This Sunday, the MLB off-season will officially kick into a frenzy (at least hopefully) with the Winter Meetings in San Diego. After the anticlimax of last year’s meetings in Las Vegas (in which hometown hero Bryce Harper was the coveted FA target), this year will hopefully help set a better tone, perhaps ideally with SD native Stephen Strasburg signing a plump contract.
Most importantly, it’s an opportunity for the Dodgers to make big moves after two quiet off-seasons geared towards resetting the luxury tax rate. With that goal soundly accomplished, and the impetus of a disastrous NLDS exit still fresh, it’s something just about everyone agrees should happen this time.
Back during the middle of the season, I did a piece evaluating every single Friedman era bullpen acquisition as the criticisms of his bullpen construction tactics revved up. Now that the trope of “Friedman does nothing in the off-season” is in vogue once again, it’s the right time to see whether or not that claim truly holds up to scrutiny.
So, when it comes down to the crucial matter of retooling a perennial contender every off-season, just how has the Friedman regime done? Let’s take a look at each group of acquisitions, from 2014 to the present day.
One last thing before we dive in: I can’t say conclusively that every single move (and lack thereof) is 100% a result of Andrew Friedman. Most of his tenure was with Farhan Zaidi as general manager, and as far as spending money/adhering to the CBT threshold is concerned, I’m inclined to guess that’s ownership being stingy more than Friedman.
Yet perhaps it goes both ways, with the president eagerly accepting less spending and pushing a more “Moneyball” approach. It could very well be that way, given it’s the one he’s used to. I cannot say either way…all I can do is look at each move under his watch.
Note: This piece addresses off-season pickups only, not in-season trades and signings. It also doesn’t discuss prospects, only MLB-ready players or those who ended up having a substantial time with the Dodgers at some point.
Enrique Hernandez, Howie Kendrick, Chris Hatcher, Brandon McCarthy, Adam Liberatore, Joel Peralta, Zach Lee, Mike Bolsinger, Juan Nicasio, Austin Barnes, Yasmani Grandal, Jimmy Rollins, Brett Anderson
Before the 2014 postseason was even over, the Dodgers signaled a bold new direction by courting away Andrew Friedman from his GM position with the Tampa Bay Rays. With it, the franchise sought to merge their record-setting spending prowess with the analytical finesse Friedman used to turn the Rays into a World Series contender despite a “Moneyball” payroll.
At that year’s Winter Meetings, the new president of operations made a blitz of trades and signings to reshape a roster many considered to be cluttered and bogged down by poor clubhouse chemistry. Ultimately, this flurry of moves proved a success.
— Dylan Hernandez (@dylanohernandez) December 10, 2014
Sure, Chris Hatcher ended up being one of the biggest bullpen duds in recent memory, and the other relief names mentioned above didn’t do a whole lot either. The starting pitching moves weren’t too much sexier, with Brandon McCarthy perennially injured in his L.A. tenure and Brett Anderson’s most lasting impression being this photo more than anything he did on the mound. I didn’t even remember Mike Bolsinger until sitting down to research for this article.
The greatest value came in the position players that were picked up. Former Dodger Killer Jimmy Rollins slumped, but built a bridge to Corey Seager in 2015. Future Dodger Killer Howie Kendrick proved a steady infield and outfield presence for two seasons, which helped the team attain their third and fourth straight playoff appearances and an NLCS trip in 2016. The best, though, was Enrique Hernandez, who soon became the team’s super-utility player and went full Reggie Jackson ‘77 to seal the club’s first pennant in 29 years in 2017.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 4, 2014
Most importantly, the catcher position, unfathomably weak in 2014, was shored up once and for all. Yasmani Grandal justified the decision to trade fan favorite Matt Kemp, bringing offensive firepower and elite pitch framing in each of his four seasons. Austin Barnes, after a breakout 2017, has since struggled but still remains a viable backup option heading into 2020.
All in all, a strong start to the Friedman era, and one that cemented the foundation for a perennial winner as hoped.
