Because I live in Los Angeles, many of the conversations I have about baseball involve, in some way, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
I almost never blog about other teams here, but I feel compelled to write a bit about the Dodgers’ offseason.
The Dodgers used to be owned by a man named Frank McCourt, who by all accounts horribly mismanaged the team and put a disappointing product on the field. In 2012, however, the team was bought by Guggenheim Partners.
Entering the 2013 season, Guggenheim has already changed the landscape of baseball in the Southland. Far from stingy, they are now being accused of throwing money at free agents. With the Yankees looking to reduce payroll to get under the luxury tax threshold by 2014, the Dodgers are quickly taking their place as the free spenders of merit.
(Incidentally, it’s extremely interesting to watch people get mad at the Dodgers for spending money, while simultaneously getting mad at the Yankees for not spending money.)
With the recent signings of Zack Greinke ($147mm) and Korean left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu ($36mm), the blogosphere is alive with talk of the 2013 Dodgers and their free-spending ways.
The 2013 Dodgers could have the highest payroll in history. The 2013 Dodgers could have a luxury tax penalty higher than most teams’ entire payrolls.
These sorts of enormous signings, usually done by east coast junior circuit teams, always seem to raise a lot of questions. Namely: Do free-spending teams ruin baseball, and Can you buy a championship?
The short answer for both is: No. Teams from different-sized markets make the playoffs every year. The Yankees, historically the biggest spenders in baseball, haven’t won it all since 2009. Before that, they hadn’t won since 2000.
So the door is open. Let’s get that out of the way.
The next question I have to wonder is: What’s wrong with building a team this way? If a team had traded for or developed a roster like the Dodgers have, they would no doubt be praised by every blogger, every baseball fan in America. The basic problem with this, of course, is that no team in the modern era has ever fielded a team made entirely of their own draft picks, or players received in trades.
But the question goes even deeper than that. What, in essence, is the problem with building a team via free agency, instead of through drafts and trades? It’s a mere matter of money, and if the Dodgers have money to spend, what exactly is wrong with them building their team by using it? They’ve been mishandled far too long to rely solely on their farm system, and there is a definite sense of needing to be relevant right now.
Astros fans may shudder to remember trading away prospects to receive players on the decline. When paired with bad drafts and poor development, the Houston front office ran the cupboards dry until there was no present, no future, and no money. The current Astros roster is proof that, when not properly handled, this is a method that doesn’t always work.
But I do say it is a legitimate way to build a roster, particularly when there aren’t a ton of bright spots in the minors.
So, then, the real question is: Are the 2013 Dodgers going to be any good? The problem with throwing a lot of money at players in free agency is that it really puts the spotlight on a team. So I decided to try a little comparative exercise.
Using MLB Depth Charts, I isolated the Opening Day rosters of nine teams from 2012, spanning both leagues and several tax brackets:
1. New York Yankees (highest payroll in baseball)
2. Philadelphia Phillies (highest payroll in the NL, 2nd-highest in baseball)
3. Boston Red Sox (3rd-highest payroll in baseball)
4. Detroit Tigers (5th-highest payroll in baseball, AL champs)
5. San Francisco Giants (8th-highest payroll in baseball, world champs)
6. St. Louis Cardinals (9th-highest payroll in baseball, defending champions going into the season)
7. Cincinnati Reds (largely home-grown team, 17th-highest payroll in baseball)
8. Tampa Bay Rays (6th-lowest payroll in baseball and considered to be a great developmental organization)
9. Oakland Athletics (2nd-lowest payroll in baseball, also considered a great developmental organization)
I used a 5/3/2 analysis of their 25-man roster’s fWAR from 2009-2011 to get a rough idea of what they should have been expecting heading into the season: ((5*2011fWAR)+(3*2010fWAR)+(2*2009fWAR))/10. This is obviously a crude way to determine expected value, as WAR is not only imperfect, but it’s a counting stat, and changes dramatically with increased or reduced playing time. For instance, Ryu will be counted as a replacement-level pitcher for the purposes of this exercise.
Given the ability to look at the actual 2012 results, this generally puts us somewhere in the ballpark. Close enough, at least, to satisfy me. I’m no great statistician, so it’ll do for the purposes of my evaluation.
I then used MLB Depth Charts’ projected roster for the 2013 Dodgers and applied the same methodology to see where they fit in. The only difference, of course, is that I used fWAR data from 2010-2012.
All but three of these teams – Boston, Tampa Bay, and Philadelphia – made the playoffs in 2013. Interestingly, all three of those teams finished in the top half of this list. Simply put, the Phillies, Rays, and Red Sox were disappointments in 2012. The 2013 Dodgers’ projected roster fits squarely in the middle of the group, just one win from being tied for third on the list.
It doesn’t matter that I’m largely pleased by the trades Houston has made this week, even if they mean two of my favorite Astros – Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman – will be finishing their careers elsewhere.