Dodgers losing out on Bryce Harper is no one’s fault but their own

Yesterday was a bad day. After the Dodgers were not only seemingly back in the Bryce Harper sweepstakes, but in the lead, he opted to sign a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies.

Chad was right.

I blame myself for getting my hopes up, but this sucks. What makes it suck even more is the fact the Dodgers’ offer wasn’t even really competitive.

“But Dustin, how can you say $45 million per season isn’t competitive?”

Well, when you factor everything in that came out after the news broke, it makes a little more sense.

Harper wanted a long-term commitment from the team he signed with. He told his agent Scott Boras to get the longest contract possible. The Dodgers offering three or four years wasn’t gonna cut it, no matter the average annual value. And since Boras got Harper 13 years, he had to give up some AAV to make it happen. That makes sense. There’s also a non-zero chance if the Dodgers got to eight or 10 years, Harper could have chosen LA.

Harper and Boras also wanted a high total dollar figure. At 3-4 years, the Dodgers would have had to offer an insane, unrealistic AAV. No one goes around and says, “I have the largest contract in MLB history … if you go by AAV.” Having that $330 million figure is something tangible Harper can cite. And I wouldn’t have had a problem giving him 10 years and $330 million, for whatever that’s worth.

Harper also didn’t want any opt-outs. So, the Dodgers going to a longer deal with an opt-out or two included wouldn’t really have enticed Harper. In essence, a 3-4-year deal at a high AAV basically equates to a front-loaded deal with an opt-out after the same amount of time. Harper probably didn’t want to go through this song and dance again at age-30, because a lot of 30-plus free agents haven’t been terribly successful in this free-agent climate.

If the Dodgers were intent on only offering four years — down from the six I had heard behind the scenes — then what was the point of sending Mark Walter, Stan Kasten, Andrew Friedman and Dave Roberts to Las Vegas on Sunday night to meet with Harper? It almost reeks of a type of arrogance. The Dodgers sent that heavy-hitting contingent with the thought that Harper would accept a 4-year deal with a high AAV because LA? Come on. Yeah, $45 million per season is an incredible dollar amount, but over four years it doesn’t come close to the total guarantee Harper go from the Phillies. Maybe it was a case of Boras playing the Dodgers (and Giants) against the Phillies to get a better final offer from Philadelphia, but the Dodgers had to know Harper was looking for something more long-term, as had been reported all winter.

Some will criticize Harper for not jumping on a ridiculous AAV to potentially benefit players in the future — especially after Yasmani Grandal turned down a 4-year, $60 million offer from the Mets to sign a 1-year, $18.25 million deal with the Brewers. But it isn’t Harper’s responsibility to do what’s best for the union, just as it wasn’t Grandal’s (yes, he should have taken the 4/60 offer). 

This offer to Harper was made by the Dodgers so the team and those who carry their water could say “we/they tried” when they really had no intention of signing Harper to anything close to what he wanted and wanted and eventually ended up getting. I’m not saying the Dodgers needed to give 13 years. Hell, they probably didn’t have to give 10 (even if they could have done so) if Harper truly wanted to play in Los Angeles. An 8-year, $320 million deal could have been enough to entice him. That would have been five fewer years and $10 million less than he got from Philadelphia, but if location meant anything, it may have been enough. There’s no guarantee and we’ll likely never know, but the Dodgers’ 4-year proposal was never, ever going to work.

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So, here we are. Harper has finally signed and the Dodgers are still approximately $13 million under the luxury tax. I’m sure some of that will be allocated for contract bonuses/incentives, but also for midseason acquisitions — a strategy the Dodgers have employed over the last four years. The problem with that is it’s an unsustainable strategy. At some point, they’re going to trade the “wrong” prospect or run out of quality mid-tier prospects to fulfill the requirements of a deal. And you can almost guarantee that they won’t crest the luxury tax again for a second consecutive season.

There aren’t any Corey Seagers, Cody Bellingers or Julio Urias’ in the system right now. Alex Verdugo is good, but his ceiling is limited. Keibert Ruiz might be the best catching prospect in the game, but his offensive ceiling is also limited. Maybe Dustin May takes a step forward (again) and establishes himself as a No. 1-type pitcher (but that doesn’t seem likely). Maybe Diego Cartaya is the second coming of prime Yadier Molina, but he’s also just 17 years old.

