Nearly through January, the offseason lumbers forward, top free agents still waiting to sign, but it’s not just the tankers who have slowed the MLB offseason; the sport’s contending teams have dawdled, too. The Astros haven’t added a single starting pitcher to help replace the three they lost from their 2018 staff. The Cubs’ most notable acquisition amid puzzling financial restrictions is Daniel Descalso. And the defending champion Red Sox, perhaps enacting the World Series winner’s curse, have re-signed Nathan Eovaldi and no one else.
Yet the most atonal offseason of all, at least so far, belongs to the Dodgers, who salary-dumped Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, and Matt Kemp a month ago Monday and haven’t done much of anything since. The Dodgers have won six consecutive division titles, and they’re overwhelming favorites for a seventh even if they remain inert until Opening Day. But that doesn’t make their winter any less strange, or any less disappointing to Dodgers supporters who watched Puig, a fan favorite, leave for seemingly no good reason.
L.A.’s offseason started with a positive, at least, which came as small consolation after the team watched an opponent celebrate a World Series title on the Dodger Stadium infield for the second consecutive fall. Five days after Boston lifted the trophy, Clayton Kershaw signed an extension that erased his potential opt-out and will keep him in Dodger blue for three more years, securing for L.A. the top of the best rotation in the division, if not the entire National League. And with Corey Seager returning from Tommy John surgery for 2019 to join the likes of Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger, and 2018 breakout Max Muncy in the lineup, the Dodgers on paper boast the best group of position players in the division, if not the whole National League, as well.
But in the two and a half months since Kershaw’s agreement, Dodger news has curdled and grown sour. Here is a full list of the major leaguers L.A. has lost this winter, either to trade or free agency. Most of the players—including the name-brand veterans like Chase Utley and Brian Dozier—didn’t contribute much to the 2018 team, but overall, the Dodgers have lost players who contributed about a quarter of the team’s overall production in 2018. (In this chart, WAR is the average of Baseball-Reference’s and FanGraphs’ versions of WAR.)
|Player||2018 WAR (for Dodgers)|
|Player||2018 WAR (for Dodgers)|
For some of those lost players, at least, the Dodgers figure they have adequate or better replacements already on the roster. Seager’s pending return from injury negated any compelling reason to re-sign 2018 trade acquisition Machado; Walker Buehler and Hyun-Jin Ryu are in line for increased innings in 2019, making Wood more expendable; younger options should easily replace the veteran Kemp, whose surge last season reeked of flukiness.
Yet it’s also true that the players they have added this winter leave a great deal to be desired. Only catcher Russell Martin and reliever Joe Kelly produced positive WAR last season, and they’re the only two additions likely to crack the Opening Day roster—but neither player brings the combination of upside and stability that Grandal, Puig, and Wood all possessed, either. (This list includes only players who received MLB playing time in 2018, so neither of the two lower-level prospects the Dodgers returned in the Puig trade appear. They’ve also already released Homer Bailey after acquiring him in that trade.)
Trading Puig seemed likely to be the first in a succession of transactions, but after a month with no follow-up, the Dodgers’ roster looks worse off for the move. Even adding someone like center fielder A.J. Pollock, the free agent who sparked a round of Dodgers-related gossip over the weekend, would represent a lateral rather than forward-thinking next step. The erstwhile Diamondback is a sturdy defender who has shown flashes at the plate, but he’s also not Puig’s equal as a hitter, and the injury-ravaged outfielder has reached 500 plate appearances in a season just once in his career. As Michael Baumann wrote after the Puig trade, which saved the Dodgers about $15 million toward the 2019 luxury tax calculations, “The Dodgers are almost certainly going to spend that money on free agents, and [Bryce] Harper will be the main target. This trade doesn’t guarantee Harper will sign in L.A., of course, but if the Dodgers trade away Puig plus two other major contributors for salary relief, and all they come away with is A.J. Pollock, it’d be a huge letdown, to say the least.”
About that money: From 2015 to 2018, L.A. slashed nearly $100 million from its payroll, allowing ownership to avoid paying the luxury tax last season. In theory, that dip would allow them to build back up again without incurring the harsher repeater penalties; in practice, according to an L.A. Times report, they told potential investors that they wouldn’t exceed the tax threshold until 2023 at the earliest. There is no reason for this stinginess—the Dodgers are baseball’s second-richest team, behind only the Yankees, and could easily afford to spend well over the tax line.
