With a month to go until spring training, here’s the offseason that the Dodgers—winners of the last two National League pennants and six NL West titles but zero World Series in that span—have had.
• Signed lefty ace Clayton Kershaw to a three-year, $93 million contract extension;
• Re-signed lefty starter Hyun-jin Ryu to a one-year deal;
• Re-signed backup first baseman David Freese to a one-year deal;
• Signed righty reliever Joe Kelly to a three-year deal;
• Traded Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp and Alex Wood for a player they immediately released in a pure salary dump;
• Acquired catcher Russell Martin, who turns 36 next month and hit .194/.338/.325 last season, to replace Yasmani Grandal, one of the five best catchers in baseball
And that’s it.
If you’re like me, you may be scratching your head after reading that short list of accomplishments (though retaining Kershaw and Ryu was important). This isn’t the kind of winter you expect the richest team in baseball to have, especially after coming up just short of a championship the last two seasons. Yet this is where the Dodgers stand, having dedicated their offseason to cutting payroll instead of improving a roster in the midst of a championship window.
Going cheap now is particularly befuddling given the presence on the market of arguably the best free agent since Alex Rodriguez: Nationals superstar Bryce Harper. Along with Manny Machado (who didn’t endear himself to fans and pundits in his two-month stint in L.A.), Harper is the prize of this winter and has been for years now. Since the moment he stepped foot on an MLB field, Harper’s free agency has been anticipated, and the Dodgers were always a sensible suitor.
And why not? Even coming off a less-than-stellar season, Harper offers everything the Dodgers could want. MVP potential at the plate? Check. Plays a position where they could use help? Check. Young enough that, even if signed to a 10-year deal, he’ll be productive through the end of it? Check. Used to being the center of attention, the face of a franchise and the focus of an entire league? Check, check and check. Not to mention that the Dodgers nearly had Harper this summer: Washington and Los Angeles reportedly discussed a Harper-Puig swap that would’ve melted Twitter like a river of lava running down Wilshire Boulevard; then L.A. claimed Harper when he was placed on waivers in August, only for the Nats to pull him back.
But given the opportunity to land Harper for just money this winter, the Dodgers have grown oddly reticent. Although they’ve been linked to the former MVP in rumors throughout the hot stove season, there’s been little indication that Los Angeles is willing to get into the bidding. A week before Christmas, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that the Dodgers’ front office isn’t interested in giving Harper the big multi-year deal he wants, instead preferring a shorter contract with a high average annual value and several opt-outs. Despite Harper “badly want[ing] to be a Dodger,” according to ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez, that’s where the two sides apparently remain, as there’s been no further rumors about any Los Angeles pursuit. Instead, Harper’s been wined and dined by the White Sox and Phillies since the start of the year, with the Nationals still in the running as well.
How did we get to this point, where the billion-dollar Dodgers are willing to let a transcendent talent slip away to the upstart Phillies or rebuilding White Sox? It’s baffling given both Los Angeles’ moves last winter to shimmy under the luxury tax threshold and its trade of Puig, Kemp and Wood back in December—a deal seemingly designed to free up both money and space for Harper. Instead, since disposing of that useful trio of players, the Dodgers have added Martin and done nothing else.
That can’t and shouldn’t fly for Dodgers fans. With the moves they’ve made so far this winter, the Dodgers have actively made themselves worse. Say what you will about Puig and all the attention he draws, both good and bad, and whether or not he lived up to the hype. He was still a productive player in 2018, hitting .267/.327/.494 with a 120 OPS+ and 2.7 bWAR. While Kemp crashed in the second half after a hot start to the year, he still produced a .290/.338/.481 line with a 120 OPS+ and 1.1 bWAR. Wood took a step back from a strong 2017, but finished with a 3.68 ERA and 105 ERA+ in 151 2/3 innings.
None of those are irreplaceable numbers, but that’s the trick: You actually have to replace them if you get rid of them, and ideally, you do it by signing a superstar like Harper, who can produce as much value by himself as those three did combined. It’s a move that only makes sense if Harper is the end result. Instead, those at-bats and innings will for now go to players like Ross Stripling, Kiké Hernandez and Joc Pederson—all good as well, but not offering any substantial upgrade over those three beyond being significantly cheaper.
Likewise in letting Grandal—who hit .241/.349/.466 with a 120 OPS+ and 3.3 bWAR last season—walk as a free agent and replacing him with the duo of Austin Barnes and Martin. The former, a jack-of-all-trades around the infield, hit a depressing .205/.329/.290 in spot duty last year. The latter, as mentioned, is amid a long and slow decline from his All-Star heyday. Neither is anywhere near the hitter Grandal is, nor are they as good defensively. The one benefit they do offer? They cost far less. Barnes will make somewhere near the major league minimum in 2019, and the majority of Martin’s $20 million salary will be covered by Toronto. Grandal, meanwhile, will play next season at $18 million on a one-year deal with Milwaukee.
So far, the only player Los Angeles has been willing to pay is Kelly, late of the Red Sox and a force in the postseason, where he struck out 13, walked none and allowed just one run in 11 1/3 innings of relief. That, along with his 100-mph fastball, earned him a three-year, $25 million contract, but Kelly is as erratic as they come, as his 4.39 ERA and 32 walks in 65 2/3 frames last season will attest. Yet that’s been the Dodgers’ big addition of the winter. Nor does it look like much more is coming: Los Angeles has been ever-present in trade rumors connecting the team to Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto and Indians ace Corey Kluber, but so far, that’s been a lot of smoke with the barest hint of a flame.
That’s of a piece with last winter, when the Dodgers, fresh off a seven-game World Series loss to Houston, did nothing aside from salary dumping Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir in exchange for Kemp. Why two straight winters of inactivity? The answer likely lies in the luxury tax threshold—$197 million in 2018, $206 million this year—and Los Angeles’ desperate attempts to get under it and save money. But even the most onerous tax penalties still amount to a drop in the bucket for a team worth $3 billion and pulling in over $500 million in revenue. It’s ridiculous that a team so close to a title can let the luxury tax dictate its offseason. It doesn’t look like this is a short-term thing, either: Back in November, The Los Angeles Times reported that the front office’s goal was to keep payroll below the tax level through the 2022 season.
It’s a staggering about-face for an ownership group that splashed cash like a Qatari sheikh when it bought the team in 2012 for $2 billion. Now austerity is the word of the day in southern California, even with the Dodgers as one of the league’s true blue World Series contenders. You can argue that the roster as currently constructed is good enough to win a title without spending any more (and perhaps the loss of general manager Farhan Zaidi to the Giants is impacting things more than we know). But it’s also fair to suggest that a team that couldn’t get over the hump two years in a row could use a push—one that Harper or any other of this winter’s elite free agents or trade targets could easily provide.
The Dodgers’ window isn’t necessarily in danger of closing, given the presence of young talent like Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger and Walker Buehler to go with a thriving farm system. But there’s no guarantee it stays open forever, and as the years go on, top contributors like Kershaw or Justin Turner or Kenley Jansen age and decline. This, in other words, isn’t the time for the Dodgers to get cheap; it’s time to make the big move and push the franchise to the top of the heap, hoping to end a 31-year title drought while the core of the roster is still productive and intact.
Yet the Dodgers are apparently content to count coins instead of spending them. Just like the Cubs, whose offseason has (fittingly?) been a hibernation period, it’s baffling that a wealthy team could let mere money stand between it and a better roster more equipped to win a championship. Luckily for Los Angeles, there’s still time for the team to come to its senses and add Harper or another difference-maker. It’s been a cold winter, but all the tools are there for the Dodgers to light it up. All they have to do is pay the bill.