“Arbitration” is a word that has caused Dodgers fans to wince this winter, for understandable reasons. Back in December, the team failed to offer it to Type-A free agents Randy Wolf and Orlando Hudson, thus forfeiting the right to compensation picks in this year’s amateur draft. Amid fears about finances in the wake of divorce proceedings between owner Frank McCourt and wife Jamie, the Dodgers have eschewed the free agent market almost entirely due to the impending salary increases of eight key arbitration-eligible players. Utility infielder Jamey Carroll is their marquee signing to date; no wonder season-ticket sales are sluggish.
Last week, a scrap of good news emerged from the Dodger camp as the team agreed to terms with Matt Kemp and Chad Billinglsley, two of those arbitration-eligible players (both first-time eligibles are represented by former big-league ace Dave Stewart, whose menacing glare surely must have been worth something at the negotiating table). Billingsley, who pitched his way onto the All-Star team last summer before enduring a second half so wracked by injury and inconsistency that he didn’t make a post-season start, signed a one-year deal for $3.85 million. Kemp, who enjoyed a breakout season which saw him lead the team in WARP (7.3) and post the highest EqA of any qualifying center fielder (.304), inked a two-year deal for almost $11 million. His 2010 salary of $4 million is believed to represent a high for a center fielder in his first year of arbitration eligibility, but his 2011 pact ($6.95 million base, plus $600,000 in potential performance bonuses) is more significant.
That 2011 deal more or less represents the Dodgers’ strongest acknowledgment to date that the world will not end after the coming season, which should come as a relief to anxious fans. According to the data at Cot’s Baseball Contracts (h/t new colleague Jeff Euston), the team has just four players under contract after this year: Kemp, Rafael Furcal ($12 million), Casey Blake ($5.25 million), and Carroll ($1.925 million). The club will still have control over the seven remaining arbitration-eligible players: Billingsley, James Loney, and Hong-Chih Kuo (who will be in their second years), Jonathan Broxton, Andre Ethier, and Russell Martin (third years), and George Sherrill (fourth year).
Given the significance of those players to the team’s current and future prospects, one can understand the unease which the uncertainty over their salaries represents at this juncture. That goes doubly when one considers the pre-sale teardown that the recent divorce proceedings of owner John Moores forced upon the National League West rival Padres. Under California’s community property law, Moores and his wife split the team 50-50, requiring the sale of the club to settle the tab. The 2010 season isn’t so much of a concern for the Dodgers, given all the parts in place, but the threat that the McCourts’ divorce could force a similarly wrenching course of action still looms large, particularly when one considers the additional evidence of their tight-fisted ways.
To recap a bit more thoroughly, questions about the McCourts’ financial viability have loomed ever since their highly-leveraged purchase of the franchise, its ballpark and the adjoining real estate from News Corporation in 2004. Yet they’ve actually gotten considerably more bang for their buck than their predecessors did. Consider the contrast between the two periods, which both neatly encompass six seasons:
Years Win Pct Playoff G Payroll%* Avg. Attendance 1998-2003 .524 (11) 0 (19T) 149% (3) 3.08 million (6) 2004-2009 .528 (7) 23 (7) 125% (6) 3.70 million (2) *: Percentage relative to MLB-average Opening Day payroll
The numbers in parentheses are their ranking among the 30 teams. Weighted down by a dismal 71-91 record in 2005, the Dodgers’ overall winning percentage hasn’t improved much across the past six years. But they’ve made four trips to the postseason, three of them in the past four years, the last two to the National League Championship Series on the heels of their first post-season series victories since 1988-terra incognita during the Foxies’ reign. They’ve done so while spending relatively less on payroll and improving their already-robust attendance.
The Dodgers’ winter of discontent began when news of the McCourts’ separation hit the day before the team opened last year’s NLCS. By the end of the month, Jamie McCourt had been fired from her job as the team’s CEO and had filed for divorce, with the messy details of their acrimonious split turned into tabloid fodder. In early November, Frank McCourt asserted the validity of a post-nuptial agreement placing the team in his name and the couple’s property in hers, thus raising the possibility that the franchise might not need to be sold.
Even so, many off the team’s actions have suggested otherwise. Neither Wolf nor Hudson was expected to return to the Dodgers, so offering them arbitration appeared to be a no-lose proposition. Both had signed incentive-laden one-year deals last February, when general manager Ned Colletti took advantage of the winter’s frigid free agent market to fill glaring holes in the infield and rotation. Wolf’s strong work (11th in the league in SNLVAR via personal bests for starts, innings and ERA+) positioned him as the second-best starting pitcher on the free agent market behind John Lackey, eventually netting him a three-year, $29.75 million deal from the Brewers. Hudson earned All-Star honors, but his late-season fade and subsequent benching in favor of Ronnie Belliard drew incendiary comments regarding manager Joe Torre, thus burning his bridge back to Chavez Ravine.
By foregoing the arbitration offers, the Dodgers sacrificed easy gains of two first-round picks and two sandwich picks, the values of which were estimated at $9 million and $3 million apiece by Nate Silver back in 2005. Such picks cost significant bonus money, but it’s nonetheless alarming that a team would forgo $24 million (or more) in potential future value for the price of $4-6 million worth of investments in 2010. Just as troubling is the fact that they’ve paid a major-league low $8.5 million in signing bonuses over the past two years, according to Baseball America, and that they’ve squandered their long-held advantages in Asia and Latin America by cutting back to just two big-bonus ($100,000 or more) signings in that span.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers have routinely surrendered better prospects in key mid-season trades than they might otherwise have to in exchange for remaining more or less payroll-neutral. Catcher Carlos Santana (the Indians‘ top prospect, traded as part of the Blake deal in 2008) and third baseman Josh Bell (the Orioles‘ second-best prospect, traded as part of last summer’s Sherrill deal) are only the most prominent of this bunch. As strong as the team’s scouting and player development system under Logan White has been in recent years, that’s an alarming burn rate, especially given that they lowered their Opening Day payroll by $18 million last year, saved an additional $8 million in compensation via Manny Ramirez‘s suspension and just shed $30 million worth of contracts via this year’s free agency crop. Oh, and they also saved another $8 million in 2010 and 2011 commitments by foisting Juan Pierre on the White Sox. Of course, between the departed Pierre and Andruw Jones, they’ve got enough deferred money on the books that their year-end payroll actually rose from $125.8 million to $131.5 million, even allowing for Ramirez’s suspension (h/t Maury Brown).
