After an offseason of fits and starts, spring training opens Wednesday with pitchers and catchers reporting to camps, and the World Series-winning Los Angeles Dodgers still the team to beat. This, despite the sale of the New York Mets to Steve Cohen and a serious challenge from the San Diego Padres in their own division, the National League West.
The Dodgers have won the division title eight seasons in a row and are coming off a World Series victory in six games over Tampa on the neutral turf of Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
Cohen’s net worth of $11 billion notwithstanding, the Dodgers, run by deep-pocketed Guggenheim Baseball Management, have a chance to maintain their dominance for a generation. Their parent company is a hedge fund that controls $500 billion in assets.
Even during a pandemic that thus far has cost the industry in excess of $3 billion, the Dodgers have now spent $518.5 million in long-term contracts for four players since last July: Mookie Betts, a 12-year extension worth $365 million; newly signed free agent Trevor Bauer, three years, $102 million; and the re-signing of free agents Justin Turner for two years, $34 million, and Blake Treinen at two years, $17.5 million.
“Over the last few years people have gotten the sense that we run our payroll over three, four, five years, not in any one moment in time,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said last week as the club introduced Bauer to the media at Dodger Stadium. “Just as past moves have created some flexibility, so will things that will happen in the future. So for us, we’re doing everything we can to go out and defend our title, and hopefully this time we can do it with fans in the stands here at Dodger Stadium.”
No team—not the Mets, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, or even the Padres—have come close to spending the money recently dispensed by the Dodgers. The Cubs and the Red Sox, in fact, have shed payroll. Four teams head into the spring with a total player payroll under $50 million: the Miami Marlins, Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians, with the Tribe as bottom-feeders at $36.5 million.
The Dodgers, in fact, have two players—Bauer at $34 million and Clayton Kershaw at $31 million adjusted for luxury-tax purposes—who this year will make just a bit less than Cleveland’s aggregate active payroll.
The Dodgers, with a league-leading $255.5 million tab, are $45.5 million above this year’s luxury-tax threshold. Exceeding the threshold by $40 million will force them to pay a 42.5% tax on the overage; they’ll also lose 10 places on their top pick in the June amateur draft for exceeding $250 million. Without signing another player, the Dodgers’ tax bill is $18.6 million, the price of an additional middle-inning reliever.
From a competitive standpoint, Friedman thinks it’s worth it.
Bauer gives their starting rotation heft behind the already established Kershaw and Walker Buehler. Kershaw heads into the final year of his contract, and at 33, he is an example of a future variable Friedman was talking about.
“Heading into 2021 there are a lot of unknowns, like going from a 60-game season back to a 162-game season,” Friedman said. “Front and center on that is our pitching depth. Now we feel like we have seven proven Major League starters. We’re not sure exactly how things are going to shake out on April 1. But we couldn’t feel more confident that they’re going to help us throughout the year and into October.”
Winning the World Series again is certainly no guarantee. The Dodgers lost their first two times under Friedman’s watch, to Houston in 2017 and Boston in 2018. Last year’s victory after a season truncated to 60 games was their first since 1988.
No matter what the Padres do, the San Diego club understands, though, that the division is the Dodgers’ to lose. Add three starting pitchers via trades as the Padres did this offseason and the Dodgers will simply raise you Bauer.
“You’ve got to respect what they do. They’ve got finances and talent,” Padres president of baseball ops A.J. Preller told Sportico when reached by phone. “They’ve been the class of the NL and the NL West for the last five-plus seasons. We’re very respectful of their team and their ability. But we have a lot of faith in our team as well. It’s a good thing, though, because it forces you to raise your bar and your level.”
For the Padres to move forward, they’re going to have to find a way to defeat the Dodgers. During the last regular season, they lost six of the 10 games to the Dodgers and then were swept in a best-of-five NL Division Series after their top two starting pitchers, Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet, went down with injuries. A third, Chris Paddack, was gassed.
This offseason, Preller raised the bar, obtaining starters Blake Snell, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove in trades. They didn’t come cheap.
Darvish has $59 million remaining on his contract that goes through 2023, though the Cubs paid $3 million of it in the deal. Snell was obtained from the Rays with three years and $39 million left on his five-year, $50 million deal—an average annual salary of $10 million, for luxury-tax purposes. Musgrove is signed for one year at $4.45 million and is third-year arbitration eligible for the 2022 season.
Add Manny Machado, Will Myers and Eric Hosmer at a combined $75.5 million this year—a total more than the entire projected payrolls of nine Major League teams at the moment—and San Diego has a luxury tax payroll of $155.3 million, hefty for the market, but not out of line considering owner Peter Seidler has a net worth of $3.3 billion. It’s still $101.2 million less than the Dodgers are spending, and may not be enough to close the talent gap.
“Each organization and market is different, and each ownership group is different,” Preller said. “There’s also different times in the competitive cycle in which things are important. We feel like now we can contend for a championship. Our owners want to win. They want to be competitive. If you invest well, whether it’s in a player, technology or infrastructure, I think you can win. We like where we’re at.”
The Padres may have their best starting pitching staff now since the 1998 team that was swept by the Yankees in the World Series, the last time they traveled that far. They’ve never won it all. Last year was only their sixth trip to the postseason since expanding into the NL in 1969. They seemed spent at the end of the 60-game season, and had the playoffs not ballooned from 10 to 16 teams, they might not have made it at all. When the season ended they were six games behind the Dodgers, but made the playoffs with a second-place finish.
Right now, it’s back to the traditional playoff format, the six division winners and the two Wild Card teams in each league with the best non-first place records. Once again, the Padres have Big Blue to the north hovering over their aspirations.
As the Beatles once wrote, money can’t buy you love. Just a lot of division titles, it seems.
“Obviously we’ve noticed,” Friedman said when asked about the Padres’ moves. “We think they’re a very talented team. That being said, we’re pretty intrinsically motivated to be as good as we can be.”