Too Big To Fail: Against All Odds, the Dodgers Keep Winning

Despite the trials of a new manager, a maligned star right fielder, and placing a record 27 players on the disabled list (including ace Clayton Kershaw, who has not pitched since June 26th), entering play on Sunday, the Los Angeles Dodgers lead the National League West division by 2 games over the San Francisco Giants. If the Dodgers win their division, they’ll clinch their fourth consecutive playoff berth, a franchise record. To call this season anything but “improbable” is a massive understatement. Yet for the 21st century Dodgers, this is business as usual.  

Weeks after then-Dodgers owner Frank McCourt settled the costliest divorce in California history, I attended a wedding that just so happened to include his ex-wife Jamie. As Jamie danced the night away with a goateed man who bore a striking resemblance to a young Rick Sutcliffe (rumored to be her former body guard), she bore the expression of a woman who had finally freed herself from years of marital and financial turmoil. For her trouble, a California court decreed ex-husband Frank would pay her $131M.

The divorce settlement was the final nail in Frank’s financial coffin. After years of exaggerating his personal wealth to borrow more cash, McCourt had already driven the Dodgers into bankruptcy by the time the settlement was announced. One of the most storied franchises in professional sports was now a decrepit, bankrupt entity stuck in the middle of a real-life soap opera. However, things would soon be looking up.

The Dodgers were saved from McCourt’s plundering when he mercifully sold them to a more stable (read: wealthy) entity: Guggenheim Baseball Management. Guggenheim was led by Mark Walter and supported by a gaggle of millionaires who were interested in bringing respectability (and profitability) back to an organization dying for it. They chose Magic Johnson, LA’s most beloved athlete to serve as the team’s celebrity spokesman. Stan Kasten, architect of franchise re-births in Atlanta and Washington, would provide front office stability. Walters and company paid a record $2.15B for the Dodgers, but the historic financial outlays would not stop there.

When Guggenheim finalized their purchase in May 2012, the Dodgers’ Opening Day payroll was around $95M, good enough for 12th in MLB, but lagging behind other mid-market franchises like Detroit, Miami, and Milwaukee. Minnesota, a perennial small-market spender, was ranked 13th.

For a marquee market like LA, this was unacceptable. A few months after the sale, ownership OK’d a mega trade with Boston, taking on hundreds of millions of dollars in salary commitments due to Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. By the start of the 2013 season, the Dodgers payroll climbed to $216.5M, second only to the New York Yankees. By Opening Day 2014, they were number 1 (a position they’ve held ever since). In 2015, they spent almost $273M on player salaries, $50M more than anyone else (and not including luxury tax). Buoyed by new ownership and a monster TV deal, it was clear the penny-pinching days were over.

Alas, Guggenheim wasn’t content on just throwing money at players and hoping it would fix on the field problems. In the fall of 2014 they spent tens of millions to hire some of baseball’s brightest minds to run the team. General Manager Ned Colletti was given a cushy advisory role and in came some of the game’s top front office talent: former Tampa GM Andrew Friedman, the man who had accomplished the impossible — making the Rays a World Series contender on a shoestring budget; Farhan Zaidi, a Billy Beane protege who Beane referred to as “absolutely brilliant;” and Josh Byrnes,  the former Padres and Diamondbacks GM who despite rough rides in both cities, was still considered a top talent evaluator.

Yes, things were finally looking up for the Dodgers. It appeared fans had hit the franchise lottery: rich owners willing to spend money and shut-up, a forward-thinking front office that would make the team perennial contenders, and skipper Don Mattingly, who had apprenticed under Joe Torre, the most successful manager of the last half-century.

Then, things got interesting.

The Cubans

Six weeks after the Guggenheim deal became official, the Colletti regime committed seven-years and $42M to Yaisel Puig. Since his incredible 2013 debut, Puig and the Dodgers have taken turns destroying Puig’s career, with the latest salvo coming from the Dodgers as they publicly ponder whether or not to promote Puig (hitting .386 in AAA since his demotion) from the minor leagues.

Puig’s 2013 breakout emboldened Colletti’s dabbling in the Cuban market. In early 2014, the Dodgers signed Alex Guerrero for $28M and Erisbel Arruebarrena for $25M. The results have been less than encouraging: Guerrero showed flashes of power during limited MLB experience, but couldn’t consistently hit big league pitching, struggled to play defense, and was a clubhouse malcontent. He was released earlier this season after only 232 career at bats.

His fellow countryman, Arruebarrena, is not only an awful player (.195 hitter in 41 big league at bats), he’s also seen the premature end of his last two seasons with suspensions for failing to adhere to the terms of his contract. His career is likely over. At least the Dodgers saved a few million with the suspensions.

