The 2023 Dodgers seem to be cutting payroll. The most likely explanation is that the Dodgers are going to try and reset the luxury tax by keeping the payroll below the threshold of $233 million for the 2023 season. However, there is a potential fly in the ointment to this plan.
Sadly, we now have to discuss the $34-million (figurative) elephant in the room: Trevor Bauer.
Bauer’s continued legal woes in civil court have ongoing ramifications for the Dodgers, as has been previously discussed. As is known, Bauer has appealed his suspension and that appeal was expected to come to a conclusion by the end of November per the Los Angeles Times in August. On November 17, the LA Times reported that the arbitration panel’s decision is expected no earlier than December.
If Bauer prevails at his arbitration hearing and gets reinstated, his now-albatross of a contract returns to the Dodgers’ books. The legal ramifications of such an occurrence will be discussed elsewhere if the time comes. As previously reported, if Bauer does succeed in his appeal, the Dodgers are expected to release Bauer and absorb the remainder of his contract, which would count towards the luxury tax threshold of $233 million.
And as I wrote last time, the dead money hit from releasing Bauer would be equivalent to canceling out the payroll savings from not resigning Justin Turner at all and non-tendering Cody Bellinger. Moreover, while the Dodgers have not openly declared they are trying to reset their luxury tax penalties no matter what, Andrew Friedman has, once again, emphasized maintaining the flexibility of the Dodgers’ roster.
“Payroll considerations factor in to every decision that every team makes. If you look back over the last seven or eight years, it probably factored in less for us than it has the other 29 teams,” Friedman said on November 18, after Bellinger was non-tendered. “But it’s still a factor, and there are still things we try to balance and juggle to try to put ourselves in position to have the best team possible when we get to Glendale.
“Going over [the threshold] is something we’ve done with regularity, and it adds cost. All of that gets factored in. It’s never been about, ‘Hey, we have to get under.’ It’s been about putting together the most talented team together. Obviously, we’ve been aggressive the last few years, and not just in terms of payroll, but in terms of taxes paid as well. All of that gets factored in.”
That statement might be puffery, but that is the story that the front office gave the last time everyone was concerned about the Dodgers not going over the luxury tax threshold. In case you forgot, back in 2018, after the Dodgers were vanquished by the Red Sox, the Los Angeles Times reviewed a document prepared for potential investors with payroll protections that showed that the Dodgers intended to not exceed the luxury tax threshold until after the 2022 season.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can all laugh about how the Dodgers absolutely did not cut payroll every year since 2019.
Generally, it is an extremely bad idea to write false statements to investors or documents that can be used as evidence of inducement of fraud. No one is alleging any malfeasance here. In this case, per the same LA Times article, the payroll projections in the reported document were not binding and an unidentified, high-ranking team official said that he would be “shocked” if the Dodgers payroll did not exceed $200 million in 2019. As previously documented in this series, the Dodgers payroll for luxury tax purposes in 2019 was $204.9 million, just below the $206-million tax threshold.
In this same article, Andrew Friedman said the following:
“[The question of whether the 2019 Dodgers will exceed the luxury tax threshold] is not something that we’ve really gotten into at this point,” he said. “More than that, there’s no question that we have plenty of resources to win a World Series next year. There’s no question about that. The talent on hand, and the flexibility to do that, is definitely there.”
It is worth noting that the financial document prepared by the Dodgers in late 2018 proclaimed that the Dodgers had lost at least $100 million each of the first four seasons of Guggenheim ownership, including a $200-million loss in 2015. As previously written in this series, the Dodgers are not going to spend just for spending’s sake and that roster flexibility is clearly a goal of this front office.
Considering how severe the tax penalties get for a three-time offender, the Dodgers are starting to feel the sting of their free-spending ways. As proof, realize that the Angels are going to lose their second-round pick for signing Tyler Anderson; however, the Dodgers are only going to get a compensatory pick after the fourth round. Moreover, if the Dodgers sign anyone who has been offered and rejected a qualifying offer, the team would lose its second AND fifth-highest selections and $1 million from the international signing pool for the upcoming year.
As it stands, Trevor Bauer is the $34-million figurative elephant in the room who would boost the projected payroll of the 2023 Dodgers to about $220 million, leaving about $13 million in threshold to work with. So with these figures, the talk about signing Trea Turner, Jacob deGrom, Aaron Judge, and/or Dansby Swanson seems fanciful, bordering on ludicrous, if the Dodgers want to reset their luxury tax penalties.
