A worldwide pandemic, labor struggle, expanded playoffs, and two Game 7s later, and baseball has its two pennant winners in the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays. In the end, what happened was perhaps the least expected outcome of all: the two best regular season teams actually got to the World Series. That hasn’t happened since the 2013 World Series, which I will mention no more.
I thought an interesting exercise would be to look at both teams and see how the players that got them there were acquired. Yes, we all know the obvious one, but my purpose is not at all intended as a workaround to criticize the Cardinals. I’m more interested in the mechanics of building a roster - what can the Cardinals duplicate, what can’t they. Well, that stuff can be judged later, I just want to know the what. I’ll start with the Dodgers and may get to the Rays later in the week.
Of the 30 players included on their playoff roster, injured list included, the Dodgers drafted 11 of them. Of those 11, 10 of them haven’t entered free agency yet. The lone exception is Clayton Kershaw, veteran of 12 MLB seasons. Well, he never actually entered free agency either. He signed a 7 year, $215 million deal the year before entering free agency, and a 3 year, $93 million deal after opting out of that deal with two years to go (but I think before free agency started.) He was drafted 7th overall in the 2006 draft. Kershaw is a good example of something the Cardinals can’t copy: a Hall of Fame pitcher and possibly the best pitcher of his generation.
He is joined in the rotation by another 1st rounder, Walker Buehler. We essentially have Buehler, but younger in Jack Flaherty. They also have a high draft pick in the form of Dustin May, another rotation mate. Actually, despite having a higher payroll, the Dodgers approach to their pitching rotation isn’t all that different from the Cardinals. Their fourth starter was Tony Gonsolin, who bucks the trend by being a 9th rounder.
The battery mate of these pitchers during the playoffs was also drafted in the 1st round, Will Smith. As was the starting shortstop, Corey Seager. Dodgers got a bit lucky with Seager there, because right before he entered arbitration, he played in 26 games, which has drove down his price. Well that’s not lucky exactly, but I think his 2020 salary would be quite a bit higher than $7.6 million had that not happened.
That’s the end of the 1st rounders, at least those drafted specifically by the Dodgers. The rest were good old fashioned scouting finds: Cody Bellinger (4th round), Edwin Rios (6th round), Joc Pederson (11th round), Matt Beaty (12th round), and Caleb Ferguson (38th round). That is admittedly a platoon player (the better hand to be a platoon player though), a reliever, two bench players, and an MVP. Getting an MVP out of the 4th round when you have the Dodgers payroll is a level of annoying that I didn’t know existed.
Amateur Free Agents
This is basically the same thing as drafting a player, except in the cases where a player is in demand, and then money comes more into play. The Dodgers signed four players as teenagers, two from Mexico, one from the Dominican Republic, and one from Curacao. None of them are hitters. Well, Kenley Jansen was a hitter. Yeah, here’s another player they can’t duplicate. He was signed in 2004 and after five years as a light hitting catcher, he reluctantly moved to the mound. And only became one of the best closers of this decade. COOL DODGERS COOL.
He’s not the only one actually. Pedro Baez was signed out of the Dominican Republic as an infielder and converted to the bullpen. This one bothers me less. Baez has become a competent reliever, but is terrible to watch and doesn’t seem especially good (although he has been in the playoffs this year). The Dodgers signed fifth rotation member and Game 7 closer, Julio Urias, out of Mexico for $450,000. Their entire rotation is homegrown. Lastly, Victor Gonzales signed out of Mexico way back in 2012, and 2020 is his first MLB campaign.
If you want to compare it to the Cards, the Cardinals have three amateur free agents in Carlos Martinez, Johan Oviedo and Alex Reyes. Junior Fernandez would also qualify. So not all that different here, except that Martinez wildly underperformed expectations, while Urias did not.
The Dodgers traded for Mookie Betts, and they traded 2nd rounder Alex Verdugo, who had 1.6 WAR in this short season, the 40th ranked prospect by Fangraphs Jeter Downs, and 3rd rounder Connor Wong. I don’t know of a comparable deal the Cardinals could have made, but I’m guessing Dylan Carlson and then some is involved. Cards don’t have a comparable to Verdugo which is what makes this difficult. I doubt the Cardinals then sign him to a 12 year, $365 million deal after the trade though.
They traded former top prospect Zach Lee, who the Dodgers kept at AAA for three years, for good reason as it turns out. They got Chris Taylor, who to that point had a 52 wRC+ in his MLB career. He did poorly for the rest of the season with the Dodgers, and then their coaches unlocked something in him over that offseason.
