This offseason, Sports on Earth is asking baseball writers what they would do if they ran the front office.
By Jonathan Bernhardt
So let’s say you’re a proud, storied West Coast franchise whose bitterest rival has won two of the last three World Series.
Then let’s say your borderline-criminal owner goes through a divorce so heavily litigated that no matter how many holding companies he has split the team into or how many parking lots he owns, he has to declare bankruptcy. Furthermore, let’s say that he tries to sell the TV rights for this franchise away for cents on the dollar for a quick infusion of cash, and commissioner Bud Selig gets wind of this over at the league office and forces him to relinquish control of the franchise.
Let’s say that after getting through bankruptcy court, the team is purchased by an ownership group fronted by perhaps the most successful star athlete-turned-businessman of all time, Magic Johnson, and with a very, very deep pool of cash resources. Let’s say they buy the previous owner, who’s been a stain on MLB’s reputation for months now, if not years, completely out of the equation. (He gets to stay rich, unfortunately, but with this much money involved there are never any completely happy endings.)
Now let’s say that the TV network that was prepared to short-change this newly revitalized franchise comes back to the bargaining table, and when all is said and done the new offer will likely pay our intrepid West Coast team $6 billion over the next 25 years -- working out to about $240 million, or about 125% of the payroll luxury tax threshold for Major League Baseball, every season. Just from TV.
And the kicker: Let’s say there’s a clause in the deal that the last guy cut in bankruptcy court that caps the amount of TV money subject to any MLB revenue-sharing agreement at $84 million per season, meaning that $156 million of that annual money doesn’t have to be shared.
Assuming all of the above are true, you have a perfect financial storm: When it comes to payroll, you have the ability to just…not care. The real moneymakers for the franchise are already guaranteed -- now all that needs to happen is for the baseball operations team to build the brand further by winning some championships.
This is the situation that the Los Angeles Dodgers find themselves in this offseason, and it’s up to incumbent general manager Ned Colletti to follow through on what his ownership group has given him. Given the exorbitant overpays already for reliever Brandon League (three years/$22 million plus incentives) and Korean pitching prospect Hyun-Jin Ryu ($25.5 million posting fee, still negotiating an actual contract), Colletti appears well aware of the resources at his disposal.
It can’t be overstated that the Dodgers are, by their own admission, operating essentially without a payroll budget. When asked if there was a spending ceiling in place for payroll under the new ownership group, Dodgers’ general partner Mark Walter said “Somewhere, I suppose.” Coletti stated that ownership did not ask him about budgetary concerns -- deferring to his judgment to spend as much as he pleased, where he pleased.
With that in mind, here are two offseason plans that the Dodgers might pursue in order to build a contender for the next three or four years. The first one is a reasonable plan that takes into consideration the team's considerable new financial resources. The second one also takes those resources into account…but is, well, considerably less reasonable.
A Reasonable Dodgers GM Might:
- Give Zack Greinke more money than CC Sabathia. Is Greinke a better pitcher than Sabathia? Not at all, but the primary advantage of being the Dodgers right now is the ability to end any free-agent negotiations by just sitting down at the table. Try to get the best deal possible, sure, but if it comes down to it, give Greinke $25 million a year for the next half-decade; he’s a very good pitcher and it’s better than throwing $90 million at Kyle Lohse or whatever half-baked backup plan is in place if Greinke signs elsewhere.
- Pry J.J. Hardy away from the Orioles for Chad Billingsley and Scott Elbert. Eat a bunch -- or all -- of Billingsley’s money in the deal to make it work. Billingsley hasn’t been a noticeably above-average pitcher for three or four years, but he’ll be cheap for Baltimore, and reclamation projects are kind of the Orioles' thing right now. Hardy’s blocking Manny Machado and is a great defensive shortstop with an inconsistent but playable bat who's under contract for another few seasons. Meanwhile, Dee Gordon will never be the answer at short and Hanley Ramirez should be the starting third baseman. Elbert’s the price of doing business here, considering how comparatively underwhelming Billingsley has been recently. There’s some sentiment in Baltimore for Hardy, especially since he just won a Gold Glove, so Elbert might have to be subbed out for or even supplemented with an actual prospect, though not one extremely high-end.
- And if Hanley refuses to move off of short? He very well might: Jose Reyes taking his job in Miami was likely the last of so many straws for Ramirez’s relationship with Marlins management, and he reacted very well when restored to the position in Los Angeles. Kevin Youkilis is a free agent, though he’s also the definition of a short-term solution, and the White Sox might make him a better offer anyw -- haha, wait, sorry. This is the Dodgers we’re talking about. If the Dodgers want Youk, they’ll get him.
With a rotation looking something like Kershaw/Greinke/Beckett/Ryu/generic fifth starter, a revamped left side of the infield and full seasons from Hanley, Adrian Gonzalez and hopefully Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp, the Dodgers should be in a position to contend immediately, if with a somewhat short window costing extreme amounts of money.
But what if a general manager wanted to be decidedly unreasonable?
A Dodgers GM Who Doesn’t Think Money’s a Thing That Is Real Might:
Sign Greinke as above, and:
- Trade for Alex Rodriguez instead of signing Kevin Youkilis. Hanley Ramirez wants to stay at shortstop? Fine! Go get a former shortstop that has no problem playing third base. Alex Rodriguez continues to wear out his welcome in New York, to the bafflement of just about everyone but members of the New York sports media and the Yankees faithful, so as long as the Dodgers are willing to take on a significant portion of his contract the return shouldn’t be -- hey, actually, New York needs a right fielder, don’t they? Andre Ethier will be on the next plane.
- Well, now the Dodgers need a right fielder. So trade for Ryan Howard. And Anthony Bastardo. And to the point, Dom Brown. The Phillies should -- should -- be willing to do just about anything short of giving Citizen Bank Park’s naming rights to the New York Mets to get out from under the Ryan Howard contract, and honestly there’s probably a number of Philadelphia fans who wouldn’t mind at all if that was the price their favorite team had to pay to take $25 million a year of nearly dead money off the books. The poor guy Los Angeles kicks into this deal doesn’t matter -- how about Dee Gordon, actually, since he doesn’t really have a place on this team anymore -- because what Philadelphia’s actually getting is massive salary relief, and also freedom from having to guess who Ruben Amaro, Jr., is going to sign to block Dom Brown next. Meanwhile, the Dodgers get a young, capable right fielder and a strong bullpen arm. Problem, though: they now have two first basemen. Well. Restated problem: The Dodgers can’t put Howard at DH.
- That’s fine; the Seattle Mariners can. Or they can play him at first, since Justin Smoak isn’t looking so hot these days and Jesus Montero is actually so bad defensively he can’t field that (or any) position, or they can basically do with Howard whatever they please; they’re not going to be paying for him and he’s still a good major league bat. In return, the Dodgers should try to grab at least one of the more developed pitching prospects from the Mariners -- unlike Philly, Seattle actually has assets in the minors worth a serious look.
Is this insane? Of course it’s insane! So is not having a spending ceiling! Ned Colletti is unshackling his mind from all the earthly concerns that plague every other GM in baseball, the ones that force them to make deals in the context of a “budget” that “makes sense,” and discovering that he can buy basically anything. The Dodgers now live in the Land of Spend-As-You-Please, and that should concern not just the NL West but the entire National League. Why?
Because Ned Colletti is now the most dangerous man in baseball.
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Bernhardt is a freelance sportswriter who has contributed to Baseball Prospectus, The Classical and ESPN's Sweet Spot blog network, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @jonbernhardt.