“We have a lot of free agents coming up after this season,” Washington Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann told reporters last week. “So if it’s going to be any year, it’s going to be this year, and we all know that.”
Zimmermann may have been speaking more for himself and for his fellow 2015-16 free agents — Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, Denard Span — than he was for the rest of Washington’s roster. The Nats have Bryce Harper under team control through 2018 and Anthony Rendon tied up through 2019. They have the best pitching prospect in baseball, Lucas Giolito. They have a top-10 payroll and a top-10 TV market. The odor of impending dissolution surrounding them isn’t nearly as strong as the one surrounding, say, the Tigers.
Still: There are those free agents. There’s the MASN dispute, which will determine Washington’s take from TV. There’s Stephen Strasburg’s walk year in 2016 and, beyond that, the prospect of decline phases from Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, and Max Scherzer. The Nats are still front-runners, the team with the best chance to win the 2015 World Series, according to FanGraphs’s playoff odds. But while this won’t be their last hurrah, it might be their best. The Nats are probably peaking, and peaks precede declines.
Sometimes, though, those declines take time to arrive. And there’s one franchise in baseball that’s uniquely positioned to turn a peak into a long plateau — to postpone the roster’s inevitable unraveling long enough that years could go by with no end to the team’s playoff aspirations in sight. It’s not the Nats. It’s the team with the second-best FanGraphs odds of winning a World Series this season: the Los Angeles Dodgers.1
I know: Naming the team in the headline and leading with a picture of a Dodgers player ruins the big reveal.
Stan Kasten, the Dodgers president and CEO, would never start a sentence with “If it’s going to be any year,” because he believes that it’s going to be every year. “No matter how good we are today,” he says, “it doesn’t help us unless we’re also preparing for tomorrow.” When I say the word “window,” he immediately interjects to dispel the idea that the Dodgers’ period of contention is something that could close. “No, we’re the Dodgers,” Kasten says. “We should be contending every year, period. We’re. The. Dodgers.”2
Specifying, as he has to many writers before me, that “the Dodgers” should be displayed in all caps.
If you could construct a franchise to root for from scratch — and you weren’t interested in an underdog — what specs would you insist on? This would be a bespoke baseball team, so there’d be no need for delayed gratification: You could create a roster that would win today. The Dodgers can do that. They play in a division without a close competitor, and depending on the projection system, they’re built to be the best or second-best team in the majors in 2015. They have the best pitcher on the planet (the still-evolving Clayton Kershaw) and one of the dozen best position players in the game (Yasiel Puig), and they’re both in their mid-twenties and locked up long-term.
You’d also want your designer franchise to have a strong farm system, capable of replacing aging, expensive veterans with productive young players making the league minimum. The Dodgers have the third-best system in baseball, according to both Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America. They’re one of three teams with three prospects among this year’s top 20, and all three — Corey Seager, Julio Urias, and Joc Pederson — should be ready to contribute at the major league level no later than next year, with Pederson ready right now.
No matter how talented the current collection of players, your made-to-order team would need the means to pay for replacements: a major market, a committed ownership group, and ample fan support. The Dodgers have the highest payroll in baseball history, and they’ll easily exceed the second-place Yankees in spending this season. They play in the country’s second-biggest TV market, and they have the most lucrative local broadcast rights in professional sports — an $8.35 billion, 25-year contract with Time Warner Cable that dwarfs any other team’s TV income. They’ve also enjoyed the best attendance in baseball for two straight seasons.
Presumably, your dream team would also benefit from a smart front office that could carry on your work after you’re finished waving your wand and Floo-Powdering players into existence. After raiding the Rays and the A’s, respectively, for president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and GM Farhan Zaidi — not to mention adding former Diamondbacks and Padres GM Josh Byrnes as a senior vice-president, progressive former player Gabe Kapler as director of player development, and former Padres scouting director Billy Gasparino as director of amateur scouting — the Dodgers can deliver that too. Admittedly, Friedman, Zaidi, and Byrnes have won a combined zero titles, and some skeptical readers might wonder what a trio of nonchampions could have done to deserve their respect. But even though surviving baseball’s highly luck-dependent postseason is every executive’s ultimate goal, it’s not the only — or even the fairest — standard by which we should judge front-office performance. Friedman and Zaidi have a history of spending efficiently and putting together winning teams despite being hamstrung by payrolls on the small end of the spectrum, and they’ve brought that small-market sensibility to a team with a much larger margin for error. And it’s all overseen by Kasten, who helped lay the Nats’ foundations and, before that, keep the Braves in the running seemingly forever.
