Offseason In Review: Los Angeles Dodgers

After somewhat quietly spending over a hundred million dollars in free agency, and not so quietly committing about double that to extend their best pitcher, the Dodgers return a high-priced, star-studded team that will be disappointed with anything less than a championship.

Major League Signings

  • Alexander Guerrero, 2B: four years, $28MM.
  • Erisbel Arruebarrena, SS: five years, $25MM.
  • Juan Uribe, 3B: two years, $15MM.
  • J.P. Howell, LHP: two years, $11.25MM.
  • Brian Wilson, RHP: one year, $10MM. Includes $9MM player option for 2015.
  • Dan Haren, RHP: one year, $10MM.
  • Chris Perez, RHP: one year, $2.3MM.
  • Jamey Wright, RHP: one year, $1.8MM.
  • Paul Maholm, LHP: one year, $1.5MM.
  • Total Spend: $113.85MM (Including Wilson option)
Notable Minor League Signings
Trades and Claims
Notable Losses
Needs Addressed
After the ownership change, massive spending, and public attention on the game's apparent new force, the Dodgers had a mandate going into this offseason: lock down homegrown ace Clayton Kershaw. GM Ned Colletti got it done, signing the big lefty to a record-setting pact that will keep him in Los Angeles through his age-32 season … at least, unless he opts out two years prior to gain a chance at another massive payday. Either way, the Dodgers avoided the scenario (however unlikely) of losing one of the game's very best players after the upcoming season.
For a team with championship aspirations, another key issue was the contract situation of manager Don Mattingly, who seemed unhappy to be entering the year without a guarantee extending to the future. The club put an end to any possible problems in that arena by giving Mattingly an extension that covers the 2014-16 seasons.
Beyond taking care of their own, the Dodgers did face several roster decisions, especially after declining the options of Capuano and Ellis (the latter somewhat more surprisingly than the former). That left openings at both second and third as well as some innings to fill at the back of the rotation and the pen. And, of course, there was the question whether Los Angeles would make a play for a top-end free agent, with Robinson Cano, Brian McCann, and Masahiro Tanaka all looking like possible targets for the west coast financial powerhouse. 
But the club did not end up making any top-dollar acquisitions. While it most looked like a player on Tanaka, Los Angeles seemingly pulled out of engaging in a real bidding war with the Yankees. Nevertheless, while landing far short of the Yanks' extraordinary outlay through free agency, the Dodgers did still manage to guarantee over $104MM through free agency (plus an additional $9MM promise to Wilson through his player option), the fourth-highest tally in the league. That was accomplished through volume: Colletti and company gave out as many guaranteed deals as did the Yankees (9), but promised just 18 years at an average annual value of $5.83MM through those contracts. (New York, by contrast, purchased 29 total seasons at the average cost of $16.24MM per.)  
That spending matched up — theoretically, at least — with the needs just outlined above. Uribe will reprise his role at the hot corner on a fairly modest contract, considering his production levels last year. (Of course, detractors would point to his less-than-stellar work for a stretch beforehand.) Haren and Maholm will provide rotation depth, especially with uncertainty still surrounding Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley. The latter figures to start the year in the pen, but provides a nice depth option at quite a low price, especially when one considers that Jason Vargas landed four years and $32MM.
Maholm will join Wilson, Howell, Wright, and Perez to form a deep unit in front of outstanding closer Kenley Jansen. (Indeed, the club just designated the seemingly useful Javy Guerra for assignment.) Of course, it is fair to wonder whether Wilson's deal was worth the risk: the 32-year-old threw less than 20 innings last year after returning from his second Tommy John surgery, yet got arguably the best contract of any free agent reliever. (His $19MM total guarantee falls $1MM of that given Joe Nathan by the Tigers, but Wilson's second year is a player option — giving him upside if he performs — while Nathan gave up a third-year option.)
The two largest commitments — Guerrero and Arruebarrena, a pair of Cuban prospects who signed for a total of $53MM — were expected to provide some answers up the middle. The defensive specialist Arruebarrena looks like a long-term investment: a high-floor prospect who will try to develop his bat in the upper minors. But Guerrero was seemingly signed to occupy the open slot at second. Said to have an MLB-ready bat at age 27, Guerrero entered camp with only fallen prospect Dee Gordon and a series of minor league free agents standing between him and the Opening Day roster. 
Questions Remaining
If second base was a question mark entering the offseason, it is a much greater one (in relative terms) now. Having declined the option of the solid-but-unspectacular Ellis, and seen that Guerrero was in need of seasoning before he can handle an everyday MLB role at a new position, Los Angeles is left with the prospect of starting Gordon at second. The risk is not difficult to spot: soon to turn 26, Gordon has posted a .256/.301/.312 line in 669 MLB plate appearances, and advanced defensive metrics have rated his glovework at short as below average. While he has speed to spare (66 career stolen bases), he may not profile as much more than a replacement-level player.
Can Gordon reclaim his former promise? Will Guerrero put it together once given some time to adjust in Triple-A? The answers could ultimately prove favorable to the Dodgers, but these are not questions that this team hoped to be facing as it lands in Sydney to prepare to kick off the season. It is tough to imagine that the team is not rethinking somewhat its decision to give Ellis a $1MM buyout rather than paying him $5.75MM to stick around for another season.
