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With Shohei Ohtani and Giancarlo Stanton off the market, where will Dodgers turn?

With Shohei Ohtani and Giancarlo Stanton off the market, where will Dodgers turn?
The Dodgers didn't sign Shohei Ohtani, but are still in the market for free agent pitcher Yu Darvish. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The question arose after the Dodgers fell one victory short of capturing the World Series. It resurfaced late last week, after Japanese two-way star Shohei Ohtani signed with the Angels and the New York Yankees ponied up the cash to pry reigning National League most valuable player Giancarlo Stanton from the Miami Marlins. The question is three words long and hints at the challenge facing the Dodgers as they arrive at the winter meetings this week.

So … now what?

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With Ohtani and Stanton no longer available, executives across baseball predicted a deluge of activity this week as the industry gathers at the Swan and Dolphin Resort at Lake Buena Vista. Conversation about outfielder J.D. Martinez and first baseman Eric Hosmer should drive the market for hitters, while Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta loom as the most prominent pitchers available. The relief market sparked Sunday afternoon, with former Dodger Brandon Morrow reaching a two-year deal with the Chicago Cubs.

The Dodgers may not totally avoid the frenzy, but they are not expected to make significant bids on any free agents, at least at the outset of the winter. The team does not appear to have a significant weakness: The lineup is mostly young and affordable, the rotation remains deep and Andrew Friedman, the president of baseball operations, has demonstrated a knack for rebuilding bullpens each year.

“We just have a pretty well-balanced roster, where any improvements are going to likely have to come in the form of real-impact talent, and that’s not easy to go after,” general manager Farhan Zaidi said at last month’s general managers’ meetings.

The Dodgers’ main focus in the early weeks of the offseason was plugging holes in the front office, after farm director Gabe Kapler left to manage the Philadelphia Phillies and executive Alex Anthopoulos left to become general manager of the Atlanta Braves. The Dodgers also made a few tinkers to their coaching staff, and could lose bullpen coach Josh Bard to the Yankees.

The pursuit of “real-impact talent” has come up empty so far. The Dodgers were one of seven finalists to sign Ohtani, but the inability to offer him a chance to play designated hitter may have doomed their bid. A day after Ohtani chose the Angels, the Yankees stormed into the sweepstakes for Stanton and built a deal to acquire the fearsome slugger.

From the outset of the offseason, Dodgers officials were skeptical about the feasibility of acquiring Stanton. Armed with a full no-trade clause, Stanton did not hide his desire to return to Los Angeles, where he attended Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks. Despite this, team officials recognized a series of obstacles in their way, from the $295 million remaining on Stanton’s contract to the zeal of Miami’s new ownership group to shed salary to the Dodgers’ concerns about incurring additional luxury-tax penalties.

For the sixth consecutive season, the Dodgers payroll is expected to exceed baseball’s luxury tax threshold of $197 million. The team’s luxury-tax payroll is projected already at $205.5 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. As five-time offenders, the Dodgers must pay 50% on each dollar spent above the threshold, with the penalties increasing if the payroll surges beyond barriers at $217 million and $237 million.

The Dodgers tinkered with the idea of shipping some of their onerous contracts, like the deals for Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy and Adrian Gonzalez, to offset some of Stanton’s cost. But Miami sought to shed money above all else. And Gonzalez wielded a no-trade clause and may not have approved a deal to the other side of the country to play for a losing club.

As the Marlins, now led by Derek Jeter, fielded offers, St. Louis and San Francisco distinguished themselves with their apparent willingness to absorb the entirety of Stanton’s contract. Stanton invoked his no-trade clause after in-person meetings this month with both organizations.

Stanton was more willing to consider New York. The Yankees entered the offseason with a luxury-tax payroll estimated at $170.3 million, which allowed more room to maneuver. The team will take on a reported $265 million in salary in exchange for infielder Starlin Castro and a group of lower-level prospects.

The Dodgers appeared more willing to part with talented prospects than to absorb money. Miami preferred money in their efforts to remove $400 million in debt from the books. The Marlins may still be keen to entertain offers for outfielder Marcell Ozuna, who costs far less than Stanton.

Expect the Dodgers to monitor Ozuna’s availability, in addition to the prices on Darvish and Arrieta, while trying to answer the question from the end of the season. Now what?

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