<
>

Despite strange offseason, Dodgers still team to beat in NL West

There seem to be a lot of question marks around the Los Angeles Dodgers these days, even coming off three consecutive division titles and still possessing the highest payroll in the majors. Buster Olney didn't rank them in his top 10 teams last week. I was driving around Tuesday and heard an MLB Network Radio host lambasting the Dodgers for not improving their bullpen. Many question the apparent decision to go with a platoon at second base of 37-year-old Chase Utley, who hit .212 last season, and Enrique Hernandez, and there are concerns about the rotation behind Clayton Kershaw following Zack Greinke's departure.

Some things they wanted to do simply didn't pan out. They tried to re-sign Greinke but the Arizona Diamondbacks trumped all offers with their $206 million contract. They had reportedly agreed to an Aroldis Chapman trade to help fortify the bullpen, only to see the deal fall apart when Chapman's domestic violence situation came to light. They have, however, hired yet another former general manager to the front office in Alex Anthopoulos, they gave more money to yet another Cuban, and they replaced scapegoat Don Mattingly with rookie skipper Dave Roberts. So it's not like Andrew Friedman and his staff of lieutenants have just been playing pickup basketball games with Magic Johnson all winter.

But where do the Dodgers sit right now? Is this a case of a bunch of smart guys being too clever for their own good? Should they have given the money to Greinke, considering the Dodgers were just one game over .500 the past two seasons in games Kershaw and Greinke didn't start? Those two turned an otherwise .500 team into a playoff team ... and now half that equation is gone.

The Dodgers lost Greinke because they didn't want to give him a guaranteed sixth year. As Mark Saxon wrote in December, "In conversations leading up to free agency, members of the Dodgers front office -- which was united, from president Stan Kasten down -- were skeptical about whether a mega-contract for Zack Greinke was a good investment." Friedman's goal is to field a talented team in 2016 but an "even better one in 2017 and beyond."

It's not like ownership decided to pocket the $150 million-plus that would have gone to Greinke:

* They signed Scott Kazmir to a three-year, $48 million contract.

* They signed Japanese right-hander Kenta Maeda to an eight-year contract that guarantees him at least $25 million, on top of a $20 million posting fee. The contract escalates even higher based on games started and innings pitched.

* They spent $33 million to sign strong-armed 24-year-old Cuban right-hander Yaisel Sierra, a boom-or-bust type who drew mixed reviews in scouting circles.

* Brett Anderson accepted the team's qualifying offer and will be paid $15.8 million on a one-year deal.

* They re-signed Utley for $7 million.

* They dug into the penny jar and gave $4 million to Joe Blanton.

That's $152.8 million of new money and a rotation of Kershaw, Kazmir, Anderson and Maeda. Plus they'll have some combination of Alex Wood, Hyun-Jin Ryu (if he's healthy), Brandon McCarthy (if he returns around midseason from Tommy John surgery), potential reclamation project Brandon Beachy (if he's healthy), last year's No. 5 starter Mike Bolsinger, and prospects Jose De Leon and Julio Urias (if they're ready), which should be pretty formidable and certainly provides plenty of depth.

That's a lot of ifs, though. Even Anderson, while healthy in 2015, has a long list of injuries during his career, and concerns about Maeda's elbow and shoulder arose during his physical, thus the lower guaranteed salary.

It's interesting that the Dodgers have been so willing to bet on obvious health risks -- they signed McCarthy last offseason for $48 million even though he had more than 25 starts just once in his career and he lasted just four games. Yet apparently they were scared of giving Greinke a longer-term contract.

What I wonder is, does this front office sort of believe it has to prove it can succeed without just throwing money at all the best free agents? I mean, that's what the Yankees do (at least until this offseason), and we're not the Yankees. It's too easy, even if that philosophy worked for the Yankees for nearly 20 years. Last year, the Dodgers wanted to improve their defense, which led to the Dee Gordon trade, believing he wasn't a good defensive second baseman (he won a Gold Glove and a batting title with the Marlins). They signed McCarthy because he's smart and loves sabermetrics and he's funny on Twitter, but nevermind that he gets hurt a lot. They signed Hector Olivera for $62.5 million -- including a $28 million signing bonus -- and he didn't even last the season before he was traded to the Braves.

When Greinke signed with the Diamondbacks, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports wrote that "the Dodgers' far bigger mistake occurred last July, at the non-waiver trade deadline." He was referring to not trading for Cole Hamels. Since the Phillies absorbed Matt Harrison's contract and gave the Rangers some cash, Texas will pay Hamels $13 million per season.

I disagree with that take. Hamels would have cost the Dodgers a slew of prospects, probably two of Corey Seager, Urias and De Leon. That's not what Friedman wants to do. He wants to build up the farm system and build around those A-level prospects, much like the Yankees' dynasty was originally built around the young and inexpensive core of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams. Then you add the free agents.

But Friedman and company inherited a lot of bad contracts. He managed to trade Matt Kemp; in two years, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier come off the books. Maybe that's when he goes after the big names -- you know, right about when Bryce Harper becomes a free agent.

Until then, the Dodgers appear content to aim for 90 to 95 wins rather than 100. Maybe it works out yet again? I think everyone is underestimating this team -- the roster depth from No. 1 to No. 40 is probably the best in the majors, even if Kershaw is the only real big star (maybe Seager develops into one). It's kind of a unique way for a big-market team to operate, and maybe they end up regretting not signing Greinke or David Price, but I think they're still the team to beat in the National League West.