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All according to plan: Or the Dodgers want to win the World Series?

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Headline goes here Photo by David Crane/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

Generally, the 2022 Dodgers’ season went according to plan. Now, no one (who likes the team) likes the ending. The problem is that most people tend not to know what the plan is. So let’s start from there.

And you might interpret this title to assume I am casting shade over a perceived lack of effort. I am not. Am I questioning motivation? I will get back to that point.

You might say that the ultimate goal of the Los Angeles Dodgers is to win the World Series. I would argue that you would be factually wrong. You ask why? Because you are asking the wrong question. If you were to hypothetically strap various Dodgers’ ownership personnel into a polygraph and threaten them or bribe them to get their honest answer, they would likely say the following:

The ultimate goal of the Los Angeles Dodgers is to make money.

There’s nothing wrong with that. The Dodgers are not a non-profit charity. They exist to make their respective owners money. Every home game you go to. Every bit of merchandise you buy. Every bit of memorabilia you buy. Every hot dog, soda, beer, and Michelada, you buy. Every season ticket package sold. Every post on the team's Instagram / Twitter. Every moment you are watching SportsNetLA. All of it serves to feed the gaping maw that is the Dodgers’ desire for your money and to a lesser extent, your attention, which facilitates them getting your money.

The Dodgers’ are not unique in this regard. The following statement should not be news to you, but all teams want your money. You could argue that a not-insignificant portion of teams want your money more than they want to win. Also, the Dodgers (as a team) do not care about what you do or feel, as long as you keep coming and spending at Dodger Stadium.

This statement should not be news. There is no judgment involved; I have been to 16 different cities to watch 49 games over the past two years. I plan to go to additional games elsewhere until I have been to every Major League stadium. Technically, I am one of those fans that the Dodgers rave about: the out-of-towner that follows the team around.

If the above sentiment feels a bit familiar to you — it should. If there was a theme to the 2022 Dodgers, you saw it every time that the Dodgers made a hit. I basically am riffing off the film “The Wolf of Wall Street.” It was neat that everyone did the head tap from the film, but I always wondered about something. Did the team not see how the movie ended? Everybody went to jail.

Washington Nationals v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

(No Dodgers are going to jail that I know of, certainly not for poor play.)

Like Matthew McConaughey’s character says in the film:

Revolutions. Keep the clients on the Ferris wheel. And it goes; the park is open 24/7/365, every decade, every [gosh darn] century. That’s it, the name of the game.

I am not saying that winning a World Championship is not a goal of the Dodgers. If you think about it, this point is really a question of semantics and perspective.

However, if something is truly an ultimate goal, you move heaven and earth to make it happen. Moreover, you do not stop at anything to make this goal happen. But as we will discuss in the first half of our penultimate portion of the series, there was clearly an issue with holding back as to roster in trying to seek the first title since 2020, but that holding back is all according to plan.

The trouble with going all-in

In my most popular essays of the year, I proposed several back-of-the-napkin trades to demonstrate that the Dodgers could obtain Juan Soto AND Shohei Ohtani. They would have had to basically empty their farm system to do it and reside in a universe where Arte Moreno would allow a trade of Ohtani. I even got to quote Gary Oldham in The Professional at one point during this stretch of essays. These three essays were a lot of fun to write.

Did I expect the Dodgers to do any of these trades? Absolutely not.

Could these proposed trades have been done? In theory, apart from the Ohtani trade. Am I glad the trades were not done? Without question.

As soon as I realized that either Diego Cartaya and/or Will Smith was the likely lynchpin to making these proposed moves happen, my enthusiasm dropped immediately. Also, Arte Moreno was never going to trade Ohtani. I figured Moreno was more likely to sell the Angels than trade Ohtani. Honestly, seeing the youth movement sparked by James Outman and Miguel Vargas in 2022 has me quite excited for the future.

It is this essay’s position that the current Front Office has taken the following position regarding the roster construction: the team models the 1990s Atlanta teams that Stan Kasten ran. These teams were always in the mix for a title but never went over the top in personnel moves to sacrifice the future for a better chance to grasp another championship.

However, Kasten-led teams do not typically overspend on an extended basis. His tenure running Atlanta was infamous for its streak of excellence (14 straight division titles) but only one championship to show for it. Based on the above reasoning, the Dodgers seem to be mimicking that model by winning 10 out of the last 11 division titles with a world championship. Overall, most fanbases would love such a result.

Clearly, the Dodgers have made the calculation that going all-in on the roster is never going to be the strategy. You could argue that the team sees the randomness of the postseason as grounds that the postseason is not won by the best overall team but rather by the team that catches momentum. This argument conveniently ignores the fact that the best team in the American League over the past few seasons, even with the aid of trash cans, keeps getting back to the Fall Classic year after year: the Houston Astros.

As Andy McCullough of The Athletic pointed out the following day after the Astros won their first legitimate title, claiming randomness is just an excuse that belies excellence.