Kenta Maeda, Joe Blanton, Charlie Culberson, Trayce Thompson, Scott Kazmir
After a flurry of transactions to announce his tenure in 2014, this is where Friedman and company set their now familiar tone of restraint. This is best exemplified by not retaining Zack Greinke after he opted out of his contract with Los Angeles, instead signing vaunted Japanese star Kenta Maeda.
Today the #Dodgers announced the signing of right-handed pitcher Kenta Maeda to an eight-year contract.
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) January 7, 2016
One would be hard-pressed to call Maeda better than Greinke, but the former’s bullpen heroics have helped the Dodgers to more World Series than the latter has been in. (At least for now.) Scott Kazmir, however, turned out to be another McCarthy, limited by injuries and not appearing at all in the 2017 season.
It was in this off-season that the Dodgers started to show their knack for picking up surprise heroes. First was Joe Blanton, a veteran starting pitcher who slimmed down and reinvented himself as a reliever. He flourished in that capacity, locking down the pen all season and through the NLDS (although he came undone in the NLCS).
The best, though, was Charlie Culberson. A utility player of little renown at the time, Culberson made his mark on Dodger history with a division-clinching walk-off homer in September that also doubled as the picturesque send-off for Vin Scully. He followed it with clutch heroics in 2017, including catching the final out of the NLCS that had eluded the team since 1989.
Granted, there is a school of thought that ponders whether or not letting Greinke walk is an era-defining regret for the Dodgers. I don’t think it is, but it’s not a consideration without merit.
Wilmer Font, Logan Forsythe, Brandon Morrow, Sergio Romo, Max Muncy
This off-season was an unquestionable success, but that’s because the team wisely decided to retain Rich Hill, Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner on new deals. Beyond that, only a few moves, two of which turned out to be decisive for the 2017 World Series team.
Source: Dodgers sign Brandon Morrow to a non-roster deal. He'll be a reliever, and if he stays healthy, he's got a good shot to make team.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 26, 2017
The best by far was Brandon Morrow, who like Blanton reinvented himself as a relief ace and enjoyed great success through all three rounds of the playoffs. Trade acquisition Logan Forsythe was stellar in the postseason as well, but far from it in the regular season, ultimately being traded to Minnesota next season.
Sergio Romo, meanwhile, underperformed and was traded to Tampa Bay. Wilmer Font ended up being awful, and inspired the saddest article I’ve ever written for DN. And while I stated above that I intended to avoid in-season trades and signings, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the quiet minor league contract given to Max Muncy in April 2017. Much like Justin Turner, it was a scrap heap pickup that turned out to be pure gold.
Matt Kemp, Scott Alexander, J.T. Chargois
After a heartbreaking (if perhaps now questionable) World Series loss to Houston, it would seem to behoove the front office to make big moves to put a team one win away from a title over the top the following year.
That’s…well, not what happened. It was this period when the dreaded luxury tax became the guiding factor of the team’s off-season approach. Thus, the biggest move was a salary dump in which the contracts of Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, Adrian Gonzalez, and Charlie Culberson were shipped to Atlanta to get old friend Matt Kemp back.
This is the salary dumpest of trades ever. Matt Kemp is back with the Dodgers, in exchange for all the contracts — Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy — and Charlie Culberson. And cash considerations of course
— Eric Stephen (@ericstephen) December 16, 2017
The move was surprising on many levels, especially considering the Marlins were in the midst of their desperate fire sale, with NL MVP (and youthful Dodgers fan) Giancarlo Stanton on the trading block. Yet Kemp proved the better get, getting in shape for a superb comeback season.
Of all off-seasons, though, this has to be the weakest for Friedman. Aside from the surprising pittance of moves for a team so close to a title, it featured what I consider perhaps the biggest blunder on his watch: letting Tony Watson walk in favor of trading for Scott Alexander and retaining the injury-prone Tony Cingrani.
