Last March, the Dodgers were sold to the Guggenheim Baseball Group for $2.1-billion, the richest purchase price for a sports team in history. In January, they came to an agreement with Time Warner Cable that will pay the franchise $7-billion for the television rights over the next 25 years. Suddenly, in under a year, the Dodgers have gone from financially hamstrung under the ownership of Frank and Jamie McCourt to the richest sports team in North America.
Once the sale was finalized in May, the Dodgers almost immediately started throwing their money around. In June, they signed Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig for $42-million and then shortly thereafter extended right fielder Andre Ethier for $85-million. Then in July, LA dealt pitching prospect Nathan Eovaldi to acquire shortstop Hanley Ramirez from the Marlins along with the $36.5-million still owed to him.
Finally, the Dodgers pulled off the big one, netting first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, left fielder Carl Crawford and starting pitcher Josh Beckett — and the $261-million in remaining salary owed to those three players — for a package of players including highly-touted young pitchers Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster.
The Dodgers went from unlikely first-half surprise to underachieving bust during the season as they actually performed worse after acquiring all those players. They finished with their highest win total since 2009, but were still eight wins worse than the division-winning Giants and two wins worse than the Cardinals—who grabbed the second NL wildcard.
Not content with their mid-season spending, the Dodgers continued their spree into the winter signing Zack Greinke to the richest contract ever given to a right-handed pitcher (since surpassed by Felix Hernandez’s deal with the Mariners), guaranteeing him another $147-million. All told, Los Angeles has committed more than $650-million to player salary (and a posting fee for Ryu) over the last year and they will enter the season with the league’s highest payroll at over $220-million—more than twice what it was last season and more than 14 times the payroll of the Astros.
With the additions of Greinke and Ryu, the Dodgers boast one of the most talented and deepest starting rotations in baseball. Greinke split last season between Milwaukee and the Angels and finished with a 5.1 WAR according to FanGraphs. His 3.22 xFIP was fifth in baseball and slightly better than teammate and staff ace Clayton Kershaw.
Kershaw led the NL in pitcher-WAR and had cemented himself as one of the game’s premier pitchers. He lost out in the NL Cy Young voting to R.A. Dickey but was probably a better overall pitcher. With Greinke—who consistently puts up the numbers of an ace—the Dodgers have maybe the best one-two punch in baseball at the top of their rotation.
Beckett was much better once he got out of the cancerous Boston environment last year and although he’s not the top-of-the-rotation talent he was a few years ago, he’s still a very good pitcher who is only a year removed from a 4+ WAR season. If healthy, Beckett is still an above-average pitcher.
Ryu was signed for $36-million on a six-year deal and LA will pay more than $50-million for him when you include the posting fee paid to his KBO club Hanwha. Clearly they believe he’s going to be worth the money after a dominant run in Korea. Baseball America, who ranked him the number-one prospect in their system, had this to say about his repertoire:
“Ryu has the weapons to step into Los Angeles’ rotation immediately. He runs his fastball up to 94 mph and sits at 92-93. His heater has some cutting action and he can locate it to both sides of the plate. Most scouts who watched him in Korea thought his changeup was his best secondary offering, though the Dodgers believe more in his slider. Both are quality options.”
The final spot in the rotation is likely to go to Chad Billingsley although he apparently has a tear in his elbow which he plans to pitch through. But even if that goes badly, LA has three other options that would all pitch at the back end of just about any other rotation in baseball: left-handers Chris Capuano and Ted Lilly and veteran righty Aaron Harang. Capuano and Harang each made more than 30 starts last season and had ERAs in the threes, while Lilly battled injuries and made only eight starts. It’s unlikely all three of those pitchers land a spot in the bullpen so look for the Dodgers to make a trade or two before the season starts once the needs of other teams become clearer.
Brandon League was brought in at the deadline last season from Seattle and then was signed to a three-year, $22.5-million deal very early in the winter. League is apparently going to be the regular closer this season despite a middling 1.63 K/BB ratio and a home run-rate that is sure to normalize. Look for his ERA to shoot north of 4.00 in 2013.
If League struggles as the closer, Kenley Jansen is a more than adequate replacement. His 13.71 K/9 rate was bested by only Craig Kimbrel and he keeps his walks low enough to be an elite reliever. Helping him in setup will be Ronald Belisario who posted an excellent 64.5% groundball-rate in 2012. Incumbent righthanders Matt Guerrier and Javy Guerra will join left-handed free agent signing J.P. Howell to round out the ‘pen.
The Dodgers finished 13th in the NL in runs scored in 2012, but at one point in mid-July, they ran out a lineup that had Tony Gwynn Jr. leading off and Bobby Abreu, James Loney and Jerry Hairston Jr. hitting 4-5-6. To put it mildly, the Dodgers lineup is significantly better than that now.
The middle of the lineup will feature Matt Kemp in centerfield, Gonzalez at first and Ramirez at short. Kemp couldn’t seem to stay on the field last year, playing in only 106 games but he hit .303/.367/.538 in those games and accumulated a 3.5 WAR according to FanGraphs. Gonzalez, meanwhile, hit well generally, but his walk-rate tumbled dramatically and he stopped hitting for as much power posting the lowest slugging percentage and isolated power of his career. It seems unlikely that his career is in such sudden decline at only 31-years-old so expect a bit of a rebound season. In 2011, he posted a career-best 154 wRC+. Ramirez, meanwhile, hit slightly better after his trade to the Dodgers, but was still underwhelming compared to the rest of his career.
Outside of those three hitters, the Dodgers lineup could be thin. Ethier is a good hitter, but his splits against lefties are scary enough to expect a decline in the near future if he can’t sustain his numbers against righties. His $85-million contract is almost certainly going to be viewed as a bad decision in the years to come. In the other outfield corner will be Carl Crawford, provided he can stay on the field. His season-and-a-half in Boston was a disaster and he still has $102.5-million remaining on his contract. He hit well in 31 games with Boston last year, but the Dodgers need him to play at full year at that level to get to the playoffs.
Second baseman Mark Ellis, third baseman Luis Cruz and catcher A.J. Ellis round out the rest of the lineup. Both Cruz and Ellis are prime regression candidates at the plate and Ellis also has trouble staying healthy.
The Dodgers posted the second-highest defensive efficiency in the National League last season, but with Ramirez expected to see the lion’s share of time at short and Kemp and Ethier in the outfield—neither of which are especially good with the glove—it’s hard to see them replicating that feat in 2013. Ellis is a sub-par pitch-framer behind the plate and the metrics weren’t especially kind to him either. Still, if Crawford is healthy, he’s an excellent left fielder and the right-side of the infield is very steady.
The Dodgers are a much better team than they were at the beginning of last season—there’s zero debate there, but LA spent much of last season playing well above their head and came back down to earth a bit after they started acquiring every money-making player under the sun. They’re certainly in the conversation for the division and a wild card spot, but the bottom half of the lineup drops off quickly and there are a myriad of health concerns. They’re a good team, but they’re not in the rarefied air of the Nationals, Braves or Reds—at least not yet.
2013 Prediction: 88-74, 2nd NL West