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Foam Finger: Will the Dodgers’ Busy—And Expensive—Off Season Pay Off?
L.A. sports from the fan stands
As the 2013 baseball season approaches, the Los Angeles Dodgers will be one of the focal points this year, likely to the satisfaction of the club’s owners and to the chagrin of its World Series-winning division rival. The team will be remarked not for what they have accomplished, but instead for what they will be expected to achieve. Dodgers ownership continued this month the spending spree that began with the salary albatross of acquiring Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett from Boston. Now they’ve signed Zack Greinke, the best and most expensive starting-pitching option on the market, with a deal reportedly worth $158 million and starter Ryu Hyun-jin with one worth $36 million. That gives the Dodgers the top payroll mark in the league at around $213 million committed to 21 players.
All that spending doesn’t give them a title just yet. It’s easy to understand why the Dodgers, including figurehead Magic Johnson, elected to go down the route of most financial resistance. The club faced the task of re-engaging scores of fans alienated by the withering ownership of the McCourt family, whose taint on the franchise is hardly recognizable now. And Johnson, who has long been associated with the Los Angeles Lakers, is familiar with the prescription of throwing money at a performance problem. Still, as the New York Yankees have demonstrated over recent years, the promise of a winning payroll doesn’t always lead to the reality of winning games. Boston surrendered its run at a championship last year because the Gonzalez-Crawford-Beckett nucleus wasn’t working, and Dodgers fans might find that what doesn’t work on the east coast also doesn’t work on the west coast. Moreover, Greinke is certainly a top pitcher, but he boasts only one season (2009: 16-8, 2.16 ERA) that is truly worthy of his small fortune. Pairing him with 2011 NL Cy Young winner and 2012 runner-up Clayton Kershaw has powerful potential, but there’s always a risk with that much money involved. the Dodgers have put themselves in a position in which they have more than an opponent to beat on game days; they’ll have incredible expectations to meet. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who coached under Joe Torre with the Yankees, knows too well that the pressure on the club will be great. “It was like if you didn’t win it all, you had a horrible season,” he said after the Greinke signing. The cost of winning (or not) is something that can weigh heavy on players and ultimately impact their performance. It takes time for star-laden teams like this to gel, but if things don’t go well right away, the Dodgers might not have enough time to figure things out before fans start calling for heads.
If it becomes clear that the lineup just won’t work, then the club will face a nearly impossible challenge of unloading all those contracts or waiting in pain until they expire before it can rebuild. Mike Brown and the Lakers might have some words of advice in that regard.
But for all the risks that such a high payroll produce, there of course is a significant chance that the plan so beautiful on paper ends up working out in practice. The Dodgers will have one of the most robust rosters in all of baseball, anchored by Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and Hanley Ramirez, with a starting rotation that gives the team a chance to win every night. If these players buy in to the idea that all this talent can come together to win games, the Dodgers will be dangerous. And Mattingly will have a full season to sell it—not the two months he had to craft a champion after the trade with Boston last season.
Winning a World Series is never easy. Whether the Dodgers manage to break their 25-year drought or not, that’s going to be abundantly clear come October.