The Dodgers were once again a tier-one baseball club in 2021, but their streak of eight consecutive division titles came to an end, and their efforts to repeat were quashed in the NLCS.
- Trevor Bauer, SP: $70.67MM through 2023
- David Price, SP/RP: $32MM in 2022
- Mookie Betts, OF: $337.5MM through 2032 (including $120MM in deferred payments from 2032 to 2044)
- Justin Turner, 3B: $22MM through 2022 (includes $2MM buyout on $16MM mutual option for 2023)
- Chris Taylor, IF/OF: $60MM through 2025 (includes $4MM buyout for $12MM team option for 2026)
- AJ Pollock, OF: $13MM (with a $10MM player options for 2023)
- Blake Treinen, RP: $9.5MM (includes $1.5MM buyout on $8MM team option for 2023)
- Max Muncy, 1B/2B: $14.5MM (includes $1.5MM buyout on $13.5MM team option for 2023)
- Andrew Heaney, SP: $8.5MM
- Daniel Hudson, RP: $7MM (includes $1MM buyout on $6.5MM team option for 2023)
- Walker Buehler, SP: $4.25MM (arb eligible again in 2023 and 2024)
- Tommy Kahnle, RP: $3.75MM
- Austin Barnes, C: $2.65MM
- 2022 commitments: $184.4MM
- Total long-term commitments: $585.32MM
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections from MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Declined $12MM option for RHP Joe Kelly, opting instead to pay a $4MM buyout
- Bauer declined an option to trigger an opt-out clause
- Albert Pujols, Cole Hamels, Kenley Jansen, Danny Duffy, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Steven Souza Jr., Corey Seager, Corey Knebel, Andrew Vasquez (non-tendered), Jimmy Nelson, Sheldon Neuse (currently designated for assignment), Joe Kelly
The career talent present on the Dodgers’ list of departing free agents is somewhat remarkable. It’s also somewhat misleading, as Pujols, Kershaw, Duffy, Hamels, et al, aren’t exactly in their prime, nor were they inner circle contributors to the club in 2021. Kershaw did his part, contributing 22 starts with a solid, if not Kershawian 3.55 ERA/3.00 FIP across 121 2/3 innings. That places him third on the team in innings, so he did his par. That said, by the time the playoffs rolled around, his year was done.
Bottom line: there are significant losses represented on that list, most notably thus far, Seager, Scherzer, and to a lesser extent, Knebel. Seager seemed destined to walk after the acquisition of Trea Turner at the trade deadline, though without him they’ll be pressured to pony up for the speedy ex-National, who is a free agent after next season. President of Baseball Ops Andrew Friedman values flexibility in his roster construction, and that’s evident in his handling of Seager. We could see a similar saga play itself out next winter, as the Dodgers could turn to Gavin Lux and/or Jacob Amaya rather than commit to a mega-contract for Turner.
But that’s tomorrow’s problem. For now, Trea Turner, Lux, Justin Turner, and Max Muncy make up a star-studded, if injury-prone starting infield. The health and age questions surrounding this group made the re-signing of Chris Taylor all the more crucial. With Taylor back in the fold for a reasonable $15MM per, the Dodgers can feel relatively stable with their infield group. Matt Beaty and Zach McKinstry are bench options on the Major League roster, while Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts give manager Dave Roberts extended flexibility because of their ability and willingness to move to the dirt on occasion.
All that said, there’s still room for another bat. Assuming there will be a designated hitter in the National League, the Dodgers could add a third baseman while allowing J. Turner to age gracefully into a bat-only role. Barring the addition of one of the star level bats remaining in free agency (think Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant, Freddie Freeman), the Dodgers could still make a play for a veteran utility man, who wouldn’t have to play every day, but could capably pinch-hit and fill-in at multiple positions around the diamond. To their benefit, having T. Turner, Taylor, and Lux means they’re probably covered at shortstop, which frees Friedman to lean more liberally in the direction of a bench bat. Speculatively speaking, someone like Asdrubal Cabrera could be a fit, but they could also bring back Albert Pujols or look at other veteran minimum types while waiting for youngsters like Amaya, Michael Busch, or Miguel Vargas to play themselves into a role.
In the outfield, Betts, Bellinger, and AJ Pollock line up as the opening day starters, but they could absolutely look to add another bat here as well. Taylor and Lux can play the outfield, as can Beaty and others on the roster, but Friedman is more likely to have too many options than not enough. Don’t be surprised if there’s another name added to this mix after the lockout.
