With the probable demise of the Frank McCourt-owned Dodgers generating a lot of news last week, speculation has spread as to what direction Major League Baseball will take this franchise. The last time MLB took control of a baseball team—a brief stint last season with the Texas Rangers—things went rather smoothly in that department.
Yet things weren't so cordial during the final days of 2001, when the league bought the Montreal Expos with the intention of either moving the team or contracting them altogether. For three seasons, MLB ran the Expos, literally, into the ground until all that was left was moved off to Washington, D.C. after contraction was not legally permitted.
I'm not going to go into the specifics regarding baseball operations during the MLB-owned era of the Expos. Instead, I will use this as an introduction to try to surmise what direction the Dodgers may be heading without getting into any legal speculation.
Two points that must be addressed
1.) The Dodgers are one of the storied franchises in all of sports, and their impending sale will be an attractive option to a number of possible buyers, but how long will this take?
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2.) Talks circulating that attendance in Los Angeles have been down for the past few seasons should be addressed if the league hopes to ward off any undercutting from potential buyers.
How will MLB address these first two points? The first one involves a lot of legal ramifications, but the second will require the league and/or new ownership to make a firm decision on how to approach many of their key players set for free agency and arbitration before next season.
2011 Payroll: $119.7M
For a major market sports team, that figure sounds reasonable, but there is good news for Major League Baseball: Next season that number should drop significantly. Below is a chart of players that will enter free agency after the 2011 season. (Note: I included Jon Garland and Casey Blake, since both have club options after this season).
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I do suspect the team, whether under new ownership or still under MLB control, will elect to let many of these players find work elsewhere. That should shed close to $55 million.
But not so fast. This offseason, the team will have to make some crucial decisions on what to do with many of their key players due for arbitration.
Tony Gwynn Jr.
The recent talk is James Loney's time as a Dodger has all but ended after a few seasons of declining production. The recent call-up of 23-year-old Jerry Sands should work to rectify this, but he has been biding his time in left field as Loney still clogs away.
Both Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp serve as anchors in the Dodgers offense, and both have one arbitration season remaining before they can file for free agency. Ethier just turned 29 early in April, while Kemp doesn't turn 27 until September. At this rate, both are guaranteed to see a hefty raise in 2012.
The Dodgers previously avoided going to arb with Ethier after the 2009 season. He is off to a hot start but did hint to the press before this season that 2011 could very well be his last with the Dodgers.
According to Fangraphs’ calculation of WAR, Ethier hovers around a 2.0 or 2.5 value, which is partly dragged down by his below-average defense. Also, he has some fairly drastic career splits as a left-handed hitter:
Ethier vs. LHP: .246/.309/.368, .122 ISO, .300 wOBA in 745 plate appearances
Ethier vs. RHP: .311/.385/.537, .226 ISO, .391 wOBA in 2153 plate appearances
Looking at those numbers, a very good argument can be made that Ethier would be best served as a platoon player, which should negate any talks about a long-term deal. Taking WAR into account, wins are calculated to be worth roughly $5.5 million dollars, so any raise for Ethier above this season’s $9.2 million could run the risk of a negative return.
As of this writing, Kemp is crushing the ball at a rate of .402/.484/.659 in 95 plate appearances. Of course this is unsustainable (especially his BABIP of .483) as the Isolated Power score seems a bit high at .256. But improvements have been made early to his approach at the plate, as his strikeout rate has been steady at 23.2 percent (previous levels at 22 to 28 percent) while his walks are up to 13.7 percent (up from the 5-to-8 percent range).
I am suspicious that the high level of walks will continue based on a few fewer swings outside the zone (28 percent, compared to his usual 30 percent) that I see stabilizing since his pitches per plate appearance (P/PA) is actually lower this season at 3.83 (compared to the 3.96 he topped off at the past two seasons).
Overall, Kemp has shown the ability to hover around a high BABIP and hits an above-average percentage of line drives in over 2500 PA.
Looking at Kemp's contact rate, it seems possible that 2010 was an outlier, which resulted in his low batting average of .249 (propelled by a not-so-Kempish BABIP of .295 and contact rates well below his previous standards, as well as this season). In the power department, Kemp hasn't lost a step (even in 2010), and his power peripherals seem to suggest a player capable to touch 30 HR on a consistent basis.