Finally, you’d probably want your tailor-made team to have a rich history, a picturesque, recently renovated ballpark, and a universally beloved broadcaster — the rarest of breeds. But why get greedy, right?
The point is that customizing a bionic ballclub wouldn’t be much different from ordering the Dodgers off the rack. Of course, were T.J. Simers still cranking out columns, he could find shortcomings to criticize. The Dodgers’ present roster, as Joe Morgan might say, is flawed: The bullpen, a weakness late last year, isn’t intimidating (especially with Kenley Jansen out for April); the back of the rotation is full of injury risks; Andre Ethier still sticks out from the bench like an expensive vestigial limb; and save for Pederson, Puig, and Yasmani Grandal, the lineup is full of players who are past their primes. None of the Dodgers’ institutional advantages guarantees them a title in 2015 or in the future, and no team staves off its demise indefinitely. But if one were to hitch one’s hopes to any team for the next two decades, the Dodgers would be the best bet. They’re the dealer and the player holding the best hand.
Thus far, I’ve described the Dodgers as the team that has nearly everything: enough major league talent to win today, enough minor league talent to win tomorrow, and a virtually bottomless budget controlled by a brain trust with a track record of excelling despite being constrained by disadvantages the Dodgers don’t face. I’ve made the Dodgers sound unsinkable. And now I’m going to try to tear some holes in their hull.
In mid-2012, Sam Miller wrote about the Texas Rangers, who at the time had many of the same things going for them that the Dodgers do now: one of the best big league rosters; a strong farm system; what seemed to be a smart front office; and what were the most remunerative TV rights of any non-RSN-owning team when the club agreed to terms in September 2010. Miller’s opening sentence, “Some day, the Rangers are going to be terrible,” was indisputable, but someday seemed a long way off.
We know now it took only two years for the Rangers to turn terrible, and for Miller to write a postmortem that declared an excess of DL days and a lack of prospect development as the primary causes of death (exacerbated by some other contributing factors). As one would expect, and as Miller confirmed, it’s unusual for a team to go from 90-plus wins to 90-plus losses in such a short span of time. It’s even more unusual when the winning team has a top-five farm system, as the Rangers did in 2012,3 and it must be more unusual still when the winning team is well off. The Dodgers are wealthier than the Rangers were, and they’re no less skilled, smart, or well-stocked in the minors. As unlikely as what happened to Texas was, the odds of the same fate befalling Los Angeles are even more remote.
On lists that defined Yu Darvish as a “prospect.”
Nevertheless, the Rangers remind us that valar morghulis applies to baseball teams too. The moment when we’re tempted to write an article about a team being unbeatable is, very often, also the moment when it’s about to stop seeming that way. So: Someday, the Dodgers are going to be terrible. And the following reasons could be the cause.
A Staff Full of Injury-Prone Pitchers Turns Out to Be Less Fun Than It Sounds
Judging by their offseason signings, the Dodgers think they have some special insight into the prediction and/or prevention of pitcher injuries. Friedman and Zaidi have signed or traded for the recipients of a combined 18 surgeries in Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson, Dustin McGowan, Brandon Beachy, Erik Bedard, and Joe Wieland, leaving only the Josh Johnson, Brandon Morrow, and Shaun Marcum boxes unmarked on their injury-prone-pitcher bingo card. Dodgers VP of medical services Stan Conte has long been one of the most data-driven injury researchers (as well as one of the most publicly transparent), and he must have reason to think he can keep those pitchers’ worst problems in the past. If the Dodgers really have the ability to mitigate injury risk or assess it more accurately than other teams, they’re even less likely to be toppled anytime soon.