The easiest way to analyze the disconnect between regular-season success and playoff triumph is to view the two contests as disparate events. The 162-game slog rewards the deepest and most versatile rosters — you can’t luck your way into 100 wins. The scramble of the postseason benefits the team that enters the bracket at its apex and maintains that level for the final sprint, as the Braves did in 2021 and the Phillies almost did this year. There is truth in both sentiments. The fear among some, myself included, was that by diluting the postseason to include 12 teams in 2022, Major League Baseball ran the risk of disincentivizing teams from attempting to build juggernauts: Why try to be great when being good was enough to win it all?...

“During the course of the season, we had peaks and valleys with runners in scoring position — and this [performance in the NLDS] was a valley,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said a few days after his team was ousted. “The question is: Is it baseball, or are there things we can do to improve upon that? Are there levers we can pull? Are there things to put us in a better position there?”

The easiest answer was also the most challenging to implement: Play better. This is what champions do. That is what the Astros did all postseason. ... But elite teams are still allowed to win.

[emphasis added.]

While the Dodgers’ plan is to constantly end up in the postseason tournament, this writer’s opinion if there is a failure, it is one of motivation rather than roster construction. This particular thread will be discussed in detail during the finale of this series. In order to further elaborate, let us take a moment to compare The One-Win Team with the team that vanquished it, our cousins from the south, the San Diego Padres.

A team that did go “all in.”

In 2022, the Padres emptied its farm system to obtain Juan Soto, Josh Hader, Josh Bell, and Brandon Drury. A.J. Preller, their general manager, bet the viability of the Padres’ farm system on a gamble to slay the Dragon that is the Los Angeles Dodgers. It worked as little brother finally beat big brother.

Dodgers Padres game 5 NLDS Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A deep playoff run was there for the taking for the Padres as a result of their gamble. All the Padres had to do was beat the sixth-seed Phillies—whoops, the series is already over; I guess that is what’s in. [Author’s Note: I think people should have fun and that rap was fun for them. Good for them; I mock their team, not fans being their best selves or what they consider to be their best selves.]

One of the only silver linings to the organizational, generational failure of the One-Win Team is that the 2022 Padres emptied their entire farm system in order to play five extra games, of which they lost four. If Gaslamp Ball wanted to start a series called “The Four-Win Team,” I would be annoyed and flattered all at once.

And to add insult to injury, those Padres were so inept in the NLCS, they somehow made the Dodgers look even worse because the Padres were bounced from the playoffs so easily by the deeply flawed, soon-to-be vanquished Philadelphia Phillies. While the Padres core of Soto, Machado, Darvish, Snell, Musgrove, et al will be together for the next couple of seasons, several core pieces are set to enter free agency, including Wil Myers (option declined), Josh Bell, Sean Manaea, Jurickson Profar (opted out), Nick Martinez (opted out), Mike Clevinger (option declined), Craig Stammen, Brandon Drury. Robert Suarez was on this list but re-signed with the Padres prior to publication.

The main point is that the Padres have no option but to win now. Otherwise, the all-in push at this year’s trade deadline will only result in an addition to the one-room Padres’ Hall of Fame and five additional playoff games, of which the Padres lost four.

Flexibility above all

All of the above is a prelude to describing how differently the current incarnation of the Dodgers operates as to roster management. There is a word that describes the modus operandi of the Los Angeles Dodgers under the Guggenheim Group: flexibility.

MLB Approves Sale of Los Angeles Dodgers to Frank McCourt - January 29, 2004
Never forget.
Photo by Kirby Lee/Getty Images

Yes, the Dodgers went on a spending spree when the Guggenheim Group took over. We all respectively needed a palette cleanser after the previous tenants left the building. The McCourts drove this team into literal bankruptcy. Fans were staying away in droves. They had done the seemingly impossible: starve the golden goose to death. They were the Dodgers' answer to the Wilpons of New York.

Drastic measures were required to gain credibility, and thus the Nick Punto trade was made. In one trade, the Dodgers returned to relevance. But even back then, commenters warned that the Guggenheim Dodgers were not likely to spend with abandon, regardless of what the rest of the League thought.

Making Trades

These new Dodgers were not afraid to make a trade. But if you were to ask the Dodgers’ front office, they would likely say that they prefer not to trade everyone away on an all-in bet. That same philosophy has governed the Dodgers’ personnel moves. Take this year as an example. The Dodgers traded Zack McKinstry for Chris Martin and Clayton Beeter for Joey Gallo. The Dodgers also traded Garrett Cleavinger, Mitch White, and Jake Lamb to clear roster spots.

The Dodgers did not trade for Juan Soto. The Dodgers did not trade for Shohei Ohtani.

There is an argument that the Dodgers did not need to make such a trade this year as the team was supposed to be loaded for bear. Plus, the Dodgers were hoping that Walker Buehler, Dustin May, Danny Duffy, Tony Gonsolin, and Clayton Kershaw would provide coverage for the starting rotation. Not everyone came back obviously, but the Dodgers were not left wanting for starting pitching.

