The MSTI 15-Step Plan for 2012

It’s time for another edition of the yearly plan, in which I put on my GM hat and try to piece together a competitive 2012 club using realistic payroll and player restrictions. Before we start, I have to be honest: this was so much harder to do than it’s ever been. In previous years, I’ve looked forward to putting on the GM hat and thinking up interesting and realistic ideas to improve the next year’s team, but doing it this time was a struggle. Though the uncertain budget thanks to the McCourt mess is part of it, an even bigger problem is that there’s just not much out there. The free agent list is sparse, and while there’s values to be had in the trade market, the Dodgers have little of interest that they can move without opening up a new hole.

I thought about all kinds of possibilities. Perhaps the #5 starter hole could be filled by buying low (extremely low) on previously-successful veterans who have fallen out of favor and would be heavily subsidized, like Derek Lowe or John Lackey (before it was announced he’d miss 2012). Maybe there was some way to get the Red Sox to give up Jed Lowrie or Will Middlebrooks to help stabilize second or third base. Perhaps a package including Chad Billingsley could be sent to Kansas City for Alex Gordon, though the Royals are unlikely to be interested in such a deal and that would just open up another rotation hole anyway. Maybe 2005 Jeff Kent could rise from the dead and return to the Dodgers, because the second base market is a total mess. Is it worth believing that Aaron Hill or Kelly Johnson can come back from down years to reclaim past glory at the keystone? Or maybe you could go cheap elsewhere and pray that Aramis Ramirez, nearing his mid-30s, is worth the ~$40m he’s likely to get to play third base?

In the end, little of it made sense, at least in any way that would be realistic for the other team, because I like to think this blog isn’t the home of “I’ll trade you Mike MacDougal for Ian Kinsler!” type solutions. The Dodgers are boxed in by criminal ownership, too much dead money owed to long-departed players, ballooning payments to poor investments like Juan Uribe & Matt Guerrier, and outside alternatives that are less than ideal. Perhaps Ned Colletti wasn’t that far off when he suggested that he was generally okay with the current roster, because he had done this work already and knew that there was unlikely to be much movement.

Then again, perhaps he’s just not being creative.

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The first question, of course, is how much do the Dodgers have to spend on payroll in 2012? It’s a question that’s almost impossible to answer right now, a problem Colletti has as much admitted to. In 2011, they spent about $98m on players, plus about $17m in “dead” money, for a total of ~$115m. Without revealing how much, this Tony Jackson interview with Ned Colletti claims that “all indications are it will be higher than the roughly $98 million it was this year.” Let’s guess that means an extra $5m, so that’ll put us to a $120m cap including the dead money. I’ve seen the arguments that the longer the ownership dispute drags on, the more likely it is that the payroll decreases by tens of millions of dollars, but I’m not buying it; it’s in no one’s best interest for the value of the Dodgers to go down any further than it already has, and MLB has been consistent about claiming it will be “business as usual” for the Dodgers this winter – whatever that means.

Of course, that doesn’t really mean there’s $120m available to spend. The Dodgers still have about $21m in deferred money committed to the dearly departed, including Manny Ramirez ($8m), Juan Pierre ($3m), Andruw Jones ($3.375m), Rafael Furcal ($3m), and Hiroki Kuroda ($2m), and also including the already-exercised buyouts of Casey Blake ($1.25m) and Jon Garland ($1.5m). So that $120m figure is already down to $99m.
Dead money: $120m – $21m = $99m

Then there’s the money already committed to members of the 2012 club, and here’s where the back-loaded contracts of Juan Uribe ($8m) & Matt Guerrier ($4.75m) really come back to bite us in the ass, making them look even more brutal than the day they were signed. While Ted Lilly at least finished 2011 strong, his salary increases from $7.5m to $12m in 2012, a whole more than I really want to pay him. That, plus the $9m owed to Chad Billingsley, eats up $33.7m of the $99m, leaving us with $65.3m to play with.
Committed money: $99m – $33.7m = $65.3m

But we’re not done yet, because several key members of the core are without contracts yet under team control in 2012. It’s sometimes difficult to guess what will come out of arbitration hearings, so for now we’ll go with Eric Stephen of TrueBlueLA‘s guesses that Clayton Kershaw will get $8m, Andre Ethier will get $12m, and Matt Kemp will get $13m. (The TBLA payroll sheet is an invaluable resource not just for this piece, but all year long.) I hate the idea of giving Ethier that much, but now, when his value is at a low, is no time to trade him. We’ll see about changing those numbers later, and there are definitely other arbitration decisions to be made, but the $33m we just said goodbye to means that with just seven spots on the roster set, we’ve already got $87.7m spoken for, leaving $32.3m to fill out 18 other spots. See how quickly $100m can go?
Arbitration money: $65.3m – $33m = $32.3m

