The Dodgers are just coming off the signing of four-time All-Star and 2018 MVP Mookie Betts to a massive 12-year extension at $356 million that will keep Betts in a Dodger uniform for the next decade-plus. The Dodgers are already as elite as they come, and with a three-headed dragon of Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler paving the way to success for at least the next half-decade. The Dodgers already field a squad that allows them to walk into the playoffs year after year and we could spend thousands of words going over the details of why they’re so elite, but that article has already been written a thousand times just this offseason alone. The quality and production of the team isn’t the question to be asked, now the curious question is what exactly the team will look like in a few years and what financial transformations will be forced on the star-studded team with a Betts contract.
Mookie Betts is going to take up practically half of this team’s payroll and the question isn’t where the money will be coming from, because this is the LA market we’re talking about, the question is where the rest of the money will be going. The LA Dodgers will be able to live affordably off their young talent for a good while, this isn’t a team who will have to continue to spend outside of this historically big splash to fill out the blanks considering the value and supply of prospects coming up through the farm system. The Dodgers are in a special position of luxury in that they can throw more than half of their payroll at a handful of players and not need to sacrifice production at any specific position. One of the more expensive positions to field is Starting Pitcher given that their “top-of-the-market” price is relatively equal to that of hitters who play every day. This isn’t to jab at the value of pitchers, but at the same time, and at face value, you seem to get more bang for your buck signing a Betts than a Gerrit Cole. Especially when you control an elite starting staff like the Dodgers which saves from the need to pay for elite top-end pitching, or even middle-rate pitching when they’re developing that talent at the rate they are.
Clayton Kershaw is by far the most expensive pitcher on the roster at his $30 million-plus salary and when he saunters off into the sunset in a couple years (unless he returns on a massive discount) the Dodgers won’t need to replace him with a big-money pitcher from the outside. The Dodgers will be able to ride off the below market value services of Walker Buehler until it comes time to extend him, which allows them to save up some loose dollars for a couple more years, but it’s still a tricky situation all on its own. Buehler is already 25, meaning that the Dodgers will have to go all-in on an extension when talks bubble up in a couple seasons. Usually, teams can throw 4-5 year extensions at their 23-year-olds and keep the player until they get closer until their prime free agency years, but with Buehler’s age, he wouldn’t be able to afford a “team-first” extension before hitting free agency. The Buehler extension would essentially be a free agent contract as well which would require the Dodgers to probably touch 13 years in negotiations, this is all considering Buehler lives up to his annual Cy Young candidate potential.
This is where it gets even trickier because Buehler has only one year of MLB work on his resume as of now, and in a couple years during extension negotiating he’ll have 3 to 4 years max of big-league experience. No matter how talented a player is, extending for more than 10 years off of 3-4 years of experience is the toughest pill to swallow. Gerrit Cole, the man who set the standard for 300 million dollar pitchers, had seven seasons under his belt before hitting that big 3-0-0. From a franchise perspective that would be a tough deal to give to a kid who has fewer seasons than you can count on one hand, but from an agent’s perspective, you would be incompetent not to negotiate hard for a superstar contract.
If Buehler is living up to his potential and pitching at the highest level of elitism there is no reason not to lock him up to a 250-300 million dollar extension at the age of 28 or so, but then again the same thing goes for Cody Bellinger who may very well be just as valuable if not more than Mookie Betts in a couple seasons. Bellinger has made massive strides in development in his three years in the MLB, and at 24 he still has plenty of room to continue improvements.
The picture will become far clearer in a couple of years when it comes time to evaluate extension talks, but at this point, the Dodgers have set the table for the future they will have to manage very soon. Do we want to see Bellinger live out his days side by side with Betts and take the race for NL MVP, cut the NL out of it, and make it a Dodgers race for the award? Or do we want to see Buehler inherit the throne Kershaw leaves behind while Betts leads whatever young, undoubtedly powerful core will be around at that time?
The Dodgers will be able to fill out the talent underneath Buehler pretty easily, and pretty cheaply at that. They’ll be able to run out prime talent such as Josiah Gray, Dennis Santana, Mitchell White, Dustin May, Victor Gonzalez, etc. and that right there is already an All-Star rotation from top to bottom. That Dodgers look to set even without Buehler heading that rotation, and that’s the biggest question that will need to be answered in a couple years. Can this rotation thrive on the same level without Buehler? On the flipside there also exists the question, “Can the Dodgers thrive on the same level without Bellinger?”
The Dodgers’ bottom end is stacked with enough offensive and pitching talent to keep the organization from wringing their hands over how to fill the blanks. In another 2 or 3 years, the Dodgers will hit another big wave of young talent set to command the team; prospects like Diego Cartaya, Kody Hoese, Michael Busch, and Keibert Ruiz will be the new “it” factors just like Will Smith, Gavin Lux, and Dustin May headed the current wave of youth talent. One has to wonder though, will they be falling into the same trap the Red Sox fell into this last decade and need to offload big money in trades? I don’t want to put the sour grapes on such an exciting development, that being the Betts extension, but it needs to be asked if the Dodgers will be needing to do the same with the contract of Betts in 5 or 6 years? How many of their homegrown stars will they be able to retain alongside Betts, and which of those prodigal children will have to be sent packing?
I know the future is not the most exciting thing to ponder when you have such an intoxicating and promising present at hand, especially as a fan, but right now the Dodgers top brass are asking these exact questions to themselves and that alone makes it worth asking amongst ourselves. A Mookie Betts extension, for better or worse, irrevocably changes the face and future of the LA Dodgers.