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Extraordinary Payroll, Ordinary Talent

It took a fortune to assemble the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers, and it may take many more millions to turn them into a championship-caliber team

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.

We’re living through another gilded age right now, where the fabulously wealthy become ridiculously wealthy while the rest putter along. The stock market keeps rocketing up while unemployment refuses to go down. Hedge-fund managers pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. A Paul Cézanne painting gets sold for more than a quarter-billion dollars.1 It’s no coincidence that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a portrait of a previous gilded age, hits theaters next month (it was published on this very day in 1925). That’s Fitzgerald’s quote above. The author knew of what he spoke; he lived the lifestyle of the very rich without the requisite wealth, and he died an alcoholic and nearly broke when he was 44.

Baseball’s ecosystem also has an upper class. The Yankees have long lived in the penthouse (although repairs are sorely needed), and the Red Sox have been keeping up with their wealthy neighbors for well over a decade. Teams like the Phillies and the Cubs have the means to live an opulent lifestyle, if not always the desire.

And then there are the gate-crashing, nouveau riche Los Angeles Dodgers, who pulled into the neighborhood last year and ever since have been throwing money around like a drunken sailor.

A drunken sailor who happens to have the bank account of a Russian oligarch.

You can forgive Dodgers fans if they’re not complaining about the new owners. For eight years their team belonged to Frank McCourt, who purchased the franchise in 2004 despite having approximately $8 to his name. Pretty much everything in the organization was used as collateral for one loan or another — McCourt would have pawned Vin Scully for $250 and a gold watch if he could have — and every time the value of the franchise would rise, McCourt would cash out again. (Hey, with monthly bills of $225,000 for a private jet and $10,000 for a hair stylist, plus $14 million to build an Olympic-size pool at your Holmby Hills estate, it doesn’t take long before you’re talking real money.)

Eventually, there was no more money to suck from the franchise, and divorce proceedings with McCourt’s wife left the Dodgers needing an emergency loan just to make payroll. With the threat of bankruptcy hanging over the franchise, McCourt was finally forced to sell the Dodgers to the highest bidder.

Enter Guggenheim Baseball Management, whose $2.15 billion offer was roughly twice what anyone expected. When the deal was finalized last May, McCourt (who paid $430 million for the team) was able to settle his debts, pay off his settlement with his ex-wife, and clear a cool $1 billion — enough to buy the Kansas City Royals and the Tampa Bay Rays, if commissioner Bud Selig were foolish enough to ever let him near an owner’s suite again. The very rich … they’re different from you and me.

And overnight, an organization that had become an MLB pariah, one that was held at least partially responsible for the savage beating of Giants fan Bryan Stow in the Dodger Stadium parking lot (McCourt was skimping on luxuries like lighting and ballpark security at the time), was reborn. Money, glitz, celebrity glamor — it was as if the Showtime Lakers had just moved down the road. And they had, in a way, since Magic Johnson was the public face of the new ownership group.

The price was quickly justified when the Dodgers signed a 25-year contract to televise the team’s games with Time Warner Cable that could be worth up to $8 billion. The implications of the ridiculous TV money sloshing around baseball are beyond the scope of this column, but the point is that the Dodgers’ new owners didn’t just have money — they had money to burn.

McCourt’s lavish lifestyle didn’t leave a lot of money left over for his players. In 2003, before McCourt purchased the club, the Dodgers ranked third in the major leagues in payroll. They didn’t rank among the majors’ top five payrolls during the eight years he owned the team. Last year, the Dodgers began the season with the 14th-highest payroll in the majors, right behind Milwaukee.