Similar issues seem present in the bench, where the Dodgers are reportedly looking to make additions at this late hour. Tim Federowicz is not a terribly exciting second catching option to pair with a solid-but-limited starter in A.J. Ellis. (Ellis had a tough year at the plate in 2013, delivers little pop, and has not been a very good pitch framer.) Otherwise, the team seems to have settled upon a relatively marginal mix, which at this point appears likely to include Scott Van Slyke, Justin Turner, Mike Baxter, and Chone Figgins. While there are things to like about each player, it would be difficult to say that there is much impact among that group.
Of course, there is still one source of possible impact off of the bench, although it could also be a source of trouble. With Matt Kemp still working back from injury, the oft-discussed four-way outfield situation has yet to come to a head. At some point, presumably, the team will be faced with managing the return of its highest-paid position player when three other well-paid players (Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, and Yasiel Puig) have started the year with everyday jobs. If no injury, performance issue, or trade intercedes, the team will ultimately need to work out a way to manage four players who each "[want] to play every day," as Kemp himself said.
Finally, it is worth remembering that the Dodgers have yet to lock down shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who has been incredible since joining the club (at least while he has been on the field). There has been little reported movement on that front in recent weeks. Another big year could well leave Ramirez as the prize of the 2015 position player free agent market, and it may take a big contract to lock him up at this point. While Ramirez says he wants to stay with the organization long-term, it is still far from clear what both sides' parameters are.
One thing to keep an eye on, as well, is how the Dodgers' new TV network manages the negotiations to distribute the club's games in the Los Angeles market. There is a tendency to assume success with the announcement of each new television contract, but there is still plenty of risk in the execution of the entity's business plan. While the Dodgers reportedly have some protections in place to guarantee their income stream, the details remain hazy. 
Deal of Note
Much as I wanted to find a creative way to highlight something else, it is tough to ignore a contract that delivers the highest-ever annual salary for a Major League ballplayer — all the moreso when it is an extension for a pitcher. The Clayton Kershaw contract is, in some respects, the least-interesting mega-deal one could imagine: He has established himself as the game's best pitcher and is just entering his age-26 season. The Dodgers just signed an unfathomably large new TV deal and are one of the league's true glamour teams. Nobody seems surprised by the number ($215MM), large as it is.
On the other hand, the deal is certainly notable for the fact that it includes an opt-out clause permitting Kershaw to reach the open market after five years. (MLBTR's Tim Dierkes examined the history of opt-out clauses, in light of Kershaw's massive payday.) Relatively rare in the first place, the opt-out clause in Kershaw's deal is the first given to a pitcher in an extension scenario. (Only Vernon Wells and Elvis Andrus received extension clauses before Kershaw.) Having taken on $215MM of risk on one man's left arm, the Dodgers will not reserve for themselves the upside of his last two seasons if things work out. 
In the end, however, Kershaw may have had unprecedented bargaining power for a player. His incredible performance, stature, and youth — combined with the situation of his current team and his own proximity to free agency — left him situated as well as one could reasonably hope to drive a whole new kind of bidding war. Giving up that possibility was always going to cost a lot of money, and the Dodgers managed to secure Kershaw without clearly overspending relative to his demonstrated ability.
What do you buy for the team that has everything — or, at least, has the money to buy everything it does not have? That was the question seemingly facing Colletti in the offseason, and it was interesting to see how he responded. The club spent a lot of money, but its largest single commitment fell shy of those made by teams like the Astros, Brewers, Royals, and Twins.
Many have noted the potential value in the contracts given players like Haren, Maholm, and some of the bullpen additions. But while the Dodgers spent the fourth-most money in the league, it remains to be seen whether the club maximized the impact of those dollars in on-field results. The Wilson contract was certainly a risky proposition. With such a talented and expensive roster, it is fair to ask whether some of the team's still-sizeable outlay should have gone to a premium free agent at an area of potential impact, such as McCann. Alternatively, perhaps, with a bench set to be populated by several players picked off of waivers or added on minor league deals, some cash might have been well spent on achieving more production from the non-regular segment of the roster. 
Most of all, of course, Los Angeles faces a big hole at second. If the club has anything less than a strong start and the keystone looks to be a part of the problem, there will be intense pressure to act decisively to find a solution. That is rarely a good situation to be in. Likewise, the club will have to tread cautiously in managing its four outfielders, a situation that could result in friction. Though predictions would be unwise — the matter depends upon a multitude of hard-to-pin-down factors — suffice it to say that the scrutiny is already primed. 
It has become popular to lampoon the Dodgers for their free-spending ways, and indeed the club did manage to spend a princely sum through free agency. But the outlay was of quite a different character than the club's bold series of trades and free agent signings before the 2013 season. Does this signal an end to the organization's seemingly limitless dispensing of cash? A change in strategy? A reflection of the front office's evaluation of the talent and market rates being paid? It is hard to know, but we can expect that many such questions will be asked if the Dodgers do not ride their league-leading $225MM+ payroll all the way to a parade through downtown Los Angeles.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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