From the time that he was acquired from the Red Sox just days after undergoing Tommy John surgery, it appeared likely that at some point, the Dodgers would cut Carl Crawford loose and absorb the remaining money on his seven-year, $142-million deal. On Saturday, that time arrived, as the oft-injured 34-year-old leftfielder was designated for assignment by the Dodgers with roughly $35 million still remaining on his deal and two-thirds of Los Angeles' projected starting outfield on the disabled list. His departure won't solve the team's ongoing offensive problems, but the sunk cost is just one of many the Dodgers have absorbed.
This year, Crawford had played just 30 games for the Dodgers, starting 21, coming off the bench in the rest and hitting just .185/.230/.235 in 87 plate appearances. He missed 15 games in April due to a disabled list stint for lower back stiffness and has played only sporadically since returning; he had collected just three hits and one walk in his last 29 plate appearances and went 1 for 14 in a season-high stretch of five straight starts. During that span, he failed to demonstrate that his defense was significantly better than that of transplanted infielder Howie Kendrick, who has made 12 starts at the position this year.
Crawford spent time on the disabled list in each of the past five seasons since coming over to the Dodgers. He missed the remainder of 2012 due to Tommy John surgery, that after hitting just .260/.292/.419 with an 89 OPS+ and 0.6 WAR in 161 games for the Red Sox in '11–12. That, of course, represented a drastic tumble from his days in Tampa Bay, where he earned All-Star honors four times and led the AL in steals and triples four times apiece. He missed 30 games in 2013 due to a left hamstring strain, 40 in '14 due to a left ankle sprain and 75 last year due to a right oblique strain.
For all of the injuries, Crawford was fairly productive for the Dodgers when available in 2013–14 (if not nearly the dynamic speedster that he had been in Tampa Bay), hitting a combined .290/.333/.416 with 14 homers, 38 steals, a 112 OPS+ and 3.9 WAR in those two seasons. He also came up huge for the Dodgers in the 2013 postseason, going 6 for 17 with three homers in the Division Series against the Braves—including two in the clinching Game 4—and adding a key homer in Game 5 of the NLCS against the Cardinals, the team's last win in that series.
Crawford slipped to .265/.304/.403 for a 97 OPS+ and -0.1 WAR last year, and his path to playing time this season was hardly clear given not only the presence of Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig but also Joc Pederson, Kiké Hernandez, Scott Van Slyke and Trayce Thompson, the last of whom was acquired from the White Sox in December's three-way Todd Frazier trade. At best, he figured to platoon with either Van Slyke or Thompson, both righty swingers.
That herd has been thinned by injuries. Ethier suffered a fractured right tibia after fouling a ball off his shin on March 18 and has yet to be cleared for baseball activities; last week, the Los Angeles Daily News' J.P. Hoornstra reported that his expected return within the initially forecast 10-to-14 week timetable is "essentially out the window." Van Slyke recently returned from an eight-week absence due to a lower back injury but is just 1 for 12 this season. Puig, who has hit an underwhelming .237/.283/.360 with five homers and a 77 OPS+, landed on the DL on Saturday due to a left hamstring strain.
Amid those injuries, the production of the outfielders who have been healthy has been uneven. Pederson has only partially rebounded from a dreadful second-half 2015 slump, hitting .226/.325/.440 with eight homers and a 110 OPS+; he remains vulnerable against lefties and is still striking out 28% of the time. Hernandez, a super-utility player best used as the short half of a platoon, has hit .220/.297/.390 and taken more plate appearances against righties (59) than lefties (55). Thompson has been a pleasant surprise, hitting .279/.362/.566 with nine homers (second on the team) and a 152 OPS+ (first) in 138 PA. Kendrick, who missed most of exhibition season and the first seven games of the regular season due to groin and calf injuries, has "hit" .227/.275/.299 for a 59 OPS+. Save for a 14-game span during the second half of May in which he collected five of his six extra-base hits and 17 of his 35 hits, he's slugged .184—though to be fair, he's been thrust into an unfamiliar super-utility role by the strong play of Chase Utley at second base.
Utley (109 OPS+), Adrian Gonzalez (112 OPS+) and rookie Corey Seager (138 OPS+) have been the Dodgers' only other above-average producers besides Pederson and the part-timer Thompson. Their catchers (mainly Yasmani Grandal and A.J. Ellis) have combined to hit .187/.285/.318; third baseman Justin Turner has hit .228/.329/.333 in the wake of microfracture surgery; and Los Angeles' leftfielders have hit a combined .213/.286/.361 for an OPS+ that ranks 12th in the league. The offense as a whole ranks ninth at 4.34 runs per game, barely able to offset a banged-up rotation that's now down Alex Wood (elbow impingement) as well as Brett Anderson, Hyun-jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy. After sweeping the Braves this weekend, the Dodgers are 31–27, 3 1/2 games behind the Giants in the NL West race and in a virtual tie with the Pirates for the second wild card spot.
Crawford being designated for assignment means that the Dodgers have 10 days to trade, waive or release him, with the last by far the most likely scenario. That means they'll be on the hook for all of his remaining salary save for the prorated share of the minimum paid by any team who employs him; he's making $20.75 million this year and $21 million next year. He's hardly the only dead money on the Dodgers' books by any means. Consider:
• Last week, the team DFA'd Alex Guerrero, owed $7.5 million for this year and next as part of a four-year, $28 million deal for which the Dodgers received -0.6 WAR over 243 plate appearances.
• Fellow Cuban infielder Erisbel Arruebarrena, who was outrighted off the 40-man roster in December 2014 and suspended by the team for the balance of this season due to undisclosed disciplinary reasons, is likely to wind up having delivered -0.4 WAR in 45 PA for his five-year, $25 million deal, which runs through 2018.
• They're paying $8.5 million for Mike Morse, who arrived in last July's three-way trade that netted them Wood and never played a game before being DFA'd. They also paid the entirety of Cuban defector Hector Olivera's $28 million signing bonus last year before sending him to Atlanta in that deal.
• They're paying the Padres $3.5 million a year through 2019 as part of the December 2014 Matt Kemp trade.
For this year alone, that's at least $39 million of the team's $249.8 million payroll, according to the data at Cot's Contracts, and that doesn't even include the $33.8 million being paid to Anderson, McCarthy and Ryu, none of whom have thrown a pitch for the Dodgers this year. The deep pockets of the Dodgers' Guggenheim Baseball Management ownership group have allowed them to do such things without too much consequence while taking on inexpensive, club-controlled players and tradable bonus slot money in the Kemp and Morse trades. The loss of Zack Greinke via free agency this past winter may be seen as a reflection of the upper limits of the ownership group's financial boundaries, though the wisdom of guaranteeing a 32-year-old pitcher more than $200 million remains to be seen.
While punting Crawford at this stage would be considered an embarrassment for most teams, the Dodgers have always maintained that it was worth taking on his salary to acquire Gonzalez given the appeal of adding a player with his Mexican-American heritage to their market, not to mention the dearth of similarly big bats on the free-agent market. Gonzalez has averaged 26 homers, a 126 OPS+ and 3.9 WAR in his three full seasons with L.A., and even if the cost-per-win of the whole package (which also included Josh Beckett and Nick Punto) hasn’t worked out at a level that most teams could stomach, the Dodgers have voiced no complaints, and nobody will weep for them.