MLBTR is publishing Offseason Outlooks for all 30 teams. Click here to read the other entries in this series.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, fresh off of a second consecutive NLCS Championship (and second consecutive World Series loss), have a surplus of talent on the farm and would figure to have the capacity to add payroll if need be. With two consecutive trips to baseball’s grandest stage galvanizing the tail end of six straight playoff berths, it’ll take a championship to truly satiate the fans this time around. It’s a good thing the Dodgers are as well-positioned as any team in baseball to bring one home.
- Clayton Kershaw, SP: $93MM through 2021 (extension signed 11/2/18)
- Matt Kemp, OF: $21.75MM through 2019
- Justin Turner, 3B: $39MM through 2020
- Rich Hill, SP: $18MM through 2019
- Kenley Jansen, RP: $56MM through 2021
- Hyun-Jin Ryu, SP: $17.9MM through 2019 (accepted qualifying offer)
- David Freese, 3B: $4.5MM through 2019
- Kenta Maeda, SP: $15MM through 2023
- Tony Cingrani, RP: $2.65MM through 2019 (guaranteed arbitration salary)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Yasiel Puig (5.102) – $11.3MM
- Alex Wood (5.123) – $9.0MM
- Joc Pederson (4.028) – $4.3MM
- Enrique Hernandez (4.054) – $3.2MM
- Chris Taylor (3.037) – $3.2MM
- Josh Fields (5.083) – $2.8MM
- Corey Seager (3.032) – $2.6MM
- Pedro Baez (4.059) – $1.8MM
- Yimi Garcia (3.149) – $900K
- Manny Machado, Yasmani Grandal (declined qualifying offer), Ryan Madson, Daniel Hudson, Brian Dozier, Tom Koehler, Zac Rosscup, John Axford, Eric Goeddel, Cesar Ramos, Justin De Fratus, Zach McAllister, Logan Ondrusek
The Dodgers came within one win of a World Series victory back in 2017 and returned for an encore last year before ultimately falling short again. Fans and front office alike will be hoping that third time’s the charm as they work to plug the gaps on an already-formidable roster. Make no mistake: while the Dodgers saw the contracts of over a third of their 40-man roster expire at the end of the 2018 season, they’ve got some heavy hitters still in place and figure to be aggressive in supplementing that core in order to remain among the elite National League clubs come Opening Day.
Two of those players whose contracts expired in November made up the top half of the club’s playoff rotation, which would have made for a concerning hole on the roster in another universe. But in this realm, Andrew Friedmann & Co. swiftly and decisively took the suspense out of the club’s would-be pitching need by re-upping with Clayton Kershaw on a three-year, $93MM contract and issuing Hyun-Jin Ryu a one-year, $17.9MM qualifying offer he’d ultimately accept. The two alone will combine to take Los Angeles to the cusp of the luxury tax ceiling (indeed, more if Kershaw meets some of the start-based incentives in his contract), but they’ll continue to have one of the more enviable one-two punches in the NL. For the Dodgers, the convenience of solving such a dilemma with money alone allowed them to get a leg up before the winter even began.
While they’ve got an advantage at the top of their rotation, the depth they have in that area is perhaps even more unique. Beyond Kershaw and Ryu, rookie sensation Walker Buehler will return to the club and will continue to represent a huge value as a pre-arb performer. As for rounding out the starting five, they’ve got no shortage of options. Alex Wood, Ross Stripling, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda and even Julio Urias are all talented pitchers that most teams would be happy to slot in as mid-rotation guys, but who’ll instead be competing for back-end starter and long relief roles for a pitching-wealthy Dodgers ballclub. While a great number of these players have significant injury concerns, the depth alone should easily carry the club through all but the most extreme of health-related misfortunes. If there’s an area of need on this team, it’s certainly not in the rotation.
