Some night last night, right? I’m still trying to process the fact that the Dodgers signed the supposedly-unsignable Zach Lee, prying him from his commitment to LSU football, just minutes after Hong-Chih Kuo and Octavio Dotel handed up yet another painful bullpen collapse. Imagining a 2013 rotation fronted by Clayton Kershaw & Chad Billingsley, with Chris Withrow, Ethan Martin, and Lee behind them is pretty tasty.
The Lee signing is a real feather in the cap of an embattled organization, especially after two months of jokes and conspiracy theories about how they’d “punted” the pick by choosing someone they knew wouldn’t sign. And not only did they sign him, they signed him – the $5.25m bonus is more than double the previous high of $2.3m that Clayton Kershaw received in 2006, and it’s tied with Baltimore’s Manny Machado for the third-highest bonus handed out in this year’s draft. They also gave $600,000 to 11th-rounder Joc Pederson, a large amount for such a low pick.
In a vacuum, this is incredible news. The draft process is incredibly flawed, and this is exactly how large-market teams ought to be taking advantage of it. It’s how the Red Sox were able to sign Anthony Ranaudo, who was viewed as a top-ten talent but fell to #33 due to concerns about his salary demands, and it’s how the Tigers were able to snag Rick Porcello at the end of the first round in 2007. Sure, it sucks that small market teams are sometimes forced to choose signability over talent (Matt Bush over Justin Verlander, I’m looking at you) but that’s the system we have, and the Dodgers played it perfectly this year. So kudos to them, and expect to hear “but we paid Zach Lee” over and over whenever people accuse the McCourts of being cheap in the future. For a system that was starting to stagnate, this is a much-needed infusion of talent and goodwill.
Yet, I can’t help but wonder… what exactly is the plan, here? You want to shower them with praise for investing in the future, but this is the same team which was roundly ridiculed for refusing to offer arbitration to either Orlando Hudson or Randy Wolf last year, and then didn’t sign a free agent bigger than Jamey Carroll. This is the team which had 20% of its Opening Day roster made up of either non-roster invites or Rule 5 picks. This is the team that’s basically stopped spending in Latin America, and this is the team that’s been among the five cheapest in baseball in draft signings in four of the last five years. In trades, the team has proven more than once that they’d rather give up superior prospects rather than take on any money, even as recently as two weeks ago in the Pittsburgh deal.
Now, all of a sudden, they’re spending big on the draft. The Lee deal isn’t really as big as it looks; the bonus is spread out over five years, so they’re paying just more than $1m a year for him, or the equivalent of a mediocre backup infielder or a very good Russian faith healer, yet it’s still a bigger splash than they’d been making in just about any arena lately. But does that forgive all of the missteps laid out above? It’s a good start, but the answer won’t come until after the season, when a team that’s full of holes will need to be rebuilt.
For today, at least, the feeling is a positive one. Not only did they open the wallets for once, but if they were willing to pay this much for Lee, then he’s clearly someone Logan White considers worthwhile, and I think White has earned our trust and then some in that department. We’ll just need to see how far this gets the team in the world of public opinion.