Andre Ethier leads the National League with 53 RBIs and his 10 home runs are just one fewer than he had in 2011. (Robert Beck/SI)
Word came down during the middle innings of Monday night’s Dodgers-Angels game that the Dodgers had reached an agreement with Andre Ethier for a five-year extension worth $85 million with a vesting option that could increase the total value of the deal to $100 million over six seasons. That deal comes a little more than two weeks after the Orioles signed Adam Jones to a six-year extension worth $85.5 million.
Jones is 26 years old and still defining himself as a major league player, but I wrote at the time that if he settled in as a .290/.330/.490 hitter, given his poor basestealing and average-at-best defense in centerfield, he would earn that money but not a penny more. Ethier is 30 and has been a fairly consistent .290/.365/.488 hitter over the past four-plus seasons. He doesn’t steal bases and has limited range and a weak arm in rightfield (though he handles what he can reach well, which was enough to convince the Gold Glove voters last year). That’s not a player who is worth more than Jones.
The Dodgers have clearly overpaid Ethier, who will be 35 in the final year of his contract and could easily meet the plate appearance requirements that would vest the $17.5 million option for his age-36 season, bringing the total value of the contract to $100 million. They did so in part because Ethier, who is in his walk year, is both more established and closer to free agency than Jones, who wasn’t due to become a free agent until after the 2013 season. They also did so because they are a team with very little long-term offensive potential.
Matt Kemp is 27, a superstar in his prime and signed through 2019, but beyond Kemp and Ethier, the lineup of this year’s first-place Dodgers team is being propped up by players in their 30s with little remaining future. A.J. Ellis is having a breakout season, but he’s a 31-year-old catcher. Bobby Abreu has been a boon since coming over from the Angels, but he’s 38. Jerry Hairston Jr. is helping to keep the infield afloat, but he’s 36. Looking over Kevin Goldstein’s list of the organization’s top 20 prospects coming into the season, the top six men are pitchers and none of the hitters who follow them project as stars.
The Dodgers didn’t need to sign Ethier. Free agent alternatives this offseason could still include Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher, Melky Cabrera, Michael Bourn, Shane Victorino, Angel Pagan, Carlos Quentin and B.J. Upton. Most of those men are centerfielders, but moving Kemp to an outfield corner, which will prove necessary long before his contract expires, and installing one of the better defensive centerfielders on that list in center could have improved Los Angeles at two positions. Of course, there are negatives to all of those players, be it age (Swisher and Victorino are 31), injury (Quentin has never played in more than 131 games in a major league season), dependability (Cabrera, Pagan, and Bourn are all having career years that may not be repeatable), or cost (Hamilton, who is both 31 and fragile, is likely to demand a nine-figure contract).
The Dodgers chose to overpay for what they saw as Ethier’s dependability (though it’s worth noting that Ethier hasn’t played in 140 games since 2009), preferring to bet on his ability to sustain his production into his mid-30s than to take a similar or perhaps even greater gambles on one of the men above. Better the devil you know, I suppose.
The big question now is, with $235 million committed to Kemp and Ethier beyond this year, and reigning Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw due for another payday after the 2013 season, how much flexibility will the Dodgers and their new owners have left to improve the team this winter? Using the figures from Cot’s Baseball Contracts and adding in Ethier’s $13.5 million salary, the Dodgers already have $116.65 million committed to next year’s roster. The highest payroll in team history was a little more than $118 million in 2008, so don’t expect the Dodgers to be major players in this offseason’s free agent market. They just made their big splash.
-- By Cliff Corcoran