The Dodgers - a franchise valued at $3 billion and one that generated $522 million in revenue in 2018, according to Forbes - unloaded three good players Friday in a transparent effort to cut salary. Ultimately, Los Angeles traded Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, Matt Kemp, and Kyle Farmer (and $7 million) to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for Homer Bailey and minor-leaguers Jeter Downs and Josiah Gray.
Bailey, the beleaguered right-hander who owns a 6.25 ERA over the last four seasons and is owed $23 million in 2019, is expected to be released, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic.
And why would it be? Puig, the effervescent right fielder, has long been a fan favorite. Wood has been quietly brilliant over the last three seasons while vacillating between the rotation and bullpen. Kemp hit his way back into Los Angeles' good graces in 2018 after being re-acquired by the Dodgers in an offseason blockbuster. They all played significant roles in helping the Dodgers earn a second straight National League pennant last season, and were projected to be key contributors to a likely seventh successive division title in 2019.
Nevertheless, within two minutes, McCullough - who covers the team for the Los Angeles Times - was disabused of his original hypothesis:
The assumption underlying this overwhelmingly favorable reaction, of course, is that the Dodgers will use their newfound financial wiggle room - they trimmed roughly $17.5 million from their 2019 payroll in the deal, giving them roughly $26 million to play with without incurring luxury-tax penalties - to sign Bryce Harper. And they may. A team source recently told Jon Heyman of FanCred Sports that they would "love to have Harper," and the Dodgers would certainly meet all the criteria he could want in an employer.
They may not, though. After all, between Cody Bellinger, Joc Pederson, Chris Taylor, Alex Verdugo, and Enrique Hernandez, the Dodgers still have an excess of outfielders. Even if they did nothing else all offseason, the Dodgers would probably still win the division, as the Arizona Diamondbacks' nascent rebuild leaves the Colorado Rockies as the lone worthy adversary in the NL West. And, perhaps most importantly, a Harper deal - which will probably end up somewhere in the 10-year, $300-million range - would likely still push the Dodgers over the luxury-tax threshold, something the club is disinclined to do, according to a document prepared for potential investors reviewed by the Los Angeles Times.
Whether the Dodgers do or don't sign Harper, however, doesn't diminish how troubling it is that fans are now applauding teams - and the freaking Dodgers, no less, who are just as valuable as the two most valuable NHL franchises combined - for slashing payroll with moves that, in isolation, make their team worse. Clubs have weaponized the luxury tax so successfully that many fans now perceive it as a hard cap, and find themselves championing the financial interests of their team's billionaire owner rather than rooting for the front office to put together the best possible roster. (As it happens, one of the two teams that exceeded the luxury-tax threshold last season ended up winning the World Series.) And teams know it, too, which has no doubt contributed to a slowing of the free-agent market, as observed by Travis Sawchik of 538:
Consider that through Monday, 50 days after the World Series concluded, only 5.2 percent of available free-agent players1 had signed major league deals for guaranteed money, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of data from The Baseball Cube. Fifty days after the end of the 2017 World Series, 5.5 percent of available free agents had signed. Two years ago that number was 9.2 percent. In the three offseasons prior to that winter - 2015-16, 2014-15 and 2013-14 - it was 9.2, 7.8, and 10.9 percent respectively.
Through Monday, $442.5 million had been spent on free agents. That’s down from $469.8 million at the same point last year, which was down from $976.5 million in the winter of 2016-17, $1.401 billion in 2015-16, $1.173 billion in 2014-15, and $1.229 billion through the middle of December 2013.
To be sure, it's certainly likelier today that the Dodgers end up signing Harper, even if they "need" to clear out more payroll to make that happen, but it wouldn't be surprising if they didn't. They don't need Harper to win, after all, or to make money, and while he's the kind of superstar-level player who could be the linchpin of Los Angeles' lineup for the next decade - distinct from free-agent alternatives like, say, A.J. Pollock - he's also expensive.
It doesn't reflect well on the state of today's game that any player could be too expensive for the Dodgers.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.