They would end the season near the top. The new owners took control in early May, and immediately approved an emergency stimulus package for talented baseball players in Southern California:

  • Incumbent right fielder Andre Ethier, who would have been a free agent at year’s end, was enticed to stay with a five-year, $85 million contract extension.
  • Just days before a new rule went into effect that would limit how much teams could pay for international talent, the Dodgers signed Cuban defector Yasiel Puig to a whopping seven-year, $42 million contract.
  • Rookie right-handed starter Nate Eovaldi and a prospect were traded to the Miami Marlins for lefty specialist Randy Choate and shortstop Hanley Ramirez, whose contract guaranteed him an average of $15.5 million a year from 2012 through 2014.
  • The Dodgers traded a pair of prospects to the Mariners for closer Brandon League, making $5 million in the final year of his contract.
  • In another trade, they sent right-handed reliever Josh Lindblom and a couple prospects to the Phillies for Shane Victorino, making $9.5 million in the final year of his contract.
  • Finally, they traded another prospect to Philadelphia for Joe Blanton, making $8.5 million in the final year of his contract.

All these moves were made within three months of the ownership change — and they were all just a prelude for the massive nine-player deal with the Red Sox on August 25, in which the Dodgers essentially agreed to absorb every bad contract on Boston’s roster. For the privilege of acquiring Adrian Gonzalez (in the first year of a seven-year, $154 million deal), Carl Crawford (the second year of a seven-year, $142 million deal), and Josh Beckett (the second year of a four-year, $68 million deal), along with utility infielder Nick Punto, the Dodgers gave up James Loney and four prospects, two of whom (Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa) are pitchers of considerable promise.

A team that started the year with a payroll of less than $98 million already had $192.6 million in contract obligations for 2013 — and they still had nine roster spots to fill. The Dodgers suddenly had more than $90 million in contract obligations for 2017, for five players, three of whom (Gonzalez, Crawford, and Ethier) will be 35 years old that year.

If the purpose of these moves was to signal to their fan base that the new owners were serious about winning, they succeeded. If the point was to fire a shot across the bow to alert MLB’s 29 other owners that a new sheriff was in town, and he worshipped the Big Dodger in the Sky, mission accomplished. If the point was to build a great baseball team … um … we’ll have to get back to you on that.

On the day the trade with the Red Sox was made, the Dodgers were 69-58 and just a half-game out of the second wild-card spot. Despite all their additions, they would go just 17-18 the rest of the way, and they were eliminated from playoff contention on the penultimate day of the season.

If you expected the Dodgers to be chastened by this lesson in baseball economics, you would be disappointed. In December, they outbid the Texas Rangers for Zack Greinke, the premier starting pitcher on the free-agent market. Greinke got a six-year contract for $147 million, one that included an opt-out provision for Greinke after three years. It was the largest contract ever given to a right-handed pitcher, and you got the feeling the only reason it wasn’t larger was that there were no competitors left to drive up the bidding. The Dodgers were going to get their man, and the cost was just a detail.

Almost as an afterthought, the Dodgers elected to show off their financial muscle in the Pacific Rim, signing Korean left-handed starter Hyun-Jin Ryu to a six-year, $36 million contract — on top of the $25.7 million they paid his Korean team as a posting fee — the day before they signed Greinke.

And that, my friends, is how you increase your payroll by $125 million from one Opening Day to the next. The Dodgers entered this season with a payroll just north of $223 million, which, depending on how you calculate these things, is the highest payroll in major league history.2 No non-Yankee team had ever exceeded even $180 million.

That level of spending ought to virtually guarantee a playoff team. The Yankees have exceeded $180 million for nine years in a row; they won 89 games and missed the playoffs in 2008, but won at least 94 games and reached the playoffs the other eight years. But the same year the reckoning may have finally arrived in the Bronx, the Dodgers may also find that stratospheric payrolls don’t necessarily correlate with October baseball.

Take a look at where some of their money is going:

Adrian Gonzalez ($21.9 million) was the Dodgers’ own Helen of Troy last summer, the Face That Launched a Thousand Trade Proposals. The Dodgers’ desire to obtain the four-time All-Star first baseman transcended his pure baseball talents. Gonzalez grew up in Southern California and has strong Mexican roots. Their eagerness to acquire Gonzalez convinced the Dodgers to absorb Crawford’s and Beckett’s bad contracts and to give up two top prospects.

