Monday, December 10, 2012

(Not So) Instant Trade Analysis: The Dodgers' Big Weekend

Los Angeles Dodgers get: SP Zack Greinke, SP Hyun-Jin Ryu

Zack Greinke gets: 6 years, $147 million

Hyun-Jin Ryu gets: 6 years, $36 million (plus a $25.7 million dollar posting fee going to his Hanwha Eagles team in the Korean league)

On Friday, the back end of the Dodgers' starting rotation was filled out by the likes of Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano and the remains of Ted Lilly's ravaged shoulder. Just three days later, Chad Billingsley, Josh Beckett and seven-time Korean League All-Star Ryu round out what's become perhaps one of the most formidable rotations in the National League. 

Greinke, 29, signed the second biggest deal for a pitcher in MLB history, trailing only CC Sabathia's 8-year pact for an astonishing $161 million. This isn't to suggest that Greinke is nearly the player that CC is--after all, the Yankee southpaw has finished in the top five of Cy Young award voting every year but this one since 2006. Rather, the money is just a sign of the changing times in baseball, as the game continues to expand its revenue streams. Whereas the annual price for a free agent ace pitcher might have been $18 to $20 million a few years ago, now we're looking at an average yearly salary of $23 to $25 million.

Let's not focus on the payroll implications here--we've made the case here on MAMBINO that the Dodgers had transformed themselves into "Yankees West" with their August acquisition of Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. It's clear that the Dodgers aren't concerned at all with the mammoth salaries on their payroll, nor with the punitive luxury tax given to "repeat offenders" that regularly rise above the $189 million ceiling. If the news hadn't sunk in Dodgers fans, then focus on this: the Dodgers just spent more this weekend on free agents than the Tampa Bay Rays have in the past decade. Whoa.

Don't let the contract fool you; Zack Greinke might not be better than Matt Cain, Cole Hamels or any of the other nine-figure contracts doled out in the past twelve months, but he's still very, very good. Since his 2009 AL Cy Young award-winning season, Greinke hasn't struck out less than 7.9 batters per 9 innings, walked more than 2.6, nor pitched less than 171 innings. He's been overwhelming at times, but not a true dominator in the sense of a Justin Verlander, Adam Wainwright or Sabathia.  Zack Greinke isn't an ace, let's be clear. However, if money isn't an object here, then he doesn't need to be. The Dodger already have Clayton Kershaw in the fold, and all Greinke has to do is be the best number 2 option in the league. More importantly, he's moving to a pitcher's ballpark in the National League, which should benefit his performance overall.

There's a few different factors that are somewhat worrisome about the contract, however; Greinke does give up a lot of contact for a pitcher that also strikes out so many batters. He's given up nearly a hit per inning, along with almost 20 home runs per year. Of course, with any pitcher, a multi-year deal is a frightening prospect. There's no telling what Greinke's arm will look like in six years in his age 35 season, and at $147 million dollars, that's a huge gamble to take. More importantly, the Dodgers gave him an out clause after the third year of his contract--if he were to still be at an All-Star level at that point, he'd be able to terminate his contract and negotiate a new one, with LA or any other team. If indeed the Dodgers wanted to keep him, they'd probably have to sign him to another five or six year deal, similar to the situations in New York with Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez in 2011 and 2007, respectively. Considering Greinke's excellent physical (key word) health in his major league career, I have little doubt that he'll be able to perform well enough to justify another deal. In that sense, I can see this six year pact turning into a nine year contract, which amplifies the risk taken on by the Dodgers.

Then there's the component of his mental health. Though I'm sure the Dodgers' research into Greinke's psychological profile has been just as vast and comprehensive as anybody's in MLB history, I've got a lot of concern in regards to a man who once thought about walking away from baseball because of anxiety and depression issues. On the flip side, he's proved a bit more durable now than when he was in his mid-twenties and dealing with those problems very publicly. Greinke's pitched in the heat of pennant races and in the playoffs (though poorly at that--giving up 12 earned runs in 16 innings for the Brewers last season), and briefly in Anaheim this summer, but let's be clear for all of the uninitiated: Anaheim is not Los Angeles. While the Angels are an extremely popular team in Southern California and both the expectations and pressure of winning is more intense than in say, Kansas City or Milwaukee, there's nothing that could prepare Greinke for the massive scrutiny he'll go through while being a Los Angeles Dodger. 

