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The Los Angeles Dodgers' new problem

12/10/2012

We had the Los Angeles Dodgers on "Sunday Night Baseball" on May 20, at a time when the team was fighting to stay in first place without Matt Kemp. They were 27-13, and before the game, manager Don Mattingly had spoken with admiration about his players, about how they were competing. He acknowledged that it would be very difficult for them to continue to play that well with Kemp sidelined, but he loved what he was seeing in how the players trusted each other.

Their No. 2 hitter was Elian Herrera, Bobby Abreu was their No. 3 hitter, and their best player at that time was probably A.J. Ellis. I remember thinking during that night how the Dodgers seemed to have more energy in their dugout than any team I had seen other than the San Francisco Giants, and of course, they all went crazy when Scott Van Slyke bashed a three-run pinch-hit homer.

But the Dodgers won't field a team anything like that any time soon; there may never be a day in our lifetimes when they will be viewed as gritty, gutty underachievers. In the seven months since the new Dodgers ownership has been in place, it has spent $650 million, or about the same as Frank McCourt spent over six seasons, from 2006-11.

Six hundred fifty million. In seven months. Including the $61 million spent on Hyun-Jin Ryu.

The Dodgers have 10 players on their roster who are set to make at least $11 million.

One of their new owners told one of the Dodgers' front office executives that his goal is to have an All-Star at every position, and they are close to making that happen. Their No. 1 starter, Clayton Kershaw, is among the three or four best pitchers on the planet, and their No. 2 starter, Zack Greinke, is the highest-paid right-handed pitcher ever.

A lineup like this looks really good on paper:

LF Carl Crawford

2B Mark Ellis

1B Adrian Gonzalez

CF Kemp

RF Andre Ethier

SS Hanley Ramirez

3B Luis Cruz

C Ellis

P Kershaw

But with the riches comes a very different type of pressure, and Mattingly has the experience to know this as well as anyone, having played his entire career with the New York Yankees, and for George Steinbrenner. The Dodgers have so many All-Stars and have spent so much money that joylessness could become a major opponent.

From the very first day of spring training, they will face more scrutiny than any other team in the majors. They will be expected to win, and any series of losses will be followed with "How come you guys stink?" questions. Anything short of a deep run into the postseason will be regarded as a failure, and if they win, their owners will get the bulk of the credit.

This dynamic will test their clubhouse, and it will be interesting to see how the Dodgers' leadership develops. Kershaw is a candidate for this, even at a young age, and I'd bet that Greinke will really like playing with him. Kemp has been a leader among the position players before all the additions; some folks in the clubhouse say the chemistry among the position players was still a work in progress as the 2012 season ended.

The Giants have won two of the last three World Series yet they will be regarded as underdogs because of the Dodgers' payroll escalation. "The funny thing," said a rival evaluator, "is that I think the Giants are still the better team."

That very well could be the case. The Dodgers, as currently constructed, could have a major defensive problem at shortstop with Ramirez. They look as if they could be vulnerable against left-handed pitching, and although they have again invested heavy dollars in their bullpen, there are questions about the quality of that group.

In May, there wasn't any pressure on the Dodgers. Their owner had slowly stripped down their payroll, and they had few resources to improve the team around Kershaw, Kemp and Ethier. Now they have all the resources and all the All-Stars, and that won't be as easy as it sounds -- but nobody will feel sorry for them, ever again.

Rays-Royals deal

I've written this here before and it's appropriate again today: If Rays GM Andrew Friedman did his work at Vegas blackjack tables rather than at St. Petersburg's Trop, he'd be the guy who always adhered to his point system. He wouldn't take another card while standing at 17, ever, and he'd be the last guy to ever say he had a gut feeling that the next card was going to work out. The Rays have stayed at the contenders' table for a remarkably long time -- we'll be going on six years in 2013 -- despite their inherent disadvantages, because Friedman has so skillfully managed the pile of chips.