That’s a worthwhile price for a superstar. A year ago, Gonzalez was a superstar; he had hit .338/.410/.548 in his first year with the Red Sox, and had back-to-back top-10 finishes in the MVP voting. But at the time of the trade, Gonzalez was hitting .300/.343/.469, and getting away from Boston’s toxic clubhouse didn’t help. As a Dodger, he hit .297/.344/.441. After six straight years of 24-plus home runs — playing most of that time with the San Diego Padres, whose Petco Park is one of the toughest home run stadiums in baseball — Gonzalez hit just 18 last year.

Maybe it was an off year. Gonzalez was only 30 years old, too young to expect a significant decline. But if you’re going to absorb $300 million in contracts, you’d rather not have even the slightest doubt that the centerpiece of the deal has already seen his best days.

Carl Crawford ($20.9 million) was a free-agent disaster of epic proportions in Boston. After he tortured them with his bat, legs, and glove for nine years as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Red Sox thought Crawford was worth $20 million a year even though he’s a left fielder who has never hit 20 home runs in a season.

Crawford was a terrible fit in Boston from day one. His defense, one of his greatest assets, was largely wasted in Boston, where the Green Monster made his speed superfluous. While we hesitate to project psychological explanations for a player’s lack of success, the combination of Crawford’s huge contract and the oppressive media climate in The Hub may have helped create conditions for a nightmarish, season-long slump in 2011, when Crawford hit .255/.289/.405. (This spring, Crawford opened up both barrels on the Boston media, saying “They love it when you’re miserable … That media was the worst thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.”)

Crawford performed at a roughly Crawfordian level last year, batting .282/.306/.479, but he played in only 31 games because of a left elbow problem that required Tommy John surgery. He was on the DL when the Dodgers traded for him.

Crawford has wasted the better part of two seasons, making it easy to forget the exceptional all-around player he was in Tampa Bay. When he left the Rays after 2010, he had hit .300 for the fifth time in six years, stolen 45 bases for the seventh time in eight years, led the league in triples for the fourth time, won a Gold Glove, and hit double-digit home runs for the sixth time in seven years. Los Angeles is a much better fit for him because of Dodger Stadium’s rangier left field, because of the lower caliber of competition in the National League, and because he doesn’t have to justify his contract, which is viewed as just the cost of doing business with Gonzalez. It says here that Carl Crawford is a terrific candidate for Comeback Player of the Year honors, and as crazy as it sounds, in the long run he may prove to be more valuable than Adrian Gonzalez.

Josh Beckett ($17 million) was an All-Star in 2011, when he had a 2.89 ERA in 30 starts. That season was the meat in a crap sandwich, surrounded by a 5.78 ERA in an injury-plagued 2010 and a 5.23 ERA and a wake of bad clubhouse vibes when he was traded last summer. He pitched better after the trade, with a 2.93 ERA in seven starts.

The bigger issue with Beckett is that his fastball velocity declined from 93 mph in 2011 to 91.2 in 2012, and his strikeout rate has dropped along with it. Beckett struck out more than 20 percent of the batters he faced every year from 2007 to 2011, but his K rate dropped to 18.1 percent last year, even as strikeout rates throughout the majors jumped from 18.6 to 19.8 percent from 2011 to 2012. At this point in his career, Beckett is a no. 3 starter. That’s not bad, but it isn’t worth $17 million.

Hanley Ramirez ($15.5 million) was maybe the best all-around player in baseball from 2007 to 2009; he was a shortstop who hit .325/.398/.549 and averaged 29 homers, 41 doubles, and 38 steals, and he was just 25 years old at the end of that stretch. That player seems like a distant memory. Over the last three years, Ramirez has hit .269/.346/.438 while under heavy suspicion of having a bad work ethic. You might have a bad work ethic, too, if you had to work for Jeffrey Loria, but Ramirez didn’t perk up much after the trade to Los Angeles. His defense has also become intolerable up the middle. Whereas once he combined a shortstop’s glove with a first baseman’s bat, now he combines a third baseman’s glove (while still playing shortstop) with a third baseman’s bat.

