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How Dodgers can get younger while still contending

LOS ANGELES -- Typically, when a baseball team announces it plans to get younger, it’s really saying it plans to get cheaper. If you root for that team, you can expect at least a couple of years of quiet October's while young, homegrown players making the league minimum adjust to the rigors of the major leagues.

Winters can be dull as the big-name free agents sign elsewhere.

But when the Los Angeles Dodgers make such a statement, it’s hard to call them cheap -- not when they have fielded teams with payrolls above $200 million for three seasons running and not when they bumped up against $300 million (the first team to do so in the sport’s history) in 2015. It’s also virtually impossible to imagine them having a quiet winter, not when their front office is run by Andrew Friedman.

While the Dodgers plan on getting younger, they can’t afford to bow out of contention for a year or two while they stockpile draft picks and let their system mature.

So, a Los Angeles winter that is expected to be stormier than normal -- with El Nino forces building in the Pacific -- also figures to be typically eventful around the team’s offices in Elysian Park in Los Angeles. It’s just that what fans and media members expect Friedman and his group to be doing -- lining up nine-figure contracts for Zack Greinke and/or David Price, say -- may not be what they’re actually doing.

On a recent conference call, Friedman said he doesn’t yet know what his payroll will be in 2016, but that much of what his group is focused on might not dominate Twitter in the coming months. Then again, Friedman is never one to quash a bad rumor if it can help his cause, so the Dodgers figure to get dragged into plenty of rumor mills they’re not actually attending once again.

“Some will be more obvious and some of it’s done behind the scenes, like [international signings] on July 2, through the draft or smaller trades,” Friedman said. “As to the bigger, more headline-grabbing things, it’s not clear yet how much we’ll be able to do on that front through the course of the winter, but we’re very mindful of it and have some ideas of how to do it in a way to help us maintain a really talented team into 2016 and even better in ’17 and beyond.”

In other words, getting younger while still competing for a World Series will take some finesse in what Dodgers president Stan Kasten has termed “Phase 2” of the new ownership’s mandate. The aim is to build a more sustainable model for fielding competitive teams, one that relies on a strong farm system instead of a big bank account. None of which is to say the Dodgers will be competing with the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s -- Friedman’s former team and general manager Farhan Zaidi’s former team, respectively -- this winter in the bargain bins of free agency.

It’s probable the Dodgers will make some splashes this winter, but they’re more likely to involve aggressive bids for second-tier free agents and, even unloading aging, expensive players from the roster.

The Dodgers have two holes in their rotation at the moment and many people assume Greinke or Price will fill one of those after signing a contract valued at somewhere between $150 million and $200 million, but the Dodgers certainly aren’t giving off the signal that they’re going to be at the head of the line with the biggest check this time around. In fact, they didn’t do that last year under Friedman either.

In a recent interview with the MLB Network, Zaidi said the team has contingency plans in case Greinke signs elsewhere and mentioned prospects Julio Urias, Jose De Leon and Jharel Cotton as possibilities for the 2016 rotation. Each of those pitchers figures to begin the season at Triple-A Oklahoma City, but might not be down there long, Zaidi indicated.

“You never know, those timetables can be accelerated and we’re really excited about their futures,” Zaidi said. “Sometimes, necessity requires moving those guys up and giving them an opportunity. One of our goals moving forward is to give younger guys an opportunity, to get younger. That’s part of the blueprint we tried to set in place and starting pitching may be an opportunity to do that next year.”

One of the Dodgers’ owners, Todd Boehly, told the Los Angeles Times recently that the 2016 payroll will be “much closer” to $200 million than $300 million. Good luck with that. After starting pitcher Brett Anderson took the Dodgers’ $15.8 million qualifying offer Friday, the team has around $189 million in salary commitments already if it brings back all nine arbitration-eligible players, who include closer Kenley Jansen and starting third baseman Justin Turner.

Adding a pitcher the caliber of Greinke or Price would immediately push the payroll to around $220 million, and that’s without filling the hole at second base or adding another reliever or two. The Dodgers might be able to unload Carl Crawford or Andre Ethier, but not without paying them the majority of their salaries for the coming seasons. Paring down the budget makes it less likely the Dodgers will be able to afford the $5 million or more it will take to hold onto backup catcher A.J. Ellis, who is Clayton Kershaw’s best friend on the team and has been a key to the Dodgers’ strong pitching.

It’s going to be a winter of tough choices, the kind the team didn’t have to make in recent offseasons.

“We’re going to do everything we can to maintain a 90-plus-win team with a really good chance of winning the [National League] West and a chance to win the World Series, while also doing everything we can to get younger. It doesn’t happen overnight,” Friedman said.