When the Dodgers engineered their blockbuster swap with the Red Sox in late August, their new owners made it clear that money was no object in their attempt to build a winning team. In acquiring Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto, the team took on over $270 million in salary commitments from 2013 through 2018, none of it at a discount. That money was in addition to the $31.5 million in future salary they accepted when they acquired Hanley Ramirez in late July.
Already, the Dodgers' commitments for the coming season are nearing $200 million — a threshold previously breached by only the Yankees — and based upon a number of reports that have emerged since the kickoff of the free agent season, they're prepared to go even higher. Where they differ from the Yankees, who have exceeded a $200 million payroll in each of the past five seasons and in six of the past eight, is the apparent haphazardness of their plans. It's as though general manager Ned Colletti is firing wads of cash out of a t-shirt cannon into a crowd of free agents, unconcerned about where it lands.
That appears to be particularly true when it comes to the team's outfield. Recall that last November, Los Angeles signed Matt Kemp to an eight-year, $160 million extension, a move that made some sense given his age, and looked shrewd in light of the $200 million-plus contracts that Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Joey Votto signed over the next six months. In June, the team granted pending free agent Andre Ethier a five-year, $85 million extension that looked sane relative to the seven-year, $126 million Jayson Werth contract but otherwise appeared to be an overpay, particularly given Ethier's struggles against left-handed pitching, which haven't ceased; he hit .222/.276/.330 in a career-high 239 plate appearances against them this year. Later that month, the Dodgers overreacted to the impending rule change restricting international spending — and to years of their own scrimping in that market under former owner Frank McCourt — by signing Yasiel Puig to a seven-year, $42 million deal, the most money ever committed to a Cuban defector, and more money than either Yoenis Cespedes or Jorge Soler received from the A's and Cubs, respectively, a few months earlier.
Then came the blockbuster, which added $102.5 million worth of Crawford's future salary (through 2017) to the payroll, and closed down a potential position shift for any of the four outfielders via the addition of first baseman Gonzalez, himself due $127 million through 2018. But because Crawford is recuperating from late August Tommy John surgery and might not be ready to start the season, the team has reportedly expressed interest in heavily-sought free agent Torii Hunter via a two-year deal, a move that suggests the Dodgers would shop Ethier, who won't be easy to move given his deal. Hunter is coming off a strong season in which he batted .313/.365/.451 with 16 homers for the Angels, but he's 37 years old, and also being pursued by the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Phillies and Mariners, all of whom have more financial flexibility. Exactly how interested the Dodgers are remains unclear; USA Today's Bob Nightengale says L.A. is "aggressively pursuing" Hunter, but the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez and Mike DiGiovanna say that the team's level of interest is "overstated," in part because Hunter isn't interested in becoming a fourth outfielder at this stage.
Elsewhere, the team is said to be "targeting" Kevin Youkilis — between him and Hunter, the choice of words makes it sound as though Colletti is hunting players for sport, right out of some dark bloodsport fantasy about the überwealthy — to add to their collection of third base options. Already the Dodgers have Ramirez, Juan Uribe ($8 million via the final year of a disastrous three-year, $21 million deal, including his buyout of a 2014 option), Jerry Hairston ($3.75 million in the second year of a two-year, $6 million deal — one of several backloaded pacts Colletti doled out last winter) and Punto ($1.5 million in the second year of a two-year, $3 million deal) under contract, not to mention Luis Cruz, who as a 28-year-old rookie hit a surprisingly solid .297/.322/.431 in 296 plate appearances while bumping Ramirez back to shortstop, where he's inadequate afield. Youkilis is coming off a down year in which he set career lows with a .235/.336/.409 line and missed three weeks with a lower back issue; he has averaged just 115 games over the past three seasons amid back, abdominal and thumb injuries. Colletti may be interested in Youkilis as a backup for Ramirez or Cruz (which of the two they favor at the hot corner is unclear) and Gonzalez, but with teams like the White Sox, Phillies and Indians also interested and more clearly able to offer him a starting job, it's not clear that Dodger dollars can woo him.
Over the weekend, Los Angeles reportedly won the rights to Ryu Hyun-jin, a 25-year-old lefty who has spent the past seven seasons pitching in the Korean Baseball Organization. Their $25.7 million bid is merely a posting fee, the same process via which the Red Sox and Rangers won the rights to Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006 and Yu Darvish in 2011, respectively. The Dodgers now have 30 days to work out a contract with Ryu, who will presumably command a pricey long-term deal. That he's being represented by Scott Boras is yet another hint that he won't come cheap.
Should L.A. sign Ryu, he'll join a collection of starters that also includes Clayton Kershaw (with whom they're working on an extension beyond the two-year, $19 million deal that ends after the 2013 season), Josh Beckett (due $34 million over the next two seasons), Chad Billingsley (due $28 million over the next two seasons, and trying to rehab his way out of a potential Tommy John surgery that would wipe out his 2013 season), Ted Lilly (due $13.2 million in the final year of his three-year, $33 million deal, and coming off a season-ending shoulder injury), Chris Capuano (due $7 million, including 2014 buyout, in the final year of a two-year, $10 million deal) and Aaron Harang (due $9 million, including 2014 buyout, in the final year of a two-year, $12 million deal). If that's the case, either Harang or Capuano is likely to be dealt, though the Dodgers would have to eat salary to move either.
If anyone needed further evidence that the Dodgers would spend crazy money this winter, they need only look to the three-year, $22.5 million extension to which Colletti signed Brandon League a couple weeks ago, a deal that includes a vesting option worth a possible $7.5 to $9 million based upon games finished in 2014-2015. Never mind that Kenley Jansen saved 25 games last year, or that Javy Guerra saved 21 the year before; with both coming off offseason surgeries (a procedure to correct cardiac arrhythmia for the former, a shoulder cleanup for the latter), the belt-and-suspenders-minded Colletti wants a Proven Closer in the fold to go with his seven highly-paid starters. Colletti isn't entirely to blame for this spending, all of which is being authorized by the Guggenheim Partners ownership group, which spent a record $2.15 billion to buy the team from McCourt back in April and has shown an eagerness to counter the miserly ways — at least when it comes to payroll — of the former owner. But it's one thing to bet on homegrown talents in their prime such as Kemp and Kershaw, another for a GM with questionable tastes to buy high on damaged goods such as Crawford or make it rain for unknown international commodities. As the Yankees and Red Sox have learned, sooner or later the multitude of long-term deals inhibits roster flexibility and requires increasingly expensive solutions. If history is any guide, such a day is surely coming for the Dodgers.