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Expensive Trevor Bauer signing shouldn’t jeopardize the Dodgers’ long-term future

At 1:19 p.m. Thursday, 11 minutes before a scheduled news conference, the Dodgers finally made it official in a statement: Trevor Bauer is a Dodger.

The announcement, which included the Dodgers designating pitcher Josh Sborz for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster, surfaced nearly a week after Bauer and Dodgers agreed on a three-year, $102 million contract. The deal stipulates Bauer will make $40 million in 2021, $45 million in 2022, and $17 million in 2023, but he can opt out of the contract after each of the next two seasons, making the 2023 number little more than an insurance policy.

Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, treasures payroll flexibility. It’s a constant talking point. The goal is to field a championship-caliber team while providing the space to execute more moves to improve the roster when necessary. Friedman’s efforts have helped produce six division titles, three World Series appearances and a championship in six seasons.

The Bauer expenditure squares with Friedman’s ideology on roster construction.

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Pitcher Trevor Bauer says he chose to sign with the Dodgers because he feels the team has the talent and structure needed to win the World Series again.

The contract makes Bauer the highest-paid player in the majors this (and next) season, but it isn’t a long-term anchor; Bauer, 30, could come off the books next offseason though it’s unlikely. As Friedman noted, signing a pitcher of Bauer’s caliber and age to a contract that short is unusual. Last offseason’s top free-agent pitcher, Gerrit Cole, spurned an eight-year offer from the Dodgers to sign a nine-year, $324 million deal with the New York Yankees.

“We run our payroll looking at over three, four, five years, not in any one moment of time,” Friedman said during the virtual news conference at Dodger Stadium on Thursday. “So past moves have created flexibility, things that happen in the future will. For us, it’s about doing everything we can to go out and defend a title.”

History says players seek long-term security. That’s never been a priority for Bauer. The right-hander once made a bet with a friend that he would sign only one-year contracts in free agency. This isn’t a one-year deal, but it’s close — Bauer on Thursday referred to the pact as three one-year contracts.

“I’m looking for a partnership, for a chance to win, and I don’t want to be a player who signs a long-term deal and toward the end is resented either by the fan base, by the organization, for having my performance slip below what my contract dictates,” Bauer said. “I wanted something with flexibility. I wanted something that works for me and the organization.

Trevor Bauer, center, stands next to Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and Andrew Friedman.
Trevor Bauer, center, stands between Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and Andrew Friedman, president of baseball operations, during a news conference at Dodger Stadium.
(Jon Soohoo / Los Angeles Dodgers)

“And as far as security goes, I’m very aware of the fact that I’m well-compensated, plenty secure in my life, family’s life, future kids’ life. It wasn’t about the money for me.”

The reigning National League Cy Young Award winner joins an already loaded rotation topped by Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler. Starting pitching wasn’t a glaring need for the Dodgers. They had six capable major league starters before Bauer arrived. But Friedman’s front office made Bauer a priority, even though just two of his nine seasons have been elite and he’s drawn criticism for his behavior, particularly on social media.

Friedman said the club stayed in contact with Bauer’s representation throughout the winter before the process reached another gear in recent weeks. Ultimately, the Dodgers and New York Mets were left as finalists.

The Mets reportedly offered Bauer a three-year, $105 million contract with an opt out after two years and $80 million. They were seen as the clear favorites last Thursday when it was erroneously reported that Bauer had chosen New York. Friedman went to sleep that night certain that the Dodgers had fallen short. Bauer agreed to sign with the Dodgers the next day.

“Waking up Friday, and continuing the process, and having conversations, our ownership group, [principal owner] Mark Walter, puts some wind behind the sail and said, ‘Let’s go get this done,’” Friedman said. “Fortunately, it wasn’t too late, and we were able to come to this outcome.”

‘There’s some truth to that burden’: In an exclusive interview, a relaxed Clayton Kershaw acknowledges this year might be his last with the Dodgers.

Walter’s approval vaulted the Dodgers beyond the $210 million competitive balance (CBT) tax threshold. As of Friday, the club’s CBT payroll is projected to be over $238 million with at least two items left on the offseason checklist.

The first is figuring out catcher Austin Barnes’ salary. The Dodgers and Barnes are headed to an arbitration hearing this month unless the sides reach an agreement to avoid one. The second is adding a right-handed bat. The obvious move is re-signing Justin Turner, which would also address third base.

Turner remained unsigned six days before pitchers and catchers reported for spring training. The Dodgers are committed to giving Turner a two-year contract. Turner wants a longer deal and has drawn interest from other teams. Friedman said Bauer’s signing doesn’t impact Turner’s chances of returning.

“The simple answer is no,” Friedman said. “We’re committed to doing everything we can to put together the best roster we can. Difficult to comment on a specific free agent, but it’s pretty well documented what we think of J.T., what he’s meant to this organization. How that will play out, we will see.”

Trevor Bauer walks to the pitcher's mound during a news conference at Dodger Stadium on Thursday.
Trevor Bauer walks to the pitcher’s mound during a news conference at Dodger Stadium on Thursday.
(Jon Soohoo / Los Angeles Dodgers)

More uncertainty awaits next season. The Dodgers will have at least $85 million coming off the books once Kershaw, Corey Seager, Kenley Jansen, Joe Kelly, Chris Taylor and Corey Knebel reach free agency, leaving them with decisions to make and money to make them.

Bringing Seager back should require a rich, long-term contract, especially if the shortstop can avoid injury and replicate his production from 2020. Kershaw’s decision will likely come down to staying in Los Angeles, joining the Texas Rangers or retiring. He’s probably in line for a pay cut from the $31 million he’ll make in 2021 if he decides to continue his career, but he won’t come cheap.

Bauer could end up doubling as Kershaw insurance should the left-hander move on, at least for one year. Bauer would then opt out of his contract after 2022, in time for the Dodgers allocate his money to re-signing Buehler and Cody Bellinger, unless injury or performance plummets his value. In that case, the Dodgers’ payroll flexibility probably would’ve yielded a bad investment. It’s a short-term gamble the Dodgers are willing to take.


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