The question surrounding the Dodgers as baseball’s winter meetings begin in San Diego on Monday is the same one that surrounded them a year ago: Will they allocate substantial money on a premium player this offseason?
Last year, the answer was no after Bryce Harper turned down their three-year contract offer. This year could be different.
The Dodgers have been active. They’ve already met with starting pitchers Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, and third baseman Anthony Rendon, according to people with knowledge of the situation. Those three players are considered the top free agents in this winter’s class. They’ve also expressed interested in third baseman Josh Donaldson, the 2015 AL MVP and 2019 NL comeback player of the year, and reliever Blake Treinen, an All-Star in 2018, among others.
Cole would probably cost the most, followed by Rendon and Strasburg. They could also acquire a star via trade. The trade crop could include Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor and Chicago Cubs third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant.
The Dodgers have the resources for such a move. They are among the richest franchises in professional sports, reaping the benefits from operating in the country’s second-largest market. They have led the major leagues in attendance seven seasons in a row and set a franchise record for attendance in 2019. Their television contract generates at least $200 million per year. They produce revenue most organizations dream about while having maintained one of the sport’s deepest farm systems.
But they have not needed to splurge on players to remain annual contenders since Andrew Friedman became president of baseball operations in October 2014. Under Friedman’s watch, the Dodgers have not given a free agent from another team a contract worth more than $55 million guaranteed (A.J. Pollock last offseason), one worth more than $93 million guaranteed to re-sign a player (Clayton Kershaw last offseason), or one longer than five years to anybody.
The fiscal discipline, coupled with crafty transactions, small and large, to shed payroll, kept the Dodgers under the competitive balance tax line — a soft salary cap that has hardened across baseball — the past two seasons after exceeding the threshold the previous five years and paying the subsequent taxes.
As a result, the Dodgers had their penalties reset, meaning they would pay the lightest tax should they surpass the $208-million threshold next season — a 20 percent tax on all overages plus surtaxes should they exceed the number by $20 million or more. They would also relinquish their second-highest pick in the June draft and $500,000 from their international bonus pool money should they sign a player who received a qualifying offer from his previous team. Clubs that exceed the CBT threshold must give up their second-and-fifth-highest selections in the draft and $1 million in international bonus pool money.
Further, significant money came off the Dodgers’ books after the 2019 season. Their current projected payroll for 2020 is nearly $32 million under the competitive balance tax threshold, according to RosterResource.com, so they may not have to pay the relatively small tax to land a top-tier free agent this offseason. A move or two could offload more salary to create additional room.
One possibility is trading outfielder Joc Pederson. MLB Trade Rumors projects Pederson would make $8.5 million through arbitration after he posted a career-high 36 home runs — all against right-handed pitchers — and .876 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. The Dodgers and Chicago White Sox have reportedly discussed Pederson. The Dodgers have more than enough options to move on without Pederson: Cody Bellinger, Alex Verdugo, Enrique Hernandez, Chris Taylor and Pollock all play outfield and are under contract for next season.
Competition for the top free agents is stiff. Cole, a 29-year-old Orange County native and UCLA product, has also met with the Angels and the New York Yankees, who reportedly are all in on Cole and boast the financial wherewithal to outbid anyone.
The Washington Nationals could re-sign either Strasburg or Rendon, but owner Mark Lerner reportedly said they can’t retain both. Strasburg, 31, is a free agent after opting out of his contract with four years and $100 million left days after being named World Series MVP. The Yankees have reportedly also met with him and could turn to Strasburg if they miss out on Cole. If the Dodgers strike out on both pitchers, they could orchestrate a reunion with Hyun-Jin Ryu.
Rendon, 29, is coming off his best season and would give the Dodgers the elite right-handed bat they’ve coveted. The third baseman has also reportedly met with the Texas Rangers. The Philadelphia Phillies, who signed Harper in February to a 13-year, $330-million contract, have reportedly made him a priority. Donaldson, who turns 34 on Sunday, would require a shorter, less expensive contract.
Then there’s the trade market. Betts, Lindor and Bryant have all been perennial All-Stars and MVP-caliber players. Acquiring one of them would require spending significant prospect capital on top of the salaries owed. Betts is under contract for just one year, while Lindor and Bryant have two years of control remaining.
Either route would probably cost the Dodgers a price they haven’t paid with Friedman at the helm. The question is, will they pay it?