Finally, let’s dedicate about $3m in minimum salary contracts to team-controlled 0-3 players who are almost certain to be on the roster next year – A.J. Ellis, Dee Gordon, Jerry Sands, Javy Guerra, Kenley Jansen, Josh Lindblom, Blake Hawksworth and Scott Elbert. Now we have fifteen spots at a cost of $90.9m, leaving us with $29.3m.
Controlled money: $32.3m – $3m = $29.3m

$29.3m, ten holes. What do you do? Here’s one man’s blueprint…

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1) Sign OF Matt Kemp to a long-term deal.

This should be obvious and in no way arguable. It’s the absolute #1 priority of the winter, no matter what else happens. You can argue how much and over how many years – that’s a conversation for another time - but don’t forget that he’s still under team control for 2012, so the Dodgers retain some leverage. We’ll assume that whatever deal he gets is somewhat backloaded and settle on $12m for next year, more than he made in 2011 but less than he’d probably get in arbitration, which should be fine considering he’ll have the security of a long-term deal.
$29.3m +$1m = $30.3m (since I already accounted for him as $13m above)

2) Sign 1B Prince Fielder to a six-year, $140m deal.

I went back and forth on this one – a lot. I even wrote about the likelihood of Fielder or Albert Pujols arriving a few weeks ago and concluded that it was neither likely or advisable, simply because I don’t like the idea of tying up so much money into one player, especially when that’s going to need to happen for Kemp and Kershaw as well. Even just theoretically talking about it makes me a bit uncomfortable, because it’s so risky. If you want to make the argument that this money is best spent elsewhere, I’m more than open to it.

In the end, I settled on going for it in this exercise because the other options were simply so unattractive. Believe me, I had a whole lot of iterations of this article where I was trying to believe in James Loney and then working on other ways to upgrade. Since it’s hard to see any way to improve at 2B or 3B, your hopes for the infield were to either have to count on Loney to repeat the last six weeks of his season after four years of mediocrity, or overpay for a veteran like Derrek Lee or Lyle Overbay who is unlikely to be much better. There’s a big argument to be made that one year of Loney at $6m is a steal if he hits like he did to finish the season; there’s an even bigger argument to be made that if he doesn’t, you’re once again saddled with an infield that has almost no power whatsoever. If you’re going to try to contend in 2012, and I would argue that having Kemp & Kershaw means you are, then you need to make a move – in addition to the desperately needed positive PR that such a signing would bring.

Besides, it’s the perfect time to go after a Fielder because the traditional big spenders likely won’t be around to drive up the price. The Yankees and Red Sox are each heavily invested at first base and have bigger needs, especially in pitching. The Phillies are about to start a (hilarious) $125m extension with Ryan Howard; even though he’s hurt, their replacement there would be short-term, and the Cardinals will likely just retain Pujols. The Angels probably won’t jump in considering they already have both Mark Trumbo and Kendrys Morales on hand; the Rangers could be a fit but probably need to focus on pitching. You could definitely see the Cubs being interested, though it’s hard to know what their winter of transition will bring; the Braves definitely need a bat but seem happy with Freddie Freeman at first base. The best possibilities are probably Washington and Baltimore, but the Nats already have Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche under contract for first base and have been burned by the first year of Jayson Werth‘s massive deal; the O’s don’t even have a GM yet and probably have bigger concerns than first base. That’s not to say that Prince won’t get paid, because he will, just that it’s not likely to be the $200m+ figure I’ve seen thrown around.

In addition, Fielder’s relative youth (he’ll still be just 27 on Opening Day of 2012) means that the back-end of a six-year deal would be his age 32-33 seasons, not 35-36. That’s still young enough that you’ll be purchasing most of his prime, not most of his decline, and that’s a big deal considering the concerns about his body type. While I’m admittedly loathe to give up first round picks for free agents, Fielder at least has the potential to be the kind of franchise changer that could make it worth it (and yes, I’m looking at you, Orlando Hudson). Whether the 6/$140m is close or not – I really just made it up without an overwhelming amount of research, so it could be something like 7/$160m instead - it’ll clearly be backloaded, so we’ll start with $13.5m in 2012 as we wait a year or two for other obligations and the ownership crisis to clear. While there’s certainly a very good argument to be made that adding another huge long-term contract to a team that will need to pay Kemp and Kershaw is dangerous, there’s a lot of money coming off the books after 2013, when Lilly, Uribe, and Guerrier (combining to make about ~$25m that year) all figure to be gone, in addition to being free of further payments to Manny. That’s on top of the money you get back assuming that Ethier is no longer with the team after 2012.
$30.3m - $13.5m = $16.8m

3) Trade RP Javy Guerra, SP Chris Withrow, and 2B Ivan DeJesus to Florida for LF/1B Logan Morrison.

