On Saturday, the Los Angeles Dodgers gave one of the biggest contracts in baseball history to Zack Greinke. On Sunday, the Dodgers gave a big contract to Ryu Hyun-Jin, who has never before pitched in the majors. The Dodgers still might not even be done, and neither of the moves this weekend came as a surprise, because as we’ve established, the Dodgers have all of the money. The Dodgers have money and a baseball team, so it only makes sense that they would spend liberally to improve the baseball team. These Dodgers aren’t your daddy’s Dodgers. These Dodgers are your older brother’s Yankees.
As the Yankees have made a goal of exhibiting financial restraint, the Dodgers have been like “**** that” and they’re prepared to enter 2013 with the highest payroll that baseball’s ever seen. It was not very long ago that the Dodgers were bankrupt. Then there was the Hanley Ramirez trade. Remember the Hanley Ramirez trade? Then Brandon League, and Shane Victorino, and Joe Blanton, and acquiring the Red Sox. Then Greinke. Then Ryu Hyun-Jin. Yasiel Puig was in there somewhere. So was an Andre Ethier extension. Of course, like everyone else, the Dodgers have their limits, but we’ve been given no indication that the limits are being approached.
What this is, first, is interesting. The Dodgers are basically like a cartoon, like something that can’t exist in real life. It’s as if they’re trying to make up for those years they had to track every penny. If there’s a free agent, and he’s good, you might as well figure the Dodgers have interest. If there’s a free agent, and he isn’t good, you can still make your jokes, because the Dodgers might sign everyone. It had been a little while since baseball had a team like this. And baseball has never had a team quite like this.
What this is, second, is interesting in a different way. Imagine yourself as a Dodgers fan, if you aren’t one already. It has to be all kinds of exciting to be in the middle of everything, so able to flex so many massive financial muscles. But now think about the coming season. The expectations are going to be lofty, the pressure on the team unlike the pressure on anyone else. Is it actually going to be fun to root for the Dodgers? What is the experience when winning feels required? I know that Yankees fans have had complaints in recent years. It’s easy for a high-priced team to start to feel soulless, and I don’t think we’re in it only for the winning.
What this is, third, is interesting in still another way. The Dodgers make one want to mess around with hypotheticals. The Dodgers, presumably, have limits. But what if the Dodgers don’t have limits, or at least not limits that can reasonably be approached? To what extent can the Dodgers “buy a championship”? Could they buy a 120-win team? Could they buy a 130-win team? What if the Dodgers were to have the highest-priced player at every position?
This is an extreme hypothetical, but I had to sate my curiosity. So I went into the numbers and built a 2012 roster based on the highest average annual values. I took the five highest-paid starting pitchers, and in the bullpen I quit after four since it’s not like the Dodgers could reasonably acquire seven proven, expensive closers. I also didn’t really fill out the bench since proven, good, expensive players wouldn’t volunteer to occupy a reserve role. This is only one team for one year, but the results are interesting, I think:
I gave the team Ichiro because Crawford missed a lot of time, but Ichiro had the same average annual value as Jayson Werth and Vernon Wells. It’s not really important. You could fill out the rest of the bench and the bullpen, but that also wouldn’t be really important. Where this gets interesting is when you start adding together the 2012 WAR. For pitchers, I used RA9-WAR, to capture what actually happened. I gave each unnamed bench player 1 WAR. I gave each unnamed reliever 0.5 WAR. Again, little details; not really important.
This group of players would’ve been good for about 49 WAR in 2012. You can give or take a few as you desire. The zero-WAR baseline comes out at 42.5 wins, meaning this group of players would’ve been expected to win about 92 games, give or take a few as you desire. A team that wins 92 games is a good baseball team, but it is not an extraordinarily good baseball team. The Giants actually won 94 games. If this team existed in 2012, it probably would’ve made the playoffs, but it wouldn’t have been a juggernaut.
Which goes to show how much and also how little practically limitless spending can accomplish. We still can’t predict player performance very well, nor can we predict which players will get hurt and which will remain durable. Long, expensive contracts frequently end up looking a lot worse at the end than they did at the beginning. There are better high-priced contracts than others, and the Dodgers might in theory spend more wisely, but on the other hand, Andre Ethier. Spending a ton of money everywhere greatly increases the odds that your baseball team will be good, but one needn’t be too concerned that the Dodgers will start buying championships. It’s not nearly that simple. The Dodgers have only so many roster spots, and players get worse and break down. Even the expensive ones.
It’s fun to entertain the idea of the Dodgers having the most expensive players at every position. If they’d done that in 2012, they would’ve been good, but they probably would’ve come up short of winning the World Series. Baseball is still sufficiently unpredictable that the Dodgers might never accomplish what they’ve set out to accomplish. To paraphrase so, so many people, they still have to play the games, and money can buy you only so much. Good luck to the Dodgers, because they, like everybody else, are going to need it.
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