As their current finances stand, though, the Dodgers have resorted to “baseball money-laundering” and still have only about $20 million of wiggle room before butting up against the luxury tax threshold for 2019. That’s not enough for Harper, if the Dodgers want to aim for a true upgrade—and a player who should be worth more over the next decade than any team seems to want to offer—and it’s scarcely enough for the likes of Pollock, either. If they’re steadfast on avoiding the luxury tax again, further payroll cuts might be coming, too—and further losses of major league talent along with them.
Even though the Dodgers haven’t seemed to display much public interest in Harper, he still represents the most logical target because the Puig trade complicates their other possible avenues toward meaningful improvement. It would now be much more difficult, for instance, to trade Alex Verdugo, who slots in as L.A.’s new right fielder. Verdugo is a well-regarded prospect who’s hit .321/.389/.452 in 874 Triple-A plate appearances, but while he might have been the key return in a trade for a star like catcher J.T. Realmuto or pitcher Corey Kluber earlier this winter, he’s now a necessary player in L.A.’s lineup.
Despite the Dodgers’ enviable roster, they could use a player with Realmuto’s or Kluber’s talent and potential fit. Grandal might be the best catcher in baseball, even counting his pitch-blocking struggles and October benching, but he left in free agency and the Dodgers made no apparent effort to re-sign him, which seems even stranger after he ended up in Milwaukee on just a one-year deal that would have meshed perfectly with L.A.’s catching timetable. (Two touted catching prospects in the Dodgers’ system will be ready to contribute by next season, perhaps, but not this one.) His replacement is the combination of Martin and Austin Barnes, both of whom hit well below league average last season; Grandal, for comparison, ranked third among qualifying catchers in wRC+ during his time in L.A., pairing consistent production at the plate with elite pitch framing.
And while the Dodgers boast plenty of starting pitching talent, that talent also comes from:
- Clayton Kershaw (five DL trips in the past five seasons)
- Hyun-Jin Ryu (eight DL trips in five seasons)
- Rich Hill (six DL trips in three seasons)
- Kenta Maeda (two DL trips in two seasons)
- Walker Buehler (two DL trips last season)
- Ross Stripling (two DL trips last season)
- Julio Urías (2017 shoulder surgery)
Wood was no Nolan Ryan in terms of durability, but he added depth to a rotation that, more than any other, uses depth (and occasional disabled list shenanigans) to optimize performance. And that area—depth—is where the Dodgers’ offseason might cost the 2019 team most acutely. Barring real upgrades between now and opening day, L.A. will enter the season with a much smaller margin for error than it’s enjoyed in its recent run. If Muncy regresses or Verdugo can’t carry his minor league success upward; if Kershaw misses multiple months with another injury, and if Hill and Ryu and others join him on the DL; if the Dodgers actively shed even more talent from the MLB roster, as they might soon pull with a Joc Pederson trade, L.A. could spend much of 2019 staggering instead of steamrolling the division schedule.
None of those scenarios are particularly likely: FanGraphs projects the Dodgers’ record at 94-68, best in the National League, and—perhaps more importantly—doesn’t see a single other NL West team finishing with more than 82 wins. It’s a bit of a Cleveland–AL Central situation in that respect; maybe L.A. doesn’t need to care about eking out every ounce of value from the roster because it’s going to coast into the playoffs anyway.
Yet that’s a dangerous mind-set, particularly after L.A. needed a tiebreaker game to win the division in 2018. Sure, the Dodgers rated much better than their divisional opponents by underlying numbers last season, but they also needed surprise performances from Muncy, Kemp, and Stripling to survive long enough to even buy at the trade deadline and make a run at the playoffs. And it’s an even more pernicious mind-set when considering the playoffs, as NL competitors like the Brewers and Nationals have spent the winter trying to improve.
There’s still time to follow the Puig trade with purpose and aggression, of course—heck, maybe they’ll trade Verdugo for Realmuto or Kluber and fill the vacated right-field spot by signing Harper in one fell, star-stealing swoop. But the team’s caution thus far renders such possibilities fantastical rather than realistic; every indication evinces either aimlessness and thwarted planning or intentional steps to reduce payroll in lieu of bettering the team. Either way, it seems like a sound recipe for following another division title with another playoff exit, and extending the franchise’s World Series drought another year.