Dollars and decisions: Will the Dodgers dive in when the hot stove heats up?

Jorge Castillo
·5 min read
FILE - In this Sept. 11, 2020, file photo, Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado throws to first during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels in Denver. Arenado won his eighth consecutive Gold Glove on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado grew up in Orange County as a Dodgers fan. But would the Rockies trade their best player to a division rival? (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Major League Baseball’s offseason officially began Oct. 28, the day after the Dodgers won their first World Series since 1988, when the league announced the first batch of free agents. Seven Dodgers made the initial list. An eighth, right-hander Jimmy Nelson, was added the following week when the Dodgers declined his option for the 2021 season.

None of those eight players have found a home for next year yet. So far, only a few free agents across the majors have signed. That’s not surprising. The prevailing belief around the industry was that offseason activity would drag. It’s a recent trend exacerbated by franchises claiming massive economic losses from the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

Ask people around the industry, and the hot stove season — the trades, signings and accompanying rumors customary every winter — won’t heat up until Dec. 2, when clubs must decide whether to offer contracts to arbitration-eligible players.

The consensus is that an unprecedented number of players won't be offered contracts because of the money teams lost in 2020. That would saturate the free-agent landscape with a flood of major league talent, further depressing the market for players below the star tier. Teams should then be able to plug holes at discounted rates.

“It’s going to be a catastrophe,” one player agent recently said about the expected impact on free-agent offers.

The Dodgers have seven arbitration-eligible players: Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Julio Urías, Walker Buehler, Austin Barnes, Dylan Floro and Scott Alexander.

Bellinger, Seager, Urías, Buehler and Barnes aren’t going anywhere, at least not on Dec. 2. Floro and Alexander are relief pitchers, more expendable than any other position group. But the Dodgers' bullpen already will be without Caleb Ferguson, who recently underwent Tommy John surgery, and possibly free agents Pedro Báez, Blake Treinen and Jake McGee. Floro and Alexander provide value at a projected price of about $1 million each next season.

Deciphering a club’s payroll is an inexact science because not all information is made public, but a few entities attempt to track the numbers. One is Cot’s Baseball Contracts. The website predicts the Dodgers have about $131.5 million in salary on the books for 2021 — about $78.5 million below the $210 million competitive balance tax (CBT) threshold.

That number doesn’t include re-signing any free agents, salaries for arbitration-eligible players or money allocated for minor leaguers on the 40-man roster and player benefits. It also assumes MLB will stage a full 162-game season and pay players their full salaries in 2021. The Dodgers would then shed about $70 million after the season.

Projecting salaries for arbitration-eligible players is another imprecise exercise. It’s even more difficult this winter given the shortened 2020 season.But Cot’s predicts the Dodgers’ seven arbitration-eligible players will receive a combined $34.7 million, pushing the estimated total CBT payroll to $166,200,00 million. That leaves the team approximately $43.8 million below the CBT line before the assorted benefits and remaining 40-man roster salaries are included.

Again, that is one interpretation from data available to the public. The Dodgers could have more or less space. But they should have wiggle room to add players and not surpass the CBT threshold after not paying a CBT tax in 2020.

Payrolls for 2020 won’t be finalized until December, but none of the 30 teams will pay a CBT penalty this year. The Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees, however, will qualify as CBT payers for determining draft pick compensation.

The Dodgers will, at some point, add players. They need to address the bullpen but haven’t shown interest in Liam Hendriks, the top reliever on the market, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. They’re shopping in a cheaper section for bullpen help.

There aren’t any glaring holes on the roster, but there weren’t any last year before they acquired Mookie Betts and David Price from the Boston Red Sox. Will they make another splash?

The Dodgers could absorb a high-priced star through free agency or a trade, though they may need to shed salary elsewhere to avoid landing in CBT territory. Several players fit the description, including Colorado Rockies All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado.

He’s owed $35 million in 2021 before he can opt out of his contract. He grew up in Orange County as a Dodgers fan. But would the Rockies trade their best player to a division rival? Would the Dodgers acquire someone with that price tag after laying off more than 20 employees across the organization? Would that signal the end for Justin Turner, a free agent, as a Dodger?

Tampa Bay Rays left-hander Blake Snell and Cincinnati Reds right-hander Sonny Gray are also reportedly available in a trade. Both are under contract at below-market salaries for the next three seasons. Would the Dodgers go after one to boost the starting rotation with Clayton Kershaw slated to hit free agency after next season?

Those are just a few questions as the offseason slogs closer to Dec. 2. The offseason is nearly a month old, but it really hasn’t started yet.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.