Free agents still available make for a solid baseball lineup

Former Dodgers second baseman Howie Kendrick looks on during Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the New York Mets on Oct. 15.

Former Dodgers second baseman Howie Kendrick looks on during Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the New York Mets on Oct. 15.

(Harry How / Getty Images)

It has been a long time, Rams, so long that the Dodgers played a game in the Coliseum more recently than you have.

It has been a long time too, Rams, since you had a winning season. That was 2003, when Eric Gagne won the National League Cy Young Award and the Angels still played at Edison Field. The Dodgers have had 10 winning seasons since then. So have the Angels.

So welcome home, Rams, and get to work. We’ll see how you look in a few months. In the meantime, the Angels open spring training one month from Tuesday and the Dodgers one month from Wednesday, making this a good time to take a look around the major leagues.


What kind of team could you make out of the remaining free agents?

You’d have a pretty good lineup, certainly, but it would have been much more imposing before first baseman Chris Davis agreed Saturday to return to the Baltimore Orioles:

CF Dexter Fowler

2B Howie Kendrick

LF Yoenis Cespedes

RF Justin Upton

DH Pedro Alvarez

1B Justin Morneau/Steve Pearce

SS Ian Desmond

3B David Freese

C Tony Sanchez

This lineup has more punch than the projected Angels lineup, albeit loads more strikeouts too. Davis led the major leagues in strikeouts last year, but Desmond, Upton and Fowler all were among the top 12.

Frankly, the Angels would do well to sign any of the top five guys in that lineup. Freese should have taken a deal from the Angels; when the two sides could not reach agreement, the Angels surrendered promising reliever Trevor Gott in a trade for Yunel Escobar ($7 million).

The Dodgers want the draft pick they would get if Kendrick signs elsewhere much more than they want to bring back Kendrick. That would give them four draft picks before the start of the second round. But the Kendrick pick evaporates if he does not sign before the draft; Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales held out that long two years ago. Kendrick is not represented by Scott Boras, the agent for Drew and Morales.

With that lineup, why would that mythical team struggle to win games?

The pitchers would not be very good. Cobble a starting rotation out of the available free agents, and you might come up with this: Yovani Gallardo, Doug Fister, Mat Latos, Justin Masterson and Tim Lincecum.

Starting pitchers were the most coveted commodity in free agency this off-season. Of the nine players signed to free-agent contracts worth at least $80 million, all but two (Davis and outfielder Jason Heyward) were pitchers. Of the pitchers, David Price and Zack Greinke topped $200 million, with Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija, Wei-Yin Chen and Mike Leake all guaranteed from $80 million to $130 million.

One reason: the projected free-agent pitchers next off-season, with Stephen Strasburg alone atop the class and a big drop to the next-best arms, Brett Anderson and Andrew Cashner. Scott Kazmir did not get $80 million from the Dodgers, but he did get an opt-out clause that allows him to enter free agency next fall. If he pitches well this year, that could be a golden ticket.

Lincecum, who is coming off hip surgery, is something of a wild card. He could be a back-end starter or an effective reliever, or he could be done. Hard to believe now, but there was a time the Dodgers were ripped for drafting a kid named Clayton Kershaw with Lincecum still on the board.

Lincecum won the NL Cy Young Award in 2007 and 2008, before Kershaw had completed a full season in the major leagues. Kershaw has won three NL Cy Young awards since then, and he has finished in the top three for five consecutive years. The earned-run average for each pitcher over the last four years: 2012: Kershaw 2.53, Lincecum 5.18; 2013: Kershaw 1.83, Lincecum 4.37; 2014: Kershaw 1.77, Lincecum 4.74; 2015: Kershaw 2.13, Lincecum 4.13.

The Dodgers have won the NL West for three consecutive years. Why might they have to extend that streak to four to claim a playoff spot?

The Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers and Philadelphia Phillies are the major league teams most committed to rebuilding — or tanking, given the success of the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros in throwing away a few seasons for the greater glory of the franchise.

Two of those rebuilding teams play in the NL East and two in the NL Central. That gives the teams atop those divisions extra games against the worst teams in the league. The Reds, for instance, play 19 games against the Cubs and seven games against the Dodgers.

Bottom line: The Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks might well be fighting for one playoff spot, with no wild card available to the other two teams. Both NL wild-card entries last year came out of the Central, where the bottom two teams combined to lose 192 games. The bottom two teams in the East lost 194 games.

The bottom two teams in the West combined to lose 182 games.

How did the Dodgers most effectively use their financial might this off-season?

That $300-million payroll was an aberration, not an annual thing. While the talking heads were blabbering about the team signing Greinke and Price, the Dodgers did not flex their financial muscle until the MRI exam results for Kenta Maeda scared off most every other club.

The Dodgers committed $45 million over eight years to the Japanese ace, an average of $5.6 million a year, even if his elbow blows out and he never pitches again. Why in the name of Jason Schmidt would the Dodgers take that risk?

Maeda, who won Japan’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award last year, does not get another dollar unless he stays healthy. If he does, and if he pitches well enough to stay in the starting rotation for all eight years, the Dodgers’ maximum commitment would be $15.75 million per year. That is about what the Cubs just paid to sign 37-year-old John Lackey as a free agent, and rest assured salaries will go up long before Maeda’s contract expires in 2023.

What is the best evidence the Dodgers are no longer the swashbuckling free spenders the rest of the baseball world still imagines them to be?

On Jan. 15, 2014, the Dodgers signed Kershaw to a $215-million contract extension.

Since then, 14 players have signed contracts worth at least $100 million, with 12 teams. The Dodgers did not sign any of those players.