The Giants want to trade for Giancarlo Stanton. So do the Cardinals. Both teams have reportedly agreed to the “framework” of deals with the Marlins, meaning that if Stanton waived his no-trade clause, a deal could be completed to either team in short order. But as of this point, Giancarlo Stanton is still a Marlin, and the prevailing line of thought is that he’s stalling for time, hoping that his hometown Dodgers decide to get in on the action.
Certainly, Stanton would make the Dodgers better. He produced more WAR by himself (+6.9) than the team got from their entire outfield — Cody Bellinger and Chris Taylor racked up a good chunk of their WAR while playing the infield — and would certainly represent an upgrade over some kind of Joc Pederson/Kiké Hernandez platoon that the team is currently slated to run out in left field. By keeping him away from the Giants, they wouldn’t have to subject their left-handed rotation to facing him 19 times a year. And they’d again be the clear favorites to win the NL West, and probably the NL pennant as well.
But to this point, it doesn’t seem like the Dodgers have gotten involved in a serious way. While things could always change, LA currently seems somewhat content with the possibility of Stanton joining their arch-rivals, preferring to continue their plan of spreading their payroll around rather than concentrating their spending on a few top-tier players. But in looking at their situation, I think there’s actually a case to be made for the Dodgers to swoop in and take Stanton for themselves.
It’s impossible to talk about Stanton without looking forward to next year’s free agent class. A number of teams that may have otherwise been in on Stanton this winter are likely saving their cash in anticipation of a big spending spree next winter, when Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Clayton Kershaw, and a host of others make up maybe the best free agent class in baseball history. The Dodgers will almost certainly want to retain Kershaw, but may also want to bid on Harper — Machado and Donaldson are tougher fits with Justin Turner and Corey Seager around — and taking Stanton’s contract now would probably force the team to choose between Kershaw and Harper next winter, rather than potentially landing both.
So for LA, this isn’t as much a calculation of how much better Stanton makes them this year, as it is a calculation of how potential value they might be surrendering by limiting their free agent options next year. The Dodgers’ cost to acquire Stanton isn’t just the money they’d have to pay Stanton and whatever luxury tax payments came along with taking most of his deal; it’s the opportunity cost of maybe not signing Harper next year, or having to let Kershaw walk if they decide they really do want Harper anyway.
But if Stanton really does want to go to LA this winter, and is willing to use his no-trade clause to make that happen, it’s not too hard to imagine a scenario where taking Stanton’s deal is a better use of funds than chasing Harper anyway.
By any reasonable estimate, Harper is going cost more than $400 million to sign, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he ends up north of $500 million. The top-end AAV for recent free agents has been pushing $35 million per year, and Harper is both better and younger than the guys who got those salaries. He’s going to crack $40 million a year in salary; the only question is how many guaranteed years he gets. 10 feels like the bare minimum, with 12 or 13 more likely, and 14 or 15 not entirely out of the question if he’ll take a discount on on the AAV.
Because the luxury tax calculations are based on AAV, there’s an incentive in place for teams to go with longer deals, essentially deferring money to unproductive out years, in order to reduce the tax they’ll pay on these monster deals. So I wouldn’t be shocked if someone offered Harper 15 years in order to get him below $40 million in AAV, especially if it was a team like LA that was pushing up against the surtax thresholds. Remember that, in the new CBA, repeat offenders that go $40 million over the CBT threshold pay almost a dollar for dollar tax on those overages and their top draft pick gets moved down 10 spots. For teams in the Dodgers position, AAV is almost as important as the total guarantee.
Just taking Stanton’s remaining contract would add a $29.5 million AAV to the Dodgers’ CBT calculation, but if he exercises his leverage and says it’s LA or he stays in Miami, it’s possible that the Dodgers could strike a deal where the Marlins keep enough of the contract on their books to get Stanton’s part of the Dodgers calculation under $25 million. And Harper isn’t going to sign for anywhere near $25 million per year.
According to Cots, the Dodgers current CBT commitments for 2019 stand at around $101 million, but that doesn’t include any money for arbitration-eligibles or pre-arb big leaguers, who will cost the team about $35 million in 2018. So if we assume the team will spend similarly in arbitration next winter, they’d slot in at around $135 million based on current expenditures. That does include Kershaw’s $30 million, though, which he’ll likely opt-out of, and if the Dodgers want to re-sign him, he’s almost certainly going to push his AAV up over $40 million too.
So a 2019 Dodgers team with Kershaw back in the fold stands at roughly $145 million in CBT commitments, and that’s without re-signing any of their other players who will reach free agency next winter, including Yasiel Puig, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Logan Forsythe, each of whom are probably regulars on the 2018 squad. Even if they’re not bringing those guys back specifically, their absence would create enough holes on the roster that the team will need money to allocate to fill some of those voids. And thus, it’s basically impossible to imagine a scenario where they could land Stanton now, keep Kershaw, and still chase Harper.
But if you take Stanton at around $25 million per year, there’s still plenty of room to bring back Kershaw at $40 million per year and still fill out the rest of the roster with high-level players. And while Harper is a better long-term bet than Stanton — he’s three years younger and doesn’t rely as much on pure brutalization of the baseball, which seems like a young man’s skill — the short-term differences might not be that dramatic. And for the next few years, Stanton at $25 million per year could be a better value than Harper at $40 million per year.
Stanton’s opt-out limits his long-term value, of course, as the only way the Dodgers retain the contract past 2020 is if he gets hurt or regresses heavily. But with a team relying heavily on Rich Hill in the rotation, Justin Turner to be an offensive star, and Kenley Jansen to be an elite reliever, weighing short-term rewards more heavily than long-term payoffs seems perfectly reasonable.
And, of course, there’s the primary difference between the two: Stanton helps this year, when the team can be pretty sure they’re going to be World Series contenders again. Keeping the money available for Harper in 2019 means that the team would have to bet on lesser players in the last year they definitely have Kershaw. And deferring value into the future might not be the best plan for a team with this many win-now pieces.
If I was Andrew Friedman, I wouldn’t offer to take the whole contract or give up significant high-end pieces to land Stanton. But if I could get the Marlins to keep $45 million of the post-opt-out money on their books and take Joc Pederson as the primary piece going back to Miami, then making a deal for Stanton might be a better plan than chasing Harper next winter.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.