It probably doesn’t surprise most of you that I was a fan of former Dodger general manager Paul DePodesta, who – while certainly imperfect – generally saw most of his moves work out well. (I will defend the Paul Lo Duca / Hee-Seop Choi / Brad Penny deal until the day I die, and big-ticket signings like Jeff Kent, J.D. Drew, & Derek Lowe all provided value.) That’s mainly because I trusted his process to build a winning team (most of that 2006 playoff club was his roster even though he was gone) and partly because I was a big proponent of the “Moneyball” game within the game. Sure, you could go out and spend $20m/year on a five-win player, for example, but how much better would it be if you could develop that player from within or find a hidden gem on the free market to get 80% of that production for 10% of the cost. On-field wins were still paramount, of course, but winning the “value” game was important as well.
For most teams with a budget, and particularly the bankrupt McCourt-era Dodgers, it was difficult to have a winning team without winning the value game. To take one example, we all hated the Matt Guerrier contract, but not because Guerrier is a terrible pitcher; when healthy, he’s a perfectly adequate, if unspectacular, veteran to have in your bullpen. We hated the deal because you could have found similar production to Guerrier’s for the minimum or close to it, and the $12m+ he received is $12m that could have been used elsewhere. This oversimplifies it a little, but that’s money that could have been used to retain Hiroki Kuroda (having a good year in New York) rather than acquire Aaron Harang, and that’s where value becomes important.
…or at least it usually does, but as we’ve seen so far, there’s nothing “usual” about the new Dodger ownership. Hell, even this morning there’s reports coming out that they inquired on CC Sabathia & Mark Teixeira (which I don’t totally believe, by the way, because “Joel Sherman”), and more rumors swirling that they are willing to take on more expensive contracts to add another pitcher. (I am terrified that this means Mark Buehrle.) In theory, this is petrifying. Getting Carl Crawford & Josh Beckett absolutely doesn’t represent value, of course, even if part of the cost can be applied to the necessary price to acquire Adrian Gonzalez.
But “value”, if I can say this in today’s world without being too offensive, is for poor people, and the Dodgers are a new kind of rich. (There are a bunch of local ads for the lottery here that suggest that if you win, you won’t just be rich, you’ll be that kind of rich, which is where this post gets its title from. Yeah, that’s the Dodgers right now.) The only spending controls MLB really has in place is the luxury tax, and if Stan Kasten is to be believed, the Dodgers don’t care about that even a little. I suppose they really can’t, because they’re already up to nearly $200m for next year, and that’s without the megadeal that Clayton Kershaw is sure to receive and any other additions.
It can even be argued that the Dodgers aren’t really being absurd in what they’re doing and that the efforts by the Yankees & Red Sox to get under the luxury tax threshold are unnecessary, because they absolutely have the money. This morning, we learned that the new ESPN deal doubles the amount of money MLB will receive, and that’s just from ESPN, not other broadcast partners. As teams get more money, they’re more likely to keep players off the free agent market – we’ve seen this happen already – and so doing what the Dodgers are might just be the best way to get new talent.
It makes for an unexpected transition when writing about the team, because for years we’ve been talking about “value”. “Sure, Andre Ethier‘s talented, but was he really worth nearly $100m?” “Yasiel Puig‘s a big splash, but $42m for a guy no one’s ever seen?” If what we’ve seen about this club’s spending habits hold true – and with a group that controls $160 billion in assets plus a mammoth new TV deal coming, it’s easy to believe they will – then evaluating a deal is no longer about how much money it took to sign a player, but whether having that player in the fold is an upgrade.
So if budget isn’t limiting the Dodgers, what does? Simply enough, it’s roster spots. When I returned home on Sunday and dug into the details of the Boston trade, I was surprised to learn that Nick Punto isn’t just a replacement for the injured Jerry Hairston down the stretch, he’s also signed for 2013 as well. Just look at the guys in green on the payroll list for 2013. In addition to Punto, Hairston & Gonzalez, the infield alone has Mark Ellis, Hanley Ramirez, & Juan Uribe under contract – plus team-controlled guys like Dee Gordon, Luis Cruz, & Alex Castellanos.
All told, counting Puig and six starting pitchers, the Dodgers already have 17 players signed to MLB contracts for 2013. That doesn’t even count obvious team control guys who will be here like A.J. Ellis, Kenley Jansen, Shawn Tolleson, perhaps Gordon & Tim Federowicz, and a few others, so as things stand the Dodgers basically have a full roster for 2013 and it’s not even September yet. (Compare this to last year, when they had three starting pitchers, no left fielder, no second baseman, no catcher, and huge question marks at first and short.)
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the roster next April is going to be the same as it is now, of course. No one believes Uribe survives that long, and if there’s an infield upgrade to be had, I doubt the fact that Punto has a $1.5m contract makes him untouchable. It’s the same for the rotation; if they think that Zack Greinke or someone like him is an upgrade, then the mere fact that Aaron Harang & Ted Lilly are booked for over $20m next year isn’t going to be what stops them. (If Lilly can even pitch, that is; he’s so fragile that he’s now apparently injured his back while lifting weights.)
It’s a strange and wonderful time to be a Dodger fan, and the shock still hasn’t quite worn off. Can you believe that it was just over a year ago that we were talking about bankruptcy court and whether McCourt would default on player payroll? Yet here we are, watching the Dodgers take financial pity on the Red Sox, of all teams. I’m still not sure that this is exactly the right way to go about it, but I do know that this entire situation is fascinating and something that we’ve never seen in baseball before. For all of our sakes, after a string of crappy owners even dating back to the last decade of the O’Malley area, let’s hope that “spend like you have a bottomless wallet” is the strategy that finally works.