It’s not often that a 24-hour period in the offseason can cause this much pain, but here we are. To recap, today:
- The Dodgers let future hall-of-famer Max Scherzer go to the Mets for a 3-year, $130 million contract (with an opt-out after the second year).
- The Dodgers let Corey Seager, who may also be Cooperstown-bound if the back half of his career breaks right, go to the Rangers for a reported 10-year, $325 million commitment.
- Perhaps the Dodgers’ best projected hitter for next season, Max Muncy, stated in an interview that he has a torn UCL and that his rehab has been “slow,” raising questions about his ability to start the season on time and his effectiveness upon return.
- Oh, and there’s probably going to be a lock-out in a few days.
Losing Max Scherzer to the Mets definitely hurts, though in some ways it’s less painful than the Seager news. Despite that, the Dodgers’ need for more pitching is pretty obvious, and given his ceiling and presence on the team last year, Scherzer seemed like a perfect fit. After letting Scherzer leave, the Dodgers’ best starter behind Walker Buehler and Julio Urias is either Andrew Heaney or Tony Gonsolin. Even Scherzer alone would not solve this problem.
Scherzer’s “dead arm” at the end of the postseason is certainly cause for concern, and the Dodgers probably know more about what’s going on in there than most. However, “dead arm” usually sounds scarier in description than in practice, and a lot of Scherzer’s end-of-season fatigue can be explained away by the circumstances of 2021: an extra-long season following an extra-short one. The Mets’ contract with Scherzer certainly comes with risk, but so will anything else the Dodgers do to address the holes in the rotation. Those risks are now compounded by the risk that Scherzer’s replacement will not be as good as Scherzer; it will be near-impossible to find an arm who has the potential to provide as much value as the 2021’s Cy Young’s bronze medalist, other than maybe Carlos Rodon (and he comes with more injury risk than anybody).
Watching Corey Seager play in another uniform will be heartbreaking. Yes, the Dodgers have an MVP-caliber shortstop in Trea Turner already, so the “need” is not as present as it is in the rotation, but that way of viewing the depth chart is a bit short-sighted. It is likely that there will be a designated hitter in the National League next season, and Justin Turner‘s age means that he will get time in that slot to keep him off his feet. That could have provided Seager with a softer landing to transition to his inevitable home at third base.
Seager has been one of the best hitters in the league over the past two seasons, and he’s done almost everything he can to shed his “injury-prone” label (getting hit in the hand does not make one injury-prone). Every fundamental aspect of his swing looks like one that can age well, so if he stays healthy, he should be able to contribute for a long time. Beyond that, Seager will forever be a part of franchise lore after his 2020 playoff performance, and to see him in another uniform after that will be painful. If Seager lives up to the value of his contract, he could well end up in the Hall of Fame, and today’s news means that it would likely be with a blank hat or as a Ranger. It’s hard to avoid thinking about Adrian Beltre right now.
The season doesn’t start tomorrow, but it’s okay to be frustrated about the Dodgers’ lack of action so far. The Dodgers could have kept both Seager and Scherzer if they really wanted to, no matter what other parts of the media say. It also highlights a fundamental flaw in how contracts like these are judged: viewing them as “risky” only works if there’s a hard limit on a team’s finances. The Dodgers are operated as a business, so they can’t spend a literally unlimited amount of money, but the thing that sets them apart from the rest of the league is the theoretical depth of their pockets. It’s their biggest strength, and in letting Seager and Scherzer go, they’ve elected not to use it at this moment.
This is something the team understands, to a degree. They have spent more money than anybody in recent years; Mookie Betts is about to start the second year of his 12 year contract. It’s not fair to call them a “cheap” team. But as more free agents sign, it becomes more apparent that the Dodgers will need to address their needs, particularly at starting pitcher, on the trade market.
