Maybe we shouldn’t doubt the Dodgers. They’ve won nine out of the last 10 NL West titles, and in the year they didn’t win the division, they won 106 games. They’re juggernauts by design, a team built to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. They draft well, develop well, spend a ton of money, and spend that money intelligently. They’re the closest thing baseball has to a dynasty these days, and given the inherent randomness of the playoffs, that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
That’s all true – and despite it all, I’m leaning towards doubting their chances in 2023. For the first time in years, I don’t have to jump through hoops to come up with reasons to do so. The Dodgers look like one of the best teams in baseball, but they no longer look, at least to me, like the absolute class of the league. It’s weird to think of it that way, but let’s talk through it together.
First things first: the Dodgers lost a ton of good free agents this year, just like they do every year. That’s simply the cost of doing business when you’re good as consistently as they are; your team will naturally be filled with great players approaching free agency. This year’s iteration of the team lost a whopping 21.3 WAR worth of 2022 production, the highest mark in the majors. The list of the top five teams when it comes to lost 2022 production is a who’s who of clubs trying to contend right now:
2022 WAR Lost in Free Agency
|Team||2022 WAR Lost|
Hey, when you look at it that way, it’s not so bad! The Yankees and the Mets are right there with the Dodgers. Only, you have to consider both sides of the ledger. The Yankees, for example, lost 11.4 WAR worth of production from Aaron Judge alone. But uh, they still have Judge after signing him back in free agency. Here are those five teams again, with two new columns this time: 2022 WAR added in free agency and the net gains or losses overall:
2022 Net WAR Lost in Free Agency
|Team||2022 WAR Lost||2022 WAR Gained||Net|
The Dodgers have experienced the biggest talent drain in the majors this offseason. The crop of free agents they’ve signed produced 14.3 fewer WAR in 2022 than the former Dodgers who departed in free agency. That’s the lowest mark in the majors by far:
2022 Net WAR Lost in Free Agency
|Team||2022 WAR Lost||2022 WAR Gained||Net|
These losses aren’t contained to a single area. Trea Turner was arguably their best player in 2022. Tyler Anderson and Andrew Heaney gave them valuable starts and innings. The bullpen lost an aggregate 153.2 innings of excellent pitching, to the tune of a 2.87 ERA and 3.02 FIP (excluding the mop-up innings that Hanser Alberto handled). Justin Turner posted a 123 wRC+. Even Cody Bellinger, who left after the team non-tendered him, played excellent defense and accounted for 1.7 WAR despite his continued offensive failings.
In Dan Szymborski’s recently published ZiPS projections, you can see the team’s shortcomings. For the first time since the 2019 season, the Dodgers have a starting position projected for less than two WAR – James Outman and Miguel Vargas combine to project for 1.2 WAR in left field, and Outman and Trayce Thompson project for 1.9 WAR in center. A second base by committee situation barely clears that arbitrary 2.0 WAR bar; Chris Taylor, Max Muncy, and Michael Busch are the headliners of a group that ZiPS projects for 2.1 WAR.
Of course, it was never reasonable to expect a team to continue racking up regular season wins at the clip the Dodgers have managed in recent years. In the past five full seasons, they’ve averaged 104 wins per year. They played at a 116-win pace in the shortened 2020 season. Short of churning out a new batch of phenoms, they were never going to hold that pace.
That’s not to say that their farm system hasn’t produced big league talent. Vargas, Busch, and Outman are all rookies. Diego Cartaya and Andy Pages are each only 21, but both look like future stars. There’s a crop of pitchers on the way, too, led by Bobby Miller. Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May are young, controllable, and excellent. As of last season’s end, The Board had the Dodgers as the number seven farm system in the game even after all the trades they’ve made in the past few years.
But if you’re looking for a year where the Dodgers seem mortal, 2023 might be your best bet. Gavin Lux is no sure thing at shortstop. Vargas has played exactly one inning at third base in the majors. Muncy is 32 and will be playing out of position almost every day; he’s posted respectable numbers at second base, but with incoming defensive positioning restrictions, his range and arm will be tested more than ever. The Dodgers’ offense will still be excellent – they have Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts, and Will Smith anchoring their lineup – but it’s unlikely to be the best lineup in the game this year. Per our Depth Charts projections, they have the eighth-best crop of position players.
The starting rotation checks in at ninth in those same projections, though I think that underrates the Los Angeles starters. Missing Walker Buehler will undoubtedly hurt, but even without him, they’ll run out five above-average starters with more reinforcements available in the high minors. They’ve also shown a consistent ability to get more out of short-term free agent signings than expected; would it surprise anyone to see Noah Syndergaard bounce back this year?
The Dodgers are still betting favorites to win the division, but they’re nearly neck-and-neck with the Padres, and our projections like the Padres more. This surely hasn’t gone unnoticed in Chavez Ravine. Even if the Dodgers are more optimistic about their internal replacements than our projections, the talent drain is undeniable. Why haven’t they done more in free agency?
