We won't know for certain until the season ends, but the Los Angeles Dodgers appear likely to join a select group following their busy winter. No, we're not hinting at the Dodgers possibly repeating as World Series champions (though they would become the first team to do so in decades). Instead, we're referencing the Dodgers exposing themselves to the steepest luxury-tax penalties by going over the tax line by more than $40 million.
Andrew Friedman steered the Dodgers into the proverbial red zone over the offseason by signing Trevor Bauer and Justin Turner to deals that will have a combined Competitive Balance Tax figure exceeding $50 million in 2021. Factor in the Dodgers' other offseason additions, as well as the raises heading to players already on the team, and Los Angeles -- owner of the largest 2021 payroll in baseball ($254 million for luxury-tax purposes) -- is sitting at $44 million over the tax line, according to Cot's Contracts.
Throttling past the $40-million mark is significant because the penalties are no longer merely financial in nature. A team can spend up to $39 million more than the tax and face nothing more than overage fines and surtaxes; spend a couple million more, though, and suddenly the team's top draft pick is docked 10 spots. For the Dodgers, that would mean their first selection moves from No. 29 to No. 39 overall.
Friedman, for his part, sounds unconcerned about the possibility. "I think our primary focus is on doing everything we can to defend our title," he said earlier this month, according to the Orange County Register. "Trade discussions, I'm sure, will take place during spring training but it's not something that's front of mind for us in terms of moving money. The moves and things that we've done the previous three years gave us a little bit more flexibility right now."
Say Friedman changes his mind (likely at the behest of ownership): what could he do in order to get the Dodgers under the $40-million mark? Below, we've laid out the various scenarios, differing in complexity and likelihood, that Friedman could pursue.
The blockbuster trade route
Think of this section as the "home-run" approach. A single move from here, though difficult to pull off, would push the Dodgers into the clear. Heck, they would even have a little wiggle room left over, if they needed or wanted to bring some money back.
David Price hasn't yet made his Dodgers debut after he opted out of last season, but he's the most obvious candidate in this group for a few reasons. The Dodgers didn't have Bauer in tow when they acquired Price as part of the Mookie Betts trade. Likewise, they hadn't had the opportunity to see what Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin could do as full-fledged starters. Of course, the Dodgers could prefer to keep Price, who is still an asset on the mound (he had a 113 ERA+ and a 4.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 22 starts in 2019) and in the clubhouse. His CBT number over the next two seasons ($31 million) will complicate any potential trade, meaning they might not have a choice.
The two other blockbuster candidates are closer Kenley Jansen (who has a no-trade clause by virtue of gaining his 10/5 rights in 2020) and outfielder A.J. Pollock. Jansen ($16 million) is entering the final season of his contract, while Pollock ($12 million) has up to three years remaining on his deal. The Dodgers need both for their roster to work at this point, so it's hard to see them moving either unless circumstances change.
The mid-level route
If the blockbuster section was the equivalent to a home run, then think of this section as a well-placed ball to the gap or down the line that results in a double. Clearing one of these contracts (without taking money back) would get the Dodgers under the $40-million line, albeit only by a few hairs.
Joe Kelly ($8.33 million) is entering the final guaranteed year of his contract. His Dodgers career hasn't gone as well as Friedman and company may have envisioned when they originally signed him: in 67 appearances, he's posted a 4.11 ERA (102 ERA+) and a 2.45 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The New York Yankees moved on from a similar situation when they traded Adam Ottavino earlier this winter, but they had to include a prospect to get it done. It's unclear if the Dodgers would be willing to do the same.
Comparatively, the Dodgers seem less likely to pursue a trade involving impending free agent Chris Taylor ($6.7 million). With Enrique Hernandez signing elsewhere, Taylor is currently slated to be the Dodgers' most versatile right-handed hitter.
The low-level route
Then there's the singles approach -- as in, you have to string a few together, but if you can do that then you can get the job done.
It seems unlikely that the Dodgers would move Julio Urias ($3.6 million) after he helped them secure the win in Game 6 of last year's Fall Classic. At the same time, it's possible that Friedman values his other younger starters more, or that he feels the market values Urias higher than he does, thus creating an opportunity for positive arbitrage.
The Dodgers acquired veteran reliever Corey Knebel ($5.25 million) from the Milwaukee Brewers before they re-signed Blake Treinen. It's at least possible the Dodgers would want a mulligan, and would look to move Knebel. It seems doubtful, though, given that Knebel could make their relief corps even stronger than it was last season, when they ranked second in the majors in bullpen ERA.
Friedman doesn't have a direct path to getting under the $40-million mark without weakening the Dodgers' roster. With that in mind, it's refreshing to see a team choose maximizing their championship chances over a lower fine and draft pick. Perhaps that mindset is part of the reason the Dodgers are defending champions in the first place.