This is another one I went back and forth on a lot, initially considering Morrison for first base rather than left field. Then, after getting Fielder, I figured, what the hell – why not try for both? Morrison’s spat with Marlins management is well-known, leading to a brief demotion this summer, and with reports that ownership is ready to take more control over player decisions, it’s not hard to see them wanting to be rid of the outspoken Twitter hero as soon as they can. That makes him an appealing buy-low target, since as he enters his age-24 season, he’s coming off a 2010 in which he had a .390 OBP and a 2011 in which he hit 23 homers. (The obvious comeback there is, “well, he hasn’t done both at the same time, since he hit just 2 homers in 2010 and had a .330 OBP in 2011.” Both true, however his age and his minor league track record suggest otherwise, especially considering that much of his power loss in 2010 can be put on a broken wrist, an injury notorious for sapping power for at least a year, and his 2011 BABIP was quite low before ending the year with a fantastic September.)

Of course, “buy low” does not mean “trade garbage or expensive contracts to Florida”, because he’s low-priced and productive, and so that’s why I’m taking the possibly unpopular route of trading last season’s surprise rookie closer, Guerra. It’s not that I don’t like Guerra, because he was an out of nowhere success story, but if you’re making a trade, you need to deal from depth – and nowhere do the Dodgers have more depth than in young, righty relievers. Besides, Guerra’s high on my list for regression in 2012; his .261 BABIP was on the low side this year, his 4.07 xFIP was a lot less impressive than his 2.31 ERA, and his minor league history doesn’t shout superstar. That’s not to say that he can’t succeed or that I’m desperate to be rid of him, because that’s not true – just that saves are almost always overrated in the marketplace and it might be the best use of Guerra’s value to trade him at the peak of his perceived attractiveness, especially when the Dodgers have Kenley Jansen able to step in and several other young relievers ready to come up.

On the Florida side, they have a big hole in the bullpen thanks to the identity fraud scandal of Leo Nunez (or Juan Carlos Oviedo, Armen Tanzarian, Theodore Donald Karabotsos, or whatever he’s calling himself these days), and the Fish have never been big players in the market, so five more cost-controlled years of Guerra should be appealing. They also get a lottery ticket in Withrow, showing signs of life with 9.1 K/9 in AA last year, though still struggling with his control, and DeJesus, who seems to have little future in Los Angeles but shouldn’t be written off completely since he’s still only 24 and shows good on-base skills in the minors. (As always, the prospects could be replaced by anyone of similar value – it doesn’t have to be exactly these guys – but you get the idea. If they prefer Brian Cavazos-Galvez or Ethan Martin or Kyle Russell or someone instead, fine.)
$16.8m – $0m = $16.8m (Morrison would take Guerra’s 0-3 slot for a similar salary)

4) Don’t try to trade Andre Ethier – at least not now.

Believe me, there’s plenty of good reasons to move Ethier. He’s a bit overrated. He’s cranky. He’s coming off surgery. He can’t hit lefties. He’s not a great defender. When he’s a free agent after 2012, he’s a lower priority than Kemp and Kershaw, and not someone I want to sign to an expensive long-term deal as he enters his decline phase. I totally agree with all of this. However, now’s not the right time to do it. For all of those reasons plus the ~$12m cost for one year before losing him to free agency, I really don’t think the return is out there that we’d want. Even if teams would take the one year of Ethier for that price with all of the issues, it’s unlikely that anyone would give a top prospect in return.

Besides, I expect big things from Ethier in 2012. He’ll be healthy for the first time in a while, and headed into a contract year he should be especially motivated – and Ethier is exactly the type of “chip on my shoulder” player who really responds to that sort of thing. If he’s playing well and the Dodgers are out of it in July, you might be able to get a good prospect in return then (like the Mets getting Zack Wheeler for Carlos Beltran). If the Dodgers are still in it, you ride it out, try to win, and then collect two draft picks when he leaves.
$16.8m – $0m = $16.8m

5) Sign 3B/UT Wilson Betemit to a one-year, $1.5m deal.

Unfortunately, Uribe is going to be the starting third baseman in 2012. There’s just no way around it. Even if we didn’t have Fielder eating up a huge part of the hypothetical payroll, third base is just a black hole on the market, unless you want to overpay Ramirez or risk a ton of prospects on David Wright. Since Uribe’s going to get paid, he’s going to be the man, but you also can’t risk not having an alternative in case he repeats his 2011.

