On free agency, and what the off-season holds for the Dodgers – Press Enterprise
Editor’s note: This is the Monday, Nov. 9 edition of the Inside the Dodgers newsletter from reporter J.P. Hoornstra. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
As always happens around this time of year, I’m trying to keep an eye on the headlines around MLB, checking in with people around the game, and trying to see where the Dodgers fit in to the bigger off-season picture. This off-season promises to be different, and not in a good way for free agents.
I wrote last week about how the chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic might actually play in the Dodgers’ favor. However this winter shakes out, whoever the Dodgers sign or re-sign, they’re in an unusually fantastic position. Their roster is strong and deep, even without free agents Justin Turner, Joc Pederson, Kiké Hernandez, Pedro Baez, Blake Treinen, Jake McGee, Alex Wood and Jimmy Nelson. With one exception, the teams that would ordinarily be the Dodgers’ rivals for free-agent talent figure to be in worse financial shape this year than last. Moreover, they don’t have to worry about the physical effects of a post-World Series hangover. That makes bringing back those eight in-house free agents a relatively wise strategy.
Not all eight will return. They never do. And no decision exists in a vacuum. If the Dodgers don’t make an offer to Baez, for example, it won’t only be because they don’t like how he projects to perform in the coming year(s). Maybe they already have an in-house candidate to pitch those innings. Maybe they’ve identified a pitcher to acquire via trade who can fill the role Baez occupied in 2020. Or maybe they’re willing to wade into the free-agent market, though that’s where things get complicated this year.
Already, we’ve seen teams make some unusually thrifty decisions on their in-house free agents. Brad Hand was an MLB-best 16-for-16 in save opportunities in 2020. The Indians could have picked up his 2021 option for $9 million, or exercised a $1 million buyout. They instead placed Hand on outright waivers and watched him go unclaimed. Cleveland might not be the best bellwether; they’re essentially a small-market franchise that has behaved like a mid-market franchise in recent years. The economic forces suppressing the Indians’ ability to field a competitive team in 2021 are harsher than those on either of the New York teams, for example. But if you were looking for confirmation that the utter absence of fans in 2020 would have an impact on teams’ spending this off-season, Hand could be an early indicator of things to come.
Speaking of New York, the Mets were officially sold to former Dodgers bidder Steve Cohen on Friday. They’re the one team the Dodgers ― and every team ― has to worry about. Cohen has an estimated net worth of $14.6 billion, so he can afford to pay anyone just about anything within reason. Most free-agent lists project catcher J.T. Realmuto, pitcher Trevor Bauer, and outfielder George Springer to see the highest windfall.
Cohen re-hired Sandy Alderson to run the Mets’ baseball operations department. He’s never had the resources of Cohen’s caliber at his disposal to assemble a roster, but he’s never been one to hoard all the free agents either. In any event, the Mets are the exception to the rule of paucity. Rather than guessing at Alderson’s strategy, and wondering who the market will bend toward, a more realistic approach to this off-season is to wonder who the market will crater away from. Buster Olney, writing for ESPN.com, devoted a few words to this over the weekend:
There are a ton of catchers among the free agents, and a massive count of relief pitchers and corner slugger types — right fielders and left fielders and first basemen and designated hitter candidates. Most teams use metrics to formulate offers in this era — those stories of an owner like George Steinbrenner impetuously drawing up proposals on the back of a napkin are relics of the past — and given that the clubs generally use similar systems to evaluate contract terms, a lot of the offers for players will be in the same ballpark.
If I’m interpolating that correctly, there’s a certain type of player who can expect to be waiting until February to sign. Marcell Ozuna is one of the better hitters on the market this winter, but his value could succumb to that glut of “designated hitter candidates.” Pederson might fall into that category too. The glut of relief pitchers could mean that the agents for Baez and Treinen find themselves playing the long game. I’m not sure what category Wood finds himself in these days, but 2020 wasn’t the bounceback season he was hoping for. McGee and Nelson aren’t coming back. Long story short: I’d be surprised to see the Dodgers, or any team, racing to re-sign any of these players for 2021 and beyond.
That leaves Turner and Hernandez as the two players to watch now, in November, and not later on in the off-season. Each has been very valuable to the Dodgers in his own way. At a distance, it’s easy to see the Dodgers making a business decision on Hernandez and turning his at-bats over to some combination of Chris Taylor and Zach McKinstry. Turner isn’t impossible to replace on the field, particularly if the Dodgers put together a trade package for Francisco Lindor or Nolan Arenado. (Each of those scenarios is newsletter-worthy, so I won’t expand on them here.) Off the field and in the clubhouse, however, Turner is a singular figure among Dodger position players over the last five years. You can even see his surprise appearance on the field after Game 6 of the World Series through the lens of his value to the team. If leaving quarantine was an indictment of Turner’s judgment, it was also a sign of how much his teammates valued his company, COVID-19 aerosols be damned. I imagine that sentiment will only strengthen the push to re-sign him.
Whatever happens, just try to keep the broader context in mind as the off-season progresses. The usual forces at play just aren’t there. No team will owe a luxury tax this year, yet all teams are highly motivated to slash operating expenses in light of their 2020 losses. This imperative has already touched vast swaths of major league baseball operations employees, scouts, and minor league personnel.
Among players, the easiest place to trim expenses lies with free agents. You’ll see these players sign contracts typically deemed “unfair.” More than that, you’ll wonder what’s taking them so long. Just don’t let it dampen the Dodgers’ World Series afterglow. Teams that “win the offseason” were rarely in a position of great strength to begin with. The Mets were a sub-.500 team in 2020; if they win the off-season they will merely be meeting expectations, not challenging the Dodgers for a 2021 pennant.
The Dodgers are beginning the off-season in a better place than all their peers. Their stakes for the coming months, and the expectations facing the free agent class writ large, have never been lower. It’s the rare outlook that rejects both worry and optimism. Try to enjoy it, I suppose.
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