It's become fashionable among a certain segment of the baseball fan population, not to mention writers, to critique individual player contracts. This is materially different from figuring out whether a player can help a team or not. It becomes a question of evaluating specific value of the contract.
To be sure, this is often vital work, particularly for teams with limited financial resources, where a single bad contract could handcuff a team for several years.
The vaue of this going forward remains to be seen. Major League Baseball is a league swimming in money. A new national television deal set to take effect next season, in concert with many teams cashing in on local television contracts, means the few teams crying poverty are likely doing so by choice. (Regrettably, the reverse is true for the Mets, but that's what separates them from the 29 other teams.)
And then there's what separates the Los Angeles Dodgers, who don't have any budget limitations at all, from 29 other teams. Amusingly, some observers thought this approach wouldn't work. But it got the Dodgers to the NLCS, and on Wednesday afternoon, it became the reason the Dodgers' season continued, with a mercenary-powered 6-4 win over the St. Louis Cardinals.
And I'll be honest with you, I felt pretty silly asking whether having a bottomless pit of money was a useful thing, because it so self-evidently is, no matter how many people, even the owners of the New York Yankees of all people, try to argue otherwise.
"You don't get here without good players," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said when we first discussed this subject Tuesday afternoon, prior to Game 4. "It doesn't matter if they're older, or younger, or making a little amount of money or a lot. It's gonna take X amount of talent to get here. Once you get guys on your team, the money has nothing to do with it anymore."
So sure, Adrian Gonzalez only produced a 126 OPS+ in 2013. That's perfectly competent for a first baseman, but he made $21 million this year, and is due $106 additional million through 2018. And that's a problem because... right, it isn't. The Dodgers needed a first baseman. Now they have a very good one, just as they needed a left fielder, and now they have a solid one in Carl Crawford, owed $82.5 million over the next four years.
Gonzalez homered twice on Wednesday, Crawford homered once, both in support of Zack Greinke, who the Dodgers signed last winter to a six-year, $159 million contract. That's a lot of money spent with a goal of reaching, and then performing well, in the postseason. And that's what's happening.
"Obviously, our ownership has made a commitment to try to win, and that's what we're doing," Mattingly said.
Was he surprised by how quickly that strategy has paid off?
"Not really," Mattingly said. "Players are players. We tend to categorize them a little bit, that when they make money, they change. You know, like a Carl Crawford's in Tampa making no money, 'cause he's young, everybody loves him. Then he makes a little money, people cut him up about what he does and doesn't do."
The Dodgers have said they'll spend whatever it takes to win, which a lot of owners say, and then they've gone out and spent whatever it took to win, blowing past the $189 million luxury tax limit, and easily spending the most on players of any team in baseball.
"It's what they promised the fans," Mattingly said after Game 5. "And they've done everything they said they would do."
This competitive advantage would have been blunted somewhat in nearly any of the past 20 years by the Yankees, who regularly have topped $200 million in payroll. But Yankee ownership is intent upon getting under that $189 million limit, so the competition for high-priced talent wasn't really there for the Dodgers. No one else was making that deal for Gonzalez and Crawford, still owed from the Red Sox, just as no one else was taking on Hanley Ramirez's expensive deal for last year, this year and next year, on the off chance he'd rediscover his hitting stroke.
The Yankees, amusingly, believe the past two decades prove their budgetless strategy was somehow flawed, rather than the reason they were so successful. Back in March, managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said, "My firmly held belief is that you don't have to have a $200 million payroll to be world champion. And the historical data that led me to that conclusion is rock solid."
In a very technical sense, Steinbrenner is right: Only one team, the Yankees, ever spent $200 million on payroll until the 2013 Dodgers. And the Yankees did not, in fact, win the World Series every year. They did, however, qualify for the playoffs in all but one season every year from 1995-2012, which is the prerequisite for winning the World Series. So it did essentially guarantee postseason play.
