We’ve all seen it in various TV shows or movies; the main character is sitting on the floor of some room, surrounded by various pieces of hardware after being challenged to assemble some piece of furniture from vague and unhelpful instructions. And then, usually after a cutaway or some kind of time-lapse, we see the proud main character standing next to the completed product, showing off the fruit of his labor to some secondary character, who then rains on his parade by pointing out that while the product looks nice, there are a few leftover pieces that he somehow managed to exclude from the build.
That’s kind of what this Dodgers team feels like at the moment. On paper, this team could be very good, especially if Joc Pederson takes over as the regular center fielder and hits as well as the projections think he might. At that point, you have Carl Crawford and Yasiel Puig in the corners, with an infield of Yasmani Grandal, Adrian Gonzalez, Howie Kendrick, Jimmy Rollins, and Juan Uribe. That group gives them above average projections at every position, the kind of strong supporting cast that can help one of baseball’s best rotations go after the NL West title. So that group looks pretty good.
But then, you look around, and there’s Andre Ethier hanging around, talking about wanting to play everyday and getting paid like a guy who should be a regular. But Ethier isn’t even the team’s best fourth outfielder, as Scott Van Slyke fills that role and complements the two left-handed hitting starters, plus Chris Heisey is hanging around as center field depth, providing a quality defensive option who could split time with Pederson if he proved to need a soft landing against good left-handers.
There are similar issues on the infield. The starters are basically locked in, and Justin Turner’s tremendous 2014 performance lines him up as the first guy off the bench in case Uribe, Rollins, or Kendrick need a day off. Darwin Barney is around for defensive acumen, giving the team a glove-first option to complement Turner’s bat-first profile off the bench. Those two make for a nice set of reserve infielders, but keeping both means that there isn’t really a spot for Alex Guerrero, who just publicly said he has no interest in being optioned back to the minors again this year.
And because of a provision in his contract, Guerrero has the right to refuse such an assignment this year, meaning that the Dodgers have to carry him on their 25 man roster, trade him to another team that will do so, or release him, which would mean they’d still have to pay the remaining $14 million — $4 million this year, then $5 million each of the next two years — on his contract without getting anything in return. In most cases, when you have a player in a situation like this, a trade is the most likely option, which is why Ethier’s name is going to pop up in rumors all spring long.
But there’s another provision in Guerrero’s contract that makes this even more difficult. According to Cot’s Contracts, if Guerrero is traded, he also has the right to opt-out of his deal following the season, making himself a free agent in the process. In other words, the Dodgers own Guerrero’s rights for three more years, but any team trading for him would only be guaranteed one year of team control, with the final two years essentially being a player option that would only be picked up if Guerrero flopped.
That’s not exactly an attractive trade chip. If you acquire him and he’s good, he hits the open market next winter and gets a big raise. If he’s terrible, it costs you $14 million to find out that he’s worthless. Trading for Guerrero is a big ball of downside with very few positive outcomes, and from a production standpoint, he projects similarly to Rickie Weeks, who signed a one year deal for just $2 million in guaranteed money as a free agent. Like Weeks, Guerrero is theoretically a second baseman whose glove might make him a better fit for a corner spot, though he doesn’t have any experience in the outfield. And while Guerrero’s projections suggest he’s something like a league average hitter, Weeks has the major league track record to back those projections up, so there was less risk involved in signing him than there would be in trading for Guerrero.
The market just valued a similar player at $2 million on a one year deal, so it’s extremely unlikely that any team would be interested in acquiring a significant chunk of Guerrero’s contract. If the Dodgers decide that he’s not better than Turner or Barney, then they really have no leverage, as their only option would be to release him and pay the full $14 million anyway. The longer this drags out, the less likely it is that the Dodgers find a suitor for Guerrero, and the more likely that they’ll just have to cut him.
Especially because they are also rumored to have significant interest in Hector Olivera, another Cuban infielder who will be declared a free agent in the very near future. According to Ken Rosenthal, Olivera has even taken a physical for the Dodgers, so there is almost certainly legitimate interest in bringing him into the fold. If the Dodgers signed Olivera, the move would almost instantly end any chance the team had of keeping Guerrero, and other teams could simply sit around and wait for the Dodgers to cut him rather than give up any value to trade for him.
So, realistically, the Dodgers should be trying to trade Guerrero as soon as possible, even if it only gets them a few million in savings. They’ve already shown that they are willing to pay players to play for a competitor — Matt Kemp, Dan Haren, and Dee Gordon are all still effectively on LA’s books for 2015 — in exchange for getting some value in return. So it seems like maybe there’s a way to structure a deal that would would give the Dodgers some upside while also allowing Guerrero to land on a roster where he could actually get some playing time.
Let’s say, for instance, that Andrew Friedman agreed to pay all of Guerrero’s 2016 and 2017 commitments, only asking the acquiring team to pick up part of Guerrero’s 2015 salary; say $2 million, to line him up with Weeks’ free agent price. That way, the team getting Guerrero is only paying $2 million plus some lower level prospect to take a shot on his short-term value, plus the right to get first crack at re-signing him if he plays well and opts-out of his deal. At just a couple million in total commitment, he’s potentially intriguing enough to go after.
The best part of this structure for the Dodgers? They don’t even need to get much back to get some upside in a deal like this. Their upside comes from getting Guerrero to opt-out of his deal next winter, which would then remove the $10 million in future payments they’d agreed to be on the hook for in the trade. $10 million isn’t a ton of money, but given their placement relative to the luxury tax, it would actually translate to $15 million in actual savings for the organization. Even without getting any real talent in return, that’s a significant enough savings to move him if given the chance.
So, where should the Dodgers be trying to send Guerrero in order to maximize his chances of opting out? The key is finding a team that has weaknesses at 2B, 3B, and LF, so that he’d get as many chances to play as possible, even if he proved incapable of handling one or two of those spots defensively. And luckily for the Dodgers, there’s a team with just that set of weaknesses in their own back yard.
The Angels are currently counting on some combination of Josh Rutledge, Grant Green, and Johnny Giavotella to man second base, making it one of the weakest 2B groups in all of baseball. They have the perpetually injured David Freese manning third base with no real backup behind him, and now that Josh Hamilton is both injured and maybe suspended, Matt Joyce is being pushed to left field, which means that there’s an obvious need for the right-handed half of a platoon there.
The Blue Jays could also theoretically be a fit due to their black hole at second base and lack of outfield depth, though third base is obviously closed off with Josh Donaldson around. The Rockies could use a second baseman and would give Guerrero a great chance to put up some big raw numbers, but they wouldn’t have room for him at third or in the outfield. The Rangers could potentially use him in left field and as depth behind Rougned Odor at second base, and also would provide a nice hitting environment for him to thrive in.
But to me, the Angels seem like the team with the most obvious need at the three spots Guerrero could theoretically play. Maybe call Jerry DiPoto first, and then use the Rangers, Blue Jays, and Rockies as leverage to try and get as strong a return as possible. But really, the best plan for the Dodgers is to try and ship Guerrero somewhere he’s most likely to play, increasing the odds that he opts out. Getting more savings off this year’s payroll or getting a slightly better prospect in return would be nice, but primarily, the Dodgers should be looking to give Guerrero his best chance to play and play well.
In this case, Guerrero’s most valuable to the Dodgers while playing for some other team besides the Dodgers. The longer he stays in their camp, the more likely it is that they’ll just have to cut him in a month. The sooner they can ship him to a team that would give him regular playing time, the best it is for everyone involved.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.