That’s a tough spot to fill. No one who thinks he’s a full-time starter is going to come to LA for a small contract and the possibility of riding the bench, but most of the available bench types are like Aaron Miles, stopgaps who provide little value. That brings us to Betemit, who I advocated acquiring in the 2011 plan. All he ended up doing was hit .285/.343/.452 for Kansas City and Detroit, albeit with subpar defense. But that’s kind of a perfect fit, isn’t it? Uribe may or may not be able to hit, but even in his lost 2011 he was a solid defender, and Betemit provides the yin to that yang. Besides, the switch-hitting Betemit has a massive platoon split (vs RHP, .865 OPS in 2011, .817 career; vs LHP, .607 OPS in 2011, .684 career) which makes him an intriguing bench piece and/or part-time replacement for Uribe. In emergencies, he can play first and second as well, nice flexibility even if it’s hopefully not needed. Betemit made $1m last year, so let’s give him a slight raise. (An alternative here is Eric Chavez, who I liked last season, if he chooses to play in 2012.)
$16.8m – $1.5m = $15.3m

6) Bring back C Rod Barajas on a one-year, $1.5m deal.

Let’s start with this: you absolutely cannot enter the season with A.J. Ellis & Tim Federowicz as your backstop duo, no matter what Ned Colletti says. Federowicz isn’t ready now (if he will be at all) and needs to play regularly at AAA. Even if you’re a bigger fan of him than I am, you still can’t get by with only two catchers who have combined for less than a full season of MLB play.

Now, I thought about Ramon Hernandez here, though I eventually decided against him because he’s a Type A free agent and may get a two-year deal. I thought about Ryan Doumit to add some switch-hitting pop, but was turned off by his atrocious defense and possible salary demands since he made over $6m last year. In the end, there’s no available difference maker who is really likely to matter, so even though I don’t really want to, we’ll take advantage of Barajas’ stated preference to remain a Dodger and let him do so at a discounted rate. It’s not sexy, and he’s not all that good, but he’s at least got power and the state of catching is so poor that a Barajas/Ellis duo could actually be slightly above average. On this team, Ellis starts 4-5 days a week, not Barajas.
$15.3m – $1.5m = $13.8m

7) Bring back 2B Jamey Carroll for two years and $4m.

This actually scares the hell out of me, and I don’t really like doing it, much as I like Carroll. He’s got absolutely zero power and he’ll be 38 in February; to be honest, I hate everything about this. That said, the second base market is absolutely god awful. My version of the Dodgers can neither afford nor count on Hill or Johnson, and Carroll at least offers on-base skills and decent enough defense. Along with Sellers, he’s also a fallback position in case Gordon flails or is injured; I don’t want to give Carroll two years, yet that’s probably what the market will demand. Ideally, he could get through one more year as a solid OBP guy, and then a better 2B option emerges for 2013, allowing Carroll to spend the second year as the utility guy he really ought to be.
$13.8m – $2m = $11.8m

8) Hedge your bets with Jerry Sands.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve acquired a first baseman and a left fielder, which doesn’t leave a spot for Sands, who finished 2011 so well. In reality, when the Dodgers don’t get a player at either position, I’m more than fine with Sands getting first crack at left field. That said, he’s not enough of a slam-dunk prospect that you simply hand him the job with no backup plan better than a Tony Gwynn, so in this scenario he’ll be able to get playing time in both outfield corners, since Morrison and Ethier are both lefties (even moreso if Morrison is needed to fill in at first base from time to time), and as the main bat off the bench. If he continues to prove himself worthy, you let him step in for Ethier in right field when Andre is traded in July or moves on after 2012. Or, if that makes you uncomfortable, you let him play every day in AAA until injuries pile up.
$11.8m – $0m = $11.8m

9) Round out the bench with minimum-salary deals for IF Justin Sellers and OF Jamie Hoffmann.

Here’s where the big deal for Fielder bites you a little bit, because you no longer have the flexibility to carry much more than minimum salary types on the bottom of the roster. I would really have liked to have gone out and found some intriguing buy-low types like David DeJesus here; unfortunately, it’s just not feasible now. I’ve been pessimistic of Sellers’ ability to hit at the big league level, but he has a solid glove at both middle infield positions, and entering his age-26 season, he’s not enough of a prospect to worry about needing to play every day. Hoffmann is someone I’d like to do better than, yet he’ll be useful because this roster would desperately need a plus defender, and I’d prefer Hoffmann over Gwynn because he hits righty, which is preferable when you’ve got two starting lefty corner outfielders.
$11.8m – $0.8m = $11m

10) Bring back SP Hiroki Kuroda for one year and $9m ($2m deferred).

