The Los Angeles Dodgers have carried out the most brazen exposition of financial might in the history of North American professional sports.
It is not the greatest trade in baseball history, nor is it the wisest. But it might be the boldest — for better or worse. The Dodgers acquired first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, right-handed starter Josh Beckett, (injured) outfielder Carl Crawford and infielder Nick Punto from the Boston Red Sox. In a society that tries not to act surprised by much, the transaction is flabbergasting to both fans and industry veterans.
Gonzalez, Beckett and Crawford are owed a cool $250 million among them after the end of this season. From a purely financial perspective, the sport has never seen a trade of this magnitude. The Red Sox are sending $12 million to the Dodgers in the exchange, according to my colleague Ken Rosenthal. That is a relative pittance — the equivalent of kicking in about $240,000 to defray the salary of a $5 million player.
The Dodgers are trying to money-slap the opposition en route to the World Series. Heavy is the pocketbook that longs for the crown.
Not that there is anything wrong with such a ravenous appetite for risk. The largesse of new owner Mark Walter has allowed the Dodgers to acquire players — including Hanley Ramirez — who were unattainable during the regime of disgraced former owner Frank McCourt.
But let’s call this what it is: The Dodgers are making a very big, very expensive gamble, and it’s going to seem worthwhile only if a number of conditions are met.
They are, in no particular order:
The Dodgers need to win the World Series in 2012, 2013 or 2014.
The Dodgers don’t have to win it all this year, although that would help the public perception of the trade. The 2014 season is a natural endpoint for the referendum, because that is the final year of Beckett’s current contract.
It won’t be easy for the Dodgers to reach the World Series this season, because there’s no guarantee they will make the playoffs at all. The arch rival San Francisco Giants — sans Melky Cabrera — entered Saturday three games ahead of the Dodgers in the National League West. The Giants have the NL’s second-best record since the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, so it’s not as if the Dodgers’ earlier deals swung the division in their favor.
In a clubhouse of stars, Matt Kemp must emerge as the undisputed leader.
There is deep irony in what the Dodgers have done. By swinging huge deals with the Miami Marlins (Ramirez, lefty Randy Choate) and Red Sox, they imported elements from costly chemistry experiments gone terribly wrong. Beckett, Gonzalez and Crawford didn’t fit well in Boston for varying reasons. Now the Dodgers are fusing together a collection of stars — who are used to being treated as such — with the hope they will get along famously in a new place.
Kemp is one of the hardest workers in baseball, and he has attained a certain gravitas since rededicating himself after a disappointing 2010 season. His determination will be one of the Dodgers’ best countermeasures against any hint of selfishness. The Yankees have brought in superstars from other organizations over the years, and Derek Jeter always has ensured that the new arrivals understand the Yankee Way. Kemp must do the same in LA.
The Dodgers have had a staggering amount of turnover since late July: They have added nine veteran players — roughly one-third of the roster — beginning with the July 25 Ramirez/Choate deal. The effective impact is eight players, since Crawford is out for the season, but it’s time for a get-to-know-you team meal during the Dodgers’ upcoming trip to Denver.
The Giants have forged an identity by winning without Cabrera. Now it’s incumbent on the disparate Dodgers to bond over a common purpose for the rest of the season.
The restorative power of Southern California must work as well for Gonzalez, Beckett and Crawford as it did for Manny Ramirez — minus the PEDs.
Money aside, the Dodgers paid a reasonable price in players; pitching prospect Allen Webster is probably the most valuable of the five they surrendered. First baseman James Loney, infielder Ivan DeJesus Jr., right-hander Rubby De La Rosa and outfielder Jerry Sands all played for the Dodgers this season, but De La Rosa might be the only potential All-Star of the group.
The Dodgers will be able to say they won the trade if the three veterans exhibit the All-Star form they had not long ago: Beckett and Gonzalez were All-Stars as recently as last year, when A-Gon made his fourth appearance in a row; Crawford was the All-Star Game MVP in 2009 and was the AL’s starting left fielder the following year.
The Dodgers must continue to spend.
This sounds odd, but bear with me.
Walter’s Guggenheim Baseball Management group has decided it must spend lavishly for the team to compete for championships right now. That might be correct, since the farm system isn’t teeming with impact prospects at Triple-A and Double-A.
Was this the most efficient allocation of $250 million? No, and the Dodgers must know that. But as long as Walter affords general manager Ned Colletti the money (and creative latitude) to make the necessary moves this offseason, then the plan has a chance to work. The Dodgers know they are about to get a huge cash infusion from their next television rights contract, which is an essential part of the calculus.
Remember: Baseball’s luxury tax is at $178 million next year, followed by an increase to $189 million for the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons. With these moves, Walter might be saying, “I don’t care about the penalties. Let’s win.”
Clearly, business is booming at Chavez Ravine. Very soon — if not right away — the on-field product must deliver in a big, champagne-soaked way.