Considering the public statements about the team are likely considering giving cost-controlled minor leaguers runway to attempt to crack the starting roster, I would not expect the Dodgers to crack open the checkbook in a significant way this offseason when compared to the Mookie Betts contract or the Freddie Freeman contract.
The Dodgers have declined every potential option this offseason. Bellinger has been non-tendered. I would expect Justin Turner to return at a reduced salary, if at all. So the Dodgers are likely at a phase where they are going to cut costs and try to reset the luxury tax.
That’s the bad news...
In my view, the option of the Dodgers retaining Bauer if reinstated is a non-starter. For starters, if you think that the Dodger faithful will have a hard time accepting a potential signing of 2017 Astro Carlos Correa; imagine the absolute zoo that Dodger Stadium or any other stadium will be during a Bauer start if he returns to the team. The potential catcalls and jeers, most of which are unprintable in a family publication, will likely echo from coast to coast. Moreover, unlike an essay that the Bauer legal and media team does not like, good luck sending every single fan a “cease and desist letter” who decides to heckle Bauer in public if he is reinstated.
But as the figurative elephant is still here, we will address the hypothetical of having to deal with this minimal luxury tax threshold scenario. The good news for the Dodgers is that there are some creative ways to address the holes in the Dodgers’ roster.
The Dodgers need a shortstop. The Dodgers need an outfielder who can preferably play center field. The Dodgers need a starting pitcher or two. Let us address each need in turn.
Trading Will Smith for Willy Adames?!?
Replacing Turner from the available free agent class of himself, Xander Bogaerts, Dansby Swanson, and Carlos Correa is a likely non-starter if the goal is to keep the 2023 Dodgers below the $233-million luxury tax threshold for the simple reason that they will each likely command in excess of $25 million per year annually.
So it will either need to be Gavin Lux or a trade to play shortstop in this scenario. Going this route will likely mean a downgrade from Turner. Our replacement shortstop will likely never have a sizzle real narrated by Jon Hamm with questionable sound quality. But if the Dodgers do not want to rely on Lux, our potential candidate for shortstop needs to be obtainable by reasonable means of trade. And the Dodgers would need to trade from a place of value while thinking of the future.
One such idea immediately comes to mind:
Trade Will Smith for Willy Adames
- The Dodgers get SS Willy Adames, C Victor Caratini, and P Brandon Woodruff
- The Brewers get C Will Smith, LHP Alex Vesia, and 2B Eddys Leonard
Now I can hear the various other writers of True Blue LA wondering if I have (finally) lost it. I can envision you, dear reader, going to the comment section and telling me that conclusion before finishing the essay. I get it. The fan in me is right there with you. But the writer in me has an idea that is worth considering.
Last year, I scoffed at a “Will Smith for Juan Soto trade” or a “Will Smith for Shohei Ohtani trade” for various reasons. The Soto trade did not make sense because the Dodgers did not need an outfielder. Yes, I am aware of the irony of saying that the Dodgers did not need an outfielder while subsequently arguing for the Dodgers to rip the bandage off as to Bellinger. Personally, I thought that a combination of Chris Taylor, Bellinger, and Trayce Thompson could situate the Dodgers outfield for everyone not named Mookie Betts. I was clearly wrong in this conclusion as to the playoffs.
The Ohtani trade made more sense in theory but I figured that Arte Moreno would be far more likely to sell his team rather than trade two of the three reasons to go to an Angels game (Mike Trout when healthy, Shohei Ohtani pitching, Shohei Ohtani hitting) to his not-crosstown rivals to the north, our Los Angeles Dodgers. Then Moreno started exploring trying to sell his team...
In a vacuum, in my view, it would be worth it to pay someone $20 to $30 million per year (for luxury tax purposes) to play shortstop (Bogaerts would be my pick, but Swanson would be acceptable). However, this selection of a new shortstop is not going to play out in a vacuum, which is a problem.
Mike Petriello of MLB.com argued that half of the teams in the sport are possibly going to be bidding on the current crop of shortstops. Many bidders combined with a finite market mean more opportunities for overbidding, driving prices up. Moreover, the crop for free agent shortstops gets far leaner in 2024, going from Trea Turner, et al to Javier Baez, Brandon Crawford, Giovanny Urshela, Amed Rosario, Nick Ahmed, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and Miguel Rojas. Technically, Paul DeJong and Tim Anderson are on this list as well but they have club options.