Andre Ethier ($13.5 million) is in the first year of a five-year contract in which his salary increases each year while his skills will likely decline. Ethier has been remarkably consistent throughout his career, with an OPS+ of between 121 and 132 for five consecutive seasons. He’s a very good player; he’s just not a star, particularly since he has never been able to hit left-handed pitching. (He has a career .239/.297/.358 line against southpaws.) Ethier’s contract pays him like a star, but he probably won’t even be a very good player by its midpoint.

That’s $89 million spent on five very good players, but it’s quite possible that not one of those five players is currently a star, and all five could be on the downslopes of their careers.

Meanwhile, for a team with the largest payroll in history, there are a surprising number of holes. The starting third baseman, Luis Cruz, was a 28-year-old minor league journeyman with all of 56 games in the Show when he got called up last July and fluked his way to a .297/.322/.431 performance the rest of the way. That’s in no way reflective of his abilities — Cruz’s career averages in the minor leagues are .261/.296/.394. So far this season, he’s 0-for-17.

You would also expect a team with unlimited financial resources to be able to put together a decent bench. The Dodgers have not. With Hanley Ramirez out with a thumb injury he suffered during the World Baseball Classic, their starting shortstop is Justin Sellers, who is 27 years old and had played just 55 games in the majors before this season with averages of .204/.283/.323. He is 2-for-18 at the plate so far this season. The names of the other bench players — Punto, Jerry Hairston, Juan Uribe, Skip Schumaker, Tim Federowicz — won Ken Jennings $6,000 when he ran the table on the Jeopardy! category “Baseball Players Who Can’t Hit.”

If you’re wondering why the Dodgers can have such an extravagant payroll and yet such a mundane roster, look no further than general manager Ned Colletti. Colletti has been a favorite punching bag of baseball analysts for most of his tenure in Los Angeles, which started after the 2005 season. Like his former boss, Giants GM Brian Sabean, Colletti has put an unwarranted premium on veteran experience while eschewing the finer points of sabermetrics. Unlike Sabean, Colletti can’t give statheads a pair of championship ring–encrusted middle fingers.

Colletti has a weakness for veterans the way Buzz Bissinger has a weakness for Gucci. Juan Uribe got three years, $21 million coming off his world championship with the Giants in 2010, and he has hit .196 in 438 at-bats for the Dodgers since then. Matt Guerrier got three years, $12 million as a middle reliever the same offseason, and he has thrown 80 innings in two years. But this winter Colletti outdid himself. After trading for Brandon League to shore up the bullpen in July, Colletti rewarded League with a three-year, $22.5 million contract.

Over the past three years, League had a 3.14 ERA while pitching for the Mariners — in the best pitchers’ park in the AL. You’d sort of like your closer to be able to miss bats, but League hasn’t struck out more than 18 percent of the batters he’s faced in a season since 2009. League is a perfectly fine setup man, a little stretched to be a closer — and the only relievers with contracts that guarantee more money overall are Jonathan Papelbon and Rafael Soriano (both elite-level relievers) and Heath Bell (a contract the Marlins regretted approximately six minutes after Bell signed it).

Given his propensity for spending too much money for the security of a veteran track record, it’s no surprise that Colletti gave Ethier $85 million, or that he showed the Red Sox all of his cards during the Gonzalez negotiations. The surprise is that the Dodgers’ new owners have let Colletti keep his job.

On the surface, Colletti has done his job well enough; the Dodgers have averaged more than 85 wins during his seven seasons as GM, and the team has made the playoffs three times (although one of those times was when they lucked into an NL West title with an 84-78 record). But their success isn’t a reflection of Colletti so much as it’s a tribute to Logan White, the Dodgers’ scouting director. In the Arrested Development–like soap opera that the Dodgers have been since 2004, White plays the Jason Bateman role.

It’s White who was responsible for the talent that kept the Dodgers competitive even through the worst of the McCourt years. Those players remain the most important, though far from the most expensive, players on the current roster. Chad Billingsley, their first-round pick in 2003, has been a consistent part of their rotation since 2006. Catcher A.J. Ellis, drafted in the 18th round the same year, didn’t stick in the majors until he was 29, but over the last three years he has a .374 OBP.