I know I’ve prattled on about that before, and at this point it seems trite to still complain about it. But I still feel Watson’s 2018 season would have been a huge boost to that year’s beleaguered bullpen, especially given Alexander wasn’t used in the NLCS and performed poorly in the World Series (including a key walk in the game 4 meltdown). Plus, Cingrani didn’t make the playoff roster, likely due to injury concerns.
Joe Kelly, A.J Pollock, Russell Martin
This is the off-season that cemented many fans’ disdain for Andrew Friedman, now operating unconditionally after Farhan Zaidi was plucked away by the San Francisco Giants. Trading away fan favorite Yasiel Puig certainly didn’t help, but that trade did set up Cody Bellinger’s MVP breakout in the outfield, so it ultimately worked.
?TRADE ALERT ?
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) December 21, 2018
As for acquisitions, though, there wasn’t much to savor. Old friend Russell Martin was brought back to replace Yasmani Grandal, and did so respectably. Joe Kelly, fresh off incinerating Dodger bats in the 2018 World Series, was signed to shore up the bullpen. Just like the year before, when Matt Kemp was reacquired instead of going for Giancarlo Stanton, A.J. Pollock was the big OF signing instead of coveted superstar Bryce Harper.
The Pollock move in particular is one that may hurt Friedman’s legacy. While the team was right not to meet Harper’s absurd price tag and years, Pollock lived up to his reputation of frequent injury, playing just 86 games in 2019 (albeit with respectable numbers in those games). Then came his impossibly poor NLDS performance, meekly flailing at pitch after pitch for 11 strikeouts in 13 at-bats. My hope is that he will bounce back, but I have a feeling this signing might not pan out.
Where do you stand on the Pollock acquisition after the trade of Yasiel Puig?
Is it a lateral move? Are the Dodgers worse off, or better off?
— Dodgers Nation (@DodgersNation) January 26, 2019
As for Kelly, the consensus amongst most fans is that the signing is a dud. I will get so much heat for saying this, but I’m actually bullish on Kelly and think it will prove to be a good signing. He turned his numbers around in the latter half of the season, and as for game 5 of the NLDS, the fact that he was pitching a second inning for the first time in over a month was just one of many heinous blunders by Dave Roberts on that fateful night.
While it’s true that under Friedman the Dodgers haven’t been the West Coast Yankees many anticipated with the Guggenheim ownership, there is nuance to this restrained approach. Rather than always spend on superstars, the team has benefited from homegrown talent like Bellinger, Alex Verdugo, Will Smith, Dustin May, and others. Furthermore, some of the against-the-grain moves (Maeda over Greinke, Kemp over Stanton) proved to be the right choice.
Granted, a lot of Friedman era moves have been duds, and the team was already a contender when he took over. But the good moves have had a tremendous impact, helping yield two World Series trips. And the frugality of the past few years has kept the team from being bogged down salary-wise.
That said, this off-season marks the true turning point in Friedman’s tenure. The wise avoidance of albatross contracts the past two off-seasons (paired with two enormous salary dumps) has put the Dodgers in a position to spend big now that the blockbuster free agents available truly meet vital needs to put the team over the top. They are well below the luxury tax threshold, and have tons of prospect capital and current players that can be traded without hurting the present or long term.
Should Friedman back up his promise of pursuing elite acquisitions this time around, it won’t just make this off-season a success. It will also retroactively vindicate the painfully restrained last two winters. After all, this era of Dodger baseball has been all about playing the long game: building the farm system, spending smart, staying financially flexible, retaining key players, heavy analytics, etc.
It’s led to a sustained level of success that creates the most optimal chance of winning the World Series. However, without signing Cole or Strasburg, and adding an impact bat to boost the offense (not to mention bullpen help), Friedman’s reputation as a dumpster-diving cheapskate (whether justified or not, given it’s the ownership’s money) will stick once and for all.
Since the beginning, I have always been an advocate for Andrew Friedman, even with some big doubts here and there (although he’s proven me wrong on a lot of them). He has done a better job than most people realize. But it’s time for him to put it all together in the coming months. If he doesn’t, the Commissioner’s Trophy will likely slip away once again in 2020.