It’s baffling sometimes how things in baseball (and other sports) change. Not long ago, players didn’t debut the same year or the year after they were drafted. In football, the top quarterback sat for a year or two behind the mediocre veteran. Now, youth and inexperience lead the way — and it isn’t a bad thing.
Enter the Dodgers. Before last offseason, the Dodgers didn’t tend to give young players that much of a chance to produce when they might not have been fully ready yet. The Dodgers have had an average team age of no younger than 29.4 years from 2009 through this last season. They were baseball’s fourth-oldest team in 2015 at 29.6 years old. They ran into the Mets’ youth in the National League Division Series. Granted, they had an average age of 29 years old (ninth-oldest in baseball), their starting rotation of Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz averaged just less than 25 years old. That doesn’t even include 24-year-old Zack Wheeler, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery. They also have some young position players and relievers.
The NL runners-up in Chicago were the eighth-youngest team in baseball and have an incredible nucleus of young players that has them built for the long haul. Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler averaged 23 years old. Their age is tied up in their pitching, which isn’t a bad thing by any means.
This offseason, the Dodgers have to figure out a way to get younger overall. They started last season by going with 23-year-old Joc Pederson in center field, (obviously) sticking with 24-year-old Yasiel Puig in right field, getting younger with 26-year-old Yasmani Grandal behind the plate, recalled 21-year-old Corey Seager in September and had a youngster like 23-year-old Enrique Hernandez off the bench. On the mound, 24-year-old Alex Wood was acquired from Atlanta and gave 25-year-old Carlos Frias some starts.
The Dodgers have plenty of other youth, but they’re also old in some spots. Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Adrian Gonzalez are all going into their age-34 season, while Zack Greinke (if re-signed) will be 32. Justin Turner is just on the wrong side of 30 and J.P. Howell will be entering his age-33 season. There’s nothing wrong with having players who are 30-plus years old. No MLB team can be successful without those proven veterans. Breaking news: Players get older. It’s the job of the front office to have replacements ready when those guys become unproductive, retire or play out their contracts. The last year has seen that philosophy begin to play out.
The Dodgers acquired four prospects for international slot money. They signed a bunch of youngsters on the first day of the July 2 period. They didn’t trade any young prospects of significance and actually traded 30-year-old Hector Olivera to get Wood and 21-year-old Jose Peraza.
I don’t see the Dodgers signing a lot of 30-plus veterans to long-term deals. The Dodgers will end up with one of Greinke or David Price. Those long-term deals will be fine because they’re great pitchers and the Dodgers are still expected to contend for a World Series. They aren’t going to tear everything down in order to get high draft picks and rebuild the way the Astros and, to a lesser extent, the Cubs did. They’re going to have to do this building while also contending for a championship. With the largest payroll in the game, that goal will be easier to attain.
Youth doesn’t equal success, just as money doesn’t guarantee championships. But the Dodgers could afford to get younger in some spots. Probably not in the starting rotation, but almost everywhere else, there could be an infusion of youth.
While I like Ben Zobrist, it probably isn’t wise to give a 35-year-old a 4-year deal at $15-plus million per season. Going with Hernandez, Peraza and Utley (despite going into his age 37-season) would be a more prudent move than giving Zobrist or Howie Kendrick big deals. Jason Heyward would be the perfect fit, as I’ve written about already this offseason, but I’m not expecting him to sign. Moving Crawford is probably near the top of the Dodgers’ “To Do” list, as that would open up a spot for Scott Schebler (especially if Scott Van Slyke can rebound from a downish 2015 season). There’s no really getting younger at the corner infield spots. Andrelton Simmons‘ trade to Anaheim basically quashes any chance of that. Also, Gonzalez and Turner are still plenty productive to be full-timers (or as much a full-time guy as Turner can be) for this club.
If the Dodgers don’t get younger, they could have a difficult time getting by the Cubs and Mets in the future. The Mets to a lesser extent, but if they ever get their money situation figured out, that starting rotation could anchor that club for almost a decade. I’m confident it will happen.
So, when moves start happening and they make you scratch your head slightly, just know the front office has a plan for the short- and long-term. This offseason will help shape this organization and its viability for the next handful of years.