This is a bit risky, because Kuroda will be 37 years old in February and was slowed by neck pain for the last few weeks of the season. But he’s also coming off the best year of his career, and the Dodgers have a special gift here in that he’s almost certain to favor them over any other team (assuming he chooses to come back, of course). There’s also no one on the market likely to give the type of production we’ve seen from Kuroda for just a one-year deal, either, so if he’s willing to return, we should be happy to have him for one more season.
$11m – $7m = $4m

11) Sign SP Erik Bedard to a one-year, $2m deal, with the opportunity to add a good deal of incentives.

Bedard is almost never healthy for a full season (missed 2010, hasn’t thrown more than 129 innings since 2007), yet is almost always effective when he is. We saw that again this year, where he missed 45 days with two separate injuries (both to his knee, rather than his arm) but put up a 3.62 ERA that was matched by the advanced stats and a 125/48 K/BB for Seattle and Boston, making $1m while doing so.

As he reaches his age-33 season, and with his history, it’s unlikely that anyone is offering him big guaranteed money this winter, so he could be available for a low base price plus incentives. (It’s also possible that I’m completely low-balling this.)

If we accept the fact that he absolutely will miss some time and don’t get disappointent when it happens, I’d rather spend $2m guaranteed to get ~15 good starts from him and ~10 starts from fill-ins rather than ~30 mediocre starts from the 6th-8th starters.
$4m – $2m = $2m

12) Sign SP Rich Harden to a one-year, $1m deal.

I can hear the hesitation now. “Harden is constantly hurt, to the point where a proposed deal that would have sent him to Boston this summer fell apart over concerns about his medicals. He threw just 174.2 innings over the last two seasons combined, and his ERAs the last two years have been 5.58 and 5.12. Why in the hell would you want him?”

Well, I always like a lottery ticket, and as Harden enters his age-30 season, he seems like a perfect candidate to fill the relief ace/spot starter role that Vicente Padilla was supposed to have in 2011. Despite Harden’s ugly ERA last year, his xFIP was merely 3.68, with a 91/31 K/BB in 82.2 innings. His home run rate is admittedly troubling, but hey, we’re talking about a guy on a $1m deal here. If Bedard & Harden can combine for 25-30 decent starts for $3m plus incentives at the back of your rotation, that’s value even if they combine for 100 days on the disabled list. And if they both blow up? Well, at least you took the chance on talent over assured mediocrity, and it’s only $3m.
$2m – $1m = $1m

13) Buy a coach-class ticket to non-tender city for Loney and Hong-Chih Kuo.

Loney made this a pretty tough call with his hot end to 2011, and let me say that in the real world, the one in which the Dodgers aren’t really going to get Prince Fielder, I think he’s going to be tendered a contract to give him one more chance to prove his worth. Though I’d be positive that he’d succeed if he landed somewhere else, there’s no room for a $6m pinch-hitter on this club. (Obviously, trading him would be preferable to non-tendering, though I’m not sure any other club is taking that $6m gamble either.)

Kuo is the longest-tenured Dodger and I’d hate to see him go, but his 2011 struggles, long injury history, and yet another elbow surgery last week mean that risking a raise on his $2.73m salary in arbitration is foolish. If he does want to play and doesn’t want to risk turning his arm over to a new training staff who doesn’t know him well, he might be willing to come back on a reduced contract; you could argue that he should get Harden’s $1m allotted above, or you might even get lucky and get him back on a non-guaranteed deal.

14) Say goodbye to 2011 free agents Juan Rivera, Casey Blake, Tony Gwynn, Jay GibbonsAaron Miles, Eugenio Velez, Jon GarlandDana Eveland, Vicente Padilla, Mike MacDougal, and Jonathan Broxton.

Let’s caveat that by saying that if you can get any of these guys back (except Velez, who should be extradited from the country) on a minor-league deal to fight for a job in camp, then by all means do so – particularly Padilla, who has always been surprisingly effective as a Dodger when healthy. I’m guessing that’s unlikely to happen for most of them, who will merit at least a small major-league deal. In reality, I expect that Rivera, MacDougal, and Miles will all return, but there’s just no room for them on my hypothetical team.

15) Turn Pedro Baez into a pitcher. Come on already.

Yeah, I said this last season too, arguing that Baez’ rocket arm wasn’t going to be enough to get him to the bigs as a third baseman, especially considering that despite being old for the competition in the offensively-oriented California League, he managed just a .306 OBP and six homers in 2010. So what did he do this year to follow it up? He played in just 32 AA games, hitting .210/.278/.381, and missed the entire season after May with an injury. (Which, to be honest, I have not been able to identify.) I’m not saying it’s any sort of guarantee that such a conversion works out like it did for Jansen, but it basically is a guarantee that Baez never becomes a big leaguer as a third baseman. It’s worth a shot for both sides.

