It’s been more than a month since the Dodgers suffered their stunning exit from the postseason.
The reasons for the latest disappointment were dissected and analyzed. The manager was criticized. Players were blamed. The front office was questioned. But there are no obvious roster needs for a team that compiled 106 wins, setting a record for one of the sport’s marquee franchises. The holes aren’t glaring. An overhaul isn’t necessary after seven consecutive trips to the postseason.
That does not mean change isn’t coming this offseason, which shifts into a higher gear this week when the general managers meetings take place in Scottsdale, Ariz. The Dodgers could use, above all, another front-line starting pitcher to place alongside emerging ace Walker Buehler and another right-handed power hitter. The free-agent market presents options.
Starting pitchers Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg headline this free-agent class after fueling their clubs through the postseason. The expectation is that Strasburg will re-sign with the Washington Nationals, but Cole, an Orange County native and UCLA product, does not hold the same allegiance to the Houston Astros. The 29-year-old right-hander is up for grabs, and the competition will be stiff from coast to coast. The Angels and New York Yankees are among the clubs expected to pursue him.
Third basemen Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson, both elite right-handed hitters, headline the crop of position players in free agency. Rendon, 29, can sign a long-term deal if he wishes but has hinted at retiring earlier than typical. The Dodgers would pounce on the opportunity to sign him to a shorter deal — think four or five years — if available. Donaldson, meanwhile, turns 34 next month and can be had for a shorter deal after he clubbed 37 home runs with a .900 on-base-plus-slugging percentage on a one-year contract with the Atlanta Braves.
How the Dodgers operate this offseason could again depend on their willingness to spend significant money and perhaps exceed the competitive tax threshold — a soft cap that has hardened not only in Los Angeles but in big markets across the majors in recent years. Only the Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox and Yankees will pay a tax for the 2019 season, and all three franchises are striving to avoid the penalty.
Despite playing in the second-largest market in the country, drawing the highest attendance in the majors the last seven seasons, and securing a television contract that pays the organization $8.35 billion over 25 years, the Dodgers have not surpassed the line since 2017.
A document prepared for potential investors before the 2017 playoffs reviewed by the Los Angeles Times outlined a plan to keep the Dodgers’ payroll below the threshold through at least 2021 after they paid a luxury tax in each of the first six seasons of the Guggenheim group’s ownership. The projections were not binding, but the Dodgers have remained under the line through two of the four projected seasons.
In January, team President Stan Kasten maintained there were important baseball reasons to stay under the threshold beyond avoiding the 20% tax, which include keeping draft picks and international bonus pool money. In February, chairman Mark Walter insisted there wasn’t a directive to remain below the threshold.
And yet the Dodgers, with some midseason maneuvering, stayed just under the $206-million threshold. Next season, the line will climb to $208 million.
The Dodgers had five players become free agents last week. With that, $60.7 million came off the books against the competitive balance tax — a significant chunk but not all of the money unloaded from the 2019 payroll. They also must give raises to several players eligible for arbitration, including Cody Bellinger and Julio Urias, who qualified for Super-2 status.
Bellinger is projected to make $11.6 million in his first year of arbitration, according to MLB Trade Rumors, after earning $605,000 in 2019. Urias made $519,435 in 2019 and is projected to make $1.7 million through arbitration.
The Dodgers could create more room below the tax threshold by offloading salaries with trades. One possibility is trading outfielder Joc Pederson, who is projected to make $8.5 million in his final year of arbitration before becoming a free agent.
Pederson, 27, was on the market last winter, but the Dodgers kept him and he hit a career-high 36 home runs — all against right-handed pitchers.
Of the Dodgers’ five free agents, only Hyun-Jin Ryu will attract a significant contract this winter. David Freese announced his retirement. The team declined the $13 million on Jedd Gyorko’s option. Rich Hill and Russell Martin will dip into the market for deep pay cuts.
Ryu, 32, gambled on himself last year when he took a one-year, $17.9-million qualifying offer and bypassed a chance to score a multiyear contract. The decision proved to be the right one.
He is a finalist for the National League Cy Young Award after leading the majors in earned-run average. Injury concerns linger, but he logged his biggest workload since 2013 and was sharp in his only postseason start. He pitched his way into a bigger payday.
Players cannot receive the qualifying offer more than once, so Ryu entered the free-agent market unattached to one, making him more attractive for clubs hesitant to surrender the mandatory draft picks to sign free agents who declined the offer.
Ryu is a high-ceiling, low-floor second-tier option in this free-agent class. Teams that strike out on Cole and Strasburg — or aren’t interested in giving a huge contract to either ace — could turn to Ryu to bolster their starting rotation with a three- or four-year contact. The Dodgers remain a possibility — perhaps at a discounted rate considering Ryu relishes playing in Los Angeles — but he will have strong suitors.
He is one of the many options available to the Dodgers this winter. They will probe all of them in hopes of avoiding another round of October disappointment.