So in trading James Shields, there was no chance that he would get less than exactly what he needed and wanted. He had excellent leverage, because the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks both wanted Shields, a pitcher whose contract in structured in such a way that makes him even more attractive as a trade target: In a series of team options, Shields is set to make $9 million in 2013 and $12 million in 2014, limiting the risk for the team acquiring him.

Wil Myers could become the Rays' next Evan Longoria: You'll probably see him called up a handful of days into the 2013 season, after he misses enough days to have his free agency backed up to 2019 rather than 2018, and then he'll hit in the middle of the Tampa Bay lineup.

And the Rays could approach him with the same type of deal that they have dangled in front of all their best young players, built on the same philosophy that this Rays-Royals swap is built on: a guarantee up front of at least some payoff, and in return for that, the Rays position themselves to extract value over the long term.

The Royals are looking at it from a different perspective: They believe their window of opportunity is opening right now, with their talented young core of position players -- which could be the best in the American League if Eric Hosmer rebounds from his poor second season. Kansas City has a very underrated and dominant bullpen, as well.

Some Royals evaluators had told their peers at other teams early in the offseason that KC wasn't under pressure from ownership to contend in 2013, and that more development was needed -- a surprising evaluation, in the eyes of rival evaluators. "I don't think they're that far away, in that division," said one GM. "You get the right starting pitching and they could challenge [Detroit]."

Shields could be that guy. He finished third in Cy Young voting in 2011 and after a miserable first half in 2012, he had the majors' fifth-best ERA in the second half. He and Wade Davis lead a group that has Jeremy Guthrie and Ervin Santana, and if they get even a mediocre effort out of the rotation, that might be enough to push the Tigers. It'll be a very different-looking team if Hosmer improves.

Dayton Moore is going all-in for next season.

Friedman clearly got the better value in the deal, in the eyes of Keith Law. That's almost a given; when Friedman has the leverage, when he has the cards -- as he did in this situation -- he isn't going to make a bad trade. The Royals got what they want, too.

This trade is a reach for Moore, writes Sam Mellinger. From his column:

    To be clear: I'm with what seems to be the industry consensus, that the Royals are reaching too far and too early and giving up too much.

    Myers may be their best homegrown position player since Carlos Beltran, and Shields may be Paul Byrd.

    But this much should also be recognized: Moore and owner David Glass just made the kind of move I've been hammering them to make for quite some time.

    Along with Jeremy Guthrie and Ervin Santana, the Royals' top four starting pitchers for 2013 have all been acquired in the last few months. Shields is due around $10 million and Davis $2.8 million, meaning Glass has OK'd the $80 million payroll that a lot of us have been screaming for.

    The Royals are trying to win, in other words, and trying to do so now -- so in some ways it's a bit disingenuous to be complaining now that they're doing it.

    The Royals still have a good farm system. Internally, they view Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer as better pitching prospects than Odorizzi. And as several scouts around the sport have observed in recent weeks, Myers and Odorizzi will have to make multiple All-Star Games to accumulate more trade value than they have right now.

    So this trade is not the unmitigated disaster some are calling it.

The Rays are constantly trying to find a balance, writes Roger Mooney.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. The Indians signed Mark Reynolds. It's not entirely clear whether this takes them out on Kevin Youkilis, but it would seem to make it more likely Youkilis could land with the Yankees.

2. This could help the Yankees' chances, writes Ken Davidoff.

3. Skip Schumaker's days with the Cardinals seem to be over.

4. Michael Young gives the Phillies what they want.

5. Bill Center takes a look back at two Padres trades.

6. Dante Bichette wants the Rockies to swing sledgehammers.

7. With the trade of Young, there will be an undisputed leader of the Texas clubhouse, writes Evan Grant. Young's departure shouldn't be reason for the idiots' glee.

8. The Braves are glad they got their center fielder early.

Other stuff

• These are the Reds' alternative jerseys. What do you think?

• Letters show that Marvin Miller wanted to be taken seriously, writes Richard Sandomir.

And today will be better than yesterday.