Dodgers ignore conventional fiscal strategy
August, 27, 2012
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillThe Dodgers threw all fiscal caution to the wind in acquiring Adrian Gonzalez and others in a blockbuster deal with the Red Sox.
Must read of the day: Grantland's Jonah Keri breaks down the Red Sox-Dodgers blockbuster with excellent insight:
Most important, they did it because no one in the Dodgers front office, at any point this season, has ever uttered the words "opportunity cost." If there's no limit to how much you can and will spend on salaries, then you needn't worry about the $260 million you just absorbed, nor feel the need to turn down other buying opportunities. If what (Stan) Kasten is saying is true, and ownership doesn't care at all about luxury-tax implications or really capping spending in any way, then what the hell, why not go nuts? (Clayton) Kershaw wants a monster deal to top Matt Cain's five-year, $112.5 million pact? Give it to him. Zack Greinke's the best pitcher on the coming free-agent market? Pay the man. Want still more pitching? Raid your farm system again and try to trade for Josh Johnson. ... But there's no reason to declare any of those other options off-limits when your budget is roughly infinity dollars.
Jonah raises the interesting point that fellow rich clubs like the Yankees and Red Sox have played by the rules of the luxury tax threshold -- "in which even teams as loaded as the Red Sox tie their own hands in the name of greater profit and keeping up the illusion of fiscal parity." The luxury tax creates an excuse for owners to cap their payroll when they don't actually have to. The Yankees, for example, have paid out over $200 million in luxury tax penalties since 2003, as Jayson Stark reported earlier this year. Sure, penalties will start getting harsher in 2014 if a team exceeds the $189 million threshold over consecutive years, but what's few million to teams like the Red Sox or Yankees? Or, now, the Dodgers.
If the Dodgers made one mistake in this deal, it's the failure to grasp that Adrian Gonzalez and company essentially provide marginal upgrades at best, especially for the team's chances of winning a World Series. As the Yankees have learned about the crapshoot nature of baseball's postseason, it's basically impossible to build a team so good that you're guaranteed a World Series trophy. Despite all those luxury tax payments, the Yankees have just one title since 2003. Maybe Gonzalez helps the Dodgers get to the World Series this year, maybe even win it. But this isn't the Lakers acquiring Dwight Howard. There's no guarantee Gonzalez even gets the Dodgers a wild-card spot. Stan Kasten and Ned Colletti probably understand that; I have no idea if Magic Johnson does.
As for the future of the Dodgers, ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski explains why the deal could be a long-term disaster for the Dodgers.
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Jonah also addresses Gonzalez's value and why even his current ability must be questioned: He's certainly a good player, but is he still a superstar slugger? After posting a .940 OPS from 2009 to 2011, it's at .817 right now, a mark bolstered of late after a slow start. With 16 home runs, he won't come close to the 40 he hit with the Padres in 2009 and his unintentional walk rate has plummeted from 14.7 percent in 2009 to 5.3 percent this year. Including intentional walks, Gonzalez had the highest walk rate in the majors in 2009, which allowed him to post a .407 OBP; this season he ranks 110th in walk rate and his OBP has dropped to .345. A declining walk rate in a veteran player is often an indicator of declining bat speed; the hitter "cheats" to catch up to fastballs. (It's also possible that Gonzalez walked a lot in San Diego merely because opponents pitched around him; however, Gonzalez's percentage of swings at pitches outside the strike zone has increased from 23 percent in '09 to 37 percent.)
Here's a comparison that may make you laugh, cry, cringe or chuckle, if only because it gives me an excuse to conjure my old Mariner favorite, Alvin Davis. From 1988 to 1990, Davis posted a 142 OPS+. That made Davis one of the best hitters in baseball over that span -- 11th in OPS+ (minimum 1500 plate appearances). Gonzalez is better than Davis -- his OPS+ from 2009 to 2011 ranked fourth in baseball. Davis also wasn't the fielder Gonzalez is, and even slower on the basepaths if you can imagine that. Davis began to lose it in 1990, when his OPS+ fell to 129 at age 29. At age 30, it fell to 76. At age 31, he was finished. I'm not saying Gonzalez is going to be washed up by 2014, but the point is that considering his age and "old player" skill-set, there are some red flags with him.