I have a few ideas, none of which are ironclad. First, it’s worth noting that the Dodgers will likely squeeze under the first competitive balance tax threshold this year. That threshold is $233 million, and we currently have the Dodgers juuuuuust under, with a projected $232,899,125 CBT payroll. Being a dollar under that threshold has huge monetary benefits thanks to repeat overage penalties.
The competitive balance tax rate changes based both on the amount by which a team exceeds the first CBT threshold and the number of seasons in a row that team has exceeded the first threshold. Here’s the matrix of possible tax rates based on those two variables:
CBT Tax Rates by Threshold and Years
|Over By||First Year||Second Year||Third+ Year|
How does this affect the Dodgers’ total payroll outlay? In both 2021 and ’22, the Dodgers exceeded the first CBT threshold. That means that if they end the year with a payroll above $233 million, they’ll pay the highest possible tax rate on their overages.
That can add up to a lot of money. As an example, imagine that starting in 2024, the Dodgers run a CBT payroll of exactly $300 million every year. If they head into 2024 after not paying any tax in ’23, they’ll owe $91 million in payments from ’24 to ’26. If they instead run that same $300 million payroll every year, but head into 2024 having exceeded the first threshold for three straight years, they’ll owe $122 million over those three years. That’s a substantial savings, and this year is the first where it’s made sense for the Dodgers to do so; they couldn’t have reasonably ducked under the threshold in 2021 or ’22 thanks to roster construction, but they had a huge number of players depart this winter.
This situation is even more precarious thanks to Trevor Bauer’s contract. Bauer won an appeal that reduced his suspension by a year. He’s now due roughly $22.5 million this year, which counts against the team’s CBT payroll regardless of whether Bauer rejoins the team (his salary is included in the projected CBT payroll figure referenced above). The uncertainty around that decision reportedly factored into the team’s conservative offseason plans, and given how close they are to exceeding the first threshold, it seems likely that they made their decisions with Bauer’s appeal in mind. They may have to make further concessions to remain under the CBT limit, but given their proximity to it and their decision-making so far this offseason, I’m guessing resetting their CBT status is very important to them.
That cost savings ties into my next idea: the Dodgers are setting up to land Shohei Ohtani next offseason. Ohtani looks to be headed for the largest contract in history, and with good reason: he’s a generational talent hitting free agency in his prime. The bidding will be fierce, and some early estimates have eclipsed a $500 million total contract size. Teams that think they stand a reasonable shot of landing Ohtani should absolutely be planning around that now if it doesn’t mess with their current plans too much, and I’d argue that the Dodgers have done just that.
Despite their consistently high spending habits, the Dodgers are hardly in the business of signing a top free agent every year. They’ve accomplished a lot of team building by developing and extending their own players or by trading for stars. For every Freddie Freeman, there’s a Julio Urías. Even if you think of Betts as essentially a free agent signing – they traded for him a year before he would reach free agency and gave him an extension that year – he and Freeman are the only players earning more than $20 million a year. Clayton Kershaw comes in at exactly $20 million. The Dodgers run big aggregate payrolls, but they do that because they pay up to retain their own players.
If you think that they’ll generally continue to build the roster in that style, adding another top-tier free agent this offseason would start to complicate their ability to sign Ohtani while running a remotely reasonable payroll. One of the Dodgers’ long-running strengths has been depth; when one of their stars disappoints or gets injured, they always seem to have someone else to throw into the mix. Most teams lose those players to roster crunch and free agency, but not the Dodgers. They consistently have more capable starting pitchers than they can use in a rotation at one time, and they gave both Taylor and Muncy eight-figure average annual values to maintain that depth. If they’re intent on continuing that roster style and have their eyes on a big name in the 2024 class, it would make sense to sit ’23 out for the most part.
One other option: maybe the Dodgers just didn’t like any of the top free agents this year. Judge was the only top-tier outfielder on the market this offseason, and if the Dodgers are higher on Lux than industry consensus, it’s entirely reasonable that they simply didn’t see a reason to splurge on a shortstop when they had a young player of their own they wanted to give the job. Sure, there were plenty of excellent pitchers available, but I like their rotation, and it’s entirely possible that they aren’t willing to give long-term deals to pitchers, period. To the best of my knowledge, they haven’t signed a pitcher to a contract longer than three years since Kenley Jansen’s extension kicked in way back in 2017.
Regardless of what the Dodgers are doing, I don’t think you can write this offseason off as simply them being cheapskates. Their front office has consistently been one of the best in the game for a decade, and ownership has never been averse to spending when it makes sense. It’s fun to play armchair GM and say that a team simply isn’t doing enough, or that they don’t know how to build a winner. That would be a laughable claim here; the Dodgers have shown time and time again that they deserve the benefit of the doubt.
This is no blind appeal to authority; the Dodgers are a well-run group. That doesn’t make their plan any less interesting, though. The Dodgers could have done more to maximize their 2023 team’s chances of winning the NL West or the World Series. If you could ask Andrew Friedman that question in private, I’m sure he’d concur. The question, then, is what they’re doing instead. I think they’re building to a differently shaped but still dominant team in 2024. Their NL West opponents would be well advised to put their best foot forward this year – I don’t know what the future holds, but it’s entirely possible that 2023 will end up as the weakest Dodger team of the decade.