The Guggenheim ownership group have opened up their collective wallets and become the highest spending team in baseball. Though with any multi-million dollar investment there's certainly a long-term plan to their spending, the public perception is that the Dodgers' spree borders on wreckless. Ownership has turned up the spotlight on the team and on any of its four players earning more than $20 million annually, which will soon be five when Clayton Kershaw is extended either this winter or the next. For the past two decades, much of the national and even civic attention on baseball has been turned eastward. Now, with the Dodgers throwing around dollars like Antoine Walker on a 2002 pay day, the volume has been dialed to 12. Greinke has never faced pressure like this, on any level, for any team he's ever played for. In fact, there's little doubt that the Dodgers as an organization have ever faced this type of scrutiny. You wanted "Yankees West"? Well, this is part of it. I'm just not certain that Greinke can withstand the pressure. 

On the baseball side, with Greinke in the fold, the Dodgers look like they're the potential 1A to the San Francisco Giants' formidable rotation including Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito. If the season started tomorrow, LA would roll out Kershaw, Greinke, Beckett, Billingsley and Ryu, with proven starters Harang, Capuano and Lilly in the bullpen. The Dodgers have an unbelievable wealth of starters at this point, which doesn't include minor leaguer Stephen Fife who while is a replacement-level player, is major league ready. With hitting coach Mark McGwire as a new addition to the coaching staff, the Dodgers' offense on paper should match the similarly impressive rotation and bullpen. Personnel-wise, is there much doubt that this is the most talented team in the Nation League? 

Well. Maybe. But...

This signing doesn't make the Dodgers into a surefire National league pennant winner. The starting rotation, while stocked with names, isn't nearly as bulletproof as may seem. Out of the eight starting pitchers currently on the 40-man roster, the only steady options for predictable performance are Kershaw and oddly enough, Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang. Billingsley has a partially torn tendon in his elbow that may not require surgery, but could very well end his season on a single pitch. Ted Lilly missed over half of 2012 with a bum shoulder that coming off of surgery at age 37, could keep him from ever being the same.  Josh Beckett pitched well after being traded to LA from Boston, but his past history with  the Red Sox seems to indicate that he'll easily vacillate between being dominant and terrible. 

Ryu, while a seven-time All-Star, did so in the Korean League, which is like saying to me that Nickelback has taken home seven People's Choice Awards. After watching a few youtube videos of his performances, as well as reading the scouting reports, the comparisons to Mark Buerhle go beyond his left-handedness and stocky build--he's a low-90's pitcher with a very nice slider and excellent command. There's no guarantee that he'll be as durable as Buerhle, or will even be able to translate his dominance to the Majors, but at age 25, there's also the possibility that he can improve. It's hard to analyze Ryu just based on hearsay and of course minor league-level competition out in Korea. However, writers far better than me have predicted that he'll be able to play in the majors.

So--let's say that Billingsley goes down, Ted Lilly is in fact irreparably damaged and Ryu isn't ready for American baseball. The Dodgers will be looking at a rotation with Kershaw, Greinke, Beckett, Harang and Capuano, that while better than last year, certainly has its holes.  There's a lot that could go wrong with this LA roster, and in that case doesn't match up favorably with the reigning champion Giants, or even division winners Cincinnati or Washington DC. The strength of the Dodgers starting rotation is the fact that they have eight members, though I wouldn't be surprised if half of them underperformed or got injured. Most prognosticators have LA penned for a trade of one of their surplus starters, but knowing the risks associated with all of them, I'd predict that unless the front office was overwhelmed by an offer for Capuano, Harang or Lilly, they'd prefer not to move them.

Even with all the risks, both Greinke and Ryu makes the Dodgers better for 2013 and beyond. A back end rotation of Harang and Capuano would have been steady, predictable, but on the whole, largely unspectacular. Replacing them with Billingsley, Beckett and Ryu won't engender that type of stability, but is entirely capable of filling out a starting five that could throw five shutouts in five days.

In just seven months, the Guggeinheim ownership group has morphed the Dodgers from a major market team with middle-market management to the biggest financial juggernaut in the league. The expectations of the fanbase are only matched by those who own the team, and anyone associated with the Dodgers anticipates that there's no measure or dollar figure that will prevent them from doing whatever they feel is necessary to win a championship. After years of languishing with inferior solutions to  incredibly big problems both in scouting and free agent acquisitions, this weekend is the finishing touch on an unbelievable makeover. What many of us thought would take years to build only took half of one. The Dodgers have gone through tremendous lengths to create the perception--and now reality--that they're the Los Angeles Dodgers (insert big, booming voice here). They've done that. This team is more equipped to win a world title than any Dodgers team since he early eighties.

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