The Los Angeles Dodgers went all in this season with a Major League-record $267.2 million player payroll. And they will have to be just as adept this off-season trying to retain many of their nine key free agents that form the core of this highly successful team.
That spending figure was $119.7 million more than that of the Atlanta Braves, who were 12th at $147.5 million and still lead the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series three games to two with Game 6 at Truist Park in Atlanta on Saturday night.
Last year in the Globe Life Field bubble the Dodgers rallied from a 3-1 deficit and defeated the Braves in seven games on their way to beating Tampa Bay in the World Series. They could do it again.
The Dodgers used seven relievers in an 11-2, Game 5 pounding Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, emphasizing they are still very much alive in this postseason.
“I guess when our backs are against the wall we play our best and fight, but that’s just not an ideal spot to be in,” said manager Dave Roberts after his team won its seventh consecutive elimination game dating back to last postseason. “Honestly, it’s just baseball and I’m happy that we gave you a series. I expected our guys to fight and scratch and claw. I thought we did that and it’s going to be a crazy environment in Atlanta.”
The list of Dodgers free agents includes their top starter Max Scherzer; the often injured, but historic franchise left-hander Clayton Kershaw; and closer Kenley Jansen, whose 350 saves for the Dodgers are second most for one team, behind Marino Rivera’s 652 over 19 seasons with the New York Yankees.
Other top free agents are shortstop Corey Seager, irreplaceable utility man Chris Taylor, the seemingly ageless future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, and important relievers Joe Kelly and Corey Knebel. The Dodgers have a $12 million option to bring back Kelly with a $4 million buyout.
Kelly left Game 5 with a biceps strain in his right arm, and like Kershaw with a similar injury to his left arm, is out for the remainder of the playoffs.
The goal as always is to win it all, and that will remain this off-season as Los Angeles tries to keep together a team that thus far has won 112 games, including the playoffs.
“Certain teams are held to a championship standard. Certainly, the Lakers are, and the Dodgers are,” super-agent Scott Boras told Sportico before a game in which the Dodgers hit five home runs—three by Taylor and two from A.J. Pollock. “In L.A. unless you’re competing for a championship you aren’t relevant. It’s a very high standard here.”
Boras represents Scherzer and Seager, as well as three other L.A. stars—slugger Cody Bellinger, 20-game winner Julio Urias and reliever Brusdar Graterol, who pitched two flawless innings Thursday night.
The agent expects a lot of interest in Seager and Scherzer, who the Dodgers obtained at the July 30 trade deadline along with second baseman Trea Turner from the Washington Nationals. Scherzer will get the Game 6 start against Atlanta’s Ian Anderson, Roberts said.
Boras knows the Dodgers will be big players to keep both Scherzer and Seager, one of the top shortstops on the market. The New York Yankees, who already have claimed they want to improve that position, will be in on Seager.
“The Dodgers are always trying to bring in or retain marquee names in a viable pursuit for championships,” Boras said. “With the competition from San Francisco and San Diego [in the NL West], it’s a higher standard to achieve right now, so they’re going to have to acquire or retain their premium players. They need to keep the expectations of the fan base at the level it is right now.”
Hovering over all this is the specter of Trevor Bauer, who has been on administrative leave as Major League Baseball investigates domestic violence abuse claims against him under their collectively bargained program. Bauer hasn’t pitched a game for the Dodgers since June 28.
He’s currently being paid on the three-year, $102 million contract he signed this past off-season but could be suspended by MLB for the entire 2022 season without pay.
Bauer could also challenge the suspension saying he’s already served four months of it.
And the Dodgers could simply pay him off, severing the relationship.
Under any of those scenarios, the chances aren’t good Bauer will pitch for the Dodgers again next season, if ever.
Saying all this, the Dodgers aren’t going to re-sign everybody and just as in the past they will have to make some choices.
They traded Alex Verdugo to Boston in the 2020 Mookie Betts-David Price deal, and allowed Kiki Hernandez and Joc Pederson to file for free agency after defeating the Rays in six games last October.
Hernandez signed a two-year, $14 million deal with Boston, where both he and Verdugo have played very well for the Red Sox. Pederson signed with the Chicago Cubs for what amounted to two seasons at $14.5 million. He was subsequently traded to the Braves and has rendered some vengeance on the Dodgers in this series. Pederson has three homers, nine RBIs and is hitting .296 this postseason.
Hernandez earned $7 million this season, Pederson $4.5 million. For the grand total of $11.5 million the Dodgers might have retained these two vital role players rather than endure the $28 million in sunken costs for Bauer.
They could have used the two players, particularly this postseason when Max Muncy was lost for all of October with a left shoulder injury on the final day of the regular season. And now Justin Turner is gone for the duration after suffering a Grade 2 left hamstring injury running out a double-play grounder in Wednesday night’s 9-2 loss to the Braves in Game 4.
But those are the decisions a franchise makes, and they all play themselves out in hindsight.
The Dodgers will have plenty of money to play with. They’ll ultimately go into the off-season with a projected 2022 payroll of $198.3 million committed to 16 players. If they don’t exercise the option on Kelly and don’t have to pay Bauer, reduce that figure by $46 million.
According to the Basic Agreement, Kelly’s $4 million buyout counts for tax purposes as a bonus on his 2021 contract.
The Dodgers will finish this season at least $57.2 million above this year’s $210 million luxury tax threshold, and will have to pay all the accruing taxes as part of doing business at that level in MLB.
They can reset their payroll and the taxes they pay by ducking back under whatever the luxury tax threshold will be in the new Basic Agreement, currently under negotiations between the players’ union and owners.
If the players have their way, they’d love to scuttle the luxury tax altogether.
Be that as it may, the deadline for agreeing on a new deal is Dec. 1. If that doesn’t happen, MLB could lock out the players and refuse to negotiate with free agents under the terms of the old contract.
That would certainly put a huge crimp in the Dodgers’ plan for building next season’s team, along with everyone else. November could usher in a frenzy of early signings.
“The smart teams know we’re going to be playing baseball in 2022,” Boras said. “They [will] move forward and sign players and take advantage of things and others are going to wait. A team like the Dodgers could quickly get into the market and get a jump. They’ll be ahead of things.”
All that, including the results of the NLCS, remain to be seen.