Dodgers Next Owner Will Need Patience

With prospective owners lining up around the block to bid for the Los Angeles Dodgers, we thought it’d be helpful to shine a light on just what kind of team they’d be buying. While the franchise’s history and large fan base offer value on their own, the team will be more profitable if the new owners can turn them into winners in a hurry. So, how far away are the Dodgers from being contenders?

Let’s start with the good news. The team has two franchise building blocks in Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, young stars who are already performing at an elite level. There aren’t many teams in baseball that have two young players of this quality, and they are certainly capable of forming the foundation of a championship team.

The bad news is that those two performed about as well as anyone can realistically be asked to in 2011 and the team still won just 82 games, finishing in third place in the NL West. If the team is going to contend, it will have to get better performances from the supporting cast because they can’t realistically expect to get much more from Kershaw and Kemp than they got a year ago.

In looking at the rest of the roster, it gets a little bit tougher to find long-term value once you get past the big two. Chad Billingsley has a good arm and has pitched well at times, and he’s signed to a pretty reasonable contract that will keep him in LA through at least 2014. Kenley Jansen looks like he could develop into one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. Dee Gordon held his own as a 23-year-old rookie and could provide value at shortstop, especially while he’s cheap.

However, when your list of long-term assets on the roster are a starting pitcher coming off his worst season, a reliever with command problems and a 150-pound infielder who might not ever hit a home run in the big leagues, you know your roster might have some issues. And there’s no question that whoever buys the Dodgers is going to have some work to do to turn the team into a perennial winner.

Beyond those five young talents, the rest of the roster is mostly made up of aging veterans — many of whom are being paid handsome salaries that limit the team’s ability to replace them — and mediocre role players who probably won’t be part of the next good Dodgers team.

The rotation behind Kershaw and Billingsley is made up of Ted Lilly, Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang, all of whom are now in their 30s and under contract for two more seasons. They’re decent arms who provide depth for the current rotation, but there aren’t any long-term answers to the rotation in that group.

On the position player side of things, there are some young talents, but the problem is that they’re simply not all that great. At 29 years old, Andre Ethier could be an answer for the present and the future. But he’s only under contract through the end of the upcoming season, and he won’t be cheap to keep around, and his injury problems and significant downturn in power last year provide even more question marks about his future value. James Loney is 27, and he’s hit just .278/.342/.403 over the last three seasons. Like Ethier, he will be a free agent next winter. The team shouldn’t be overly interested in paying him significant money to keep providing below-average production at first base. Jerry Sands is young and showed power in the crazy offensive environment of the Pacific Coast League, but he slugged just .389 in the majors, an uninspiring mark for a corner outfielder.

Bleak future
Using previous performance and typical aging patterns we can estimate each Dodgers’ value in 2013. Right now, they come up way short of the 45 wins above replacement typically needed to make the playoffs.

PLAYER ESTIMATED WAR
Matt Kemp 6
Clayton Kerhsaw 6
Chad Billingsley 3
Ted Lilly 2
Chris Capuano 2
Dee Gordon 2
Jerry Sands 2
Kenley Jansen 1
Juan Uribe 1
Aaron Harang 1
Mark Ellis 1
Tony Gwynn 1
A.J. Ellis 1
Matt Guerrier 0.5
Jerry Hairston 0.5
Total 30

The reality is that the Dodgers just don’t have the talent on-hand to produce a contending club very soon. The new owners are going to have to invest in the roster to bring in new talent, but they’re probably going to need to raise the payroll in order to do it. For 2013, the team has approximately $83 million in committed salaries to 10 players (plus Andruw Jones, whom they’re still paying to not play for them), and that doesn’t include Clayton Kershaw’s paycheck, which won’t be cheap, whether they take him to arbitration or sign him to an extension.

Given that the team spent about $110 million in each of the last two years, there would only be about $15 million left to fill out the remaining 14 roster spots. At $1.1 million per roster spot, you’re not getting much in the way of premium talent, so the Dodgers’ new owners will simply have to spend more money in order to lure impact players to LA.

How much would they need to invest? Well, let’s calculate out the expected value of the guys under contract for the 2013 season, based on their prior performances and the assumption that they will age fairly normally (see table to right). Remember that 2 wins above replacement is basically league average for a full-time player.

That’s 30 WAR from 15 players. No playoff team in 2011 finished with fewer than 45 WAR, so the Dodgers would need to add approximately 15 wins in order to make themselves legitimate contenders, and they’d only have 10 roster spots in order to do it. The free agent market is currently pricing wins at $4-to-5 million a piece, so if the new owners wanted to buy their way into contention within a year, they’d need to green light between $60 and $75 million in spending next offseason.

In reality, turning the Dodgers around is probably going to be a several-year process, and the franchise will be better off if the group that wins the bidding accepts that the team might need to struggle for a year or two before the turnaround can begin in earnest. By 2014, the team will only be on the hook for significant salaries to Kemp, Kershaw and Billingsley, leaving the team with plenty of flexibility to remake the supporting cast around their young stars.

While the Texas Rangers were able to emerge from bankruptcy and turn themselves into World Series contenders in a hurry, the Dodgers are likely looking at a more measured path to success. By focusing on adding quality young players through the draft and trades, the team can set itself up well for a strong run in two years. Until then, however, things might not be great in Dodgertown.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

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