The big picture of the position player side of things is that they aren’t as deep as in years past, but they’re still in better shape than most. And yet, if they’re looking to grow the overall depth on this club, there are arguably more bats available in free agency than arms, so we could see the Dodgers overindulge on this side of the ball to compensate for the losses on the pitching side.
Because for the first time in years really, there are reasons to wonder about the overall quality of the Dodgers’ pitching staff.
The rotation is the biggest area of concern right now. After all, the two most surprising decisions from the Dodgers so far this winter both relate to the rotation. Not issuing a qualifying offer to Kershaw definitely zagged from expectations, as did their not making a bigger push to retain Scherzer. Kershaw could still return, but if not, the Dodgers’ rotation is thinner than it’s been in years. Losing Kershaw would be a bigger blow than it’s being perceived right now, in part because Kershaw’s “legacy value” took a big hit by not being anywhere near the mound during the playoffs, and even in the regular season, he fell from the divine heights of prior seasons. But let’s not diminish the man: He posted 2.1 rWAR/3.4 fWAR and finished 11th overall by FIP among pitchers with at least 100 innings. In fact, by FIP alone, the Dodgers would be losing the 10th (Scherzer) and 11th (Kershaw) starters in the Majors. Sure, they got just 33 starts from the pair, so we can almost count them as a single starter, but they make a darn good one that the Dodgers will miss.
Also on the positive side of the ledger, the Dodgers still have Walker Buehler and Julio Urias as a tremendous, in-their-prime duo. In fact, those two finished just behind Scherzer/Kershaw as 14th and 15th in the Majors by FIP. But the Dodgers had a front-row seat to the Padres’ horror-show second half. Two starters – even stars – is not enough to helm a postseason rotation.
If Kershaw does ultimately re-sign, I’ll give a ’hear-hear’ – but if he doesn’t, they did, at least, strike quickly to add former Angels’ southpaw Andrew Heaney to the starting mix. Heaney struggled mightily after a deadline trade to the Yankees, but the Dodgers believe in his upside. Said Friedman, “He’s got really strong ingredients in place, and there are a few different levers we feel like we can potentially pull with him that he’s bought into and is eager to dive in on.” Despite his long-time reputation as a potential quality starter, Heaney’s 1.9 rWAR back in 2015 marked a career-high. Entering his age-31 season, it’s not impossible to imagine a re-brand in the mold of Wade Miley or, sure, dream big, Charlie Morton, but that’s a pipe dream – until it’s not.
Dustin May has a bright future, but he’s not due to return from Tommy John surgery until the second half of the season at the earliest. Tony Gonsolin slots in as the number four behind Heaney right now, but the 27-year-old hasn’t been trusted to hold down a regular rotation spot before, and solid as he’s been, the Dodgers clearly like him in a swing role. Fangraphs lists David Price as the fifth starter right now, and though the 36-year-old may very well end up in that role, it would be surprising if both Price and Gonsolin are among their starting five on opening day.
Rotation depth is more important now than ever, and though the Dodgers seem to have lost ground in the star power department, they did make a couple of low-key pickups during the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft that deepens their pool of potential arms. Carson Fulmer was once the eighth overall pick of the draft, and though it’s been a while since his mound work merited national attention, he is definitely worth a minor league contract. The same can be said for Jon Duplantier, who even more recently graced top prospect lists while coming up through the Diamondbacks’ system. Both are entering their age-28 season, an age at which Jake Arrieta still had a 5.23 career ERA. Neither Fulmer nor Duplantier has been even that good, but there’s no risk here for the Dodgers, and they need the depth.
They expressed some interest in the Reds’ available starters, but nothing came together before the lockout. That could still happen, or they could explore a deal for one or more of Oakland’s arms: Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt, Frankie Montas, et al. Frankly, it was surprising that they didn’t make more of a push to bring back Scherzer. Still, even without a major addition, it’s worth remembering that the goal isn’t to build out a starting five – the goal is to build an organization capable of competing for 162 games.