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So what does this leave us with? A lineup that could look like this…

2B Carroll-R
LF Morrison-L
CF Kemp-R
1B Fielder-L
RF Ethier-L
3B Uribe-R
C Ellis-R
SS Gordon-S

BN: Barajas-R, Betemit-S, Sellers-R, Sands-R, Hoffmann-R

Though I know the real team would never actually let Carroll lead off and put Gordon 8th, that’s where I’m putting them due to their respective OBP skills. It’s amazing how much Fielder and Morrison lengthen that lineup, isn’t it, and how much better does that look than last year when we were forced to depend on Uribe, Dioner Navarro, Casey Blake, Marcus Thames, and Jay Gibbons? While the bench is less than sexy, that’s what you have to live with if you dedicate so much payroll to one or two expensive players. However, Sellers and Hoffmann are each excellent defenders, and could really come in handy replacing Gordon/Carroll and Morrison/Ethier for defensive purposes in the late innings. Betemit & Barajas would provide offense, if used correctly, and protection. At AAA, you’d still likely have Federowicz, Russ MitchellTrent Oeltjen, Alex Castellanos, Scott Van Slyke and whatever NRIs you pick up (Andy LaRoche, anyone?) along with others for depth.

Then your pitching staff would look like this…

1) Kershaw
2) Kuroda
3) Billingsley
4) Lilly
5) Bedard

CL Jansen
R Lindblom
R Guerrier
R Hawksworth
R Harden
L Elbert
NRI / Kuo / Padilla / Troncoso

I’d be a whole lot more comfortable with another ace in that rotation, but I guess that’s what happens when you give $33m to Ted Lilly. If and when Bedard breaks down, you could either move up Harden or bring up Nathan Eovaldi, John Ely, or your yearly veteran non-roster guy like Dana Eveland – if not Eveland himself. (I kind of like Dontrelle Willis as an NRI; look past his W/L record for Cincinnati and he actually had a decent year.) Later in the year, a younger starter like Allen Webster could be a factor, or even Rubby De La Rosa depending on the progress of his recovery. The bullpen could look forward to possibilities like Shawn Tolleson, Cole St. Clair, Steve Ames, and whatever random veteran NRI shows up in camp.

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So that’s it. I’ve been staring at this for weeks and I’m still not sure I’m happy with it. Is it foolish to think that signing Fielder is even possible? Perhaps. Am I unintentionally low-balling what Bedard or Betemit might actually get, because I don’t want to give them more? Maybe so, and I didn’t get Kershaw signed long-term (though I suppose you could also do that and structure it so that it doesn’t affect 2012 that much). Either way, this is a team that could be built, in theory, for something close to what the Dodgers can spend, and it’d likely be a lot more competitive and interesting than what they have now. Compare this to some of the fantastic plans you all thought up over the weekend, and then let’s not try to be too disappointed when the big moves in reality are to bring back Rivera and sign Yuniesky Betancourt.

Hey Big Spender, Buy Prince Fielder


In just about every conversation about the 2012 Dodgers recently, the topic of “needing a big bat” has come up. Fans say it all the time. Ned Colletti even said it earlier this week. Of course, doing so is easier said than done; aside from the big two of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the list of available free-agent bats this winter is sparse, full of past-their-prime guys who may be decent additions to a good lineup, yet are hardly “the big acquisition”.

I say “aside from Pujols and Fielder” because, despite the visions of sugarplums and fairies Dodger fans get in their heads when they think of non-tendering the infuriating James Loney – and believe me, I hear from the “let’s get Pujols/Fielder!” crowd a lot – and pairing superstar Matt Kemp and a healthy Andre Ethier with their new first base toy, the ownership mess makes that all but impossible.

Or does it? ESPN’s Jayson Stark argues today that it might make such a splash even more likely:

They’re headed for a 17.5 percent attendance plummet, the largest of any team in this sport. And you don’t need to be a descendant of Walter O’Malley to understand why.

These people are appalled by the owner. That’s essentially why. So to lure them back, the Dodgers realistically have two choices:

A) Frank McCourt can take the hint and give up his surreal battle to keep hanging out in the owner’s box, or B), the Dodgers need to do Something Big to show what’s left of their fan base that, contrary to popular belief, they’re still trying — and, whatever that is, it had better lead to a whole lot of winning on the field, in a hurry.

