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The Dodgers signing Trevor Bauer was an exercise in excess

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Andrew Friedman on adding Bauer: “Because of the talent we had, it was a really high bar to crack.”

Trevor Bauer’s introductory press conference with the Dodgers, on February 11, 2021.
Screenshot from Dodgers on YouTube

The Dodgers introduced prized free agent acquisition Trevor Bauer at Dodger Stadium on Thursday, a little less than one week removed from when they were skeptical this press conference would even happen.

“I went to bed Thursday night really bummed, and thinking it wasn’t going to work out,” said Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, referring to last week’s courting of the 2020 National League Cy Young Award winner.

But despite a certain tweet’s claim on Feb. 4, Bauer and the Mets did not have a deal. Bauer described waking up at 6 a.m. Friday to calls from his agents, and sought counsel from both his parents — his mom, who was with him, and his dad at home in Southern California. Ultimately, Bauer decided on the Dodgers, whose three-year, $102 million contract offered the two highest single-season salaries in major league history — $40 million in 2021, $45 million in 2022 — and the flexibility of having opt-out clauses after each of the first two years.

“I don’t want to be a player that signs a long-term deal and towards the end is resented either by the fan base, by the organization or on my end for having my performance slip below what my contract dictates,” Bauer said. “So I wanted something with flexibility. I wanted something that worked for me and for the organization.

“It wasn’t about the money. For me. It’s about being a part of something that’s bigger than myself, being a part of an organization that can win. I want to win a World Series. I’ve come in second, both in college [at UCLA, in 2010] and in the big leagues [in Cleveland, in 2016]. I’m tired of it. I want to come in first.”

The Dodgers finished first on the field in 2020, winning their first World Series in 32 years. They’ll start this year first, too, both in expectations and in payroll.

“Our ownership group, Mark Walter, put some wind behind the sails and said, ‘Let’s go. Get this done,’” Friedman said. “Fortunately, it wasn’t too late, and we were able to come to this outcome. I couldn’t be more excited about it.”

Adding Bauer to the mix vaults the Dodgers into the upper echelon of competitive balance tax penalties for 2021. Currently the CBT payroll is right around $240 million. Anything over $250 million would incur a 62.5-percent penalty and see the Dodgers’ 2021 first-round draft pick drop 10 slots.

To date, none of the Dodgers’ offseason moves have involved offense. They’ve stated numerous times this offseason their desire to add a right-handed bat to their lineup. Justin Turner is still available, and fits that bill to a tee. Friedman said the Dodgers would not be limited when it comes to adding more talent.

“I think we’re committed to doing everything we can to put together the best roster that we can,” Friedman said. “Obviously, it’s difficult for me to comment on a specific free agent, but I think it’s pretty well documented, what we think of JT, what he’s meant to this organization.”

Even with the addition of Bauer, the Dodgers still have long-term payroll flexibility. They only have three players signed to guaranteed contracts for a total of $59 million in 2023, and two of those (Bauer and A.J. Pollock) are player options. There will be several players going through the salary arbitration process by then, like Cody Bellinger and Walker Buehler, but it’s not an unwieldy payroll by any means.

This is an ownership group that paid $150 million in competitive balance tax in their first five full seasons (2013-17), and had a payroll average just over $200 million in the last three years despite falling under the threshold. That reset the Dodgers’ tax rate for this year, which starts at 20 percent, rather than the 50 percent a third-time-repeating tax payer would face.

“I think it’s difficult at any one moment in time to look at our payroll, and to deduce too much from it,” Friedman explained. “It is a three- to five-year kind of process that we look at, the ebbs and flows of that. But the thing that has been constant throughout is winning. So that’s where our mindset still is, and we’ll see how that plays out.”

Acquiring Bauer was an exercise in excess for the Dodgers, who already had six capable major league starting pitchers before landing the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner. But you need a lot of starting pitchers to get through a 162-game season, especially coming off a shortened 60-game season in which nobody in MLB reached triple digits in innings pitched, even counting the postseason.

From 2016-19, the last four full seasons, the Dodgers averaged 8.5 pitchers starting at least five games for them.

As volatile as Bauer’s performance on the field has been, with only two of his seven full seasons ending with an ERA under 4.00, what he does provide is some certainty with his health, having never suffered an arm injury thus far in his career. Since the start of 2016, Bauer is sixth in the majors in innings pitched, and 10th in games started.

“His ability to take the ball every turn is really impactful. For us as we are looking to navigate the unknown, and all that comes with that, adding to our pitching depth was something that was important to us,” Friedman said. “That being said, because of the talent we had, it was a really high bar to crack to get in there. There were very few players that kind of fit into that, which is why Trevor was kind of on our radar throughout the winter.”