It’s worth wondering if Scherzer’s contract just became too rich for Friedman’s tastes. On the one hand, that’s absurd, nothing and nobody should be too rich for the Dodgers. But practically speaking, the Dodgers ran out the highest payroll in baseball in 2021, and they might want to see how the now collective bargaining agreement changes luxury tax rules before barreling ahead into repeater tax territory. Fangraphs has their current 2022 payroll at ~$232MM, so their bed may already be made, but it’s only sensible to want the exact terms of the arrangement. Aside from the aforementioned Kershaw, most of the free agent starting pitching talent signed prior to the lockout. The Dodgers could still consider Carlos Rodon, whose health history is likely to lead to the type of shorter-term requirement the Dodgers prefer. Indeed, when the MLBTR staff was debating Rodon’s potential contract, they kicked around some kind of Bauer-lite high-dollar three-year arrangement.
Speaking of Bauer, last we saw of the divisive right-hander, he had been on extended administrative leave due to unresolved sexual assault allegations. As of now, it’s entirely unclear if he will be available to pitch in 2022 (or even if the Dodgers would welcome him back). MLB’s recent ruling on Marcell Ozuna’s violation of the MLB – MLBPA Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy suggests the league office is not yet ready to levy significant penalties for players whose criminal court cases are dropped.
Still, Bauer’s case is more public than perhaps any prior violation, and one would expect greater backlash upon his return to the field. So long as the Dodgers remain responsible for paying the $70MM+ still owed the right-hander, they would be hard-pressed not to allow him to suit up, especially given their need on the hill. If, however, they are somehow let out of their contractual obligation to Bauer, they could allocate that money elsewhere – though any replacement would most likely be a downgrade from Bauer’s significant on-field potential. Needless to say, the cloud of these proceedings will hang over the Dodgers for some time.
In the bullpen, Joe Kelly and Corey Knebel have been replaced by Daniel Hudson, while long-time closer Kenley Jansen remains a free agent. Blake Treinen was amazing last season (1.99 ERA/2.88 FIP across 72 1/3 innings), Hudson has plenty of high-leverage experience, and it’s easy to dream on Brusdar Graterol’s potential, but the relief corps is very much a work-in-progress. After 12 years at the back of the Dodgers’ bullpen, the club may finally allow Jansen to walk away.
Whether they add starters, relievers, or the modern type of arm that can move between roles, they’re going to need more pitchers. They had 11 pitchers post more than half a win by fWAR in 2021, six of whom are either already gone or current free agents (Kershaw, Scherzer, Kelly, Nelson, Knebel, Jansen) and a seventh is Bauer. No need to panic: that’s a backward-looking approach, they can afford to print new jerseys, and the offseason isn’t over. But there’s work to be done.
In terms of the free agents available, Kershaw may be the best starter available, with Rodon and his checkered past also in the running. Other lesser names are available as well, perhaps led by Yusei Kikuchi. Many of the available free agent starters aren’t likely to ignite the fanbase, but the Dodgers have spun straw into gold before.
The relief market has a bit more juice with Jansen only one name among many that can be first division arms: Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin, Collin McHugh, Kelly, Nelson, and Adam Ottavino, to name a few. There’s still a chess move or two that the Dodgers could make without horribly overburdening their payroll.
Internally, Mitch White could find himself in a bigger role, Tommy Kahnle is coming back from Tommy John, and prospects like Ryan Pepiot and Michael Grove aren’t far from seeing daylight (Grove is on the 40-man roster). There is some growth potential, but if nothing else, Buehler and Urias need to take over as the faces of Dodger pitching. Then again, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that they already are.
All told, while they await resolution on the Bauer and CBA fronts, the Dodgers had to charge ahead, thought they did so with a relatively quiet first half of the offseason. They made some minor additions, adding outfielder Jason Martin and right-hander Beau Burrows on minor league deals to build out their depth. But they also dealt away outfielders Billy McKinney and Zach Reks for cash considerations. Both had been designated for assignment as a means of being removed from the 40-man roster. Sheldon Neuse seemed like a classic Dodger project when he was acquired from the A’s, but he’s now in DFA purgatory until the lockout ends.
The Dodgers will be one of the more interesting teams to watch coming out of the lockout. Given their status as the top paying luxury tax team, the particulars of the new CBA could affect them more than any other club. Add in Bauer’s situation and Kershaw’s free agency, and the Dodgers are facing more uncertainty than they’ve seen in years. That said, their financial might is as great as ever, and even depleted by their free agent losses, they have one of the most talented rosters in the game. They also play in one of the most competitive divisions in the sport. With the Giants and Padres as formidable as ever, there’s no room to take a step back. After all, even with Betts, Buehler, Urias, the Turners, Taylor, Muncy, Bellinger, Will Smith, and more, the fact is, the Dodgers aren’t the champs anymore.