If the Dodgers' early-season malaise becomes a season-long problem, the responsible party will be the front office that constructed the team.
I'm not the only one who thinks that. The general manager does, too.
"I mean, who else is it on?" Farhan Zaidi said.
A 6-3 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday night put the Dodgers at an underwhelming 16-20. Five weeks like that and many executives would be making excuses for a team's place in the standings or offering justifications for why fortunes might not reverse. Zaidi didn't do any of that.
Over the last three seasons, Zaidi and the other members of Andrew Friedman's front office implemented their new-age philosophies with the help of payrolls that far exceeded baseball's luxury-tax threshold. It was unclear whether the team's success reflected the smarts of the decision makers or the extremely loose purse strings of the owners, but it didn't really matter.
It does now. The luxury-tax threshold of $197 million represents a spending ceiling for the Dodgers this season, a luxurious $197-million ceiling that should give them one of the five most-expensive rosters in baseball, but a ceiling nonetheless. The Dodgers can't simply outspend their opponents or use their wealth to cover up their mistakes. If the purported geniuses in the front office aren't really geniuses, or at least almost geniuses, they are in trouble.
The team's slow start hasn't made Zaidi wonder if the newly implemented financial restrictions have exposed flaws in the front office's methodology. He is confident in the group's team-building process.
"Yeah, absolutely," he said.
Corey Seager won't play another game this season. If Justin Turner and Clayton Kershaw also remained sidelined for the remainder of the year, the Dodgers are finished. It wouldn't matter who was running the team.
But Turner is expected to return next week from a broken wrist and Kershaw has resumed playing catch. And what Friedman's front office has been selling over the last few years is the concept of an organization with enough depth to withstand the loss of any one player, even a player as valuable as Seager. Zaidi contended the Dodgers already have the necessary components to do that, their awful early-season form notwithstanding.
"We do," he said. "I don't think anybody here would use our injuries as an excuse because, to your point, we have the resources in this market, as an organization, to build depth and to have contingencies in place. We have withstood serious injuries in the last couple years and succeeded, whether it was when Kersh went down the last couple years or Corey missing the first couple rounds of the playoffs last year. We have a track record of doing it. I think it would be disingenuous for us now to suddenly say it's different."
Zaidi defended the front office's offseason inactivity.
"If you go back and look at this past offseason, would it have made sense to go out and sign a third third baseman in case both Turner and [Logan] Forsythe got hurt?" Zaidi said.
OK, so Turner suffered a freak injury. But Kershaw, Seager and Hyun-Jin Ryu have well-documented histories of health problems. That they landed on the disabled list wasn't a surprise. Shouldn't the Dodgers have better prepared themselves to be without them?
"We still think we have five guys in the rotation who give us a chance to win every day," Zaidi said.
They have made up for Seager's absence by moving Chris Taylor to shortstop, which temporarily opened a place for rookie Alex Verdugo in the outfield. Yasiel Puig's return from the disabled list Wednesday resulted in Verdugo's demotion to the minors, but Zaidi said, "I'll take my chances in a major league game with Alex Verdugo."
So what's wrong with the offense?
"We just haven't hit homers," Zaidi said. "When you look at our overarching team performance, I think we still have a positive run differential. There are some positive indicators. But we have been outhomered. We're a team that's played a lot of close games. When you're playing close games and you're getting outhomered, it's really tough to win those games."
The Dodgers ranked fourth in the National League in home runs last season. They are third from the bottom now.
The first signs of trouble appeared in the final months of the regular season last year, when pitchers started attacking the Dodgers differently. Even though the offense didn't react well to the changes — the team dropped 16 of 17 games over one late-season stretch — Zaidi didn't think that it called for significant offseason changes in the lineup.
"The reality is, every team and lineup hits fastballs better than off-speed pitches," he said. "That's a fact. Did the end of the season and the playoffs shine an additional spotlight on potential ways to pitch to our hitters? I think so. But we have an awareness of it. We take pride in our game planning, which doesn't just mean how our pitchers approach opposing hitters, but also having an awareness of how they're going to be pitched to. We have seen some changes in the way we're pitched to this year as opposed to last year, but it's up to us to make that adjustment."
Zaidi thinks they will, and that the bullpen situation will be straightened out.
"We've had bad stretches before," he said. "We've had major injuries before and have shown an ability to dig ourselves out those holes. We expect to do that."
The front office's reputation is at stake.