The headlines have been dominated by the Dodgers so far this winter.
The investment the Guggenheim ownership group has committed to over the next decade is something we have never seen before – over $1 billion in contract value so far and, although this is subjective, the return is the three best players available right now.
Shohei Ohtani is arguably the most gifted player to ever play the game – in his six years in MLB, he has already won two American League (AL) MVP awards, he was AL Rookie of the Year in 2018, he’s been an All-Star for the past three years, won two Silver Slugger Awards, and three Edgar Martinez Awards. He’s a pitcher with a 3.01 ERA and over 600 strikeouts, and he’s also collected 437 RBIs while swatting 171 home runs. He was also the World Baseball Classic MVP as he led Japan to the title earlier this year.
In short, Ohtani is very, very good at baseball, and now he is a Dodger. They fought off the attentions of seemingly every other team in MLB to land their man and rewarded him with a $700m/10 year contract. The biggest contract in North American sports history!
With Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin likely to be out for most of 2024, Walker Buehler coming back from Tommy John surgery, free agent Clayton Kershaw recovering from shoulder surgery and not likely to pitch (for anyone) until August, and Ohtani himself not available to pitch until 2025, the Dodgers needed to take a strong look at their rotation for 2024 if they wanted to compete straight away. We, the fans, didn’t have to wait long.
Adding two of the best pitchers in the world
First, in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays, the Dodgers brought in starting pitcher (SP) Tyler Glasnow and outfielder (OF) Manuel Margot in exchange for two highly-rated MLB-ready prospects in SP Ryan Pepiot and OF Jonny DeLuca. The deal was subject to Glasnow signing an extension with the Dodgers, his hometown team, but a five year, $136.5m deal was announced shortly afterwards. Just like that, the first piece was in place.
The next domino to fall came just a few days ago, and was another blockbuster free agent signing. Yoshinobu Yamamoto – Ohtani’s teammate on the Japanese national side – agreed to a $325m,12-year deal with the Dodgers this past Thursday (21 December). This is the largest contract ever awarded to a free agent pitcher, narrowly eclipsing Gerrit Cole’s $324m, 9-year deal with the Yankees.
Now, you might think that is a lot for a player who hasn’t proven himself at MLB level yet? Typically, a pitcher moving from NPB to MLB does see an increase in their ERA between 0.50-1.00 while in their prime – Ohtani’s ERA in NPB was 2.52, while it currently stands at 3.01 in MLB, for example. Similar increases could also be observed in Hideo Nomo, Yu Darvish and Kenta Maeda’s prime years.
Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s ERA in NPB, meanwhile, is a stunning 1.82. So, even if he saw the higher end of that increase, he could still find himself a perennial Cy Young Award nominee. But, it doesn’t end there with Yamamoto; he has amassed 922 strikeouts since debuting in 2017, he’s won the Japanese Pitching Triple Crown for the last three years (ERA, strikeouts and wins), collected three Eiji Sawamura awards (NPB’s Cy Young equivalent), and even won three Gold Gloves along the way.
I haven’t even mentioned that he’s been named an All-Star in five of his six seasons. Yamamoto is widely projected to be the best Japanese pitching import ever, and, at just 25 years old, he will have plenty of time to prove himself. In a matter of just a few weeks, the Dodgers starting rotation has started to look like (one of) the best in baseball again.
Are the Dodgers trying to buy their way to another World Series?
There is no doubt that the Dodgers are making aggressive moves, but their ambitions seem to go beyond that. Why else would they be signing players to such long-term deals? At present, the most similar legacy to the Dodgers would be the Braves of the 90s – one of the best teams in baseball, but they were only able to win one World Series. The signal of intent here is not just to win a World Series, but to win several. The ownership group wants to make the Dodgers of this era a dynasty to be remembered in years to come. In short, to have the kind of success we haven’t seen since the Yankees of the late 90s.
Of course, with the expanded postseason and so many division winners still trying to figure out what to do with their days off before the division series, winning it all is harder than ever. This means that success is never guaranteed, and we don’t need to look too far back to see examples of clubs spending big and it not coming off for them. It should, however, guarantee that the Dodgers will be a competitive force in MLB for the foreseeable future. But are the Dodgers done yet? I can say with certainty, no.
The signing of Yamamoto is still subject to the Dodgers clearing space on their 40-man roster. That means that a trade is likely, the alternative being a straight DFA which seems unlikely.
Who might be on the block?
The Dodgers chose to protect catcher Hunter Feduccia from the rule 5 draft a little while back. This could be because they think he has trade value, or it could mean that Austin Barnes may finally get the chance to play every day. Somewhere else. Barnes is a good catcher, but several things go against him to make him a likely trade candidate. Firstly, he was Clayton Kershaw’s personal catcher and Clayton Kershaw is not on the team right now, and if he returns it won’t be until August. The second thing is that he is simply inferior to Will Smith in every way, but most obviously with the bat. The Dodgers have Feduccia and Diego Cartaya waiting for their chance – both are cheaper than Barnes, and there’s a good enough chance that one or both turn out to be an upgrade in the long-term.
With Mookie Betts already named as the likely everyday second baseman, it seems that Miguel Vargas’ opportunities may be limited too. The Dodgers could choose to cash in on him or Michael Busch while they still have plenty of years of control left to offer. This would further strengthen what has proven to be one of the best farm systems in MLB and provide affordable durability, as well as giving these kids a well-earned shot in the big leagues.
In closing, the Dodgers have options. If they feel they need to trade for more MLB depth, they have the prospects. If they want to bolster the farm, they have several candidates to trade that would be attractive to other teams. It’s a great position to be in, and, if a byproduct of all these moves is an even bigger target is painted on our back and motivates teams (and importantly, owners) to want to stop us, then surely this can only be a good thing for MLB?
The Dodgers are raising the game. It is for everyone else to decide if they want to play ball.
Featured image – Courtesy of Getty Images