This is where the Dodgers letting Seager and/or Scherzer go because of their cost falls apart. The Dodgers frequently trade for need, and partially as a result of this, the farm system is as thin as it has been for some time. That’s not to say there aren’t promising names in the system — you’ll be reading Dustin’s effusive praise of Miguel Vargas in a few months — but they’re weaker in that area than they have been for awhile. The Dodgers felt this thinness pretty badly at the end of last season. They’ve depended on upper minors depth to fill out the back of their rosters in previous seasons, and this time there weren’t any serviceable bats there when the Dodgers needed them most.
Using their well of prospects to fix their biggest flaws at the top level, particularly midseason, was sustainable for so long because the Dodgers were far ahead of the league in player development. That is still probably true on the pitching side, with the “Dodger slider” sweeping breaker becoming a thing this season, but that is less clear on the hitting side. This hitting development advantage helped them get so much value out of Muncy and Chris Taylor, and let them do things like trade for Jeter Downs and flip him as a part of the Mookie Betts package a year later, but the league is starting to catch up. There are pitfalls to assuming you’ll always have a big development edge, particularly as the front office talents who help deliver those advantages move to other teams. It doesn’t always feel like a sustainable team-building model.
Instead, with the prospect well running drier than usual, this seems like the perfect time for the Dodgers to spend. Spending more money on free agents, while potentially painful down the line, would allow the team to restock the minors, especially if fewer trades are required before the start of the season or in July. Just paying the money for Scherzer (or Robbie Ray or Kevin Gausman or whomever) would get that portion of the franchise in better shape than a course of action which would require more trades. Perhaps that would have a net negative impact in 3-5 years, but as long as the Dodgers can spend, they can absorb the potential long-term negative downside more effectively than basically any other team in the league.
As a fan, you don’t have to care about the Dodgers’ budget. That’s not your job. Additionally, spending for Seager or Scherzer wouldn’t have any material effect on any Dodger owner’s quality of life. They’re set for life, their children are set for life, and their children’s children’s children’s children’s children are set for life. Baseball is penny stocks for them. Money not spent on players will probably be funneled into a lobbying firm for something you don’t like, or used to suppress the value of labor somewhere else. It’s tough to hear “we tried” from a team this rich when viewing it through that lens.
Oh, and when it rains it pours:
Max Muncy revealed injury details to @alannarizzo on MLB Network just now.— Matthew Moreno (@MMoreno1015) November 29, 2021
“I’m not recovering as quick as I would like, but that’s what happens when you do some serious damage to your body. A torn UCL is a slow process.”
This contradicts earlier reports that Muncy did not have any structural damage in his elbow. It has not been reported if Muncy had or needs surgery, or what effects this prognosis has on his ability to be ready for opening day. Regardless, it’s still not a good thing, and it casts more doubt on his ability to contribute immediately next season. A potential lock-out would also restrict Muncy’s access to team doctors (also of note to the likes of Dustin May, Caleb Ferguson, and Tommy Kahnle), potentially further slowing the rehab process.
Muncy’s injury could potentially alter the Dodgers’ course in free agency as well. Perhaps Freddie Freeman, who was born and raised in Orange County, is a better fit for the team than he was before (insert Lucy holding football meme here). Perhaps Cody Bellinger – who two months ago was not seen as a lock to be tendered a contract tomorrow – could play more first base, creating an opening for Seiya Suzuki, the Japanese star outfielder in whom the Dodgers have shown interest. It’s tough to say without knowing more at this point, other than the fact that the Dodgers certainly knew about this before today’s inaction.
Of course, today’s deluge of awful news does not mean that the Dodgers will not be a good team next season. Whenever baseball starts post-lockout, the team will not look like it does now. With the current state of the rotation, it can’t. But today’s news really feel like the team decided to leave their best chance to win next season on the table because it cost too much, and as a fan that stinks to hear. Hopefully throughout the rest of the offseason the team can correct course and look a bit more like a perennial powerhouse by offseason’s end. Retaining Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, and Chris Taylor would be a nice start.