The Artless Dodgers

Parsing the Los Angeles Dodgers' flagrant displays of wealth.
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Or do they?

Photo courtesy of Flickr. 

All trades are meant to improve teams, either on the field or financially. There’s another special category, though, that includes an additional layer of interest: those deals that make statements and force all observers to reconfigure their expectations and opinions of an entire franchise. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ decision to take on the quarter-billion-dollar contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Nick Punto and give up five players (a couple of whom are well-regarded prospects), certainly qualifies.

The immediate reaction of many was confusion regarding many subjects: how the Red Sox managed to dump so many gigantic contracts, how the Dodgers could afford it, how they plan to add more players with virtually every position filled for the foreseeable future. That is not to say that people haven’t tried to figure out what it all means — to the contrary, all of our best baseball minds have weighed in. Keith Law explains the short-term benefits and long-term risks well, and our David Roth and David Raposa earn my biased recommendation for anyone who likes to see baseball teams compared to Jocelyn Wildenstein. However, once all attempts at considered logic are put aside, the overwhelming response to this deal has been one of bewilderment. How was this an option, and why were the Dodgers ready to gamble so much at once?

Far be it from me, a Giants fan, to assume what lurks in the cold black heart of a rival. What’s apparent, though, is that many people were taken aback by the trade because it was such a flagrant display of wealth. In the past few days, I’ve spoken to baseball fans who’ve suggested everything from a new reality of the Dodgers as a turbo-charged version of the free-spending New York Yankees to the franchise eventually reaching financial catastrophe. Regardless of opinion, the common ground is the belief that the Dodgers currently reside in some amazing world where money fights are socially acceptable and spending $1500 a day on Faberge eggs isn’t a sign of soul-crushing addiction.

Another way of making this same point is that their actions are unseemly. In a matter of weeks, they’ve added a handful of contracts that no other teams wanted to touch. Those moves have improved the team on paper, certainly, but at an expense that many teams would think twice about applying to their entire payrolls. Money isn’t supposed to buy success immediately — that’s only the product of years of hard work and a little luck. And while the Dodgers might not even make the playoffs this season with two games to make up in the standings over a very difficult 34-game schedule, there is the sense that they’ve become more competitive without winning more games. It’s not that they haven’t earned their success, because they haven’t reached any of their goals. Instead, the new ownership group flaunts their largesse like Jack Black in the secretly great flop Envy, eating flan every night and treating a prized white stallion as if it were a member of the family. It’s all very impressive, but also fairly embarrassing and a little off-putting.

The Dodgers are far from the first case of the nouveau riche in sports — European soccer seems to be a breeding ground, with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain being the two most obvious of the last few years. What makes the Dodgers different is their context. First, the essential fluidity of soccer’s transfer market and on-pitch formations means that teams can add and resell players while ameliorating both their financial losses and the problem of having too many ill-fitting parts; a baseball team (particularly one in the National League) can only have one everyday shortstop, whereas employing four world-class strikers is a luxury but not necessarily a useless indulgence.

The other issue for the Dodgers — and this is the really important one — is that their rich history throws the tactics of these new owners into sharper relief. While Man City and PSG were not exactly the dregs of their respective leagues prior to their foreign-owner takeovers, their past successes paled in comparison to those of the Dodgers, one of the most storied franchises in the annals of America’s most historically successful sport. To continue the analogies to soccer, this would be as if Sheikh Mansour had purchased Liverpool instead of Man City and gone about the same practices of buying players with no regard for price tag and quality’s relation to it.

To be clear, this is a perfectly effective way to build a winner — it’s worked for City, though not without a lot of turnover as they’ve transitioned from overpaying for good players to spending more reasonable sums on great ones. Yet the Dodgers’ owners took on a greater responsibility than just winning, claiming that their reign would mark a return to the glory days of the O’Malley family’s ownership after the debacle of the Frank McCourt era. Much has changed since the halcyon days of O’Malleys control — there’s widespread free agency, global branding opportunities, and a lot more — but the essential promise of this new ownership group was that they would restore respectability to the Dodgers. Certainly, by installing Magic Johnson as their figurehead, they wanted to connect themselves to Los Angeles sports heritage and, the Showtime Lakers’ reputation aside, not get by on glitz alone. To the contrary, these owners seem to have jumped right to the worst excesses of rich franchises, trading prospects and tying up money for years based on a set of very big ifs.

The trade with the Red Sox is many things, but it does not reek of old-fashioned values like responsibility and long-term vision. If anything, it’s disturbingly reckless, the mark of a team with so much money to spend that the front office thought it prudent to throw some players up against the wall to see which would stick. To be sure, those players not named Nick Punto are quite sticky: Adrian Gonzalez is having his worst season since he was a prospect but remains one of the best first basemen in the majors, as well as an incalculable upgrade over the now-departed James Loney; Carl Crawford could return to his All-Star form if he ever gets healthy; and Josh Beckett desperately needed a change of scenery and will only be on the books for a comparatively short two seasons after 2012. But they’re only not titanic risks if the Dodgers are committed to spending more a year or two from now. Throwing money at a problem can work in isolation, but it doesn’t solve the core issues at play, especially in a league where most teams win by drafting and developing their best players. So while the Dodgers are already a better team than they were in July, they might not have proven anything about the quality of their new organization beyond that they’re loaded and willing to show it.

There’s nothing wrong with having money — all 30 owners in Major League Baseball are very wealthy, and if they wanted to devote vast sums of their fortunes to their baseball teams they could likely do so with few problems. This was true of the O’Malleys, too, as proven by Peter O’Malley’s recent $800-million purchase of the San Diego Padres. But the argument worth having isn’t whether or not owners should be allowed to outspend their colleagues tenfold, but the extent to which bloated coffers entitle them to poor business practices simply because those actions will have fewer repercussions. Risks are acceptable, but what happens when a team outbids itself for a little-loved 20-year-old Cuban prospect and buys up five years of bad contracts in the hope that thirtysomething former All-Stars will regain their past glory? Can they sustain themselves? And if they can, what does that say about the world in which they operate?

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