But it’s possible that whatever knowledge the Dodgers think they have isn’t as rock-solid as it seems, and that rival executives were right to question McCarthy’s and Anderson’s contracts. In that case, the Dodgers’ attempt to stockpile what they view as an undervalued commodity might only make them more susceptible to the sort of catastrophic injury stack that helped bring down the Rangers. If at some point this summer they’re relying on minor leaguers like Zach Lee and Chris Reed or surrendering prospects for a summer rental, they might wish they’d put that McCarthy-Anderson money toward a less tantalizing but more dependable pitcher like James Shields.
Slow Prospect Replenishment
Teams are often forced to choose between improving their major league rosters and restoring their minor league systems: It’s difficult to do both simultaneously, since shoring up one area frequently comes at a cost to the other. Under the Guggenheim group’s stewardship, though, the Dodgers have struck a Cardinals-esque balance between the two goals, fielding first-place teams while climbing from 21st on BP’s organizational rankings in 2013 to 14th in 2014 to third this spring. “That was always a problem in smaller markets, where your leeway is very little and your runway is very short,” Kasten says. “It’s different here in L.A., where we enunciated clearly on day one we were going to do both things at once … invest and make the current team competitive, as well as investing in the longer-range plan, the scouting and player development.” Former GM Ned Colletti (who remains with the team as a senior adviser to Kasten) resisted the urge to trade his top prospects for quick fixes, and his successor must be happy he did. Nor is the system so top-heavy that it will be bare as soon as the big three lose their prospect status; as BA’s Prospect Handbook’s blurb about the organization’s progress in 2014 says, “several players took a big leap forward, improving the depth that was previously a weakness.”
Of course, if the Dodgers keep winning, they won’t have any high draft picks. Friedman knows from experience how hard it can be to hit on picks beyond the top tier: Since drafting David Price first overall in 2007, Tampa Bay has gotten squat from its first-rounders. The people primarily responsible for drafting and developing the Dodgers’ current crop of homegrown stars are no longer in place. As the director of amateur scouting, Logan White drafted Kershaw, Matt Kemp, Russell Martin, and the Dodgers’ domestic top prospects. He also signed international imports Hiroki Kuroda, Hyun-jin Ryu, and Urias, and he won the bidding for Puig with a contract that seemed either courageous or crazy at the time.4 De Jon Watson was the farm director charged with shepherding that talent to the majors. Not only have White and Watson moved on, they’ve taken their intimate knowledge of the Dodgers’ system to division rivals, joining the Padres and Diamondbacks, respectively, as part of the NL West’s incestuous front-office exchange program.
He also made some international investments that haven’t panned out, but for the Dodgers, the occasional Erisbel Arruebarrena or Alex Guerrero is just the cost of doing business.
The real risk is that constant competition becomes so de rigueur for the Dodgers that they start taking shortcuts to keep the wins coming: trading future assets for short-term fixes, signing qualifying-offer free agents who come with a cost in draft picks, and so on. Zaidi, of course, comes from a franchise that has almost compulsively traded prospects for years and still managed to make the playoffs. But the Dodgers’ vastly deeper pockets give them the option of converting expensive, expendable veterans into trade chips by paying other teams enough to make acquiring those players worthwhile, a kind of reverse prospect laundering that few other clubs can afford.
The TV Deal Gets Devalued
We’ve already established that the Dodgers’ TV deal alone gives them enough revenue to cover the high cost of their players. But here’s a hypothetical: What if it didn’t? Hey, now I have your attention.
Some deals that are done can also be undone. The Dodgers’ deal probably won’t be one of them, but that $8 billion–plus isn’t totally set in stone.
The Dodgers’ TV contract has been both their biggest coup and their biggest black eye. Time Warner valued the rights to the Dodgers as exorbitantly as it did because it planned to extract (or extort) subscription fees for SportsNet LA from local cable carriers, whom they figured would fold in the face of consumer demand. Instead, the carriers have refused to pay Time Warner’s $4-plus-per-month (per subscriber) price, leaving most L.A.-area residents without a way to see the team on TV. In the short term, this hasn’t hurt the Dodgers financially: The franchise is still making hundreds of millions while Time Warner takes the hit. If anything, the Dodgers might be selling more tickets to fans who have to head to Chavez Ravine for their fix. In the long run, though, a widespread inability to see the team on TV could chip away at fan loyalty — the Angels are always an option for the region’s casual fans interested in being able to watch the team they root for. And perhaps even more disconcerting is the possibility that the whole arrangement could collapse if the situation persists.