So of course it was easily predictable that one of the club’s most notable pursuits so far has been an improvement in the starting rotation. They’ve reportedly discussed multiple trade scenarios with the Indians already, most notably one that would send two-time Cy Young Award-winner Corey Kluber to Los Angeles. While the Dodgers’ pitching depth is certainly impressive, Kluber would present a gargantuan upgrade over anyone in that group without a Cy Young Award to his name. Some might argue that he’s even got the edge over Kershaw himself at this stage of their careers in terms of sturdiness and reliability. Any real pursuit of Kluber (or even his teammate, Trevor Bauer) wouldn’t seem to be made with the regular season in mind, but rather with the goal of improving the playoff rotation to extraordinary heights. It’s not clear who they’d be willing to ship to Cleveland in such a deal, though it’s worth pointing out that the Indians have a long-term need at catcher and outfield, both of which are perceived areas of prospect depth for the Los Angeles organization.
Speaking of catchers, the Dodgers would appear to have a need behind the dish for the 2019 season after watching longtime backstop Yasmani Grandal reject their qualifying offer. The club owns two of MLB Pipeline’s top ten catching prospects, so it’s possible that one or both of Keibert Ruiz and Will Smith could be given the opportunity to win the job (in tandem with incumbent Austin Barnes) right out of spring training. Ruiz in particular would figure to be a fine long-term solution there if his development plays out as predicted by several prospect pundits across the industry. Of course, if the club was comfortable with that as their plan A, they probably wouldn’t have already committed so much focus to finding an upgrade at this early juncture of the offseason. They’ve been connected to J.T. Realmuto of the Marlins, for instance, and appeared to be in play for former Tribe catcher Yan Gomes before he was ultimately dealt to the Nationals. A reunion with Grandal is certainly within the realm of possibility, though it seems somewhat unlikely based on his postseason difficulties along with the team’s payroll outlook (more on that later) and other potential priorities.
Whether or not the Dodgers will use any of their available resources to fortify the bullpen behind franchise closer Kenley Jansen is anybody’s guess. One could make a strong case that it’s an area of need; a mass exodus of depth pieces and an offseason heart procedure for the resilient Jansen point to a need for some further padding. Yet an equally strong case could be made that the ’pen is actually an area of strength for Los Angeles, given the track record of Jansen (and optimism that he’ll be ready for Opening Day) coupled with the upside of relievers like Dylan Floro, Tony Cingrani and Caleb Ferguson. Further reinforcing the latter argument is the likelihood that the starting rotation depth will bleed over into the relief corps; pitchers like Wood, Maeda, and Urias could serve as strong multi-inning weapons out of the bullpen.
If the Dodgers elect to pursue relievers on the free agent market, there’s a wealth of talented, proven arms to choose from; they wouldn’t have any trouble enticing one or more of them to join their storied franchise. But if they opt not to pay up for any major additions (or trade prospect capital for a reliever under contract), the way they deploy their pitching staff in 2019 would be a fascinating story to follow. The pitching landscape has been evolving rapidly for the past few seasons, and the 2019 Dodgers would be a prime candidate to utilize their wealth of twice-through-the-order-type starters and upside relief pitchers to mix and match pitchers and get outs in a creative manner. They were already one of a few teams to toy with the idea of using an “opener” last season. Recently-extended skipper Dave Roberts has all the right tools in place to take another bold step forward as far as creativity, and while that’s nothing at all resembling a guarantee that he’ll do so, it’s at the very least an intriguing potential storyline to follow and definitely a small item for fans to keep tucked away in the back of their minds as they watch the club’s offseason news and rumors.
When imagining all possible outcomes of the Dodgers’ 2018-2019 offseason, it’s impossible not to consider the fates of free agent juggernauts Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, each of whom is expected to sign a contract larger than any player to date. Machado, who spent the latter half of the season in Los Angeles and contributed significantly to their postseason run, now seems like somewhat of an unlikely fit due to the presence of Justin Turner at third base and the expected return of Corey Seager to shortstop. On the other hand, one could envision a scenario in which Seager shifts to the right side of the infield to play at the keystone, clearing room for Machado at short and pushing Enrique Hernandez into his accustomed super utility role. In other words, while Machado doesn’t seem like a perfect fit, it wouldn’t be wise to entirely rule the Dodgers out, either.