"I've seen it happen with the Yankees," Mattingly observed of the similarities between his former team and his current one. "Everybody says they bought this and bought that, well, all the guys they paid were Jeter, Mariano, Posada, Andy Pettitte, guys who came through the system, that at one point, were the guys that everybody loved."
Mattingly is half-right on this one. The Yankees absolutely paid the four players he mentioned, did so without any worries about whether their contracts would outlive their usefulness, as was the case with Posada, and it appears, Jeter.
The Yankees also paid $47 million to Kei Igawa, $39.95 million to Carl Pavano, $21 million to Jaret Wright. They paid Posada, Jason Giambi and Bernie Williams long after they'd ceased being worth anywhere close to their salaries. They'd trade for a pitcher like Damaso Marte, give him a three-year contract, and get a handful of useful innings out of him. Those innings came in the 2009 World Series, though, because when Marte got hurt, they just went out and got more lefties. The Yankee plan only stopped working when they stopped augmenting the contracts of fading veterans with more in-prime stars, and stockpiling useful backups. When they stopped, in other words, spending whatever it took.
Until then, the Yankees, like the Dodgers now, paid everybody. And it worked, gloriously. There's no downside to it. If you acquire experienced, talented players, and they continue to perform, you have them, and moreover, your opponents don't. If they stop performing, you go out and get more talent. A bottomless budget means there's no risk and only reward in free agency, which turns the paradigm on its head.
That's happened in Los Angeles, too. Not every high-priced addition worked out. Josh Beckett, too, was part of that Crawford/Gonzalez deal. He finished the year 0-5 with a 5.19 ERA, and earned $15.75 million this year, and will again next year. Matt Kemp, he of the eight-year, $160 million contract, is out for the season, having experienced a lost year due to injury. In stepped Andre Ethier, also signed to a contract many believe is overpriced. He did the job.
Without Ethier, the Dodgers wouldn't have had a center fielder. Brandon League was signed for four years, $27.5 million (if his fourth-year option, triggered by certain playing time incentives, is activated), and has been a disaster out of the bullpen. No problem, the Dodgers took on Carlos Marmol from the Cubs on the off chance he could help them for a few months (as well as serving as an excuse to add international spending cap room). Lo and behold, he has.
This new ownership group is spending plenty to develop young talent, but that takes time. And there's absolutely no reason, none, that a team needs to go out and lose 90 games every year until that young talent develops. Not when there's money to spend.
When Game 5 was over, the Dodgers had the luxury of turning Game 6 over to Clayton Kershaw, a young pitcher they developed (and soon enough, will almost certainly pay to keep). But Kershaw never gets to pitch in Game 6 if six years, $159 million isn't given to Game 5 winner Greinke, or the Dodgers hadn't taken on Crawford and Gonzalez. The sellout crowd, reflective of an enormous attendance bump this year at Dodger Stadium, seemed unconcerned about the money being paid to the Dodgers' top players.
"It's just talent, period," Mattingly said when I asked about the high-priced talent serving as the difference. "We talked about this yeaterday. You don't win these games without talent. Young or old, or if it's -- the guys that are high-priced now were the young guys who get high-priced at some point. These guys have just earned their way. And the system gets you paid through free agency, and the way baseball is."
And the way the Dodgers are, a disproportionate share of those players are playing in Los Angeles.
One of those players, Crawford, appeared to grasp the beauty part of the Dodgers' strategy when it was all said and done. I asked him whether the Dodgers could have won without him, and Adrian Gonzalez, and Zack Greinke.
"Well, it's nice to be with an organization that's doing whatever it takes to win," a smiling Crawford said Wednesday evening. "That's the situation we're in right now, so it's good for us, because we always know, if we need something, those guys are probably going to get it for us.
"But, as far as them not being here without us, I'm pretty sure they would've went and gotten somebody else instead, pay them with a lot of the money they have. We're just fortunate to be on this team, ending up contributing, being in this situation. That's really all I can ask for."