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This is why the Dodgers have been quiet this winter

@mike_petriello
January 17, 2020

Dodgers fans aren't happy. It's now been over three decades since Los Angeles last won the World Series. For all the success they've had over the last few years -- and there has been a lot, with seven straight division titles, the most regular season wins of any team since

Dodgers fans aren't happy.

It's now been over three decades since Los Angeles last won the World Series. For all the success they've had over the last few years -- and there has been a lot, with seven straight division titles, the most regular season wins of any team since 2013, two trips to the Fall Classic, and a franchise-record 106 victories in 2019 -- the team still hasn't brought home that elusive title. The Yankees, Red Sox and Giants have won a dozen combined championships since the Dodgers last won one. The Marlins have two. The D-backs have one. So do the Royals. So do a lot of teams. Division titles are fine. Rings are what matter.

As you might expect, Dodgers fans are understandably getting antsy for that championship, and for the team to share the same urgency they feel -- a feeling perhaps pushed along by manager Dave Roberts, who said in December that "I think this is probably the most turnover we’ll have from one season to the next."

So far, the sum of that supposed turnover? Just three one-year reclamation pitching projects, all coming off injuries, one who'd previously already been a Dodger:

• One year, $10 million for P Blake Treinen
• One year, $4 million for P Alex Wood
• One year, $1.25 million for P Jimmy Nelson

On their own, each signing is a defensible one, but ... that's it. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill are gone. Gerrit Cole, Josh Donaldson and Anthony Rendon went elsewhere. The list of remaining free agents worth spending on is nearly empty. You get why fans aren't optimistic about the 2020 team being in better position to win it all than the 2019 team was. And if not now, when?

But there has to be some kind of plan here, right? Let's see if we can help figure it out.

Why haven't the Dodgers been more aggressive?

The Dodgers' offseason outlook might be summed up entirely in this image, which is showing the 2020 projected team Wins Above Replacement via FanGraphs. We've labeled the five National League West clubs.

Right. If you've won seven straight divisions and look incredibly well-positioned to take an eighth, then you have the luxury of not worrying about adding reinforcements for the summer. You can make all of your big moves with an eye on October.

That may sound presumptuous, but they just won those 106 games, and they still have Walker Buehler, Cody Bellinger, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Turner, Max Muncy, Kenta Maeda, Joc Pederson, Corey Seager, Kenley Jansen, full seasons of Will Smith, Dustin May and Gavin Lux, and so on. Though the loss of Ryu will hurt, Hill threw only 58 2/3 innings last year. "A disappointingly timid winter" and "damaging their chances to win the division" aren't exactly the same thing; great as Cole and the other free agent stars may be, they wouldn't do a whole lot to increase L.A.'s odds of winning the NL West. There's only so much room to improve.

It's not the strongest of divisions right now, which is part of it. (The Dodgers finished 21 games up on second-place Arizona in 2019 and 36 up on last-place San Diego.) That might not be exactly how it plays out in 2020, but the Giants are in the midst of a rebuild, the Rockies appear content to stand pat -- they might even trade away Nolan Arenado -- and the Padres, though full of interesting young talent, have had nine consecutive losing seasons.

This isn't exactly like Cleveland failing to improve a very poor outfield last winter and then watching the Twins come to take the division away. It's extremely reasonable for the Dodgers to think they can take the same team into 2020 and be set up to win an eighth straight division title, getting back into the playoff blender once again, with the idea that from there, anything can happen. After all, the team that just had Cole didn't win the title. The team that had tremendous bullpen problems all season did. There isn't "the one magic thing" available in the winter that guarantees you the championship -- plus, given the massive controversies of the last few days, we'll never know if the 2017 and '18 Dodgers actually really did do enough to win in the first place.

It's still a good team. It's always a good team. And there are reasons to think that several of the top free agents were never coming to Los Angeles in the first place. Stephen Strasburg clearly was always returning to Washington. Rendon's comments about "the Hollywood lifestyle" made his priorities clear. The team did extend Cole what would have been a record contract, but he chose an even larger one with his childhood favorite team. (Will Smith, the reliever, also returned to his hometown team, though they might have tried harder on Donaldson.) This is why the trade rumors they've been connected to are for studs: Francisco Lindor, Mookie Betts and Mike Clevinger. They'd also surely love Arenado, though the Rockies won't likely trade him to Los Angeles.

Top free agents or not, the Dodgers are still very likely to return to the playoffs in 2020. But all that said, that is absolutely not the same thing as being in the best possible position to win the World Series. It's not a team without flaws. It's not an excuse to not improve.

So. About that ...

When does making an addition matter?

Team president Stan Kasten said something telling when he spoke to the Los Angeles Times recently.

“The team we have now is not going to be the team we have to start the postseason,” he said.

This is almost certainly true. We've seen it in years past; though they didn't do a lot at the Trade Deadline in 2019 (Adam Kolarek and Jedd Gyorko), in previous years, they'd added Manny Machado, Yu Darvish, Hill, Tony Watson, Brian Dozier, Josh Reddick and others.

In other words, if the goal is to improve for October, and you're pretty sure you're getting to October no matter what you do, then it might not matter terribly much if you've made your improvements on Nov. 15 or Jan. 15 or July 15. That is, when Daniel Hudson helped the Nationals win the World Series this past year, it didn't matter more or less because he was acquired on July 31 and wasn't there on Opening Day.