In the face of all of that cost-cutting, one can see where locking in Kemp, if only for one extra year, counts as progress. The team has reportedly discussed two-year deals with Broxton, Ethier, and Loney. They may move closer to such pacts once arbitration figures are exchanged today, though the latter rebuffed the initial overture, hoping to rebound from two years of sub-par production (a combined 3.1 WARP, -9 Runs Above Position at the plate, -3 Fielding Runs Above Average). The conventional wisdom is that the Dodgers should thank their lucky stars that Martin similarly spurned such a multi-year offer two years ago, though his numbers since then (9.6 WARP, +32 RAP, +19 FRAA) aren’t nearly so bad as one might have suspected. Even during his down 2009, in which he hit for a .256 EqA, Martin still totaled 3.8 WARP on the strength of his defense (+12 FRAA), trailing only Joe Mauer (8.8 WARP), Yadier Molina (5.7 WARP) and Brian McCann (4.0 WARP) among major-league catchers.
Despite all the talk of this crop of baby blues, it is worth noting that the team’s strong showing last year had less to do with the performances of their young and largely homegrown nucleus-not only the bulk of those arbitration-eligible players but also key pre-arbitration players like Clayton Kershaw, Ramon Troncoso and Ronald Belisario-than is sometime assumed. A couple of weeks ago, Matt Swartz ranked the 30 teams according to the WARP contributions of players in various service-time classes. The Dodgers ranked just 13th in the majors in WARP received from non-market salaries (NM), players either in their pre-arbitration or arbitration-eligible years. On the other hand, they ranked third in the majors in WARP received from auction-market salaries (AM), players with enough service time to be eligible for free agency or to have come from Japan or other foreign markets:
Team NM AM Tot Yankees 18.6 46.3 64.9 Cardinals 24.1 32.2 56.3 Dodgers 29.4 31.7 61.1 Cubs 21.2 24.0 45.2 White Sox 20.8 19.4 40.2 Red Sox 35.7 18.6 54.3 Astros 13.9 18.0 31.9 Braves 38.4 17.6 56.0 Mets 18.4 16.9 35.3 Mariners 23.0 16.4 39.4 Angels 31.9 16.2 48.1 Giants 26.7 16.0 42.7 Blue Jays 30.9 14.1 45.0 Rockies 37.9 12.4 50.3 Brewers 27.9 11.9 39.8 Reds 26.6 10.0 36.6 Twins 37.3 9.9 47.2 Phillies 40.2 9.5 49.7 Tigers 29.9 9.1 39.0 Rays 39.1 8.7 47.8 Rangers 34.3 8.3 42.6 Orioles 21.1 7.8 28.9 Nationals 17.8 7.3 25.1 D'backs 28.8 6.1 34.9 Indians 26.9 5.4 32.3 Athletics 32.8 4.2 37.0 Pirates 20.8 2.6 23.4 Royals 25.5 1.5 27.0 Marlins 39.6 0.1 39.7 Padres 28.3 -0.1 28.2
While the Dodgers received more value from their non-market players than three of their four NL West competitors (all except the Rockies), their advantage over the Giants, who received the least value from such young ‘uns, amounted to less than three wins. On the other hand, the Dodgers got nearly as much value from their auction-market players as the rest of their NL West competitors combined. Of their eight most valuable players according to WARP, five (Hudson, Blake, Furcal, Ramirez, and Wolf) were free-agent signings.
Despite the hand-wringing over their winter inactivity, that chart above only underscores the Dodgers’ position with regards to the competitive ecology of the NL West. During the McCourt era, they’ve been able to capitalize on their large-market resources in a division where the other four franchises have been increasingly hamstrung by payroll concerns and unable to field winning teams with consistency. The Dodgers finished first in the league in attendance five times during the 2004-2009 span and only once were they outspent by a division rival. While that alone guarantees nothing, it helps explain why they were the only team in the division to post a winning record and one of only two to spend an above-average amount on payroll:
Team Payroll% (Rank) Win Pct Dodgers 125 (6) .528 Giants 107 (14) .487 Diamondbacks 80 (18) .459 Padres 76 (22) .497 Rockies 74 (25) .480
Still, it’s not as though the Dodgers can depend upon such good fortune in the free agent market in perpetuity. The 36-year-old Blake is coming off a career year, the going-on-38-year-old Ramirez off a late-season showing which may portend a more permanent decline, though as Freud said, sometimes a slump is just a slump. The voids left by Hudson and Wolf are at this juncture filled by young and largely untested options as Blake DeWitt is the likely second baseman, with an assist from Carroll, while Scott Elbert, Josh Lindblom and James McDonald will compete for at least one of the rotation’s two open spots.
With no impact free agents on the way, the Dodgers’ Opening Day payroll is unlikely to top last year’s $100 million mark. While it’s important that the team start solidifying its talent base for the future, realizing some savings in buying out pre-arbitration years and calming a nervous fan base, it is incumbent on this crop of arbitration-lings to give the Dodgers their money’s worth. And then some.