In an unforeseen move that reset the organization’s luxury-tax payroll, secured a temporary reunion with one of their finest hitters in recent memory and positioned the organization as a significant player for the free-agent craze next winter, the Dodgers reacquired outfielder Matt Kemp from Atlanta in exchange for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, pitcher Brandon McCarthy, pitcher Scott Kazmir and infielder Charlie Culberson.
The Dodgers are expected to flip Kemp, who spent nine seasons with the organization before being traded to San Diego in a roster-reshaping deal made during Andrew Friedman’s first offseason as president of baseball operations. Kemp facilitated this latest trade not with his play, but with the nature of his contract, which nearly offset the money owed Gonzalez, Kazmir and McCarthy. By spreading the cost across the two seasons left on Kemp’s deal, the Dodgers plan to reduce their luxury-tax number below the $197 million threshold for 2018.
“This deal is a little more subtle than most,” Friedman said in a conference call on Saturday. “Obviously one of the main considerations in this deal was economic. But they’re part of the bigger picture, the longer-term plan. It’s a necessary, strategic part of moves yet to come.”
Gonzalez waived his no-trade clause to accept the trade. The Braves will designate Gonzalez for assignment to allow him to reach free agency.
The initial shock of the maneuver, and the gaudiness of the players involved, should not obscure the reasoning behind the trade. Penalized for the past five seasons for luxury-tax violations, the Dodgers sought financial relief and flexibility for after the 2018 season, when Clayton Kershaw could join a star-studded class of free agents that includes Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Andrew Miller and Craig Kimbrel.
Friedman declined to speculate on where the organization will turn. He offered only a quip when reminded of what awaits after 2018.
“Oh, I hadn’t noticed,” Friedman joked. “Is there a big free-agent class next winter?”
In order to take part in that market, the Dodgers needed to realign their payroll. As five-time offenders, the team was penalized 50% for every dollar spent above the threshold in 2017. By getting under $197 million for 2018, the Dodgers would reset the penalty, and only be penalized 20% on every dollar above the threshold in 2019.
Before this trade, the Dodgers’ luxury-tax payroll was projected at $205.5 million, according to Cot’s Contracts. Kemp is owed $43 million through 2019. The Dodgers owed their trio $47.5 million, and sent some money to Atlanta to ease the transfer. In the process, the Dodgers will reduce their luxury tax number by about $23 million.
The Dodgers still have some room to spend to refurbish their bullpen, and are close to signing right-handed pitcher Tom Koehler. They could also pursue free-agent outfielder Lorenzo Cain or rekindle discussions with Pittsburgh about former National League MVP Andrew McCutchen.
The creativity of this trade sprung, in part, from the relationships of the men shaping it. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos had spent the past two seasons as a vice president in the Dodgers organization. The two sides discussed the parameters last month, soon after Anthopoulos left for Atlanta. The talks gained momentum last week at the Winter Meetings.
The largest stumbling block could have been Gonzalez. Friedman indicated the Dodgers had maintained dialogue with Gonzalez throughout the winter. After struggling through the least productive season of his career in 2017, Gonzalez was informed there might not be a spot on the roster for him in 2018. Gonzalez desired the freedom to chose a new home earlier in the winter, rather than later.
“My final decision was not based on playing time, as I had agreed to a limited bench role,” Gonzalez wrote in a statement. “It is a way to test the free-agent market and see what opportunities are out there for me so I can make the best decision moving forward for me and my family. Lifting the no-trade clause is the hardest decision I have ever made in my career due to the fact that I loved every single second being a Dodger.”
The arrival of Gonzalez in Los Angeles in 2012 coincided with the resurrection of the franchise as they emerged from the wreckage of Frank McCourt’s bankruptcy. Gonzalez averaged 24 homers and 99 RBIs during his first four seasons as a Dodger, won a Silver Slugger award in 2014 and made the All-Star team in 2016.
Dogged by injuries to his elbow and back in 2017, Gonzalez landed on the disabled list for the first time in his career and lost his spot at first base to rookie of the year Cody Bellinger. Gonzalez was left off the playoff roster, and the Dodgers did not appear to have much playing time to offer him going forward.
“The entire Dodger nation welcomed me with open arms and took me in right away,” Gonzalez said. “Thank you for everything to the fans and the city of L.A. You will always be in my heart. This closes a chapter for me, but not the book.”
There were less elegiac goodbyes for McCarthy and Kazmir, both of whom underperformed after signing as a free agents. McCarthy underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015 and struggled with mechanical glitches during the past two seasons. Kazmir did not pitch in 2017 as he dealt with a mysterious hip condition.
The Dodgers had tried to bundle the trio of Gonzalez, Kazmir and McCarthy to Miami in discussions for Giancarlo Stanton. When Stanton went to the New Yok Yankees, Friedman kept searching for a new home. He found one in Atlanta, and all it cost was taking back Kemp, who hit 19 homers with a .781 on-base-plus- slugging percentage for the Braves last season.
A logjam of outfielders may prevent Kemp from suiting up as a Dodger again. The Dodgers are likely to try to move Kemp elsewhere, and appear willing to offer prospects to convince other teams to accept some of Kemp’s contract. Friedman said he communicated this with Kemp after the trade was made.
“I was very open and honest with him about what the future might hold,” Friedman said. “It’s just too difficult to say, definitively, at this point.”