The Los Angeles Dodgers are 46 games above .500 in early August, on pace for a 114-win season, and recently added Yu Darvish, who in his Dodgers debut struck out 10 and gave up only three hits in seven shutout innings against the Mets. It’s disgusting.
Homegrown superstars, international signings, savvy trade acquisitions, and all, the Dodgers fit together like a puzzle. They have a lot more money to spend than other teams do, thanks to their Guggenheim owners. But the wealth is spread prudently—repulsively, their money isn’t quite the source of their success. The team tearing through the National League is deep and broad and in all an example of what a brilliant front office would do given near-unlimited resources and a mandate to spend them as shrewdly as possible.
Clayton Kershaw, as he damn well should be, is eating up more of the Dodgers’ payroll than anyone else. He’s followed by Adrian Gonzalez, who continues to make $22.4 million per season; after that, the salaries just begin to drop off. Andre Ethier, who has a vesting option for 2018 but is otherwise a free agent after this season, is making $17.5 million this season. Those three came into this season with hearty contracts tendered under former Dodgers GM Ned Colletti. Once you get past that, the money gets very reasonable.
Scott Kazmir is making roughly $17.5 million this season. Justin Turner is making $13 million. Rich Hill is making less than that. Brandon McCarthy is earning $11.5 million. Kenley Jansen, Yasiel Puig, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Logan Forsythe, Yasmani Grandal: All these guys are making what scrubs would make in arbitration. And the Dodgers will pay Darvish just $3.8 million for the rest of the season.
Add it all up, and the Dodgers’ 40-man roster is, for all that’s being spent on it, heavier on homegrown players than those of other superteams like the 1998 Yankees and 2001 Mariners; the former set a regular-season record for wins that the latter broke and that the Dodgers are threatening.
The ‘98 Yankees had only four players they’d drafted contribute at least one WAR during the regular season: Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, and Shane Spencer, who doesn’t count. The ‘01 Mariners had only one player they’d drafted reach one WAR: Joel Pineiro.
For both teams, international signings—El Duque, Mariano, Ichiro, Edgar—were some of their most memorable players from that season.
The Dodgers’ international signings not acquired through trade include Ryu, Puig, Pedro Baez—a troika of players they will lean on deep into October, if not one that matches what either the Yankees or Mariners put on the field during their record-setting seasons. Look, though, at this list of players drafted by the Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw, Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, Ross Stripling, Brock Stewart, and Kyle Farmer.
Kershaw, Seager, and Bellinger account for 12.4 WAR alone. Seager and Bellinger—drafted under the Colletti front office—have come out of the gate swinging, tumbling out of the apparent prospect clown car and quickly overshadowing the team’s would-be prodigy, Joc Pederson, who, at age 25, is playing just a shade over replacement level.
Though the twin prodigies Seager and Bellinger were drafted before Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi’s tenure, they were undoubtedly made all the more able to produce at the major-league level by the farm system run by Gabe Kapler, who has taken an approach to player development that strives to get the whole organization on the same page.
Aside from Kershaw, that’s a lot of value for very, very cheap. Seager, Bellinger, and Pederson are making the minimum—a max of $550,000 apiece—and giving the Dodgers what multiple $30 million players would.
There’s a lot of attention paid to the Dodgers’ bananas payroll (down a little bit this season to $257,158,430) but, as is the nature of baseball, the severely underpaid productive players counter-balance the team’s most overpaid players—or, in many cases, players who are no longer playing for the team.
There are mistakes on their payroll—a botched deal with Carl Crawford, who will be paid $21.8 million by the Dodgers this season, say, or big contracts to which Alex Guerrero, Hector Olivera, and Matt Kemp were signed. (Not that it lessens the damage, but Olivera was the only signing under the current regime.) These mistakes add up: The $47 million the Dodgers owe to players no longer on their roster this year is the fifth-highest obligation in the league. Relative to their resources, though, they aren’t doing much damage. The Dodgers’ dead money, as a proportion of their overall payroll, is the 12th-lowest in the league this season.