Two members of the Dodgers were in the same trade, six years ago. Not a simple trade, as it turns out. I don’t even know how to put my mind in the December 2014 context needed to understand this trade, but I’ll try. Dan Haren, before the 2014 season, signed a 1 year deal with a vesting option. That option vested, and the Dodgers wanted out. With him, they included Dee Gordon, coming off a career year (at the time), who had four years of team control. Miguel Rojas was a thrown-in. The Dodgers also paid both Haren and Gordon’s salary, so that was $12.5 million.
In return they got middle reliever Chris Hatcher, pitching prospect Andrew Heaney (who they immediately flipped for one year of Howie Hendrick), probable backup catcher Austin Barnes, and utility player Kiké Hernandez. Barnes was Sickels #10 prospect and Hernandez was the #19 for the Dodgers. Barnes had one good year, and the Dodgers have squeezed a lot of value from Hernandez’s ability to only hit lefties. But this is definitely a trade that benefits from the Dodgers ability to light $12.5 million on fire.
Brusdal Graterol was indirectly involved with the Betts trade as it forced the Dodgers to get rid of the extremely team friendly deal of Kenta Maeda’s. The Dodgers traded for Zach Neal and Dylan Floro plus international bonus pool money for two low minor prospects. Neal was let go after that season, Floro stuck and is decent bullpen depth. They traded what became the Rays #43 prospect of 2020 for Adam Kolarek, a 31-year-old lefty whose stats at least suggest a Tyler Webb type.
They signed Justin Turner to a 4 year, $64 million deal that ends after this season. If I remember correctly it was a favorable deal that suggested he was only ever going to sign with the Dodgers. They also signed Max Muncy, and much like Chris Taylor, they unlocked something previously unforeseen in him that caused him to explode into a home run hitter.
Prior to the 2019 season, they signed injury prone AJ Pollock to a very player friendly deal. If he reaches 1,000 PAs combined this year and next or if he reaches a combined 1,450 PAs from 2019 to 2021, he can opt out. If he doesn’t, it’s a 4 year $55 million deal with a player option for another year after that. And that 2023 option increases up to $5 million if he reaches PA requirements. I’m a little confuse though because it also notes a $5 million buyout so I guess it’s a mutual option more than a player option. Pollock is a very good parallel to the Dexter Fowler deal.
And with the extra money the Dodgers have they used it to... sign relievers. They gave Joe Kelly a 3 year, $25 million deal with a club option. They gave Blake Treinen a 1 year, $10 million deal. They gave 1 year, $4 million to Alex Wood, although he was supposed to be in the rotation. They signed Jimmy Nelson, who is out all year with TJ, to a 1 year deal with a club option. And they signed Jake McGee for 1 year, league minimum.
Let’s see, there’s Yaisel Sierra, who signed a 6 year, $30 million in 2016. He got paid $6.5 million this year and has never made the majors. They took on Homer Bailey’s contract in order to shed 2019 salary, and his 2020 salary of $5 million was a buyout in that deal. They also got Jeter Downs in that deal, who later was used to get Betts. After Ross Stripling sucked, they traded him and paid the rest of his 2020 salary ($1.2 million). Roster Resource says that they’ll also pay Kenta Meada $10.4 million, because they agreed to pay his assignment bonus, $2.4 million in 2020, and to cover the money he earns from his bonuses, which covers the rest. They’re also paying Hector Olivera $4.67 million, who they traded five years ago! That all adds up to $27.8 million they lit on fire.
The main effect of money on the Dodgers is not on the 2020 product, but the ability to paper over mistakes. Also the product on the field though. Pollock’s deal was no smarter or better than when the Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler. It doesn’t matter. They are paying three members of their bullpen $37 million. It doesn’t matter! And of course they were able to take on Betts, because they were able to pay his $27 million salary AND take on $16 million of David Price’s. Price’s money isn’t factored above because he opted out, but he is definitely reflective of having gobs and gobs of cash.
The Dodgers absolutely deserve credit, but looking at the roster, one could make the mistake of not noticing the impact having a $221 million payroll has (and like I said it’d be $16 million higher if not for Price). Because their best players aren’t necessarily the ones taking up the payroll (with the exception of Betts and Kershaw, although Bellinger got $11.5 million in his first year of arbitration). Because a good portion of their payroll is tied up in dead money or ill-advised reliever contracts.
For comparison’s sake, the Cardinals are paying Andrew Miller $11.5 million and Brett Cecil $7.25 million. Cecil doubles as the only dead money, plus Luke Gregerson’s $1 million buyout. If you combined the Dodgers ill-advised reliever contracts and dead money and compared it to the Cardinals, the Dodgers had $45.1 million more spent. Which is nearly the difference between the $221 million payroll and the $167 million payroll of the Cards.
However, you see the product of a good farm system and good coaching most of all. Lot of players came through their farm. And a few players have bewilderingly and at an older age than expected, learned how to hit at the MLB level. The Dodgers, with their payroll and fortuitous development system, deserve a good decade of getting just about nothing from their farm. I’m just saying.