A quiet Dodgers offseason speaks volumes about next year’s top priority: Shuhei Ohtani

The Los Angeles Dodgers won 111 games last season and then crashed at the start of October. They lost 300 million dollars a second in two years to liberalize the agency. They cut the bait on former MVP Cody Bellinger and what was likely an $18 million salary in arbitration. And they quickly re-upped franchise avatar Clayton Kershaw with the latest string of one-year deals.

Then they watched two of the biggest free agents — shortstops, though — sign monster deals with division rivals San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants. All along, the Dodgers’ offseason has remained conspicuously quiet.

In previous years, early winter lulls ended with a bang, as when Chief of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman swooped in to sign Freddie Freeman in the last off-season. Or in 2020, when the Dodgers dropped Mookie Betts, a week shy of spring training. It’s still theoretically possible that an influencer trade could be imminent, but the biggest stars available for this winter are now being talked about. And none of them, except for Kershaw, wore Dodger blue.

Quietly, the Dodgers are probably talking about their top priority, the big bang they hope will eventually knock out Chavez Raven: Shuhei Ohtani.

The independent two-way star looms over this winter’s high-powered free agent class and, in fact, all of its action. His commitment to the wayward Los Angeles Angels is waning — and he’ll be up for free agency after the upcoming 2023 season — and the 2021 AL MVP has mentioned the win’s priority in rare public comments on the matter of his future.

Under the cloud of an impending change of ownership, Angels GM Perry Minasian publicly announced in November that the team would not pursue Ohtani’s Juan Soto-style deal this season, but the next 365 days or so are set up as perhaps the best and last window to bring Ohtani to the baseball team. your.

The Dodgers seem intent on getting ready to pounce.

Angels star Shuhei Ohtani, pictured here at Dodger Stadium during the 2022 All-Star festivities, is said to be a top priority for the Dodgers ahead of his impending free agency after 2023. (Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Images via Getty Images)

How the Dodgers are preparing themselves for 2023 and beyond

It wasn’t exactly a dry season. The Dodgers signed hitter JD Martinez, starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard and relief pitcher Shelby Miller to one-year deals. They also added their player Jason Heyward to a minor league contract. If it were 2015, that would be massive. For 2023, it’s going to be very careful – if it’s even likely to be effective! An effort to fill the gaps in the major leagues while keeping their powder dry for 2024 and beyond.

Let’s talk about why future spending plans may dilute the Dodgers’ paychecks in 2023 because it’s not as simple as “OMG OHTANI.” At least, it’s not that simple.

The Dodgers’ current ownership group has been at the helm for 10 full seasons and has paid MLB’s competitive balance tax to pass the payroll threshold at least once in seven of them. The Dodgers have paid each of the past two seasons, and have carried baseball’s highest payroll both times. When SBNation’s Eric Steffen collapsed earlier this month, the Dodgers’ moves (or lack thereof) pointed not to some philosophical ax toward austerity (like the Chaim Bloom Red Sox) but toward a one-year reset.

CBT penalties escalate for teams that exceed the tax threshold three or more seasons in a row. This means that for the Dodgers, spending a touch below the $233 million threshold in 2023, then jumping back into the $280 million range in 2024 could save over $10 million compared to a scenario where they spend the same amount over the two seasons. the next two but in an evenly distributed manner.

Sure, the Dodgers’ ownership group can afford to pay the taxes and can continue to run the $300 million fiddle with the payroll. But if they ask Friedman’s front office to reset the clock every once in a while, that inconvenient time feels as good as any. The market has swung wildly towards the kind of extended, extended super deal deals the Dodgers generally avoid in free agency.

The player the Dodgers signed — a 12-year, $365 million extension with the Petes — now looks like a steal. Since he’s been the most valuable player in baseball for the past five years, he’s in a class of two alongside Mike Trott when it comes to consistency of excellence. He remains five months younger than Aaron Judge. As an added boon for the Dodgers, the Betts deal is worth about $25.6 million in CBT accounts because the delays reduced the total value of the deal to about $306.7 million in signing day dollars.

The Dodgers’ other big commitment is $24.7 million a year through 2027 to Freeman, who is essentially a baseball-playing machine and famously hit every day.

These are your guaranteed financial anchors, and they’re good. The younger anchors, pre-free agency is pretty good, too: One of the game’s top catchers, Will Smith, is expected to make a hair’s worth of more than $5 million in his first year of refereeing. Ace rookie Julio Urias, in his final year before hitting free agency, is expected to make $13.7 million.

Questions bypass them in the list. With Trea Turner and Corey Seager shut down as frontrunners for the new franchises, Gavin Lux will be tasked with holding down shortstops full-time, barring another move. The 25-year-old took a big step forward in 2022, posting an above-average hitting streak for the first time and playing a solid second base. But his defensive performance didn’t stand out, and the metrics for his limited runs weren’t encouraging.

