LOS ANGELES — Clayton Kershaw, the most accomplished pitcher of his era, went on the injured list four hours before Opening Day, so the Los Angeles Dodgers replaced him with a 22-year-old right-hander throwing 100 mph sinking fastballs.
Walker Buehler, one of the best young pitchers in the sport, wasn’t properly stretched out to begin the season, prompting an overqualified long reliever to contribute seven dominant innings in his spot. David Price opted out, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill left via free agency, Kenta Maeda was traded away, and the Dodgers’ pitching staff remains the envy of the sport.
Before each season from 2015 to 2019, Baseball America ranked the Dodgers’ farm system within its top 10. When those seasons ended, FanGraphs had them listed within the top five in total wins above replacement. This year, the Dodgers boast the industry’s third-highest-rated farm system and project to win their division — a division they have won seven consecutive times — by the largest margin in baseball. The machine keeps churning, with no letup in sight, and that brings us to Mookie Betts.
The Dodgers’ $326 million commitment to Betts was stunning given the bleak financial landscape facing Major League Baseball franchises after a shortened, fanless season. But Betts was going to land a gargantuan contract regardless. He might have had to wait a little longer and would have probably settled for deferrals (the Dodgers are deferring more than 30% of his 12-year extension). But the money would still have been there for a transcendent star.
The notable part here was that Betts chose the Dodgers, with no real roots in L.A., without having spent more than a combined six weeks with his new teammates. He could have played this season out, gone into the open market for the first and perhaps only time in his career, and chances are — pandemic or not — he would have attained a long-term contract worth more than $30.4 million annually. The fact that Betts didn’t, and that not doing so was widely considered a no-brainer, speaks volumes about the Dodgers’ standing as an unrelenting juggernaut.
“We’ve talked about this a lot — of trying to create a destination spot for the players who are here and don’t wanna leave and players from the outside who are longingly looking at our organization and wanting to play here,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said Wednesday, shortly after announcing the longest and largest contract he has ever negotiated.
The Betts deal was as much an example of what the Dodgers can do as it was a reward for what they didn’t.
When Friedman took over in October 2014, the Dodgers possessed a bloated payroll that required a combined $430 million over a three-year stretch to six players (Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Kershaw). By the end of the 2017 season, the Dodgers had exceeded the luxury-tax threshold for five consecutive years, paying somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 million in escalating penalties.
Friedman sought to relieve the financial obligations that would avoid the drastic pitfalls of teams such as the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies while making savvy, short-term acquisitions that would keep the Dodgers in perpetual contention. He traded for Yu Darvish and Manny Machado in their walk years, but he didn’t make much of an effort to bring them back. He let himself get outbid for Greinke and Bryce Harper and didn’t chase the flawed, low-ceiling free agents who are so often overpaid in their 30s. Friedman described it as “trying to stay disciplined but yet aggressive, patient, a lot of things that are sometimes in disagreement.”
A Dodgers fan base starving for its first World Series title since 1988, and conscious of the boundless revenue streams of their favorite team, was mostly dismissive.
“Rightfully so,” Friedman said. “Our fans don’t care about 2023 or 2024 until we get there, and we have to try to strike a little bit of a balance between that.”
The Betts pairing was a happy accident. The Dodgers tried to acquire him last July, but the Boston Red Sox suddenly got hot and pulled him off the market. This offseason presented the opportunity to land the right free agent at the right age and the right time. But Gerrit Cole turned down $300 million to join the New York Yankees, and Anthony Rendon chided the “Hollywood lifestyle” and instead chose a Los Angeles Angels team that resides 30 miles south. The Dodgers tried to trade for Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor but couldn’t make it work. They coveted Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado but considered it a pipe dream.
Acquiring Betts took capital in prospects worthy of the game’s second-best position player and the financial flexibility to take on the remainder of Price’s contract. Signing Betts long term required a bright future in spite of that.
Betts is now the only Dodgers player locked up beyond the 2022 season. Justin Turner, Joc Pederson and Enrique Hernandez will become free agents at season’s end, while Corey Seager, Kenley Jansen and Kershaw are scheduled to hit the open market a year after that. But Cody Bellinger will still be under team control for three more years after 2020. Buehler for four. Will Smith, Gavin Lux and Dustin May, five apiece.
“Patience,” Friedman said, “is extremely important.”
The Dodgers began this season as co-favorites — along with the Yankees — to win it all, even though the shorter season and deeper playoffs should only elevate lesser teams. The Dodgers’ players have rallied around the idea that a World Series championship in this unorthodox season would be just as valuable as any other, perhaps even more so given the circumstances. If they don’t win it, though, they’ll be among the favorites again next year. And the year after that. And the year after that.
In Betts’ words: “A well-oiled machine.”