A similar stalemate played out in Houston over the past few years, with Comcast SportsNet Houston standing in for SportsNet LA and the Astros and Rockets playing the role of the Dodgers. When Comcast couldn’t convince local carriers to add CSN Houston, it forced the network into bankruptcy, which eventually killed the existing contract. The Astros and Rockets lost their equity in the network (which was initially valued at $700 million) and $125 million in rights fees. Those numbers are modest compared to the corresponding sums in L.A., but the principles are the same.
Houston Chronicle sports media writer David Barron, who covered that Comcast mess, says he can’t imagine Time Warner taking similar legal action with SportsNet until the proposed TWC-Comcast merger, now under FCC review, is complete. “Once the merger is settled, since Comcast already owns RSNs and has such a larger presence in Southern California, the added revenue might give it some time to stabilize the LA situation and continue talks with DirecTV,” Barron told me via email. “But, since Comcast was willing to go Chapter 11 in Houston, I would think it’s entirely possible it would do the same in Los Angeles, once it is in control of the situation.”
The saving grace is that even if SportsNet LA went full Titanic, the Dodgers would have plenty of lifeboats. Before 2014, one scout told BP prospect writer Jason Parks that Twins prospect Byron Buxton had a Willie Mays ceiling and a Torii Hunter floor. The scout might be mistaken, but the sentiment explains why Buxton has been BP’s top prospect two springs in a row. The Dodgers are the Buxton of baseball teams, with the same combination of extreme potential and high probability. Even when Frank McCourt was appearing near the top of “worst owner ever” lists, the Dodgers were a winning team, with payroll and attendance figures in the top half of the league. The situation was dire, yes, but it was Dodgers dire: Buried beneath the team’s temporarily dysfunctional façade was an asset that was about to be sold for $2 billion. So even if Time Warner’s money went away, whatever replaced it would be better than most teams could expect.
Shaky Lines of Communication
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Joe Maddon was able to void the rest of his Rays contract because of a clause that gave him permission to declare free agency if Friedman left Tampa Bay, and it wasn’t difficult to predict the ripple effect after the manager exercised his opt-out: Friedman would dismiss Don Mattingly, whom he’d inherited from Colletti, and hire Maddon, extending the fruitful partnership between the two. Instead, Friedman committed to Mattingly, a remnant from the miserable McCourt years, and Maddon went to work for the Cubs.
That leaves Friedman and Zaidi in the unfamiliar position of working with a manager who isn’t known for his tactical skills or his receptiveness to stats, and who’s well aware that none of his new superiors appointed him to his position. Mattingly’s reputation as a leader and motivator ebbs and flows with the Dodgers’ on-field fortunes and the number of days since Puig’s last mental mistake, and his willingness to expand his horizons is a cipher. Maybe he’ll adapt and embrace the information flowing from a more analytically oriented front office, as Pittsburgh’s Clint Hurdle has; judging from the fact that he wasn’t fired like Chicago’s Rick Renteria, Mattingly must have told Friedman what he wanted to hear. If the Dodgers’ skipper isn’t a wholehearted collaborator, though, L.A. won’t enjoy the same smooth communication between front office and field staff that has helped the Rays and A’s make the most of their brainpower. That alone wouldn’t derail the Dodgers, but it would soften their edge.
Small Markets, Small Minds
As jarring as the regime change might be for Mattingly, Friedman and Zaidi have had the most adapting to do. The biggest danger to the Dodgers might be a front office that doesn’t recognize its own resources, acting too tentatively for a team of such strength. Transplanting a brain trust with a small-market mind-set to a town where risk is relative could mean missed opportunities, and in some ways, Friedman and Zaidi have continued to operate as if they’re still running resource-strapped teams. They’ve prioritized defense, dealing Kemp in exchange for Grandal’s plus receiving skills and allowing Hanley Ramirez to leave. They’ve avoided the most expensive free agents, who tend to provide poor returns on investment. They’ve traded like madmen, converting Dee Gordon into Andrew Heaney into Howie Kendrick in a “one red paperclip”–like sequence at the winter meetings while juggling other major moves in a multitasking tour de force that some front offices featuring fewer former GMs might have a hard time matching.5
Although Kasten says he doesn’t “think it was beyond the capability of any of the other 29 front offices.”