When it comes to Harper, there’s been some confusion as to the organization’s level of engagement to date. There’s a clear logical fit there, to the point that MLBTR predicted Los Angeles as the landing spot for the former MVP. He’d provide a sizable upgrade in production over Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp and Joc Pederson, even before weighing the fact that the former two are set to depart after the coming season, while the latter will be a free agent at the end of 2020. Top prospect Alex Verdugo is ready for a full run at the majors, but the club may not be willing to rely on him fully and could also dangle him in trade scenarios. Put more simply, a long-term commitment to Harper would provide a significant upgrade in the near-term while answering long-term questions about the organization’s outfield picture and providing stability there for over a decade.
The caveat to all this, and to any other pursuits the Dodgers might make in free agency, is that they could potentially be facing significant financial restraints in contrast with years past. As MLBTR’s own Rob Huff outlined in his recent payroll projection piece, a document prepared by someone within the Dodgers organization suggests that they intend to remain below the luxury tax threshold every year between now and 2022. Indeed, the payroll target for 2019 outlined within said document is only $185MM, which is eight figures south of Roster Resource’s current projection for the club with arbitration salaries taken into account. Huff doesn’t believe that the Dodgers will actively move to shed payroll (a sentiment I imagine echoes throughout the industry), but as he said in the above piece, if their plans haven’t changed, it’s difficult to see them adding any sort of marquee free agent at all, let alone either of the top two players on the market. They’ve also yet to guarantee a free agent more than $50MM under Friedmann’s tenure. It’s reasonable to question how much to read into that leaked document, though clearly the current iteration of club leadership will continue to prioritize efficient spending.
Of course, there are plenty of ways in which the Dodgers could clear payroll space that could be repurposed. Just last winter, the club was involved in one of the offseason’s most surprising swaps, which essentially amounted to an exchange of future dollar commitments (or at least, it seemed that way before Kemp’s surprising resurgence). That they’ve shown a willingness to get creative in the past leaves open the possibility that they’ll explore multiple avenues of gaining some financial flexibility this year as well. While there’s no realistic way to recoup any of the nearly $18MM owed to Scott Kazmir, Hector Olivera and Yasiel Sierra combined for the 2019 season, MLBTR’s Jeff Todd listed Kemp among LA’s potential contract swap candidates. We’ve already seen contracts moved around the league this winter, and there are endless possibilities for money-shifting swaps that could make better use of salary space. In addition, trading relatively expensive players from areas of depth (such as Hill, Puig or Wood) for MLB-ready prospects or minimum-salary players who can fill an area of need would be another method of reallocating financial resources, even if the club ultimately needed to pay down some of the money owed to those players in order to get a deal done.
If they’re unable to find any financial wiggle room to pursue players on the free agent market, and/or are unwilling to spend much past the competitive balance tax line, the Dodgers have more than enough prospect capital in the farm system to address any needs via trade. They’re one of the few teams with both a need at catcher and enough assets in the farm system to swing a trade for Realmuto, so that’ll be one pursuit to pay close attention to. But it’s not difficult to imagine them pursuing upgrades at first base, either. Paul Goldschmidt would be the prime target there, though he’d likely come at a premium given the division rivalry between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks. Jose Abreu and Justin Smoak present alternative options, and it’s not out of the question that the Mariners could look to unload the recently-acquired Carlos Santana (who spent several years in LA’s farm system) onto another club, either. Adding a corner piece would allow the Dodgers to utilize Cody Bellinger more often as an outfielder, which would change the complexion of the unit discussed above. He has lined up there quite a bit over his first two seasons in the majors already. Those are all just speculative fits, obviously, but the overall point being made here is that Friedmann & Co. have some creative ways to upgrade and more than enough minor league talent to get a deal done if that ends up being their goal.
As far as MLB clubs go, the Dodgers are a major wild card this offseason. They could spend tens of millions or nothing at all; they could make a blockbuster trade for a star-caliber player or largely stand pat; they could make upgrades at multiple positions or begin the year mostly with the cards already in hand. Regardless of what happens, one thing is certain: there will be no shortage of Dodgers rumors to follow as the hot stove begins to flare up. Expect them to be connected to several high-priced free agents and big-name trade targets as the winter wears on. But even if they don’t ultimately make a big splash, fans can sleep easy knowing that their team is already built to make another serious run at a championship this coming season.