Well, it’s clear by now that McCourt never got that “it’s-time-to-get-out” memo. So that leaves Plan B. If Frank McCourt really intends to hang onto his team and make this work, what other choice does he have?

Now, it probably comes as very little surprise to you that I don’t really buy this. If they had money, they’d best be throwing gobs of it at Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. Still, it’s a fun thought exercise – and in the midst of a four-game set against Pittsburgh, this is what we have right now – and recent hot streak aside, if you’re serious about upgrading the offense, you can’t possibly be entertaining the idea of giving Loney $6-$7m next year.

So let’s tackle the two major issues: #1, can they afford a Pujols or Fielder? #2, and infinitely more interesting, should they, even if they can?

1. Can they actually afford either?

As the great Reverend Lovejoy once said, “short answer, yes with an if, long answer, no with a but.” Both first basemen will be shooting for something in the $25m annual value range, with Fielder likely getting something under and Pujols perhaps at or more, if only because of his historical stature. The fact that traditional big spenders like the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, Tigers, Angels, and others are largely set at first base might help keep bidding wars down.

For all the fun we had with the bi-weekly “hey, you think McCourt will make payroll” game earlier this season, the Dodgers still had a payroll of roughly $100m this year, plus another $15m or so in dead money to guys like Manny Ramirez, Juan Pierre, Jason Schmidt, and Andruw Jones. (Those figures aren’t 100% exact, but I’m painting in broad strokes here – for the purposes of this conversation, close enough.) That’s not as high as it should be for a team in Los Angeles, but nor is it the level of Tampa Bay or Kansas City. Given that the MLB loan McCourt secured is supposedly enough to last at least into next season, and that MLB claimed it would be as close to business as usual as possible, there may be some room to make moves.

Now, the Dodgers do have some money coming off the books. Casey Blake, Jonathan Broxton, Vicente Padilla, Jon Garland, Rafael Furcal,and Jamey Carroll combined to make $32m this season. (Most of this information is coming from TBLA‘s great payroll sheet, by the way.) None are expected to return, though the group does have about $6m in option buyouts and deferrals to deal with, for a savings of about $26m. Assuming you’re not bringing Loney back and factoring in both hefty arbitration bumps for Kemp, Kershaw, & Ethier and back-loaded increases for Juan Uribe, Matt Guerrier, Chad Billingsley, and Ted Lilly, the 2012 commitment is currently at something like $78m, plus $14m in continued dead money. (Upside: no more Schmidt!)

Assuming that any large contract the Dodgers would sign would almost certainly be back-loaded, it’s in theory possible. Figuring that low-salary 0-3 types like Javy Guerra, Tim Federowicz, Dee GordonKenley Jansen and others would play larger roles next year, you could start the first year of a contract off with, say, $16m, allowing you an extremely small amount of breathing room to fill out the roster. You could also attempt to sign long-term deals with Kemp, Kershaw, or Ethier that lowered the 2012 commitment while extending them more guaranteed money over the length of the deal. That’s both unlikely – imagine the Dodgers signing two big deals this winter – and not always the best strategy, as we’ll see. Or you could look into trading Ethier for prospects, which is again unlikely, particularly as his value is at its lowest as he rehabs from knee surgery. Besides, spending from a team in bankruptcy isn’t completely unprecedented; just look at the Rangers acquiring Cliff Lee and others last year.

So is it possible? If you skimp in a bunch of other areas, if Pujols or Fielder is willing to take a somewhat lower salary in the first year, if the bankruptcy and court messes don’t end with a drastic reduction of payroll, and if McCourt goes with Stark’s plan of “I have to do something to win the fans back”, sure, why not. As the good Reverend says, “yes with an if”. Lots and lots of “ifs”.

2) If they can, should they?

Here’s where it gets fun, and here’s where I think my opinion will differ from a lot of casual fans. You ask the average Dodger fan on the street, “do you want to see Prince Fielder next year?” and you can imagine that the response would be mildly positive. And I have to admit, the thought of Kemp & Fielder/Pujols hitting 3-4 on a team that has Kershaw leading the staff is pretty tasty. That trio alone gets you pretty far.

