Hi ho, it’s February. Dodger pitchers and catchers and other eager beavers are scheduled to report to Camelback Ranch in eight days. The first full squad workout comes two weeks from Tuesday.
Let’s stipulate to some things in this post. I’m a patient fellow when it comes to the Dodgers. This organization is an organism, constantly splitting and regenerating cells (I think that’s what cells do — I truly never took a biology class.) Deadlines bleed into lifelines, and rare is the moment in transaction traffic when you can’t make a lane change.
More importantly, the foundation for this team, which has won two straight National League pennants and an unprecedented six straight NL West titles, remains happily intact.
Still, even I, someone who has basically been in a state of somewhat blissful exhale ever since the grateful end to the McCourt era (interrupted by the periodic crushing playoff defeat), will say that I expected more to happen by Groundhog Day. Part of that is an issue relating as a whole to Major League Baseball, a sport hoarding revenue as if it were saving for retirement. Part of it relates specifically to the Dodgers, who have frankly left me chasing exhaust as I’ve tried to follow their offseason plan.
A year after the Dodgers kept their player payroll in check to reduce future penalties, two moves in particular this winter led me to believe that the Dodgers were going all in on the biggest free agent of the offseason, Bryce Harper.
The first was when they guaranteed $25 million to two-time postseason villain Joe Kelly. Five years after breaking Hanley Ramirez’s rib and Los Angeles hearts in the 2013 playoffs, Kelly throttled the Dodgers in the 2018 World Series, pitching in all five games, and striking out 10 of 22 batters faced while allowing four baserunners and no runs. Nevertheless, at age 30, Kelly’s track record as an effective (let alone dominating) reliever has gaps you could drive cattle through.
However much faith one has in the Dodger analytics team’s ability to distinguish real growth in Kelly from temporary, the front office’s departure from its longstanding belief that relief pitchers were too inconsistent to deserve big contracts — a belief I have held for more than a decade — was so strange that I drew a specific conclusion. The Kelly contract, in reality, wouldn’t be a big one at all, not compared to the mega-deal the Dodgers were planning to award before the offseason to a certain outfielder from the Washington Nationals. They were going all in, over the top.
Moments later, my feelings were only reinforced by the big trade of Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig and Alex Wood to the Cincinnati Reds in December:
- Notwithstanding the desire to be rid of Kemp’s contract, a year after they were blessed with an All-Star first half from the two-term Dodger, the Dodgers needn’t have been more in a hurry to unload him than they were when he came back to Los Angeles 370 days earlier.
- Notwithstanding the surplus of pitchers of Wood’s caliber on the Dodger staff, this is a team that whose past half decade could be titled “Depth Becomes You.”
- Notwithstanding Puig’s rampant idiosyncrasies, the right fielder has been the team’s most productive (and, it should be said, exciting) pure outfielder for the past two seasons and one of their best hitters in the 2018 playoffs.
Surely, clearing out all three of these players meant that the Dodgers were making way for Harper. Harper would mean another left-handed hitter in the lineup, and one who has his own share of inconsistency, but still a player of the highest pedigree and potential. If it bothered the Dodgers, they could export Joc Pederson or Max Muncy or Alex Verdugo or some other lefty batter, perhaps to Miami in a trade for that catcher with cachet, J.T. Realmuto. (The January return of Russell Martin to Los Angeles arguably freed Austin Barnes, or the non-Keibert Ruiz backstop prospect Will Smith, for such a move as well.)
Well, we know what has and hasn’t happened next. Los Angeles signed center fielder A.J. Pollock to a contract that takes him through his age-34 season and guarantees him at least $5 million at age 35, all but bidding the 26-year-old Harper farewell in the process. At the same time, the Dodgers remain at least on the periphery of trade rumors surrounding Realmuto, whose acquisition would legitimately tie a bow around the Dodger offseason. And considering how much unfinished business there is in a sport that is taking more than 100 unsigned free agents into the final laundry days before Spring Training, who knows what lanes Andrew Friedman & Co. could drive into.
But unless I’m misreading things a third time this offseason, the Dodgers are done with making major moves and are shifting into tinkering mode — maybe some complementary mid-priced cargo, certainly a clever non-roster acquisition or three. Short of a last-minute trade for Realmuto, the heavy roadwork is probably done until midseason, when the Dodgers can follow Yu Darvish and Manny Machado with another stretch-drive surprise.
Am I upset? That would be overstating things. You can, as some already have, make a case for Pollock as a sensible move, positioning him as a kind of Rich Hill for the outfield, as well as the idea that a monster contract for Harper would somehow end badly. I’m not making that case, but I’m open-minded enough to process it.
I guess if anything bothers me right now, aside from the nagging worry that the Dodgers have unnecessarily left cards on the table, it’s that this is going to be another Dodger season dominated by narrative in the worst way. By that, I mean that every Dodger loss — every single one, from March through (hopefully) October — will be a referendum on what the Dodger front office didn’t accomplish over the winter months, and it’s just going to be so tiresome.
And if it’s not that, it’ll be about how they strike out too much, or hit into the shift, or don’t have a set lineup, or various other flaws of character and ability.
It won’t matter that the Dodgers would have lost games even if they had acquired Harper, Realmuto, Corey Kluber and what the hell, Mike Trout. The nerves of many dedicated Dodger fans are so frayed by the oh-so-close 2017-18 postseasons that the thinnest level of tolerance has disintegrated.
Oh, to be the kind of fan that my youngest son is, who only cares about the game in front of him and not about deconstructing the months- or years-long events that preceded it. But those days have long passed for many of us.
The Dodgers should have an excellent team this year. They are the two-time defending NL champions, and it’s simple enough to see how they would re-repeat and go that one step farther. Last year, they got 541 plate appearances combined out of Corey Seager and Justin Turner — that total might double in 2019. Same, perhaps, for the 141 1/3 big-league innings in 2018 from Walker Buehler and Julio Urías. Look out if Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen are able to bounce back from their physical maladies and hold off further decline, if Verdugo is the Dodgers’ next NL Rookie of the Year, if Pollock and Kelly are everything the team bargained for … and more.
But still. Unsettled. Angsty. When a team’s entire year is evaluated on whether it wins the last game of the season or not, and fans see that team putting patties in the freezer instead of on the grill, it’s going to be a mentally taxing ride. Feeling that way is kind of a shame, especially at the start of February, when baseball’s warm glow is so close that I envy every blade of grass.