Pressure for Dodgers now sky-high
A former Los Angeles Dodgers player sent me a text message Saturday night after learning that right-hander Zack Greinke was headed to LA.
“Good luck Don Mattingly!” the text said.
Good luck managing this eclectic collection. Good luck dealing with skyrocketing expectations. Good luck keeping your job if you fail to win with a record payroll.
See, the Dodgers have only one problem after reaching agreement with Greinke on a six-year, $147 million free-agent contract — the same problem they had after swallowing more than $260 million in salaries in their blockbuster trade with the Boston Red Sox last summer.
The Dodgers still have to play.
Greinke, 29, will average $24.5 million, the highest ever for a pitcher on a multi-year deal — and an incredible haul for a guy who won the American League Cy Young Award with a 2.16 ERA in 2009, but has produced merely a 3.83 ERA since.
The Dodgers added another high-priced starting pitcher Sunday, South Korean lefty Ryu Hyun-jin. That takes their payroll commitments to more than $210 million for the 2013 season alone.
And still, they are assured of nothing.
Listen, no one longs for former owner Frank McCourt, who was so cash-strapped that the Dodgers had to operate almost like a small-market team. But one club executive sounded almost wistful discussing those days at the winter meetings, saying the front office had to scrutinize every decision with extreme care, knowing it literally could not afford to make a mistake.
This is just financial bullying, the Dodgers adding players because they can.
It’s fun for fans. It’s great for players (Greinke’s deal will drive up salaries not only for Sanchez and Lohse, but also lesser free-agent pitchers such as Francisco Liriano and Shaun Marcum). But will anyone be surprised if the Dodgers fail to overtake the World Series champion San Francisco Giants in the National League West?
Virtually every season reinforces the notion that money doesn’t buy World Series titles — ask the 2012 Los Angeles Angels, 2012 Miami Marlins and countless other offseason “champions” over the years.
The Dodgers, in fact, also proved the point last season, finishing eight games behind the Giants in the NL West after adding shortstop Hanley Ramirez, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and right-hander Josh Beckett in mid-summer trades.
Injuries, particularly to center fielder Matt Kemp, compromised the Dodgers in the season’s final weeks. The players should benefit from a full spring together, becoming more familiar with each other, not to mention Mattingly and his coaching staff.
Still, this group features so many unusual personalities, chemistry might be an issue. Sabermetricans often are dismissive of such talk, preferring to focus on performance. Fair enough, but a sour, factionalized clubhouse can negatively influence performance. The impact cannot be quantified. Nor can it be denied.
Inflated salaries often lead to inflated egos, and 10 Dodgers will earn $11 million or more next season. Ramirez never has been regarded as a good teammate. Right fielder Andre Ethier also can be moody. The three former Red Sox — first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, right-hander Josh Beckett and left fielder Carl Crawford — need to shed their Boston scars.
Greinke, the introvert with the outsized contract, faces his own adjustment, as almost all free agents who change teams do. While Greinke is very good, he is not Justin Verlander, not Felix Hernandez, not even Clayton Kershaw.
Thus, no one should be shocked if Greinke struggles, particularly in his first year in LA. Not when, for $24.5 million annually, he will face pressure like never before — particularly when many, inside the industry and out, believe that he did not merit such a deal.
Returning to the NL should help. Pitching at pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium should help. But Greinke will not be without distractions, and the Dodgers lack a Torii Hunter type to help guide them through. Kemp, 28, is the closest thing they have to a leader.
Good luck to Don Mattingly, indeed.
Mattingly will face tremendous pressure entering the final year of his contract, even if the Dodgers extend his deal. The Dodgers, under the new Guggenheim ownership, draw comparisons to the George Steinbrenner Yankees, but they’re also the Miami Heat of baseball. A bunch of peacocks, easy to dislike, targeted by the rest of the league.
I don’t want to go overboard with my skepticism, especially after criticizing the New York Yankees earlier this week for their failure to operate, well, more like the Dodgers. The LA culture is star-driven, and at some point soon, the Dodgers will sign a new local-television deal that will dwarf any before it. They can afford all this, and the inevitable luxury tax, too.
Problem is, they still have to gel, still have to play, still have to win. Headline-grabbing acquisitions are nice. But so far, all the Dodgers have proven is that they can buy all the expensive toys.