During the past eight months, the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres have spent more than $1 billion combined in player contracts, setting themselves apart financially from the rest of the National League West and creating what amounts to a two-tiered division.
The Arizona Diamondbacks, San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies, meanwhile, are trying to rebuild and/or retrench, choosing to shed payroll rather than spend in a COVID-influenced market that has caused the industry to lose about $3 billion and counting. Mid-market teams like the D-backs have lost in excess of $100 million with more to come this season until a full contingent of fans are allowed to return to the ballpark.
“We’re not rebuilding,” Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen said. “Tying our strategies to finances is not what I really focus on. Payroll is payroll, whatever that is in any city or dynamic, and that’s different for everybody. We’re tasked with winning baseball games. We’re tasked with building an organization that’s going to produce a sustainable winner. And we haven’t done that yet.”
But the reality is that increased payroll opens the door to higher-talent players and substantial depth behind the starting nine when injuries over the course of a 162-game season start to wear a team down.
“There are some things it affords you, like depth and mistake making, or overcoming injuries,” Hazen added. “But we have to be better. We can’t afford those things.”
Heading into the 2021 season, the payroll picture, for luxury-tax purposes, in the NL West looks like this:
The Dodgers: $255.5 million.
The Padres: $201.2 million.
The Giants: $158.2 million.
The Rockies: $113.9 million.
The D-backs: $107.9 million.
The tax threshold this season is $210 million.
Don’t mistake the Giants’ $158.2 million as belonging in the upper tier. To be clear, $45.7 million of their current payroll is the residue of three World Series titles from 2010-14 and is being paid to three players from that era: Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford. Johnny Cueto is also making $21.7 million, the highest salary on the team. All four can come off the books in 2022 via free agency or club options, which is what president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi is awaiting.
The Giants are in a serious restructuring mode and are still building on the fly.
“I think we’re still going to look to add,” Zaidi said during a recent conference call with reporters as he begins his third season in the role. “Adding another experienced starting pitcher, whether it’s a [non-roster invitee], or potentially a Major League deal or trade, is something we’re still looking at.”
Second-year manager Gabe Kapler was asked about the unrelenting spending by the Dodgers, who this season added Trevor Bauer for $34 million alone, and the Padres, who rebuilt their starting rotation by trading for Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell, inheriting $33 million in 2021 luxury-tax payroll.
The Giants have strengthened their rotation, signing Alex Wood and Anthony DeSclafani for a combined $9 million and retaining Kevin Gausman, who accepted this year’s $18.9 million qualifying offer.
“We’re just focused on the Giants, on our camps and on our workouts,” Kapler said. “It’s not that we don’t know what’s going on around the rest of the league or the acquisitions the Dodgers and Padres have made. All of those things are very much on our radar. We are paying attention. At the same time, we have to pay attention to our players and give them the tools to be the best versions of themselves.”
The Rockies took it on the chin earlier this month after shipping Gold Glove third baseman Nolan Arenado and the remaining six years of his eight-year, $260 million contract to the St. Louis Cardinals for a bunch of prospects. The Rockies also sent $51 million to St. Louis, which didn’t sit well with fans in Denver, where the Rockies have never won a division title and were swept by the Boston Red Sox in their only trip to the World Series in 2007.
Arenado wanted to go, owner Dick Monfort said afterward. He didn’t like the direction of the team, and his relationship with general manager Jeff Bridich had soured beyond repair.
Even so, Monfort said he’d shoulder the blame.
“I have thought about firing myself,” Monfort said, “but I have not thought about firing Jeff.
“I’m a fan. I truly am. I understand how they feel. And to be quite honest, I would probably feel the same way, and maybe I do even feel the same way. When we signed Nolan, it was an attempt to keep Nolan for the rest of his career. But things do change.”
And even though the Rockies haven’t appreciably added to a club that had a 26-34 record last season during MLB’s pandemic-abbreviated 60-game season, they say they are also not in a rebuild.
“There are levels and variations of the rebuild process, but this certainly is not a total teardown and rebuild like certain teams have chosen to go,” Bridich said. “I think if that were the case certain players would have already been traded.”
That brings us back to the D-backs, who finished in last place in 2020, a game behind the Rockies.
The team has been in rapid dissolution since making the playoffs in 2017, Hazen’s first season, as a Wild Card team, when they defeated the Rockies but were swept by the Dodgers in an NL Division Series. Mainstays like Paul Goldschmidt and Zach Greinke were traded for lesser players and prospects. Former Giants ace Madison Bumgarner was signed as a free agent prior to the 2020 season to a five-year, $85 million deal, but that was before COVID struck. The D-backs’ top three players this season are earning roughly what the Dodgers are paying Bauer or what the Padres are paying Manny Machado.
And in this market, that’s no way to compete.
“In my assessment, we’ve done things that have been pretty good,” said Hazen, who at the same time is dealing with a serious illness to his wife, Nicole, who has brain cancer. “There are other areas we need to improve on, No. 1 being the win-loss column. I’m aware what payroll to those degrees can afford you, but I don’t think it strips away your ability to be one of the better teams in the league. It’s not a binary choice.”