If the first question on everyone’s lips this week was why didn’t the Atlanta Braves re-sign franchise player Freddie Freeman, then the next question was how come the already loaded Los Angeles Dodgers did?
Understandably, it can feel like the Dodgers — who have reached at least the NLCS in five of the past six seasons — are swinging their financial heft around like the 1990s Yankees. That’s not exactly an apt comparison, though, and it may undersell the stratosphere this Dodgers team is operating in.
Freeman’s $162 million deal is the largest that top Dodgers executive Andrew Friedman has ever given to a free agent, and only the second time he’s gone over $100 million on the open market. (The first one, last offseason’s Trevor Bauer deal, is in extreme limbo as Bauer awaits the final results of MLB’s investigation into sexual assault allegations made against him.)
What Friedman and the Dodgers have prioritized are chances to acquire elite talent. Most MVP-level performers don’t hit the free agent market — at least not when they’re at the peak of their powers.
Take the top 20 hitters of the past five seasons by FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement metric. Only seven have ever been free agents. The shortest and smallest of those deals are catchers — $73 million for Yasmani Grandal and $115.5 million for J.T. Realmuto. Of the other five top-tier stars, Freeman’s deal is the smallest, edging the seven-year, $175 million pact Marcus Semien signed with the Texas Rangers earlier this winter.
More striking is that the Dodgers nonetheless have employed five of those 20 hitters for at least some stretch of their dominant runs. With Freeman in the fold, they currently employ three of them. (That proportion, if you must know, is mirrored on the pitching side. The Dodgers have employed five of the top 20 pitchers of the past five years, and currently employ three — including Bauer.)
The past year is basically one long demonstration of Friedman’s modus operandi: Corey Seager, who isn’t among those top 20 hitters, left the Dodgers for a $325 million contract this offseason. But thanks to an aggressive trade deadline move that didn’t settle for just Max Scherzer, Los Angeles slid 2021 WAR leader Trea Turner back to shortstop and signed Freeman to slot into the lineup for four fewer years and half the money.
It is an almost diabolically brilliant exchange. There were two tall, left-handed power bats with exceptional contact ability out there. One hit .306/.394/.521 with an 11.7% walk rate and a 16.1% strikeout rate in 2021. The other hit .300/.393/.503 with a 12.2% walk rate and a 15.4% strikeout rate.
The first one — Seager — plays the premium shortstop position, but made it into only 95 games due to injury, a persistent problem in his career. Freeman meanwhile, who compiled the latter line, is older but famously durable. The shortstop problem was never a problem because Friedman acquired Turner in July. And positional flexibility built into the Dodgers roster means Max Muncy can spend time at second base, third base and first base, while Gavin Lux becomes a super-sub at second base and in center field. Freeman and Justin Turner can rest their legs some days as the designated hitter. You wind up with this as the A-team lineup.
On the field, the Dodgers know as well as anyone that apparent strength doesn’t always win the day. They won the NL West eight straight times and appeared in three World Series before finally reaching the summit during the shortened 2020 season.
Then 2021 came around, and a 106-win team was not enough to claim that ninth NL West crown, as the surprise Giants won even more. Getting there every year is the only way to keep your hat in the ring for the World Series, and the Dodgers’ behavior is evidence of just how much they realize that getting there every year can’t be taken for granted.
A dollop of baseball wisdom Friedman originally uttered in 2016 has ascended into Billy Beane “Moneyball” quote territory, but it’s not clear he had the same takeaway as his audience.
“If you’re always rational about every free agent, you will finish third on every free agent,” he said.
Instead of going above and beyond to secure good free agents as if they are the only way to improve, the recent vintage Dodgers have remained persistently rational — or perhaps disciplined is a stronger word. And they have finished third on some free agents, including Bryce Harper prior to 2019. Over that same time, they have put some of the game’s biggest stars in blue by leveraging a sterling player development system (and yes, a bottomless bit of cash) to pounce on top talents made available in trade.
Scherzer, Trea Turner, Manny Machado, Yu Darvish and most of all Mookie Betts represent the specific way Friedman has chosen to flex the Dodgers’ muscle. Betts, second only to Mike Trout in production over the past five years, was too good to reach free agency and too expensive for the Boston Red Sox (apparently), so the Dodgers made a move the Dodgers could make, getting the very best talent possible and choosing that moment to unload the $365 million deal they had not offered up to Harper or Machado.
What can feel like excess is rarely excessive for the Dodgers. If it seems like they are constantly acquiring the biggest name in baseball, it’s only because they are cycling through them, assembling and reassembling eye-popping Avengers-style super-teams each February and July, but rarely placing their eggs in any one basket for too long.
Where Betts was the standalone star who demanded a mammoth deal, Freeman is undoubtedly an addition of opportunity. Coming off a World Series with the Braves, it must have seemed unlikely he would be relocating this winter. The Dodgers’ plan may have very well involved … Matt Olson, the big, left-handed star first baseman that the Braves acquired from the Oakland A’s instead of bringing back Freeman.
The Braves’ front office, run by former Friedman lieutenant Alex Anthopoulos, chose a route that ruffled fans’ feathers but placed a younger star in an otherwise youthful lineup. So the Dodgers got to sit back and scoop up an esteemed superstar who has not yet shown signs of decline, all for less than the usual price.
With Freeman added to the puzzle, the PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus projects the Dodgers to win an MLB-best 102 games and score 63 more runs than any other team in baseball. They currently have 99.9% playoff odds, and an even more pronounced talent advantage over challengers like the Giants and Padres.
Whether Freeman declines in the back half of the contract remains to be seen, but the Dodgers will have the flexibility to deal with that if it comes to pass.
For now, they have significantly upped the ante for anyone who hopes to beat them in 2022 or 2023. They have set their standards at an incomprehensibly high level, where improvement means adding a recent MVP. That’s what counts as rational for Friedman right now. And when that opportunity arises, the Dodgers finish first.