Last winter, the Dodgers were a prosperous behemoth in hibernation. They committed just approximately $4 million to two free agents and the motivation behind the only major trade they completed – acquiring Matt Kemp from the Atlanta Braves for Adrian Gonzalez, Charlie Culberson, Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy – was salary relief.
The prevailing theory for their restraint was the following: Los Angeles wanted to slide far enough under the tax threshold to have the space to absorb in-season acquisitions without facing a tax penalty. That way the Dodgers could reset their tax rate before investing heavily in this winter’s free-agent class.
They succeeded in retaining enough financial flexibility to add Manny Machado and a few other veterans during the summer for an October run while remaining under the $197-million tax line. Whether the second half of the assumption plays out remains to be seen, and the answer could come in Las Vegas this week at baseball’s annual winter meetings.
Bryce Harper and Machado, the jewels of this free-agent class, remain unsigned. A reunion with Machado isn’t happening with Corey Seager returning to play shortstop next season and beyond, but speculation whirls around the Dodgers and Harper even after the club denied a report that minority owner Magic Johnson led a Dodgers contingent in a meeting with the free-agent slugger in Las Vegas. That does not mean interest is nonexistent, but recent history suggests making the necessary commitment for Harper isn’t likely.
The Dodgers haven’t signed a player to a nine-figure contract since Andrew Friedman became their president of baseball operations in October 2014 and a document presented to potential investors suggested the club doesn’t plan on surpassing baseball’s $206-million competitive-tax threshold in 2019. Further, an outfielder isn’t an obvious need for the Dodgers – they actually hold a surplus, one the club figures to trade from to upgrade elsewhere regardless of whether Harper ends up in Los Angeles. But Harper could be an exception. Otherwise, the Dodgers’ biggest moves are likely to come through trades.
The Dodgers have eight outfielders who appeared in a game last season under team control for 2019. Alex Verdugo, the organization’s top prospect, is the youngest of the bunch and has nothing left to prove in the minors, which makes the 22-year-old either a valuable trade chip or a cheap talent in the Dodgers’ plans for next season.
At the other end of the surplus’s pay scale are Yasiel Puig and Kemp, two veterans entering their final year under team control. Puig, 28, is projected to make over $11 million in arbitration, according to MLB Trade Rumors. The Dodgers have tried to trade him in the past, but teams have been worried about the impact Puig would have on a clubhouse. Kemp, 34, will count as $20 million against the competitive-balance tax threshold after a resurgent season in which he made the All-Star team but had his production plunge in the second half and is limited defensively.
Shedding both salaries – or portions – would afford the Dodgers more wiggle room to invest in other areas, namely catcher, bullpen, and starting pitching. While starting pitching is the club’s other surplus, the Dodgers could supplement their rotation with a top-of-the-rotation starter via trade. The Cleveland Indians’ Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer are reportedly among the starting pitchers available on the trade market. Kluber finished third in the American League Cy Young Award voting. Bauer finished sixth.
Catcher is the Dodgers’ most glaring need. Yasmani Grandal is a free agent and isn’t expected to return, which leaves Austin Barnes as the top returning catcher. Barnes enjoyed a breakout 2017 campaign, posting an .895 OPS in 102 games, but reverted to his previous form in 2018. The Dodgers say they believe Barnes’s talent sits somewhere in the middle. Los Angeles boasts a few catching prospects expected to become big leaguers, but only Will Smith, who has yet to make his major-league debut, is knocking on the door.
So a catcher to pair with Barnes is atop the Dodgers’ priority list – right above bolstering the bullpen -- and the Miami Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto is the grand prize. The Marlins, however, have not budged from their sky-high asking price for Realmuto, who has two years of control remaining before he becomes a free agent.
He was the best catcher in baseball last season, but the numbers indicate he wasn’t significantly better than Grandal – and perhaps not enough for the Dodgers to decide the difference is worth paying a costly premium in prospects. Other potential trade options are the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Francisco Cervelli and the Toronto Blue Jays’ Russell Martin, both of whom are entering the final year of their contracts.
“I think there are the obvious things to address,” Friedman said last week. “And there are some things we’ve spent time on that are not as obvious and it would be multi-layered deals going in one direction and then back-filling in other ways.”
Those kinds of deals are ripe for completion during the Winter Meetings this week, when all 30 teams and agents convene at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino for four days. The Dodgers have needs, they have options, and they may come out of hibernation.
The Dodgers announced Sunday they hired Jeff Kingston as vice president and assistant general manager. He previously had the same job with the Seattle Mariners.
The news comes a couple days after Friedman confirmed the club won’t hire a general manager to replace Farhan Zaidi this offseason.