Nevertheless, these deals did not discourage Friedman and his brain trust from spending $62.5M on Hector Olivera, a deal so bad they were willing to eat $28M of it to free themselves of him less than six months after signing the deal. After an early-season domestic violence arrest this spring, he’s out of baseball. Yaisel Sierra received $30M as a raw relief prospect, yet the 25 year-old has a career minor league ERA of 5.89.

However, there’s still hope one of these deals may work out: 20 year-old Yadier Alvarez, who received the second-highest bonus ever given to an international amateur ($16M), finally made it stateside this spring and has shown promise as a potential starter.

The Managers

Throughout the franchise’s complete overhaul, Mattingly ensured the product on the field remained successful. The Dodgers averaged 93 wins between 2013 and 2015 and made a franchise record three consecutive playoff appearances. Nevertheless, increased payroll heightened expectations for the Dodgers to win now.

Despite Mattingly’s .551 winning percentage, Friedman and Zaidi were non-committal about bringing him back in 2016. Last season, as the Dodgers won their third straight division title and entered the playoffs, Mattingly spent day after day answering questions about whether or not he’d lose his job. Friedman and Zaidi finally put him out of his misery after the Dodgers lost in the Division Series to the New York Mets.

The subsequent search for Mattingly’s replacement played out for over a month as rumors circulated about a perceived discord between selection of the candidate Friedman wanted (Gabe Kapler) and the concerns ownership had over hiring someone without any managerial experience. The Dodgers interviewed just about everyone: Tim Wallach, Kirk Gibson, Ron Roenicke, Darin Erstad, Bud Black, Dave Martinez, and Kapler, before settling on Dave Roberts. The selection was under so much scrutiny, Kapler issued a statement supporting the hire.

Roberts began his job with no previous major league managerial experience. Kapler remains in the Dodger organization as its farm director.

The Players

It’s interesting the core of the Dodgers’ success this year revolves around players acquired under previous management: Clayton Kershaw, Corey Seager, Kenley Jansen, Julio Urias, Adrian Gonzalez, Joc Pederson, and Justin Turner all joined the organization prior to Friedman’s arrival. Even three of their top prospects, Jose DeLeon, Cody Bellinger, and Grant Holmes, all predate the front office’s turnover in late-2014.

While Friedman and Zaidi have rid themselves of roster albatrosses like Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp, they’ve eaten tens of millions of dollars in order to do so. Conversely, the approach they’ve taken in free agency can best be described as “bizarre.”

In 2015, Zack Greinke and Kershaw combined for 16.8 wins above replacement (WAR) and finished 2-3 in the Cy Young award voting. After the season, Greinke, sensing his market value, opted out of his deal with the Dodgers and became a free agent. Despite the opt-out, industry experts expected the Dodgers to re-sign the popular pitcher. Greinke may have been expensive, but who has more money than the Dodgers? Apparently, the Diamondbacks.

Despite all of the money the Dodgers ate on failed prospects and free agent signings, the team wouldn’t pony-up an extra $9M a year to keep one of the best pitchers in the game. Which was surprising, considering the Dodgers spent close to that last year ($8.5M) just to rid themselves of Mike Morse, who never played a game for them.

To replace Greinke, Friedman and Zaidi relied on a cadre of injury-prone mid-level starting pitchers who have cost them millions but provided little in return. Since 2015, they’ve enjoyed mixed results with Brendan McCarthy ($48M, .1 WAR), Scott Kazmir ($48M, .3 WAR), and Brett Anderson ($25.8M, .9 WAR). All three of these pitchers currently reside on the disabled list.

The team that once spent over $300M a year in salaries and luxury taxes now has Rich Hill (out of baseball a few seasons ago) and Bud Norris (career ERA of 4.46) as it’s top two starting pitchers. The Dodgers have a 33 year-old left fielder who spent the first 10 years of his career at second base and a 37 year-old second baseman who hit .212 last season. One of Friedman’s better moves was acquiring catcher Yasmani Grandal, but they recently replaced his beloved back-up, AJ Ellis, with Carlos Ruiz. Ruiz is a fine addition, but when you make a move that “shocks” your ace and moves him to tears, maybe you should re-think it. Especially less than 10 days before your roster limit expands to 40 players.

And yet, after all of this, the Dodgers remain in first place. Seager is a MVP candidate, Urias is showing signs of super stardom, and the patchwork rotation continues giving the Dodgers a chance. Vin Scully is as masterful as ever (despite the monster TV deal that has now become a “disaster”) and the Dodgers lead MLB in attendance. For better or worse, these are your Dodgers. I dare you to bet against them.

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