How 2017 Dodgers, Rays trades could inform unusual MLB offseason

How 2017 Dodgers, Rays trades could inform unusual MLB offseason

The Dodgers and Rays completed trades within four days of each other in December 2017 designed to clean up their payrolls.

Lines can be drawn from those decisions to Los Angeles and Tampa Bay playing in the 2020 World Series. For example, if the Rays still had Evan Longoria (traded on Dec. 20, 2017) on their payroll, it is doubtful they would have signed Charlie Morton for about the same annual value.

But these deals are worth reconsidering for more than what they meant to those clubs, for the philosophies behind them are going to be in play this offseason more than ever. Money is always central to all decision making. The coronavirus pandemic, however, savaged team revenue in 2020 and threatens more of the same for 2021.

Most clubs have responded by trying to slash payroll or restructure it to perhaps spend more at a later (hopefully better) date. The few clubs in position to spend — courtesy phone for you, Mr. Cohen of the Mets — may be able to obtain players for lesser returns as long as they are willing to assume contracts.

Let’s revisit the Dodgers and Rays’ decisions to see how the concepts could factor into this offseason:

Dec. 15, 2017

The Dodgers acquired Matt Kemp from the Braves for Charlie Culberson, Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy. Gonzalez, Kazmir and McCarthy were owed roughly as much as Kemp, but in contracts that were to end after the 2018 season. Kemp was spread over two more years, through 2019.

With just Kemp on their 2018 payroll, the Dodgers met their mandate of going under the luxury-tax threshold and resetting their tax rate at the lowest percentage should they go back over. The Braves took on a greater payroll burden in 2018, but were done after that year. In 2019, they signed Josh Donaldson for roughly what Kemp would have cost them had he remained in Atlanta. Both teams have won three division titles in three years since the deal and faced each other in this year’s NLCS.

This is about horizons — when do you want to spend money or get out of spending it? Will we see teams trying to make versions of that Dodgers-Braves deal to reconfigure payrolls?

This principle was central when in a column earlier this week I proposed a trade in which the Yankees would, ostensibly, move Giancarlo Stanton to the Cubs for Yu Davish, Jason Heyward and Craig Kimbrel. The concept: the Cubs would save now ($51 million between 2021-23, including $30 million in 2021) while looking to slash payroll and the Yankees would save later ($98 million from 2024-27).

In theory, the Cubs could do a similar trade with the Rockies for Nolan Arenado or the Phillies if they wanted to reunite Kris Bryant with Vegas buddy Bryce Harper. There are tons of hurdles, including no-trade clauses. This is just emphasizing that many organizations are hungering to reduce 2021 payroll. That should lead to, at minimum, interesting discussions about how to reorganize dollars while leaving any club that can take on money (again, the courtesy call is for Mr. Cohen) in position to gain talent for lesser player/prospect returns.

Dec. 20, 2017

Longoria to the Giants for Matt Krook, Stephen Woods, Christian Arroyo and Denard Span. For the Rays — and their payroll size — this was like if the Yankees were able to trade Stanton. The Rays were prioritizing getting out of the long money ($88 million was owed Longoria through 2022), and to do so they included $14.5 million in the deal to the Giants and assumed Span’s $13 million contract (those are huge numbers for the Rays).

Tampa Bay essentially was willing to endure short-term financial pain because they were so concerned with what Longoria’s dollars and potential aging decline could do to damage their near future. It was unpopular, since Longoria is probably the best player in franchise history. And it was more unpopular because it was part of a financial purge.

The Rays had 22 players making $1 million or more in 2017 and by the end of the waiver trading period in August 2018 just two remained: Kevin Kiermaier and Sergio Romo, who signed for less than he had made in 2017 to remain with Tampa Bay. This was perceived as a teardown/surrender. Except, from 2018-20, the Rays have won the majors’ fifth-most games.

It is a copycat league and there is nothing owners will want to copycat more than cutting payroll, especially in these revenue-challenged times. A few clubs are being circled to do big cuts, perhaps none bigger than the Indians. They already did not pick up the $10 million 2021 option on 2020 MLB saves leader Brad Hand. They are expected to deal star shortstop Francisco Lindor before he begins his walk year and starts earning $20 million in 2021.

But what if they are like the 2017-18 Rays and decide to keep going? Carlos Carrasco has two years at $27 million remaining (or three at $38 million if his 2023 option is picked up). With both options picked up, 2020 AL MVP finalist Jose Ramirez has three years at $33 million left. If, for example, Cleveland would take on the $9.025 million left on Ender Inciarte’s contract, would the Braves build a package around Austin Riley and prospects for Carrasco and Ramirez? Imagine an infield of Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson and Ramirez (plus Ronald Acuna Jr. and Travis d’Arnaud in the same lineup).

What would the Marlins or Tigers give up to put their young pitchers with defensive catching whiz Roberto Perez, who is due $5.5 million next year with a $7 million 2022 option?

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