The Los Angeles Dodgers and Anti-Tanking

No Tanks

On October 15, Mets closer Jeurys Familia shut down the 2015 Los Angeles Dodgers season with a bevy of hard sliders and 98+ mph fastballs.  For a series marked by illegal slides, dominant pitching performances from the likes of DeGrom and Kershaw, and the final nails in the coffins for Yoenis Cespedes MVP campaign (.250 AVG/.800 OPS, albeit 2 HRs) and Jimmy Rollins career as a starter, the Mets will go on to compete with the Chicago Cubs for the honor of representing the Senior Circuit in the 2015 World Series.

As the media usually does, the off the field story lines come to the forefront when playoff teams are eliminated: What went wrong?  Is next year a re-compete or a rebuild?  Time to be a buyer or seller during Hot Stove season?  With the Dodgers, the spotlight, as it has the past several seasons, tends to shine on the “Luxury Tax Be Damned!” team payroll which at season’s end will hover around the $300 million range.  Actually, $314,168,414.00 to be exact (thank you Spotrac).  Yes, this figure represents the highest season team payroll in MLB history (breaking previous record holders, the Los Angeles Dodgers…) and yes, it is almost $100m more than the 2nd highest payroll of the New York Yankees, and even more than the COMBINED salaries of the 4 lowest payrolls.  We here at The 500 know all about what sacrifices the Dodgers have made to earn this Pyrrhic title.  And yes, the media, in LA, New York, and everything in between, have harped on the “Money Can’t Buy You Happiness” moniker, to the chagrin of Molly Knight.

But here’s the thing, that $800m plus the Guggenheim and Friends have thrown at player salaries since they finalized their purchase from the Evil Owner Who Shall Not Be Named in May 2012 has bought something for Dodgers fans everywhere: winning.  Yes, winning the World Series, which is the ultimate goal, alludes the team still, but while the Postseason is a crapshoot of hot streaks (see 2007 Colorado Rockies) and out of nowheres (see 2005 Florida Marlins), it takes a whole lot of winning during the 162 game April to September slog even to get a shot at the Roulette Wheel of October.  When Dodgers President/Co-Owner Stan Kasten gave his first Q&A after the Guggenheim folks purchased the team, his words were to build an enduring winner.  Think about that for a second.  In the era of salary caps and lottery/draft tanking, why even spend time on above-average .500 teams that may or may not get to the postseason, but can guarantee you two things: not winning a title and not winning a blue-chip cornerstone player.  Seems like the apotheosis of sports management stupidity.  And yet, since the new ownership took the reins, Dodgers fans have been treated to a winning product on the field every year.  Remember, this is a team that once sported this lineup during a 2012 July Sunday game:

The stench of the McCourt Era Dodgers reeks from that box score.  A month later, the Dodgers traded for $274m worth of contracts from the Boston Red Sox, bringing Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett into Chavez Ravine.  The Beckett piece at the time was seen as a tax for getting Gonzalez and while Crawford has shown signs of being an above average MLB player, he’s far from earning his $22m/year salary.  Still, Adrian Gonzalez was the piece LA coveted, not having a solid 1B option since the days of Eric Karros, and all he has done in a Dodgers uniform has produced 3+ WAR each season.

So while the Dodgers have yet to get to the World Series, let alone bring home the hardware, their management had a decision to make in 2012: blow it all up and get rid of the more expensive pieces on the roster (i.e. Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Andre Ethier, etc.) or use the one advantage the team has relative to 90% of the league to keep the team competitive, at a minimum, and in contention for a title, reasonably.  With the contract swap with the Red Sox, they chose the latter.  And as this Dodgers fan can attest, I have enjoyed watching this team for 5 months every year since then.

So why is the media and fans of other teams spinning this into a lurid tale of Money Equals Not Happiness?  Knowing from April through September your team has at least a shot of the playoffs and even the World Series is a good place to be.  And in a country that values money over everything else (or at least 30% of the GOP electorate does), then why punish those that are willing to spend they money they do have (the Guggenheim Partners group’s portfolio includes over $240 billion in assets and the Dodgers signed a 25 year $8.35 billion deal with Time Warner)?  Of the $314m in checks being signed by the Dodgers’s Front Office in 2015, about $85m is in retired salaries.  So that $314 figure falls all the way down to about New York Yankees range.  That’s not a defense for such lurrid spending on players that will never again wear Dodgers Blue, but much of it was the price to pay to acquire current starters that do contribute.  And if the team can afford it, its worth the risk to gamble on players with higher salaries.   By the way, that retired salaries figure comes down to $8.5m of Hector Olivera.  Meanwhile, the Mets will be celebrating Happy Bobby Bonilla Day until 2035.

Some might point to the debilitating effects such a strategy might have on a team’s farm system.  Yet at the beginning of the 2015 season, Baseball America ranked the Dodgers system as 3rd best in MLB.  Fruits of that system have already made there way up to the major league level in the form of Joc Pederson and Corey Seager.  And the Dodger’s ability to work the international prospect market is well documented.  So going forward, a foundation of Kershaw, Jensen, Pederson, Seager, and Grandal (o.k. and MAYBE Puig) isn’t exactly something to worry about.

Fans only ask for a watchable, competitive produce year in and year out, so what LA is doing is a bad thing?  Remember Door #1 for the new Dodgers ownership: blow it all up, tank, and tell the fans “See you in 2017!”?  Well that’s exactly the path most of the other teams in the 2015 postseason took.  Here is a breakdown of how things have gone recently for each of the 10 teams:

Post Season Performance

*Average Attendance Ranking is within each league*

Correlation is the Devil’s mistress, but for just these 10 teams, those that have perennially won rank within the top half of their league team attendance year in and year out, whereas the perennial losers…don’t.  Unless you’re the Cubs and half a city of 2 million people are forced to cram in a Carry-On sized baseball stadium.  As always, Cubs fans are the best.

All in all, Yankees, Cardinals, and Dodgers fans have been showered with years of winning (and yes, for the former two, years of titles *Sad Face*) and have spent the cash needed to keep the team competitive while using other means to maintain a steady flow (albeit not at Tampa Bay or Oakland levels) of homegrown talent to merge with hot stove procurement.  Ask any Pirates and Royals fan how those seasons upon seasons of losing felt.  Ask any Astros fan how THOSE seasons of losing felt.  Ask any Marlins fan where his stadium is even located.  Look again at that box score above.  That’s what having an owner that spends more money on his lavish LA lifestyle than his LA baseball club gets you.  Let me tell you, its not fun.

So the Dodgers will go into 2016 28 years removed from their last World Series title.  David Price, Zack Greinke, and/or Johnny Cueto will be in Dodgers blue.  Pederson and Seager will be manning the middle of a field (and hopefully the lineup) for years to come.  In what will officially be  Vin Scully’s last year, all Dodgers fans want is to hear the golden liquid of his voice spill the words “The Los Angeles Dodgers are World Champions!” into our ears.  Short of that, we’ll be happy with a ton of winning and fun baseball too.




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