Winter report card: Los Angeles Dodgers
With just a few weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.
Los Angeles Dodgers
2012 Results: 86-76, 2nd place in NL West (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: OF Bobby Abreu, RHP Joe Blanton, LHP Randy Choate, RHP Todd Coffey, RHP John Ely, RHP Blake Hawksworth, IF Adam Kennedy, OF Juan Rivera, OF Alfredo Silverio, C Matt Treanor, OF Shane Victorino, RHP Jamey Wright
Key arrivals: RHP Zack Greinke, LHP J.P. Howell, LHP Rob Rasmussen, LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu, 2B/OF Skip Schumaker
Money is no object for the Dodgers. If the Magic Johnson/Stan Kasten-fronted Guggenheim Partners didn’t make that abundantly clear when they purchased the team from Frank McCourt for a record $2.15 billion last April, they allowed general manager Ned Colletti to spend the season firing cash out of a t-shirt cannon via an $85 million extension to Andre Ethier, a $42 million contract to Cuban defector Yasiel Puig and the in-season acquisitions not just of short-term roster fortifications but of players with nearly $300 million in future contract commitments beyond 2012 — namely Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford, the latter of whom had just undergone Tommy John surgery and didn’t play a game in blue. The money wasn’t enough to buy the Dodgers a playoff berth; in fact, they went just 30-27 from Aug. 1 onward, as their offense continued to sputter. The Giants left them in the dust in the NL West race, while a wild card berth slowly slipped away.
That failure has hardly deterred Los Angeles from spending even more money this winter, to say nothing of the way it has been connected to virtually every big-dollar free agent at one point or another, often to the point of absurdity. They’re set to become the first team besides the Yankees to breach the $200 million payroll barrier, with nine players making at least $10 million dollars. That’s not even accounting for the more than $11 million they owe in deferred money to the long-departed Manny Ramirez and Andruw Jones, or the $25.7 million posting fee they paid to win the rights of Ryu. At this writing, they have more than $120 million committed to seven players in 2017. Of course, the reason they can do all of that is much clearer with the announcement of the 2014 launch of SportsNet, a team-owned television channel whose rights netted a them a deal worth upwards of $7 billion — that’s with a b — from Time Warner Cable over 25 years.
The Dodgers’ biggest offseason addition is Greinke, whom they signed to a six-year, $147 million deal — the highest average annual value ever for a pitcher — that includes an opt-out clause after the 2015 season. The Dodgers are the 29-year-old’s fourth team since his 2009 Cy Young-winning campaign, and while he has proven to be a durable front-line hurler who can miss bats, his ERA over the last three years has consistently been much higher than his peripheral stats suggest (via Fielding Independent Pitching) with a sizable gap overall: 3.83 actual, 3.16 FIP. Much of the discrepancy owes to the quality of his defenses and particularly a significantly worse performance with runners in scoring position during that span (.252/.301/.387 overall, .288/.367/.439 with RISP). All of which is a long-winded way of saying that he’s being paid like a true ace despite not performing like one, but with Clayton Kershaw filling that True Ace role, and likely to blow past Greinke once he gets his extension, it’s less of a problem.
If the combination of the even year/odd year weirdness of Beckett’s career, and the anticipated returns from injury of both Ted Lilly (September shoulder surgery after not pitching since May 23) and Chad Billingsley (a platelet-rich plasma injection following a sprained ulnar collateral ligament) don’t provide enough uncertainty elsewhere in the rotation, the addition of Ryu, a portly 25-year-old portsider, is even more of a wild card. It’s tough to know exactly what the Dodgers have gotten for their investment, which includes not only the posting fee but also a six-year, $36 million deal. In his seven years in the KBO, South Korea’s major league, Ryu earned All-Star honors every year and won five strikeout titles, but his fastball is merely average, and his offsetting changeup (his best pitch) and breaking stuff earmark him as a fourth starter. More on the rotation below.
Los Angeles spent even more on their bullpen, re-signing League via a three-year, $22.5 million extension with a vesting option and signing Howell to a one-year, $2.85 million deal plus incentives. The Dodgers did iron out the mechanics of the 29-year-old League after trading for him in late July, and he allowed just one run and eight hits while striking out 22 over his final 22 1/3 innings, taking over the closer duties from Kenley Jansen along the way. That said, the odds of him holding onto the job and holding off both Jansen and Javy Guerra over the life of his contract appears slim. The 30-year-old Howell, who put up a 3.04 ERA in 50 1/3 innings for the Rays after missing all of 2010 and pitching terribly in 2011, makes more sense with the recent news that lefty Scott Elbert needed his second elbow surgery in four months and could miss Opening Day.
One move which will barely cost the Dodgers anything but could pay significant dividends is the acquisition of Schumaker, who came from St. Louis in a deal for minor league infielder Jake Lemmerman. A lost cause against lefthanded pitching and a subpar defender at second base, he nonetheless could pair well with incumbent Mark Ellis. Schumaker has hit .284/.340/.360 over the past three years against righties, while Ellis has hit just .250/.315/.331 against them in that span, including last year’s .228/.313/.299 crater.
Unfinished business: Too much pitching? There’s much uncertainty about what the Dodgers will get from their starting five, or even who it will consist of beyond Kershaw (who was limited by hip woes late in the year), Greinke and Beckett, with one of the trio of Ryu, Billingsley and Lilly bullpen for the bound if all three are healthy. That still leaves lefty Chris Capuano and righty Aaron Harang on the outside looking in after making more than 30 starts apiece last year, in their first year of backloaded two-year deals. Though their ERAs were similar (3.72 for Capuano, 3.61 for Harang), Capuano threw more innings (198 1/3) and had the higher strikeout rate (7.4 per nine to 6.6) and lower walk rate (2.5 per nine to 4.3), while Harang had the lower homer rate (0.7 per nine to 1.1). Harang still has $9 million remaining on his deal including a $2 million buyout on a mutual option for 2014, while Capuano has $7 million remaining including a $1 million buyout on a similar mutual option — so the latter is likely to stimulate more interest from other teams. One can expect the Dodgers to eat some salary in trading at least one and probably both players, and to focus on acquiring minor league pieces (prospects is too strong a word) given how stuffed their major league roster is.
Preliminary grade: B+. There’s plenty of reason to be concerned about what happens when some of their big-money contracts inevitably sour in the coming years, but Dodgers did add an impact player in Greinke. The 2013 squad look like a team that can win the NL West, and ownership will show no hesitation toward throwing more money in the pot in midseason if the situation calls for it. Add in a farm system that has rebounded modestly with last year’s draft and their international signings of both Puig and fellow Cuban defector Onelki Garcia, and this an organization that’s loaded for bear.