Dodgers may not be done dealing
On Friday, the Dodgers struck a deal with the Phillies, adding starting pitcher Joe Blanton. The 31-year-old righthander was rumored to be headed for the Orioles prior to the July 31 deadline, but that deal fell through, leaving the Phillies on the hook for the remaining $3 million of his $8.5 million 2012 salary. Having dealt outfielders Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence just prior to the deadline, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had already made it clear that the sub-.500 Phillies had thrown in the towel for 2012 and desired to shed salary. So they placed Blanton, a pending free agent whom they were unlikely to retain, on waivers, a necessary step in order to trade him in August. The Dodgers claimed him, and the two sides agreed to exchange a minor league player to be named later for his services.
Blanton wasn’t the Phillies starter for whom the Dodgers were gunning, however. Prior to Cole Hamels signing a six-year, $144 million extension, general manager Ned Colletti inquired as to the availability of the California native, and around the same time as he put in a claim on Blanton, he put in a claim on Cliff Lee as well. The 33-year-old left-hander has at least $87.5 million remaining on his contract from 2013 through 2015; if his 2016 option vests, the remaining deal is four years and $102.5 million. Either because the Phillies were unwilling to eat any of that remaining salary or to settle for whatever non-blue chip prospect(s) the Dodgers were offering, the Phillies let the claim expire on Sunday, meaning that Lee will finish the season with the team.
The impact of adding Blanton to the Dodgers’ rotation is obviously much smaller than if they had added Lee or Hamels. Nonetheless, with their failure to land Ryan Dempster prior to the deadline and the news that Ted Lilly suffered a setback while rehabbing from his shoulder injury, the team still had a need to upgrade their fifth starter slot beyond rookie Stephen Fife, whose 2.16 ERA through three starts conceals a 7/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Blanton fills that need, though prior to the deal, his stat line made for an odd mix. His 4.59 ERA was 12 percent higher than the park-adjusted league average, familiar territory for a pitcher who hasn’t posted an ERA below 4.00 since 2007, while his 22 homers allowed led the NL, with his career-worst 1.5 homers per nine the majors’ fifth-highest rate. On the other hand, via career best strikeout and walk rates (7.8 per nine and 1.4 per nine, respectively) his 6.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio led the majors. Taken together, that mix produced an estimated ERA of 4.02 (via the Fielding Independent Pitching metric), suggesting the possibility that his swollen ERA might regress — particularly with a change of venue given that Citizens Bank Park has historically been far more conducive to home runs than Dodger Stadium, with a 103 park index from 2009-2011 according to The Bill James Handbook 2012, compared to 94 for Dodger Stadium. Fourteen of Blanton’s 22 homers allowed with the Phillies this year came at Citizens.
Taken together, the Dodgers’ interest in the trio of Philadelphia starters signals their intention to continue using their financial might as a means of upgrading, particularly now that the deadline has passed. Many players with large contracts are placed on waivers during August, and there’s always a chance that if a team puts in a claim, the waiving team will let him go for nothing beyond the ability to clear his salary from the books. That’s how the White Sox wound up with the Blue Jays’ Alex Rios back in 2009; the outfielder was still owed more than $60 million. The Dodgers’ new ownership group, which bought the team for a record $2.15 billion earlier this year, has repeatedly shown a desire to distance themselves from the spendthrift actions of former owner Frank McCourt. They’ve flashed a lot of cash in recent months. In June, they signed Andre Ethier to a five-year, $85 million extension from 2013-2017, and in July, they signed Cuban outfielder Yasel Puig to a seven-year, $42 million dea. On July 25, they traded for Marlins third baseman Hanley Ramirez, assuming the entirety of the salary remaining on his deal, including $31.5 million for 2013-2014. After opening the year with a $105.4 million payroll, the team already has $135 million committed for next year including option buyouts and deferred payments to players no longer with the team (Manny Ramirez and Andruw Jones are owed more than $11 million between them).
Over the weekend, a report surfaced that the Dodgers also inquired about Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez prior to the deadline. In the first year of a seven-year, $154 million contract, the 30-year-old first baseman has been something of a disappointment; his .304/.349/.452 line passes muster thanks only to a .393/.421/.566 performance over his last 37 games, raising his OPS 97 points. The report from the New England Sports Network suggests that it’s unlikely Gonzalez will be dealt during the waiver period, though the Dodgers’ interest makes it likely they’ll put in a claim, particularly with James Loney continuing to drag the offense down via his .257/.307/.338 performance.
That’s not to say that the Dodgers are willing to spend money on just anyone. Outfielders Alfonso Soriano and B.J. Upton might be available; they expressed some interest in the former, but the Cubs apparently wouldn’t assume enough of the remaining $44 million on his contract. Los Angeles could also use help at third base and there’s a slight possibility it could show interest in the Brewers’ Aramis Ramirez, who is owed $26 million in 2013-2014. As with the Cubs and Soriano, Milwaukee would have to eat a generous portion that money and accept a package that likely wouldn’t include any of the four young pitchers who were off-limits during the Dempster talks (Rubby de la Rosa, Zach Lee, Chris Reed and Allen Webster).
More likely is a claim on the Cubs’ Matt Garza, who has one remaining year of arbitration eligibility; he’ll be heavily sought during this period, and a team with a lesser record than the Dodgers who also needs pitching — perhaps one that’s not even in contention — could swoop in to acquire him. The Dodgers might show interest in a pricey reliever as well, though the most notable option in that category, the Brewers’ Francisco Rodriguez, is carrying a 5.13 ERA at the moment.