There’s a weird narrative going around with regards to the Dodgers right now. Somehow, the team’s lavish spending on international prospects has been construed as a sign that the team isn’t committed to winning in the short term. Or something. I’ll let Dylan Hernandez’s words from the LA Times try to explain it better.
This was the risk the front office assumed with its long-term plan, which is to be in 2020-something what the World Series favorite Chicago Cubs are now. That strategy explains why the pitching staff consists of primarily spare parts while tens of millions of dollars are being invested in Latin American teenagers.
There’s some logic to the idea, except you wonder if the team’s decision makers are looking too far ahead to recognize the opportunity right in front of them — specifically, that Clayton Kershaw is theirs for at least three more seasons.
At the end of the 2018 season, Kershaw will have the option of doing what Zack Greinke did over the winter and void the remainder of his contract. Greinke didn’t return. Kershaw might not, either.
The three-year period coincides with Kershaw’s prime years; the three-time Cy Young Award winner turned 28 on Saturday.
It’s puzzling why the Dodgers aren’t maximizing their chances of winning a World Series while this once-in-a-generation pitcher is on their roster.
Let’s look at some facts.
The Dodgers are the three-time defending NL West champions. Over those three years, they’ve won 92, 94, and 92 games, and their 278 wins over that span rank behind only the Cardinals (287) and Pirates (280) in MLB. The next closest NL West team, the Giants, has won 248 games, meaning they’ve won an average of 10 more games per season than their division rival.
Of course, things haven’t gone as well in the postseason, with the team getting knocked out in the Division Series twice and getting eliminated in the League Championship Series once. But judging a team’s commitment to winning based on how they perform in the postseason is a bit silly, given how small the margin is between advancing and being eliminated in a short series. Last year, they got eliminated in a winner-take-all Game 5 by a 3-2 margin, so their season literally ended because they got outscored by a single run.
In 2014, they got eliminated in the first round not because of Kershaw’s supporting cast, but because Kershaw himself didn’t pitch well, allowing 11 runs in 12 2/3 innings pitched; the Dodgers lost both games he started, which made advancing all but impossible. The story is mostly the same in 2013, as the team lost the NLCS 4-2 to the Cardinals, with the team losing both of Kershaw’s starts, as he allowed 8 runs in 10 innings pitched.
I don’t think it’s particularly fair to blame Kershaw for the team’s lack of postseason success the last three years, but it’s also a bit absurd to act like the Dodgers supporting cast dropped the ball in October; the Dodgers have won three and lost five of Kershaw’s postseason eight postseason starts over the last three years, but won five and lost six of their non-Kershaw starts. If we’re going to judge the Dodgers commitment to winning while they have Kershaw not based on their regular season success, but on their postseason failures, we have to acknowledge Kershaw’s role in those failures, and admit that there probably wasn’t any kind of roster the team could have built around him that would have advanced deep in the playoffs without Kershaw pitching like Kershaw.
Hernandez laments the fact that the team let Greinke leave, stating that “recent history suggests the Dodgers have been short a frontline starter.” Wait, really? The team had two of the three best pitchers in the National League last year; how many frontline starters is a team supposed to have now? The Royals won the World Series with a mediocre-at-best rotation. The Giants won the 2014 World Series with Madison Bumgarner and the seven dwarves. The 2013 Red Sox won the World Series with Jon Lester, John Lackey, and then Jake Peavy and Clay Buchholz trying to get through three or four innings at a time without melting down. The idea that the results of the postseason suggests that rotation depth has been a key factor in emerging victorious simply isn’t supported by the evidence.
But it’s clear that Hernandez isn’t a fan of letting Greinke leave “while tens of millions of dollars are being invested in Latin American teenagers.” Of course, equivocating signing bonuses for young talent with major league payroll offers a false dichotomy; the rules surrounding spending are simply not the same. Because the Dodgers have been running the highest payrolls the game has ever seen — a fact not mentioned in Hernandez’s column, weirdly — they are subject to a 50% tax on all big league expenditures. So, Zack Greinke’s $34 million per year AAV? That’s actually $51 million in real costs for the team. $51 million per year, for six years. Do you think Zack Greinke’s decline years are really worth $300 million to the Dodgers?
The taxes the team pay on the signing bonuses for the international players are a one-time cost, not a recurring fee that they’ll owe for as long as they have those players. And while it’s easy to say that Yadier Alvarez and Yusniel Diaz don’t provide any tangible benefit to the team in 2016, we literally just saw the team turn recent international expenditures into big league roster upgrades last year, as they signed-then-traded Hector Olivera for Alex Wood. Wood, of course, didn’t pitch particularly well down the stretch, so you can quibble with the big league players the team is targeting if you want, but we can’t pretend that international expenditures aren’t producing any benefit for the big league roster.
Hernandez has taken the Dodgers decision to invest in young talent as some kind of sign that the team is more concerned about the future than the present while ignoring the fact that, at present, the Dodgers are still an excellent team. Our Playoff Odds forecasts have them as a 93 win team headed into the season, with an 87% chance of reaching the postseason; the Cubs are the only team in baseball with better playoff odds, according to our projections. Think our projections are bunk? Baseball Prospectus also has the Dodgers at 93 wins, one win behind the Cubs for the best projected record in baseball. Clay Davenport’s projections put the Dodgers at 92 wins.
And these forecasts are based on current depth charts, so they are already accounting for Brett Anderson being out for mostly the whole year, Andre Ethier breaking his leg, Hyun-Jin Ryu’s return being pushed back, Mike Bolsinger straining his oblique, and all the other things that have gone wrong for the Dodgers at camp. These low-90s forecasts are what the Dodgers are expected to win even accounting for their disastrous spring.
Obviously, the Dodgers depth is going to be tested, and they’re going to need guys like Wood and Kenta Maeda to pitch well, or else things really could go off the rails. But despite the injuries, the sky is not falling in LA. The Dodgers are still a very good baseball team, just like they’ve been the last three years, and they still have an excellent chance at giving Clayton Kershaw another shot at postseason redemption.
But perhaps the most befuddling aspect of this story is that there absolutely is a team in Los Angeles that is wasting the prime years of a generational player. Mike Trout is the best player alive, as valuable as two or three All-Stars put together, and the Angels still look like a sub-.500 team. In fact, they’ve not won even a single postseason game since Trout debuted, and this year, the Angels are surrounding him with a supporting cast that would make up the worst team in the league if Trout got injured. Rather than taking advantage of Trout’s remarkable production, the Angels are rolling with replacement level players at multiple positions, all because Arte Moreno has decided not to pay the luxury tax. You know, the one the Dodgers have been paying for years, as they rack up division title after division title.
I get that the Dodgers aren’t doing things the traditional way, and it’s not as easy to write about the value of young depth as it is to praise teams who overpay aging veterans who newspaper readers are familiar with, but this idea that the Dodgers are wasting Kershaw’s prime is just factually incorrect. If an LA writer wants to write that story, he has every chance to do so, but Hernandez picked the wrong LA franchise to criticize.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.