Especially with the new changeover restrictions putting more stress on the individual sport, the Dodgers have some tough decisions to make on the field. Chris Taylor may be asked to play more second base after years spent mostly in the outfield. Max Muncy, a bazaar whose postural flexibility is enhanced by gymnastic positioning, will mostly be limited to third rather than second, and even that would be a serious challenge.

On the field, a non-competitive Bellinger means the Dodgers are currently counting on Trayce Thompson (the 2022 upset feels more like a flash in the frying pan than a long-term find) and James Ottman, a top rookie athlete who will turn 26 in May. It’s possible that Miguel Vargas will find a place to play with his promising at-bat, but he doesn’t think he’ll help much anywhere defensively. Two big prospects – Andy Pages on the field, Michael Bosh on the field – are close enough to the majors to be considered, but aren’t seen as impactful players to save spots for, like the Yankees and Anthony Volpe.

It all adds up to a plan that leaves more to the imagination than recent “tournament or bust” Los Angeles teams were prepared for. Next season is looking awful as the year of the bridge in Los Angeles – or maybe the first half of the bridge – so it’s only natural to wonder what the bridge is building towards.

Dodgers President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman (left), president and part-owner Stan Kasten (center), and manager Dave Roberts (right) combined for baseball's winningest team in recent years, but only won the World Series in the abbreviated 2020 season.  (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

Dodgers President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman (left), president and part-owner Stan Kasten (center), and manager Dave Roberts (right) combined for baseball’s winningest team in recent years, but only won the World Series in the abbreviated 2020 season. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

What the Dodgers save

Despite the frustration with their original pursuit of Otani when he left Japan, the Dodgers “really want” the two-way star, according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. With the designated hitter now universal and rotational flexibility already a Dodgers staple, Ohtani seems like a perfect fit.

Not that the idea of ​​an Ohtani acquisition needed much marketing help. In fact, he would seem like a perfect fit for many teams – an otherworldly talent who could be the default preseason selection for baseball’s Most Valuable Player for the next few years.

Otani will turn 29 in the middle of the 2023 season and 30 in the middle of 2024, his first year on his new contract, and possibly with his new team. Given what we’ve just seen of stars like Judge, Turner and Xander Bogaerts, Otani could get at least nine years and $400 million if he continues to perform as well as he did in 2021 and ’22. Familiar foes like the San Francisco Giants and New York Mets are also up for bidding. Ohtani, and it seems we can’t count AJ Preller’s San Diego Padres any time a star is available.

Besides the large financial requirements, Ohtani requires some menu specifications. He needs to be in the DH slot almost every day and has so far managed six man rotations. (This would be a reason, among other things, for the Dodgers to favor Martinez on a one-year deal, rather than the two-year deal Justin Turner got from the Boston Red Sox.)

And if the Angels do disappointing things again in the first half of 2023, the Dodgers need to at least be prepared to try to trade for Ohtani and make a lot of that by this summer’s deadline. In fact, landing at Ohtani, Friedman realizes, will likely require some uncomfortable decisions.

Finally, there are a few additional considerations as to why the Dodgers, the preeminent bundle of financial and fielding power in MLB in recent years, are saving now to splurge later.

  • The club’s ill-fated deal with suspended pitcher Trevor Bauer expires after 2023, and Rosenthal reports that at least part of his warning this winter stems from concern his ban could be relaxed by an arbitrator, requiring the team to pay some of it. of the remaining funds.

  • Urias, the teen phenom turned ace, will hit free agency after 2023 if an extension deal is not reached, leaving the Dodgers’ rotation outlook too weak for the healthy, proven starters. Walker Buehler will likely miss all of 2023 due to Tommy John surgery.

  • The upcoming non-Ohtani rollout options seem stronger and younger than the winter crop (to the point where we can anticipate these things in advance). Aaron Nola, Jack Flaherty, Lucas Giolito, and Jermaine Marquez are all slated to hit free agency next season. Also keep an eye out for Corbin Burnes and Shane Bieber, elite pitchers in free agency in 2025. Their smaller salary teams may decide to take them apart, should extended discussions prove futile.

Away from Ohtani, next year’s free agent class is likely to be headlined by third basemen: Rafael Devers and possibly Manny Machado, assuming he stays healthy and opts out. The Dodgers may also be interested in Devers and/or reuniting with Machado, though those don’t seem to inspire the same kind of plot as chasing Ohtani.

Even if the Dodgers go out this winter and trade an outside player under the team’s control — the Pirates’ Bryan Reynolds or post-hype option like the Mariners’ Jarred Kelenic could make sense — their general plan seems clear: retain young and tested position players, and slip into what below the CBT threshold for 2023, filling the gaps with one-year commitments or viable youth players defensively, and keeping options open at DH and in the rotation.

It’s a rare moment of suspense and suspense for a Dodgers team that’s been relentlessly living right now — and a team that, to be clear, can still easily be favored to win the NL West title in 2023. Ohtani, though, seems to be the rare player who deserves restraint. required in preparation—as long as the Dodgers are willing to go the extra mile to get it.

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