The problem with money is sometimes it’s all people see.
The Dodgers, at a few shekels over $229 million, spent nearly $30 million more in total team payroll in 2014 than baseball’s next spendiest squad, a little mom-and-pop shop known as the New York Yankees. For this, they were rewarded with a truncated playoff berth and the continuation of a championship draught creeping dangerously close to 30 years.
Given their prodigious financial resources, some wonder why they haven’t fixed their problems by dropping giant blue sacks of cash on the doorsteps of the top free agents. After all, they can afford it, right?
More than virtually any other franchise around the league, yes. But just because the Dodgers can doesn’t mean they should.
New ownership arrived pledging to spend more than Frank McCourt, both as a means of quick competitiveness (important) and to reassure a torch-and-pitchfork angry fan base they were not Frank McCourt (really important). Relatively quickly, they locked up Andre Ethier (oops), signed Yasiel Puig, and acquired Hanley Ramirez.
But even while putting out tremendous levels of cash to acquire Adrian Gonzalez and friends from the Red Sox, Dodgers president Stan Kasten made it clear the spending binge was a bridge to a longer term strategy, not the strategy itself. The Dodgers want to build primarily through the draft and farm system, supplementing with trades for higher priced players and free agents.
People don’t always pay close attention when he talks about this sort of thing, distracted as they are by all the confetti cannons shooting dollars out of Chavez Ravine, but it’s the same model Kasten worked with in Atlanta.
“For me, (former Braves manager) Bobby (Cox) and anyone who’s ever had sustained success, we talk about it all the time. We didn’t invent the philosophy,” Kasten told ESPN last December. “We had owners who were A, committed to committing resources in the minor leagues and, B, patient. The difference between then and now with the Dodgers is that, because of our market place, we can talk about doing both jobs at the same time.”
He’s repeated different versions of the same thing countless times since. So when people see the Dodgers putting high priced outfielders on the trade block — an obvious/necessary move since going into next season with 2014’s overcrowding problems would be flat out stupid — and talking about reducing payroll, it’s not because they’ve imported small market “Moneyball” types* charged with saving money.
*It’s stunning to me how, in 2014, many otherwise smart people still reduce “Moneyball” principles to low payrolls and high walk rates. It is, and has always been, about how to exploit inefficiencies in a market. And, thanks to the explosion in analytics across the league, those inefficiencies are becoming harder to find.
The roster building game has changed significantly over the last 10 years. As more teams lock up good players through their arbitration years, every winter the pool of free agents older, less talented, and more shallow. That’s a bad trifecta.
Thanks to market forces, though, those older, less talented guys become more expensive, in dollars and years. The assumption is signing guys on the level of Melky Cabrera will require a little dead money at the end of a contract.
For the genuinely high end guys, the risk of dead money is unavoidable. Every year, it’s more cash for less return. Staying on that treadmill, a Pujolsian nightmare, can crush a team, even one with the resources of the Dodgers.
It puts a premium on organizations capable of generating their own talent, which is why the Dodgers kept Joc Pederson, Corey Seager, and Julio Urias off the table at last year’s trade deadline, even though people like me thought flipping one could be worth it.
Next Page: Dodgers Must Spend Wisely