Therefore, a trade bypasses this problem.
Adames provides a cost-effective defensive shortstop with some offensive pop for the next two seasons. Moreover, while Adames would be a moderate step down from Trea Turner offensively (at worst), the hope is that his defense would provide enough of a benefit while providing the Dodgers with an additional offensive presence.
In fact, if you compare Adames to Turner looking at last year alone, there are far more similarities in offensive profile than you might think. Moreover, Adames cost a fifth of what Turner did in 2022. Per Baseball Reference:
- Adames: .238/.298/.458, 112 OPS+, 83 runs, 134 hits, 31 doubles, 31 homers, 98 RBI, 8 steals (in 11 tries), 49 walks, 166 strikeouts
- Turner: .298/.343/.466, 121 OPS+, 101 runs, 194 hits, 39 doubles, 4 triples, 21 homers, 100 RBI, 27 steals (in 30 tries), 45 walks, 131 strikeouts
Now if Adames could strike out a little less by swinging for the fence a little less often, he could match his best overall offensive season in 2021 where he hit .262/.337/.481/.818 with 25 home runs and a 121 OPS+ for Tampa Bay and Milwaukee. The Dodgers would take that production in a heartbeat.
Why trade Smith now? Because right now is a perfect opportunity to maximize Smith’s value without being subject to any desperation in the marketplace. The longer the Dodgers wait, the more it will cost to replace Trea Turner. I personally adore watching Will Smith as a Dodger. He is arguably the best catcher in the sport and is this generation’s answer to Mike Scioscia, Mike Piazza, and Paul LoDuca. But in this scenario, sacrifices will have to be made in order to keep this machine going. This trade would be a gamble and a belief in someone who’s not quite ready to take over primary receivership of the Dodger pitching core: Diego Cartaya.
Cartaya is projected to be a star mixing elite defense with power to all fields. But at 21 years old, he’s not ready to take the starting job away from Smith yet. The inclusion of Victor Caritini allows the Dodgers to have a true duo as a catching core, rather than a starter and backup that they currently have. Moreover, the trade clears the runway for Cartaya to make his major league debut in 2024, if not sooner.
I also love watching Alex Vesia pitch, playoff results, and all. But Vesia probably will never have more value in a trade than he does now, and I am a big believer in trading relievers when you get maximum value for them. The perennially cash-strapped Brewers are facing a future roster crunch with Adames and their pitching core of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Eric Lauer entering their final year of arbitration in 2024 and free agency in 2025. As such, they likely will not be able to retain all of these players. Moreover, the Brewers already unloaded Hunter Renfrow to the Angels for prospects, two of which who already have major league experience. So the time to strike a deal seems to be ripe.
Woodruff seems to be the best mix of stuff while being attainable in a trade, unlike Burnes who will command a premium, and Lauer who is at his nadir in value currently. For those wondering why not try to take on the contract of Christian Yelich, that idea will likely not work. He is not going anywhere as he has arguably the most immovable contract in the sport, apart from Bauer. There is no point in trying to include him in this proposal. As a final point in favor of my proposal, Baseball Trade Simulator considers it an acceptable trade.
In one move, the Dodgers get a shortstop, a starting pitcher, and a cost-controlled catcher, while selling high on several players. Do I expect the Dodgers to make this move as written? Not at all, but I would not be surprised if Friedman did something similar this offseason.
Sign Sean Manaea?!?
While Bobby Miller, Gavin Stone, and Ryan Pepiot provide some interesting potential in the coming year, the old adage remains true: one can never have enough starting pitching. Moreover, the departure of Tyler Anderson and the likely departure of Andrew Heaney should not make you long for their return.
You should be interested to see what The Maestro, Mark Prior, can do for his next reclamation project.
In my notes taken throughout the year, after seeing Sean Manaea, I had a single thought: I bet Prior could fix him.
Sean Manaea went 8-9, with a 4.96 ERA with San Diego in 2022. Most notably, the Dodgers owned Manaea in fee simple as he was unable to pitch effectively against the Dodgers, either in Los Angeles or San Diego. Manea lasted just 17⅔ innings, while allowing 24 runs on 28 hits, including five home runs, resulting in an 11.72 ERA.