The Dodgers have made moves at the deadline. In 2021, the Dodgers traded top prospects Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray (and two other prospects) for Trea Turner and Max Scherzer. In 2017, the Dodgers traded Willie Calhoun, AJ Alexy, and Brendon Davis for Yu Darvish. The point is that the Dodgers have continued to be championship contenders while keeping the farm full. Other teams have tried to emulate this model and failed so far, most notably our cousins to the north, as their most recent crop of prospects has yet to pan out.

Spending Money

If you were to ask the Dodgers’ front office, they would likely say that they would prefer to not pay luxury tax penalties every year. So if the Dodgers do not necessarily need to go all in at all or if via the trade route, what about the free agent market you ask?

A lot of money is coming off the Dodgers’ books for the start of the 2023 season. Why not actually lean into what the detractors think that the Dodgers do and employ the “Uncle Cohen” strategy of just buying players? Again, in case, anyone has not seen or read “Moneyball” at this point? The Dodgers were obviously not afraid to spend in prior offseasons, especially once the Guggenheim Group took the reins.

Here are the last eleven seasons of competitive balance tax payrolls for the Dodgers:

  • 2012: $158.3 million (per Cot’s Contracts; year began with McCourt ownership)
  • 2013: $243.2 million
  • 2014: $277.7 million
  • 2015: $298.3 million
  • 2016: $252.6 million
  • 2017: $253.6 million
  • 2018: $195 million
  • 2019: $204.9 million
  • 2020: $98.6 million (per Forbes; prorated from full-season $204.7 million)
  • 2021: $285.6 million
  • 2022: $289.96 million (estimated, per Associated Press)

In case you were wondering the non-prorated total since 2013 is $2.399 billion which is a little less than the 2022 Gross Domestic Product of Bhutan ($2.529 billion). On a pure one-to-one basis, in 2022, the Dodgers spent just less than the island nation of Palau. If anything the Dodgers’ financial expenditures should put to bed the argument that one can buy a championship and cement the argument that one can generally buy relevance with a high payroll (unless you are the Angels, but that is another topic for another day).

Going back to the last time that a potential consensus arose that the Dodgers keep payrolls down for the foreseeable future after the 2018 season, the Los Angeles Times reported the following (paywalled):

The Dodgers long have made clear their business model under Guggenheim: Spend freely at first to accelerate the replenishment of a barren talent base in the major and minor leagues, then build a perennial contender through player development, emphasizing depth and financial flexibility over continued free spending that could result in a roster overloaded with old, expensive and unproductive players.

In any event, the Dodgers are not going to spend just to spend as that “strategy” would contradict everything I have just described to you about the desire for roster flexibility. Secondly, the financial penalties for repeatedly exceeding the luxury tax threshold get very expensive very quickly.

If the Dodgers owe luxury tax for 2023, they would pay 50 percent above next year’s first threshold of $233 million, 62 percent above $253 million, 95 percent above $273 million, and 110 percent above $293 million. Until now, the previous high for a luxury tax payroll was the Dodgers’ $298.3 million in 2015, which resulted in a record tax of $43.7 million. A team’s tax rates reset at the lowest level after it drops below the initial threshold in any year. The Dodgers last reset the luxury tax amount in 2019 and have gone over the threshold in every full season since.

I argued that the Dodgers were going to non-tender Cody Bellinger earlier in this series and on November 18, the Dodgers finally parted with their former-MVP centerfielder. Considering that the Dodgers have declined every available team option for the upcoming season, this behavior indicates one thing: oncoming economies...slashing the payroll...getting back below the luxury tax threshold, and doing more with less.

Roster Resource at FanGraphs estimates that the 2023 Dodgers' current payroll obligations, including estimated salaries for remaining players eligible for arbitration, is approximately $168 million. This figure does not account for Clayton Kershaw’s impending $20 million contract. Added up the estimation would go up to $188 million, well below the $233 million luxury tax threshold. Eric had an excellent summary of the financial status of the roster, which you can find here.

So the Dodgers can re-sign Justin Turner, Trea Turner, et al with impunity, right? Unfortunately, I have to point out that you are forgetting someone. Most people would as we have not had any reason to think about him for most of the year. I refer to Andrew Friedman’s objectively worst signing while running the Dodgers, a $34-million shoe that is waiting to drop: Trevor Bauer.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Washington Nationals
Trevor Bauer in Washington D.C. in 2021.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Bauer’s 2023 salary for luxury tax purposes, assuming he is not suspended, is $34 million (the average annual value of his contract) rather than the $32 million he is set to earn.

On November 18, Bill Plunket of the Orange County Register pointed out that the Dodgers have currently shed over $100 million off last year’s payroll. To add figurative salt to the wound of emotion that most are feeling right now because of Bellinger’s departure, the savings from declining to pay Cody Bellinger (a projected) $18 million in arbitration and Justin Turner $16 million from his option (not counting the $2 million buyout), that savings would be comparable to Bauer’s 2023 salary.

Next time, we conclude the penultimate part of this series by examining the implications of the $34 million (figurative) elephant in the room and projecting some creative roster ideas for the upcoming season.