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Is 'Phase Two' all about payroll reduction?

11/17/2014

LOS ANGELES -- In the words of team president Stan Kasten, the Dodgers have entered the second phase of the ownership group’s plans when it bought the team.

The first phase involved restoring the credibility of the franchise after years of neglect under previous owner Frank McCourt and ramping up excitement for the launch of the team’s TV channel. That phase was amazingly expensive. The Dodgers signed some of the biggest contracts in sports history and pulled the trigger on the priciest trade baseball had ever seen.

If you read between the lines, it certainly looks like this new phase involves some clean-up work. The only major moves the Dodgers have made this offseason so far are to the front office, bringing in perhaps the two smartest people in baseball when it comes to making efficient decisions on players and contracts. They hired Andrew Friedman, who never worked with a payroll as high as $80 million in Tampa Bay, to be president of baseball operations. They brought in Farhan Zaidi -- who also worked for a highly competitive team in a bad stadium, the Oakland A’s, and has a Ph.D. in behavioral economics -- to be the general manager.

They have their work cut out for them, but Zaidi disputes the notion that they are being brought in simply to shed the team of bad contracts and lower the payroll.

“It sounds overly simplistic, but we’re just going to try to make good baseball decisions,” Zaidi said. “Sometimes, those good baseball decisions are going to increase our payroll, sometimes they’re going to decrease our payroll and I think over time it will come down because that’s what the accumulation of smart baseball moves will just do to the roster.

“I think it’s just going to be a gradual evolution as we start thinking in that disciplined way. But I think there will be decisions we make, that we believe in, that are going to increase the payroll. It’s not just going to be a straight line from where we are to where we are in the long run.”

Zaidi said there isn’t a free agent on the market that the Dodgers won’t consider.

“In my last job, I never had to lose any sleep wondering about whether to pursue a big-name free agent and there are sleepless nights now,” Zaidi said. “That’s the easiest way to say it. I don’t mean to be cavalier in saying that, but that’s sort of the reality. We have to think about everybody.”

If the Dodgers truly are thinking of making a run at an elite free agent, there has been scant evidence of it thus far. According to reports, the Toronto Blue Jays are close to signing catcher Russell Martin to a five-year, $82 million contract. The Dodgers have yet to be linked to any of the big-name pitchers on the market, Jon Lester, who has already begun visiting with teams, Max Scherzer or James Shields. And the most newsworthy development out of their camp at last week’s general managers’ meetings was Friedman’s proclamation that they’re intent on trading one of their outfielders, who -- not coincidentally -- are among the best-paid group in baseball.

Friedman has used terms like, “nimble,” and “flexible,” when discussing his plans to change the Dodgers’ roster, but it might take a miracle worker to get those adjectives attached to it. Phase Two might turn out to be a lot more difficult -- and maybe a lot less fun -- than Phase One.

The Dodgers have 15 players under contract for 2015 at salaries that add up to around $187 million. They figure to owe closer Kenley Jansen and second baseman Dee Gordon hefty raises in arbitration. In other words, they’ll already be around $200 million and that’s without a fifth starter and with questions around shortstop, catcher and the bullpen. Barring some major shedding, they’ll be hit with a competitive balance tax that could be close to $20 million.

It gets worse in subsequent seasons. The Dodgers are the only team in baseball with more than $100 million committed to the 2017 payroll. They have $171 million already on the books for that season. The number comes down only slightly in 2018. In all, according to an analysis done by Baseball Reference.com, the Dodgers have $565.5 million in future obligations, easily the highest in baseball.

So, while cleaning up the books might not be the sole focus of this offseason for the Dodgers’ new front office, that task alone will take every bit of brain power and savvy the best universities in the country could produce.