Remove this almost-historic stretch of badness and Manaea’s stat line for 2022 improves by quite a bit. Manaea’s record (sans the Dodgers games) would be 8-6, with a 4.10 ERA. That is not terrible, and certainly adequate for a fifth starter. Manaea was a solid starter in Oakland for several years, and if he did not have to face the Dodgers anymore, he might be a serviceable candidate for Prior’s pitching magic.
If there’s a pitcher primed for a one-year, prove-it deal, a Heaney-esque one-year contract for something like $8 million, it would seem to be Manaea.
How I learned to love Kevin Kiermaier
As I have discussed at length, Bellinger stunk out loud for the Dodgers offensively for the past two seasons, a historic plunge from MVP winner to being non-tendered. What is darkly amusing about this situation is the number of teams lining up to try and sign Bellinger, as if the Dodgers were sitting on their hands during the past three seasons.
I would enjoy the irony if the Giants overpaid for Bellinger and then expressed shock if he hit for around .200 again. There is that short field in right — in theory, I can see the logic of such a move, but I would be quite skeptical.
Regardless, the Dodgers now need a center fielder. They have internal options in Taylor, Thompson, or James Outman. The Dodgers could overpay for Brandon Nimmo or sign the better version of current Bellinger: former Tampa Bay Ray Kevin Kiermaier.
Before Bellinger was non-tendered, I commented that Kiermaier was the superior version of current-Bellinger. Some were not impressed, still thinking that Bellinger would regain his MVP form or something close to it, and argued that Kiermaier was not an upgrade to Bellinger. The numbers show otherwise if we compare Bellinger’s last two seasons with Kiermaier’s last two seasons, there is a clear indication of who was the better player, even though both players essentially had a lost season due to injury.
Once again, per Baseball Reference:
- Kiermaier: .247/.311/.381, 98 OPS+, 82 runs, 59 RBI, 27 doubles, 7 triples, 11 home runs, 15 steals, 7.7-percent walk rate, 16.3-percent strikeout rate, 4.5 bWAR
- Bellinger: .193/.256/.355, 64 OPS+, 109 runs, 104 RBI, 36 doubles, 5 triples, 29 home runs, 17 steals, 7.7-percent walk rate, 27.1-percent strikeout rate, -0.4 bWAR
The statistics indicate that Kierrmaier provided more value defensively and significantly more value offensively. No one is expecting Kierrmaier to win an MVP award, as he appears to be far less durable than Bellinger.
Kiermaier's offensive floor related to Bellinger is noticeably higher. If Bellinger is right, he could potentially win a Most Valuable Player award; the problem for all involved is that for the past three seasons, Bellinger has not been anything close to right on a consistent basis.
Tampa Bay declined Kevin Kiermaier's $13-million club option, potentially ending a 10-year tenure playing in The Big Guava. While Kiermaier is entering his age-33 season, it would not be unreasonable to think that the Dodgers could sign him to a comparable contract for far less than it would take to retain Bellinger at arbitration, had the team decided to tender Bellinger a contract, which would allow time for one of the current core of Dodger prospects to develop. I am thinking either Outman or Andy Pages.
Through my back-of-the-envelope math, these moves would theoretically allow the Dodgers to strengthen their current roster while still trying to stay below the $233 million luxury tax threshold.
Ultimately, even if Bauer is reinstated, these moves still keep any potential luxury tax hit to a bare minimum providing the Dodgers an option to try this arithmetic again, once Bauer’s contract is permanently off the books in 2024.
We have discussed the Dodgers’ disappearing offense, the fairness of the playoff format, we have discussed how the Giants should really be kicking themselves due to the Phillies’ improbable playoff run, we have also discussed the reasons why the Dodgers were going to non-tender Cody Bellinger and we have discussed the philosophy of the front office as to this team’s roster construction.
One will note that we have not discussed the pitching in depth. Apart from Tony Gonsolin and what happened in Game 4, the pitching was fine. It is unreasonable to expect every starting pitcher to throw a no-hitter every start. The pitching kept the Dodgers in the series.
This generational, organizational failure of a playoff has been examined in every facet barring one. Therefore, we now have reached the final omnibus topic of The One-Win Team series.
Next time, The One-Win Team: “Put it on record.” — the words of Dave Roberts.