The point is, there aren’t always going to be the impactful upgrade at the trade deadline. Rich Hill was a good fit. Yu Darvish was a good fit. Manny Machado was a good fit. But how many times can one go back to that well?

Instead of using the one resource you know will always be there (money), you’re opting to dip into a farm system that is still solid, but at the rate prospects are being traded it cannot be replenished at the same rate. It will become an issue at some point, unless the Dodgers develop some of the talent at the lower levels of the minors.

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Speaking of the money, if the Dodgers weren’t going to spend the requisite money to acquire Harper, then who are they willing to spend it on? Keep in mind I’m talking about players outside the organization.

The Padres — the team with the best farm system in the game — did it the way a team should. They bought the big free agent (Machado) to supplement the elite farm system. Pretty soon, the Padres will have a formidable team, led by Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr. and a host of other premium prospects.

Nolan Arenado may have been in the Dodgers’ plans for next offseason, but he signed a massive contract extension with the Rockies last week that took him off the board. And there was no reason to really expect they’d have been in on him (but other teams definitely would have been).

Looking down the line, there are some impactful potential free agents over the next three offseasons, but there’s no way all of them reach the open market. You have guys like Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale, Anthony Rendon and Justin Verlander next year — none of whom are the type of both impact and youthful free agent that Harper was (but most have been more consistently productive). Two offseasons from now, Mike Trout and Mookie Betts are set to hit the open market, but there’s no way the Dodgers are getting either of them. They wouldn’t pay the required dollars or make the long-term commitment to sign them. Trout will be courted by teams willing to do that, if he isn’t extended first. Betts just seems like he’ll be a Red Sox for life. Jacob deGrom is also a free agent, but he’ll be going into his age-32 season by then. In three offseasons from now — which doesn’t do a lot for the present Dodgers — the only player who comes close to reaching that Harper-Machado combination of ability, talent and youth is Carlos Correa, who will be going into his age-27 season. There are other quality free agents, but none of them compare to what we just saw with Harper and Machado.

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The bottom line here is the Dodgers will need to spend significant money on players outside the organization at some point. They didn’t do it for Harper (or Machado) this offseason, and without a lot of future commitments, they’ll be in a position to do it in the future … right? Yes, they’ll have to have some money allocated for potential contract extensions or re-signings (Seager after 2021, Bellinger after 2023, Walker Buehler after 2024, etc.), but they simply cannot just spend money on players already in the organization. Like trading to fill needs at the trade deadline annually, that isn’t sustainable because they won’t produce good enough talent to make that a reality. It’s not a knock on the org or player development, it’s just a fact.

What I’m concerned about is Harper was there for the taking and they passed. Maybe the value him differently than others (myself included), but the most lucrative contract they’ve given to a non-Dodger free agent has been Pollock’s 4-year, $55 million/5-year, $60 million deal. That doesn’t bode well for signing future big-time free agents.

Kenley Jansen, Clayton Kershaw and Justin Turner are going to move on at some point or they’re not going to be as good as they are now. If the Dodgers are planning three years out to remain competitive, that doesn’t do a lot for the current crop of players. The other core players on the team are not only young but relatively inexpensive. That would have been the perfect time to splurge on an elite free agent. The Dodgers thought otherwise.

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I’m not asking Dodger ownership to spend $300 million on payroll every year. What I am asking is for them to use their significant financial advantage to their benefit, as they when they first bought the team (and, ironically, ran a $300 million payroll one year). This self-handcuffing is a bad, bad look — especially when this team has fallen short in the last two World Series. This is the time to be going all-in and doing everything they can to win it all, and the fact that they aren’t is wholly disappointing.

I’m definitely mad online. I’m not sure any Dodger fan wanted Harper in LA more than me (OK, I’m not that self-important). My criticism might be harsh, but man, the fact they didn’t even make a truly competitive offer is frustrating.

They’ll probably win their 7th-consecutive NL West title, but it isn’t a birthright. The Padres are going to contend. The Rockies will push them this year. The Giants won’t always be bad. So the Dodgers’ window isn’t closing yet, but if they choose not to spend on elite free agents, it’ll close a lot quicker than we expect.

About Dustin Nosler

Dustin Nosler
Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosts a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He is a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.