In the minutes following the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Game 5 win over the Chicago Cubs, you could feel the narrative forming on social media. As the World Series approaches, the cries from the skeptics, the haters and the doubters will only get stronger.
“The Dodgers are only in the World Series because of their payroll. The Dodgers bought their team.”
If you don’t believe us, search for “Dodgers” and “payroll” on Twitter and marvel at the takes if you dare.
It’s always about the money in baseball. There’s no salary cap, which means the rich will always have an advantage over the poor. And lately, no team has been richer than the Dodgers. The team opened the season with an absurd, league-high $265 million payroll.
But to define the team’s excellence solely on that number would be disingenuous, ignorant and misleading. The Dodgers’ success this season has been far more about the franchise’s ability to draft and develop players.
Of the 14 offensive players the team carried on the National League Championship Series roster, six were either drafted by the team, or were acquired before making their major-league debuts. The team drafted Cody Bellinger, Kyle Farmer and Joc Pederson. They acquired Andre Ethier and Austin Barnes in trades as minor leaguers. They outbid the competition for Yasiel Puig, so that was a case where money played a role. Still, the deserve credit for his developement with the club.
That list doesn’t include shortstop Corey Seager, who missed the entire NLCS with a back injury. By fWAR, Seager was the team’s best player in 2017.
On the pitching side, only Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen and Ross Stripling were drafted by the club. They were able to outbid the league for Kenta Maeda.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The Dodgers also feature a number of players whose performance greatly improved upon joining the club. The team’s front office and scouting deserves credit for unlocking the potential of Tony Cingrani, Josh Fields and the co-MVPs, Chris Taylor and Justin Turner. Alex Wood doesn’t technically fit this criteria, since he’s been good in the past. But the Dodgers helped him regain his form after a few up and down seasons.
That leaves nine players: Rich Hill, Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow, Tony Watson, Charlie Culberson, Logan Forsythe, Yasmani Grandal, Curtis Granderson and Chase Utley.
Of those nine, Hill, Darvish, Watson, Culberson, Forsythe, Grandal, Granderson and Utley were acquired in trades by the team. Morrow signed in the offseason for just $1.25 million. Granderson and Forsythe have seen their performance decline since joining the Dodgers. The other six have maintained their numbers. Utley decided to remain with the team as a free-agent the past few years, and is only making $2 million in 2017, so it’s not like he’s a drain on the payroll.
Hill and Darvish have played a huge role in the team’s success lately. While neither were developed by the franchise, the Dodgers deserve credit for having a strong enough farm system to go out and get both players. Drafting and developing prospects helped them land those guys.
It would be foolish to completely discount the team’s financial advantage, though. A big reason a lot of these players are still around is due to the team’s ability to pay their players. The team was able to retain Hill, Turner and Jansen for a whopping $192 million. They were able to keep Kershaw around with a $215 million extension. Ethier inked a $95.5 million extension as well.
This is where the arguments about the Dodgers’ payroll gain some legitimacy. They are able to keep their players when most other teams would lose them to free agency.
The Kansas City Royals are a good example of a team with a normal payroll. The club just wrapped up a contention cycle with the help of a talented quartet. Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar all played major roles in the team’s recent run. Three of those four were drafted or acquired by the team before their major-league debuts.
All four are set to hit free agency this winter. The Royals could lose out on all of them. It’s possible they could splurge and keep one, but two would be pushing it. And the possibility of them keeping all four is impossible.
The Dodgers’ ability to spend has made them immune to normal contention windows. On the one hand, that can be frustrating to other teams. On the other, the Dodgers did draft or develop a lot of those players in the first place.
In the coming days, you’ll hear the number $265 recited ad nauseam. Because on a team with no glaring weakness, that’s the one thing people can point out to take away from the Dodgers’ dominance.
But that’s lazy analysis. The Dodgers are good because the team has been exceptional at drafting stars and identifying trade candidates who they can salvage.
The money helps, sure. But the franchise’s real strength goes far beyond being able to spend a few more bucks than the next team.
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