We’ve seen them do most of those things before. But the old dogs have learned some lavish tricks. Within their small-market framework, Friedman and Zaidi have also made some huge-market moves, deviating from their old scripts in significant ways. The Dodgers are paying Kemp $18 million to play for the Padres — more than the Rays or A’s have ever paid one of their own players for a single season — and Dan Haren $10 million to pitch for the Marlins. During his entire tenure in Tampa Bay, Friedman signed two free-agent starting pitchers (Roberto Hernandez and Bedard), one of them on a minor league deal. He’s already doubled that total since he went west. If there was any concern that Friedman and Zaidi would lack the ability to think big, they’ve probably dispelled it with one winter’s work. Now the Dodgers have to hope the next CBA doesn’t handcuff them by instituting an international draft and removing one more way in which the team can make the most of its money.
Riches and Smarts Aren’t Worth What They Once Were
The Dodgers of today are a little like the Yankees circa 1994-95, and not only because of the Mattingly link. Those Yankees teams were October-worthy, bankrolled by Big Stein, and also prospect-rich, placing five players in BA’s top 100s in back-to-back years, so they stood out in all the same respects. It’s an encouraging comp for Los Angeles, seeing as the Yankees haven’t had a losing season since.
On the other hand, the Yankees are now just one of many mediocre teams, and they haven’t made the playoffs since 2012. They’re like the Venus to L.A.’s Earth, the scary, lifeless vision of what the Dodgers could become if they allow the baseball equivalent of greenhouse gases — free agents who aren’t aging as well as they did during the PED era — to build up unchecked.
From 2012 to 2013, the Dodgers raised their payroll by almost 130 percent, the biggest year-to-year rise this century. We won’t have final payroll figures for 2015 until the eve of Opening Day — many of the salaries for pre-arb players are still unannounced — but we know that the Dodgers will spend even more this season. Relative to the rest of the league, though, they’re still well below where the Yankees were a decade ago. There are too many other teams whose fortunes have improved for the Dodgers to maintain such a wide separation. Even L.A. has limits, though Kasten prefers to describe them as opportunities that aren’t as attractive to the Dodgers as they are to other teams.
|MLB Payroll Leaders, 2004-14|
|Year||Team||Payroll||SD From the Mean||% of MLB Spending|
The distance between the best and worst front offices has also shrunk. “One thing I fixate on is the composition of front offices wherever I’ve been,” Kasten says. “Because that is the whole key.” But he acknowledges that the composition across the league has become more homogeneous. “We have to compete against 29 other teams of really smart, really dedicated, really determined, really passionate other front offices. All of them are awfully good at what they do.” And many of them have a sophisticated analytical infrastructure that the Dodgers — slow to embrace sabermetrics under the previous regime — are still assembling.
One explanation for the American League’s decade-plus of interleague superiority is that the Yankees exerted a gravitational pull on the rest of the league, forcing other teams to innovate and raise payroll just to keep close. Eventually, the competition not only came close, but caught up and sped by. No matter how promising things look now, the same thing will inevitably happen to the Dodgers one day.
There’s also always the unforeseeable: horrific luck; Bill Gates buying the Diamondbacks and dedicating his foundation to building a winner for Phoenix; earthquakes and other calamities; an even more immediate bursting of the broadcast bubble that many have anticipated. Still, right now, baseball’s center of gravity is pulling every other team toward Chavez Ravine. In an era of uncommon competitive balance, being the big club on campus doesn’t grant the power to dominate that it once did. But as long as Kasten has his handpicked decision-makers backed by baseball’s biggest bankroll, the Dodgers will hold the high ground in an unfair game. “We are determined not to be left behind in anything,” Kasten says. For now, he needn’t worry.