A little less than five years ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers changed ownership. Frank McCourt was out, and Magic Johnson and Guggenheim Partners were in. Since then, the team has made waves continuously in the free-agent market. Here are some of the bigger contracts they’ve given out each offseason:
- Hyun-Jin Ryu (six years, $36 million, plus $25.7 million posting fee)
- Zack Greinke (six years, $147 million)
- Brandon League (three years, $22.5 million)
- Alex Guerrero (four years, $28 million)
- Clayton Kershaw* (seven years, $215 million)
- Brian Wilson** (two years, $18.5 million)
- Brandon McCarthy (four years, $48 million)
- Hector Olivera (six years, $62.5 million)
- Scott Kazmir (three years, $48 million)
- Kenta Maeda (eight years, $25 million)
- Yasiel Sierra (six years, $30 million)
- Kenley Jansen (five years, $80 million)
- Justin Turner (four years, $64 million)
- Rich Hill (three years, $48 million)
*Contract extension, not free-agent deal.
**Technically, this was a one-year deal with a player option, but that’s essentially guaranteeing he’ll take it.
This offseason, though, things have been a little different. For the first time under the new ownership, the Dodgers haven’t shelled out a ton of money for a flashy international free agent. In the past, some of those players have worked out well for L.A. (Maeda), while others have imploded completely (Guerrero). And Jansen, Turner, and Hill — each of whom has an average annual value of $16 million on his new contract — will earn a combined $37 million this year, as the club heavily backloaded their deals.
Why the sudden (relative) prudence? As the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Shaikin laid out in November, MLB hasn’t been pleased with the Dodgers’ recent largesse: After running up more than $1.1 billion in payroll between 2012 and 2015, the club must cut down to about $200 million by 2018. While that’ll still make L.A. one of the biggest spenders in the majors, this means the days of Krusty the Clown-esque wastefulness are gone.
In this brave new world, the Dodgers’ recent transactions make a little more sense. Last week, the club reeled in Sergio Romo on a one-year, $3-million contract. And in the past 24 hours, they’ve agreed to similar one-year pacts with Franklin Gutierrez (for $2.6 million) and Chase Utley (an undisclosed amount for now, but probably less than that). I’ve already explained Utley’s outlook for 2017 — he should provide adequate production at second base in relief of Logan Forsythe — so let’s focus on Romo and Gutierrez, each of whom could also help out the Dodgers this year.
The other trend in the list above, aside from big-money IFAs, is overpaid relievers. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and expecting a different result, the League contract must have broken the Dodgers’ brains, because they made the same mistake with Wilson the next year. Luckily, Romo’s commitment brings far less risk — and, perhaps, far more upside as well.
On the surface, Romo seems to be trending in the wrong direction. This sort of graph is never a good sign:
While Romo’s never thrown especially hard, last year his velo started to dip to Jered Weaver levels, which is never a good sign. But Weaver doesn’t have this nasty weapon in his back pocket — a fact Romo is very much aware of:
Since he debuted in 2008, no reliever has had a more valuable slider than Romo, and he took full advantage of that in 2016. Romo essentially became a two-pitch pitcher — seven out of every eight pitches was a sinker or slider. He rode that repertoire to a 67 ERA- and 84 DRA- over 302⁄3 innings, and coming anywhere close to replicating that would satisfy the Dodgers.
Romo didn’t have a clean bill of health last year — he missed nearly three months with an elbow malady, which is a bad sign for any pitcher, much less a pitcher who turns 34 next month. At $3 million, though, Romo won’t hurt the Dodgers if his elbow gives out, and he offers a lot more upside than League (101 DRA- the year before signing) or Wilson (91 DRA- pre-signing). Jansen and the emerging Grant Dayton will hold down the late innings, but with a sixth- or seventh-inning lead to protect, the Dodgers should be able to call on Romo.
Where the Dodgers have burned money on relievers in the past, they’ve gone full Heath Ledger joker with regards to their outfield. This season, they’ll pay more than $39 million to Carl Crawford (released in June) and Andre Ethier (limited to 26 PAs and -0.2 fWAR in 2016), neither of whom will add anything to the club. For L.A., assembling a cheap outfield is paramount, which is where Guti comes in.
This table contains the 2016 performance against lefties for the outfielders FanGraphs expects to start for the Dodgers, with Gutierrez thrown in as well. Notice anything distinct about him?
Dodgers outfielders vs. LHP, 2016
Gutierrez has always done better against lefties (129 career wRC+) than against righties (77 career wRC+), and he took that to the extreme last season. Swapping Toles for Gutierrez as part of a right-field platoon is a no-brainer — the soon-to-be-34-year-old can play either corner or slot in at DH during interleague play, mashing whatever southpaws are in his sight.
The man once known as “Death to Flying Things” isn’t what he used to be. Gutierrez spend 4752⁄3 innings in the outfield last year, costing the Mariners eight runs by DRS and 5.3 runs by UZR. At the plate, however, he earned his keep; if the Dodgers deploy him correctly — and if he can learn to elevate again — he’d become a serviceable platoon player/fourth outfielder. For less than 1⁄13 of what Crawford and Ethier will make, that’s not a bad deal.
Over the last five years, the Dodgers’ heavy spending — dead and wasted money notwithstanding — has paid off: From 2012 to 2016, Los Angeles averaged 91 wins a year, trailing only St. Louis and Washington. Even with the more thrifty approach they’ve adopted, Magic Johnson and co. should keep on rolling in 2017, as FanGraphs’ Depth Charts give them the best projected record in baseball. The Clayton Kershaws and Corey Seagers of the world will lead the way for the Dodgers, but the Romos, Gutierrezes, and Utleys will be there supporting them the whole time.