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Dodgers are letting the luxury tax dictate their offseason

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It’s getting old

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers Press Conference Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of talking about the luxury tax. Yes, it’s a dumb rule that was collectively bargained for back in 2012, but it’s exhausting to have to keep referring to it.

The fact that the Dodgers — the Los Angeles Dodgers — are treating it like a hard cap this winter is infuriating. I was OK with it last year — I even wrote a bit about it. But the stipulation in my mind was that they were resetting the tax so they could spend a little more freely. Not necessarily a $250-300 million payroll (which they could afford), but to at least not be scared of the defacto salary cap.

Here were are on Jan. 15 and the two premiere free agents — Bryce Harper and Manny Machado — are still unsigned. Harper and Machado, both 26, aren’t your typical free agents because of their youth. Rare is the time a player in his mid-20s hits the open market. Yet, the Dodgers aren’t really in on either one. There were rumors and I’ve heard behind the scenes that Harper does want to play for the Dodgers, but it’s up to the Dodgers to pony up the dough. That doesn’t necessarily mean bending to Scott Boras’ whim, but the fact that they’re reportedly not willing to go beyond 5-6 years for one of youngest and best free agents in recent memory is a terrible look.

There are pros and cons to a Harper or Machado signing, but there’s risk in every acquisition. And the Dodgers — unlike most willing teams — wouldn’t be hamstrung if Harper doesn’t live up to whatever contract he eventually signs. Side note: Folks like to focus on the negative. But, what if he’s good? No one ever says that when debating the pros and cons of signing Harper. But I digress.

The Dodgers have lost about 10 wins of production this offseason. They’ve lost Yasmani Grandal, Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood and added Joe Kelly, Russell Martin and a couple prospects who are a few years away from contributing. They opened up a spot for Alex Verdugo, but there’s no guarantee he’ll out-produce Puig in 2019. Because the NL West projects to be not great, the Dodgers could probably go out and win the division with the squad they have presently. But after having a championship slip through their hands in 2017 and being outclassed last year, you’d think the prevailing thought would be to go all-in. Instead, Andrew Friedman — via ownership mandate or not — is treating the Dodgers like they were his Rays. And that doesn’t work in Los Angeles.

We know the Dodgers stated they weren’t going to run a league-high payroll every year and it’s hard to truly complain about a nearly $190 million payroll, but when you almost literally print money and don’t use that to your advantage, that’s when you get folks to really start questioning your methods.

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Since the Dodgers reset their luxury tax penalty, they should be spending a little more than they have so far. Let’s look at the Red Sox last season. The World Series champs ran a $239.5 million payroll. They had to pay $11.95 million in luxury tax penalties. They paid that tax and ended up with a championship, but the Dodgers won’t even consider going over the tax again? That doesn’t seem right. Of course, spending money doesn’t automatically ensure a title, but it definitely doesn’t hurt, either.

We don’t know for sure that the Dodgers aren’t willing — they extended Clayton Kershaw for more than $30 million a season and gave Hyun-Jin Ryu the qualifying offer — but their moves since then, coupled with the report from the LA Times that they might stay under the luxury tax the next four years, makes it look like they won’t make a big financial splash this winter.

One benefit the Dodgers have is their payroll. They can use it in a way that most teams aren’t willing to. They did so when they made the Nick Punto trade in 2012 and in other deals in the past that saw them take on and/or eat a lot of money to reduce the prospect price (Hanley Ramirez). Yet, they don’t seem willing to do it now.

If the Dodgers had won one of the last two World Series, this might be a bit more palatable. But as it stands now, the Dodgers aren’t the best team in the NL. They had to go to Game 163 to win the NL West last season. They might be OK to make the playoffs and we know it’s a crapshoot, but when the premiere free agent has either already played for you (Machado) or wants to (Harper) and you’re not interested because of some artificial/self-imposed salary restriction is the wrong message to send fans.

The Dodgers want to build the farm system and win that way. That’s fine. That’s a good strategy. But they don’t have any truly impactful prospects due up anytime soon. Verdugo is nice, but he won’t likely carry an offense. Keibert Ruiz is a stud, but there are questions about his power developing. Best-case scenario for him is a Grandal/Victor Martinez type. While good, those guys aren’t/weren’t true impact players. There is no Walker Buehler, Cody Bellinger or Corey Seager coming anytime soon. This is the prime time to supplement the lack of impact potential on the farm with one of the biggest potentially impactful free agents in recent memory.

Pitchers and catchers report in a month. The Dodgers are worse now than they were at the end of the season. Here’s hoping that changes in the next 30 days because if the reason they don’t get Harper is because of the luxury tax, it’s going to be hard for ownership and the front office to live that down — especially if they fail for a third consecutive season in their quest to break the now 30-year championship drought.

It’d be nice to never have to write the words, “luxury/competitive balance tax” ever again. Unfortunately, it isn’t going anywhere and the negotiations for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement promise to be eventful.