Either way, this is big money everywhere, but while the Dodgers are burning lots of money in an absolute sense, they aren’t doing so relative to how much they have to spend. This leaves them significantly better-equipped than most teams to handle bad, dead contracts, and better able than pretty much any team to put a functionally limitless payroll to good use.
The Dodgers’ eye-popping wealth is most evident in a list of all of the players on the disabled list right now. All told, the team’s paying $110,962,539 to the 12 players on the disabled list right now.
That’s basically twice the DL payroll of the Nationals, the team with the next-most sum tied up in laid-up players. It’s approximately the entire payroll of the Pirates, and less than a half-million less than the Red Sox’s 25-man. It’s a lot! This disabled list, though, no matter how expensive, is perhaps the best indication of how much depth the Dodgers have, and how much money they haven’t wasted.
Think of it this way: The Dodgers’ lengthy list of very expensive players on the disabled list—which includes Andre Ethier, Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, Andrew Toles, and Clayton Kershaw—could probably anchor a .500-ish team in the course of a season.
Already, the Dodgers have won 79 games with only 49 games left in the season. They’ve lost only 12 games since the start of June. Tuesday night’s loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks was their first loss to a team not named the Atlanta Braves since July 2. They are 46 games above .500, and have won 25 blowouts. What more does anyone need that could be quantified? This is the team of the year, if not the decade, if not more, engineered to create the highest run differential in baseball—nearly 50 runs higher than the Astros.
And how is that happening? It’s not really a matter of signing fancy all-stars. The guys in the middle of the order—Seager, Turner, and Chris Taylor—are all batting .300+ with OPS’s above .920; Bellinger is, too; and that amounts to two homegrown players and two guys the team found in the dumpster.
If Taylor and Turner need counterparts in the rotation, the honors fall to Alex Wood and Rich Hill. I don’t think most people with the layperson’s eye would have expected Wood to become Kershaw’s new Greinke, posting a 2.33 ERA/178 ERA+ (and, forgive me for the antiquarian approach, but having a record of 13-1 in his 19 games) this season. Hill wasn’t rediscovered by the Dodgers, but they made a good bet on him and it paid off.
All of this amounts to lauding money guys for doing good money stuff. Andrew Friedman has brought the exacting eye he brought to the Tampa Bay Rays to a team with a lot more money; good for him. The best thing about this Dodgers team isn’t that they’re surprisingly efficient with their resources; it’s that they’re fun.
There have been a few jokes about the Warriors in the AL East—Brian Cashman attaching that label to the Red Sox, Dave Dombrowski returning the honor to the Yankees after the trade deadline. But the Dodgers are the high-offense, precise-pitching team people east of L.A. can and do and should stay up for. This is an all-boats-rise type of roster; they create fun on the field, but they also have personality around the edges.
Yasiel Puig has—curiously, since about the time A.J. Ellis was traded—become a little more goofy and more obviously attempting to be and have fun. Brandon McCarthy is one of baseball’s better voices, joining the segment of us who were made to feel old by Bellinger’s supposition that he didn’t know who Jerry Seinfeld is. And Kiké Hernandez and his precarious nickname has established himself as one of baseball’s resident goofballs, a guy whose personality and entertaining play made me surprised to learn he isn’t putting up better numbers in his appearances.
There are arguments to be made against intangibles and the boogeyman notion of clubhouse chemistry, but it’s hard to look at this current Dodgers team and think they aren’t making the most of it. They are running in sync, creating compelling television (and live events for those in L.A.), and are doing it in a manner that doesn’t quite feel like the bubble can burst.
Of course, as it is with any team but especially the Dodgers, what will matter will be what they pull off in October. The Dodgers have in recent years been That Team, one with postseason performances that don’t align with their expected success, making them all the more vulnerable to speculation and a little bit of schadenfreude. And now, more than ever, they better hope they can at least get through the NLCS.