Every Friday, for a couple of hours, I host a FanGraphs live baseball chat. Yesterday, I held my first chat in the aftermath of the winter meetings. The previous Friday, I held my last chat before the winter meetings. Within that chat, here’s a question that popped up:
We might never know Tom’s true identity. But, Tom, if that is your real name — good going. You came awfully close.
With five players involved, this is a big trade for two teams to make. But then, if we’re going to be realistic, this isn’t about the players at all. This is a swap of money, or, more accurately, this is a swap of debt. There is short-term debt, and there is shorter-term debt.
To put it all together, for ease:
By name value, this could look like a blockbuster. Kemp is a two-time All-Star, and once finished as an MVP runner-up. Gonzalez is a five-time All-Star, and he’s been one of the better first basemen of his era. Not that long ago, the Dodgers gave McCarthy $48 million as a free agent. They also gave Kazmir $48 million as a free agent. There’s a lot of baseball history here. These players, combined, have made hundreds, if not thousands of headlines.
But Gonzalez is already a free agent. The Braves designated him for assignment so fast that it was part of the initial press release. Kemp is unlikely to play a game for the Dodgers, since they’re already looking to flip him, if not drop him outright. Kazmir didn’t pitch in the majors this past season. McCarthy did, but he threw just 92.2 innings. Culberson batted all of 15 times before making the playoff roster because Corey Seager was hurt. All of these players combined for a 2017 WAR of +0.7. It was all thanks to McCarthy, and his 16 adequate starts.
In other words, this is a baseball trade, sure, but it’s not the kind of baseball trade you dream up as a teenager. It’s not the kind of baseball trade you can identify as a turning point in a team’s run to a championship. We’re used to examining trades by looking at the talent. To examine this trade, you just have to look at the contracts. The Dodgers are taking mostly dead money for 2018 and spreading it out over the next two years. The Braves, in turn, are doing the opposite of that. That’s the bulk of it, and anything the Braves get on the field is gravy.
You can imagine it was the Dodgers who instigated this. Gonzalez was basically out of a job. And the Dodgers have wanted to drop payroll below the 2018 competitive-balance-tax threshold, of $197 million. The Dodgers have gone over the threshold five years in a row, meaning they’ve had to face some of the stiffest penalties. The Dodgers have been paying a minimum of a 50% tax on the overage. Dropping below the threshold for one season would reset the overage penalty to 20%. For the Dodgers, there would be millions of dollars at stake.
So here’s how this works. Gonzalez’s 2018 salary belongs to the Braves now. Then his contract is up. The same is true for McCarthy, and the same is true for Kazmir. Culberson does come with some years of team control. The Dodgers are also sending the Braves $4.5 million. And Kemp’s 2018 salary now belongs to the Dodgers. So does Kemp’s 2019 salary. In each year, he’s due $21.5 million.
Arriving at the correct, specific numbers isn’t easy, for a variety of reasons, but as far as anyone ought to care, this exchange is more or less cash-neutral. That is, neither the Braves nor the Dodgers are taking on the greater obligation. But the Dodgers are spreading it over the next two years, reducing their 2018 payroll figure. The Braves will face the greater short-term burden, and then, come 2019, there will be sweet, sweet freedom. The Braves ditch a future obligation, giving them more financial flexibility a year from now. The Dodgers assume a future obligation, but they, too, will get more financial flexibility a year from now, and beyond, because they likely won’t have to pay the most severe competitive-balance taxes. All they’re worried about is getting the overage penalties to reset.
From the looks of things, the Dodgers are now below the payroll threshold, and they should be able to stay there. They like the team they already have, and if they want to make a significant addition, they could clear more space by packaging Kemp with a prospect. The Dodgers certainly don’t need very much, as they’re positioned as clear NL West favorites. This is all being done with an eye to the future. Next offseason, Bryce Harper, for example, is expected to be a free agent. Manny Machado is expected to be a free agent. All sorts of good players are expected to be free agents, and, significantly, Clayton Kershaw could opt out. The Dodgers are presumably planning to spend big, so resetting the overage penalties now could and should eventually save them eight figures. All it requires is one year of dipping down.
The current starting rotation has had its depth slightly reduced. The current infield has had its depth slightly reduced. Yet the Dodgers’ system is sufficiently deep the team should carry forward just fine. And though Kemp doesn’t fit on the Dodgers at all, he is still a playable hitter. He’s just maybe the worst of all the defensive outfielders. Kemp should end up in the American League, and the Dodgers could invest any possible savings in an extra arm. I can’t imagine they’re greatly concerned.
In a way, you could look at this trade and say the Braves are just doing the Dodgers a favor. It’s not as if the Braves are receiving a prospect for their troubles. Culberson will be 29 in the second week of April. His career major-league WAR is -1.2. Kazmir is a complete unknown, and his contract is up next fall. McCarthy’s contract is also up next fall. But there are two positives here. McCarthy, when healthy, remains a modestly effective starting pitcher, so he could give the Braves’ volatile rotation a little short-term stability. It’s something, even if he’s not the sort of pitcher who can get dealt at the deadline for a haul. And there’s the bigger matter of clearing Kemp’s 2019 obligation. I’ve seen it written that moving Kemp clears the way for Ronald Acuna. If that were the priority, Kemp could’ve just been designated for assignment. But there’s great appeal in just having more money to play with down the road. It will, again, be a great free-agent market. The Braves should be in a more competitive position. This is something the Dodgers wanted, but it’s also something the Braves wanted. That’s how trades get agreed to in the first place.
This isn’t a fun kind of trade. Not in the classic sense. None of these players are likely to matter too much, in the grand scheme of things. But what this trade is is creative, and it helps to set up both the Braves and the Dodgers to be major offseason spenders going into 2019. Maybe you’d prefer the Braves to have gotten a prospect or something. Maybe you think the Braves had more leverage than it seems. There were only so many teams that would’ve been willing to help the Dodgers out. But ultimately, this still seems pretty much win-win. Next year’s winter is going to be a gas.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.