Now, that opens you up to some risk of players you need perhaps not being available in the middle of the season, of course. It requires you to come to an agreement on a trade with another team, surrendering talent, rather than just being able to spend money directly on a player. This isn't the easiest path, and it's not without peril. On the other hand, four months into the season, they'll know a lot more about their needs, too, about who's healthy or performing, about whether Lux, Smith, Julio Urías, Tony Gonsolin, May and other young players have taken hold of jobs or not.

For a team like the White Sox or the Braves, making additions now probably does matter. For the Dodgers, all that matters might be who they have on hand on Oct. 1.

What have past World Series winners done?

OK, so any move you're thinking about now is with October in mind. Even if you wait, those moves have to actually get made at some point. What have the past few World Series winners done -- how much did their roster change from Opening Day, and did any of their in-season additions play a big role in the title?

2019 Nationals
% of Opening Day roster on World Series roster: 64% (16 of 25)

Only 16 of the original 25 Nationals were still around in October. Part of that was that Howie Kendrick and Michael A. Taylor began the season injured, but it was mostly about a bullpen that was all but entirely dismantled over the course of the season; of the seven Opening Day relievers, only Sean Doolittle and Wander Suero were on the Opening Day roster.

Also, they added Baby Shark himself, Gerardo Parra.

2018 Red Sox
% of Opening Day roster on World Series roster: 76% (19 of 25)

You might remember the impact that Nathan Eovaldi and Steve Pearce had on the World Series that year; each were acquired from AL East rivals during the season. Boston also picked up veterans Drew Pomeranz and Ian Kinsler, and added Eduardo Rodriguez and Ryan Brasier internally.

2017 Astros
% of Opening Day roster on World Series roster: 76% (19 of 25)

Most of the Houston changes in 2017 were small ones, like adding Francisco Liriano or promoting Derek Fisher, except for the big one, trading for Justin Verlander as the seconds ticked down to zero on the Aug. 31 deadline. Verlander started 11 games for Houston in the regular season and postseason that year, and the Astros won 10 of them.

2016 Cubs
% of Opening Day roster on World Series roster: 72% (18 of 25)

Those '16 Cubs promoted Albert Almora Jr., Carl Edwards Jr. and Willson Contreras from within, and welcomed Javier Baez back from an early injury, but the big move here was to give up Gleyber Torres (among others) to add Aroldis Chapman in July. There's a Dodgers parallel here, because the Cubs were 20 games over .500 when they made the deal and were flying towards a division title. This one was made entirely for October.

2015 Royals
% of Opening Day roster on World Series roster: 76% (19 of 25)

The 2014 Royals had made it to the World Series and lost, so they were already a pretty loaded team headed into 2015, but they still made a pair of big moves during the season, trading for Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto in separate trades.

Five years isn't a huge sample, but we can safely say that recent title teams have had two-thirds to three-quarters of the same roster in October as they did in April. Both Dodgers World Series teams have had the same ratio -- 16 of 25, or 64% -- active in October. Some of that, obviously, comes from internal promotions, but not all. There are always moves to come.

OK, but who?

Kasten also said that "I expect that team, this year, it looks like it’s going to be well over the [Competitive Balance Tax], or somewhat over."

That threshold is $208 million, and the Dodgers are approximately $40 million below that. Signing a big-ticket free agent would have spent that money, but they're gone, and the top remaining bats like Nicholas Castellanos or Marcell Ozuna don't really fit. A trade for a Betts or a Lindor would certainly close that gap, of course. But what if it doesn't?

The number one need, as always, is in the bullpen. Maybe Treinen turns back into what he was in 2018 and solves that issue. Maybe they can resuscitate another injury-prone veteran like they did with Brandon Morrow in 2017. If they don't make the big trade now, where are they looking in July? We started to have some ideas, like ...

P Ian Kennedy, Royals: Forget that he's 35 or that his career marks (97-103, 4.09 ERA) aren't terribly impressive. That mostly came as a starter, and as a first-time reliever in 2019, his velocity jumped and his strikeout rate went from 20% to 27%, and his FIP dropped to 2.99. He makes $16.5 million in the final year of a five-year deal, though remember some of that will be already paid if we're into the summer.

P Ken Giles, Blue Jays, or P Brad Hand, Indians: We're lumping these two together because the Dodgers reportedly inquired about them last year. Giles ($9.6 million in 2020) struck out 83 in 53 innings with a 1.87 ERA last year, while Hand ($7 million, with a team option for 2021) struck out 84 in 57 1/3 innings. Cleveland still has a below-average outfield. There's an easy fit there.

... but "cost" and "reliever quality" don't always go hand-in-hand, as Joe Kelly showed last year, and as the minimum-salary Nick Anderson showed for the Rays. They'll absolutely need relievers. It just doesn't have to be high-priced ones.

No, if the Dodgers are going to spend, if they're going to add the top-level star they need to be the best versions of themselves, it's going to have to be via trade, whether that's Betts, Lindor, Kris Bryant, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Semien, Josh Hader, Kirby Yates, Chris Sale or any other combination of names you can think of. They'll make a move because they'll need to, and because they've done it before. It just might not matter so much if it's now or six months from now. The only thing that matters is October.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.