But as you saw in the first part, that’s about all you get. Say goodbye to another year of Hiroki Kuroda. You probably can’t afford to chance several million on tendering Hong-Chih Kuo. Unless Juan Rivera and Rod Barajas are willing to play for the minimum, they’re gone too. That means you’re filling out the roster with a lot of youth, and while that’s not necessarily bad, it’s very risky because it leaves you with very little depth. It means that Gordon and Justin Sellers are probably your double-play combination. It means that Uribe has to be healthy and contribute at third base, and Jerry Sands has to nail down left field. With all of those guys in the lineup, that makes your bench Russ Mitchell and friends. It means that beyond Kershaw, you have to pray that Lilly and Chad Billingsley regain consistency, and beyond them? The back of your rotation is filled by untested youngsters like Nathan Eovaldi & Allen Webster and the Dana Eveland/John Ely retreads of the world. The one place where this isn’t a problem is in the bullpen, which was already largely staffed by youth like Guerra, Jansen, and Josh Lindblom, has Guerrier returning, always seems to pick up at least one Mike MacDougal-type, and has reinforcements on the way in Shawn Tolleson, Steven Ames, and more.

Is that worth it? I don’t know that it is; investing such a big chunk of your payroll into one player rarely ends well. Look at the Twins, who gave Joe Mauer $184m starting this season; injured, he’s hit just .287/.360/.368 with three homers as Minnesota has sunk to last place.

Look at Cot’s list of the 27 $100m+ contracts. If you eliminate the ones that are less than halfway through (not enough time to judge, fortunately for Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford) and the ones signed by the Yankees (who are playing a completely different sport), you’re left with thirteen deals:

Alex Rodriguez, $252,000,000 (2001-10)
Manny Ramirez, $160,000,000 (2001-08)
Todd Helton, $141,500,000 (2003-11)
Johan Santana, $137,500,000 (2008-13)
Alfonso Soriano, $136,000,000 (2007-14)
Vernon Wells, $126,000,000 (2008-14)
Barry Zito, $126,000,000 (2007-13)
Mike Hampton, $121,000,000 (2001-08)
Carlos Beltran, $119,000,000 (2005-11)
Ken Griffey Jr., $116,500,000 (2000-08)
Kevin Brown, $105,000,000 (1999-2005)
Carlos Lee, $100,000,000 (2007-12)
Albert Pujols, $100,000,000 (2004-10)

Five of the thirteen can be termed as outright disasters – Soriano, Wells, Zito, Hampton, and Lee. (That’s not to suggest that the players never provided any value to their teams, just that it was in no way commensurate to the value of their contracts.) Griffey, Brown, and Santana had their moments after signing but their return on investment was largely ruined by injuries. (Yes, this is more “subjective” than “scientific” – I could equate WAR to dollars – but I think these are pretty accurate categories). That leaves us with Rodriguez, Manny, Beltran, and Pujols. All four performed at a high level over the length of their deals, though Rodriguez’ contract was such a crushing weight that the Rangers were forced to trade him after just three seasons.

That’s not exactly a great rate of return, and the risk is magnified even further when discussing Pujols and Fielder. Pujols is unquestionably one of the all-time greats; in addition to his feats at the plate, he is an excellent fielder and baserunner, two attributes which should not go unnoticed. He’s also turning 32 in January, and you’ll find more than a few people in and around baseball who still believe that he’s actually a year or two older than that, as so many Latin prospects turn out to be. He’s also having one of the worst years of his career while dealing with his first serious injury. To be fair, I could hardly type that last line with a straight face, since “the worst year of his career” still has him leading the NL in homers and has an OPS over .900  after a miraculous return from an injured wrist. Still, he’s likely going to end up at around 5 WAR, the first time he’s been under 7.5 since 2002. Even the great Pujols is not immune from the passage of time, and it’s hard to argue that giving him a massive contract that mostly encompasses his mid- and late-30s isn’t terrifying.

Fielder’s problem is not age, since he only turned 27 in May. A long-term deal for him would be something like his 28-35 seasons, which sounds much better. However, unlike Pujols, he offers little beyond the bat, as he’s a poor runner and mediocre fielder, giving back much of the value he provides at the plate. He’s your typical “bad body” player, conservatively listed at 268 pounds, and so whomever he signs with probably needs to have the DH option available down the road, because when he slows down, it’s going to be ugly. His youth helps me look past that to a certain extent, since you’re buying a player who is about to enter his prime, and he doesn’t even have the crippling platoon splits that so many lefties do.

For me, it all comes down to flexibility. Signing either – and if pressed, I suppose I’d have to go with Fielder’s youth and lack of secondary skills over Pujols’ all-around game but advancing age – really ties you up in other areas. It kills the overall depth of your team. It makes it difficult to find the cash to sign the guys you already have to big deals. If it works, it can really work, but if not – and the history isn’t great – it can really hamstring your team for years. We should all know by now that attempting to buy wins on the free agent market is the most inefficient way to do so, and especially when we’re talking about dollar figures this high.

That’s all if there’s actually money for such a move. Which, come on. The fantasy I laid out above is one thing, but seeing this happen in reality? Not until the McCourts move on.