Kuo has always been mentioned as a closer candidate; however, a balky back and command issues have put the brakes on that idea, though that opinion could change next month.
Both Kemp and Kershaw are genuine stars in the making and should be considered for long-term deals. The team will have to act quickly on Kemp, but the Dodgers can afford to wait until after 2012 with Kershaw since the attrition rate for young pitchers runs high. Next season, Kershaw will be 24 years old, and it will be best for the team to take advantage of his “team control” years before fully investing.
The Dodgers under state-control
Financially, this team only has four players under contract through 2013 (Ted Lilly, Chad Billingsley, Juan Uribe and Matt Guerrier ). In terms of luring new ownership, that is a very advantageous position.
Sometime this week Commissioner Selig is expected to name a trustee to act as a bridge between the Dodgers front office and the commissioner. The Dodgers under MLB control are certain not to make any long-term deals since this is an issue new ownership will decide upon, but with Kemp and Kershaw not represented by Scott Boras, coming to terms on a deal early is a possibility.
The one major element that shouldn't change under new ownership is the proposed 20-year television deal McCourt was negotiating with Fox. According to reports, the deal is worth $3 billion and would be necessary to bring McCourt back to financial health, as well as guarantee the network a much-needed win after losing the Lakers to Time Warner.
The Dodgers beyond 2011
Assuming McCourt doesn't have a legal fight, whoever becomes the new majority owner should find themselves walking into a franchise with a lot of advantages. The money saved after 2011, combined with a new TV deal, should give the powers-that-be plenty of money to possibly lock up both Kershaw and Kemp while also making a splash in next offseason's free agent market.
Which leads us to:
Option #1: Making a splash in the 2011 free agency market (aka the Albert Pujols sweepstakes)
Assuming they let a huge portion of their team walk, the Dodgers could find themselves coming to terms with a big-ticket free agent and all their arbs not named Loney and still be within their 2011 payroll range. Of course, this will leave the team shockingly bare at key positions unless a few of their prospects like Dee Gordon and Trayvon Robinson are ready to contribute.
In terms of generating immediate fan excitement, I could easily see new ownership wanting to bring a major free agent onboard to shore up fan support. In a division with the Padres, Rockies and—gasp—Giants thinking long-term, new ownership would be wise to field a competitive team without sacrificing or blocking useful prospects.
Option #2: Retain Kemp and Kershaw and let the kids develop
Unfortunately, the Dodgers don't have a farm system as prized as the Royals, so outside help is still necessary in order to compete. So far, Sands and Kenley Jansen have been brought up to get acclimated and are expected to be big role players in the future; Gordon is interesting, but he carries enough negatives to almost outweigh his positives.
Robinson will always be mentioned as a Dodger of the near-future. He has the tools to profile as an above-average leadoff hitter while pushing Kemp to one of the corner outfield positions. If new ownership decides to go this route, then a team committed to scouting and player development with a like-minded general manager will become crucial.
Option #3: Trade Kemp, Ethier and Billingsley for prospects, hope to contend in 2014
Sounds reasonable, right? That depends on the knowledge and savvy of the new management team, with a little bit of luck sprinkled in. Based on Ethier’s age, struggles against left-handed pitching and prior rumors of being non-tendered, it will be tough to expect the Dodgers to get anything franchise changing for him. Both Kemp and Billingsley are valuable players and should require a large cache of young talent.
I’ve been hearing this idea tossed around but I’m not sure I completely agree with it. Making a move like this is usually done by a smaller-market team not expecting to fully contend in the next few seasons.
Like I said earlier, the Dodgers will have a lot of payroll flexibility after this season. Combine that with being in a cash-friendly market with a shiny new TV contract, and the team could benefit from locking up some of their talented younger players while also waiting for others to develop while still shopping for the occasional free agent star.
It’s a strategy that is proving to be successful among some other big market teams and, based on some potential buyers, it’s not a stretch to see the Dodgers having some interesting and advantageous options coming their way very soon.
References and Resources
Contract information provided by Cot's Baseball Contracts, statistical info provided by Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs.
Vince has his own blog, The League of Transparency, and has also written for SBNation.
Read more great baseball stuff at The Hardball Times.