is still roughly an average player, maybe even a tick above for this year, though he’s on the wrong side of 30 and will probably be below average before too long.
Given all the money in baseball right now, solid average veterans go for about $10 million per year in free agency. Over the winter, Torii Hunter got 2/26, Adam LaRoche got 2/24, and Ryan Ludwick got 2/15. Ethier fits in pretty well with those guys, though he’s a little younger and has a slightly better track record than the latter two, so his market value might be closer to the high end of that AAV range. Nick Swisher, a better version of the same kind of player, got 4/56 over the winter. Ethier’s not worth that, but he might have gotten something not too different from Swisher’s deal had the Dodgers let him hit the open market this winter.
Spitballing it, I’d say Ethier’s probably “worth” something like 3/36. That means he’s paid something close to fair salary this year ($13.5 million), will be overpaid by a few million next year ($15.5 million), and then starts to be significantly overpaid starting in 2015 ($18 million). The last couple of years ($36.5 million, including the inevitable buyout of the sixth year option) are a total albatross, as Ethier probably won’t even be worth starting at that point in his career, so he’ll either be the world’s most expensive pinch hitter or will be paid a lot of money to do something besides play baseball. But, if the Dodgers offered to just completely cover years four and five, plus pay the buyout on year six, I would imagine they could drum up some interest in Ethier.
At that point, accounting for what has already been paid out in 2013, other teams would be on the hook for $43 million over the next three years, and now the deal is close enough to fair market value that it only takes the Dodgers accepting a mid-level 2013 salary in return to make it an easy swap.
The Royals could offer to swap Jeff Francoeur for Ethier in a one-for-one deal, injecting some life into their offense by replacing their biggest offensive hole. The Mariners could offer up Franklin Gutierrez, who has been displaced in center field by players not made of glass. Or maybe the Rangers would take the first few years of Ethier’s deal in order to move David Murphy back into a fourth outfielder role, using some of the money they didn’t spend over the winter in order to add one more bat to make a World Series run.
The Ethier extension was an overpay the instant it was signed, but the Dodgers financial resources give them the chance to show just how sunk costs work. They’re not getting a good return on that investment, but they have the ability to pay Ethier to play for another team in a few years, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if they took it. Given that there aren’t likely to be too many decent hitters on the market this summer, Ethier might appeal to a few franchises as long the Dodgers agree to cover the last couple years of the contract.
Changes are coming in LA. The manager is almost certainly on the way, and he might have just helped take his unwanted right fielder with him.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.