But the Dodgers’ big prize in that draft was Matt Kemp, taken in the sixth round; he nearly won the MVP award in 2011 and he’s just 28 years old. Kemp is in the second year of an eight-year, $160 million contract, but unlike most of the other long-term deals on the team’s books, he’s worth the money.

And finally, there’s Clayton Kershaw, the seventh overall pick in 2006. There are maybe a half-dozen guys for whom you can make a compelling case as being the best pitcher in baseball over the next 10 years (Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, maybe David Price and Chris Sale). But given his youth, proven durability (32-plus starts three years in a row), dominance (led the NL in ERA each of the last two seasons), and strikeout rate (over 25 percent four years in a row), Kershaw might be on top of that list. He’s a third of the way to a Hall of Fame career — and he turned 25 last month.

Kershaw is eligible for free agency after next season, and this is where the new owners’ profligate ways may pay dividends. In a market in which Verlander just signed what amounts to a five-year extension with the Tigers for $28 million a year, you can make a compelling case that Kershaw would be worth $30 million or more on the open market. Very few teams can handle that kind of commitment and absorb the injury risk that goes with any pitcher, but the Dodgers are clearly one of those teams. Expect Kershaw to sign a long-term extension with Los Angeles, perhaps very soon — there are rumors that a deal is already in the works.

Kershaw’s unquestioned role as the ace of the staff also makes it easier for Zack Greinke to slot in as the team’s no. 2 starter. At his best, Greinke can make his own case as the best pitcher in the world — by Wins Above Replacement, Greinke’s Cy Young season of 2009 was the best by any pitcher in the past 10 years. But in the three years since, Greinke has a mediocre 3.83 ERA despite excellent peripheral numbers. (Over the same three years, his xFIP, a measure of what his ERA “should” be, is just 3.17.)

Greinke has successfully conquered his social anxiety disorder, but he is still less than comfortable being the center of attention. It’s probably not a coincidence that in 2009, he wasn’t expected to be the ace of the staff — Gil Meche was the Royals’ Opening Day starter. With the Dodgers, if Kershaw draws most of the media, Greinke might flourish again. In the season’s first week, Kershaw and Greinke have combined to throw 22 innings — and allow zero runs.

If the Dodgers reach the postseason, the combination of Kershaw and Greinke at the top of the rotation will make them a formidable opponent. But it’s not clear that they’ll be able to get there. The Dodgers have an excellent rotation, but their bullpen is not terribly deep. More to the point, they have an offense filled with question marks, questions that haven’t been answered after they’ve scored just 20 runs in their first seven games. Crawford might bounce back. Gonzalez might. Ramirez might. But right now, Matt Kemp is their only player hitting on an elite level, and Sunday’s starting lineup featured an infield that included Uribe, Sellers, and Punto.

The Dodgers are good — probably good enough to win 88 to 92 games this year. But they aren’t great, and they aren’t clearly better than division rivals the Giants ($136.9 million payroll) or even the Diamondbacks ($89.5 million). Nearly a quarter-billion dollars should buy you a better roster than this.

The real grim news for the Dodgers is that unless they raise the payroll into the $300 million range — and don’t put it past them — it’s hard to see the team significantly improving over the next few years. Look at the Yankees: Yes, they have a payroll above $200 million and a mediocre team, but at least they can write off this season as the residue of a decade of living large and doling out backloaded contracts. The Dodgers have no such excuse — this is the first season of their new gilded age. The players under contract now will only get more expensive over time, even as they age and their skills erode.

Even if ownership continues to authorize huge expenses, it will be hard to find players worth signing to mammoth contracts. As Jonah Keri wrote, the proliferation of long-term extensions to young star players makes it increasingly difficult to acquire premier players in free agency. Going forward, the Dodgers’ best bet might be to replicate the trade they made with the Red Sox, absorbing bad contracts to acquire good players.

But right now, for a team with such grandiose ambitions, they have a surprisingly pedestrian destiny. It’s true, the Dodgers are different from everyone else. It’s just not clear that they’re better.

Filed Under: Los Angeles Dodgers, Teams

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Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website. He is one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.

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