A quiet Dodgers offseason speaks loudly to the top priority for the next year: Shohei Ohtani

The Los Angeles Dodgers won 111 games last season, then crashed out of October early. They lost their second $300 million shortstop in two years to free agency. They cut bait on former MVP Cody Bellinger and what likely would have been an $18 million salary in arbitration. They quickly re-upped franchise avatar Clayton Kershaw with the latest in a series of one-year deals.

Then they watched as two of the biggest free agents — shortstops, nevertheless — signed monster deals with the division rival San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants. All the while, the Dodgers’ offseason remained conspicuously quiet.

In previous years, early winter lulls have ended with a bang, as when president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman swooped in to sign Freddie Freeman last offseason. Or in 2020, when the Dodgers pulled off the Mookie Betts trade a week shy of spring training. An impactful trade could still theoretically be in the offing, but this winter’s biggest available stars are now all spoken for. And none of them, aside from Kershaw, has donned Dodger blue.

In being so quiet, though, the Dodgers might be speaking volumes about their top priority, the big bang they hope will eventually ring out in Chavez Ravine: Shohei Ohtani.

The standalone, two-way superstar looms over this winter’s high-powered free-agent class and, indeed, all its activity. His commitment to the wayward Los Angeles Angels is dwindling — he will reach free agency after the upcoming 2023 season — and the 2021 AL MVP has mentioned the priority of winning in rare public comments on the matter of his future.

Under the cloud of an impending ownership change, Angels GM Perry Minasian publicly announced in November that the team wouldn’t be pursuing a Juan Soto-style Ohtani trade this offseason, but the next 365 or so days set up as perhaps the best and last window to bring Ohtani to your baseball team.

The Dodgers appear intent on being ready to pounce.

Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani, pictured here at Dodger Stadium during the 2022 All-Star festivities, is reportedly a top priority for the Dodgers ahead of his impending free agency after 2023. (Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

How the Dodgers are setting themselves up for 2023 and beyond

It has not been a totally barren offseason. The Dodgers signed designated hitter JD Martinez, starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard and relief pitcher Shelby Miller to one-year deals. They also added outfielder Jason Heyward on a minor-league contract. If it were 2015, this would be a whopper of a haul. For 2023, it’s a very careful — if potentially effective! — effort at filling major-league gaps while keeping their powder dry for 2024 and beyond.

Let’s talk about why future spending plans might tamp down the Dodgers’ payroll in 2023 because it’s not as simple as “OMG OHTANI.” At least, it’s not quite that simple.

The current Dodgers ownership group has been at the helm for 10 full seasons and has paid MLB’s competitive balance tax for exceeding at least one payroll threshold in seven of those. The Dodgers have paid each of the past two seasons, carrying baseball’s top payroll both times. As SBNation’s Eric Stephen broke down earlier this month, the Dodgers’ moves (or lack thereof) point not to some philosophical pivot towards austerity (a la the Chaim Bloom Red Sox) but towards a one-year reset.

CBT penalties escalate for teams that exceed the tax threshold three or more seasons in a row. That means that for the Dodgers, spending a touch under the $233 million threshold in 2023, then jumping back into the $280 million range in 2024 could save $10-plus million compared to a scenario in which they spend the same amount over the next two seasons but in an evenly distributed fashion.

Certainly, the Dodgers ownership group can afford to keep paying the tax and could afford to continue running payrolls that flirt with $300 million. But if they have asked Friedman’s front office to reset the clock every once in a while, this offseason seems like as good a time as any. The market swung wildly toward the kind of long, stretched-out superstar deals that the Dodgers have generally eschewed in free agency.

The one the Dodgers did sign — the 12-year, $365 million extension with Betts — now looks like a steal, given that he has been the most valuable player in baseball the past five years, is in a class of two alongside Mike Trout when it comes to consistency of excellence and remains five months younger than Aaron Judge. As an added boon for the Dodgers, Betts’ deal counts for about $25.6 million in CBT calculations because deferrals lowered the total value of the deal to about $306.7 million in signing day dollars.

The Dodgers’ other large commitment is $24.7 million per year through 2027 to Freeman, basically a baseball-playing, hit-notching machine who famously plays every day.

Those are the guaranteed money anchors, and they’re good ones. The younger, pre-free-agency anchors are pretty good, too: Will Smith, one of the game’s top catchers, is projected to make a hair over $5 million in his first year of arbitration. Ace starter Julio Urias, in his final year before hitting free agency, is projected to make $13.7 million.

The questions come beyond them on the roster. With Trea Turner and Corey Seager off to be headliners with new franchises, Gavin Lux will be tasked with holding down shortstop full-time, barring another move. The 25-year-old took a major step forward in 2022, logging an above-average batting line for the first time and playing a solid second base. But his defensive performance didn’t stand out, and the metrics on his limited reps at short haven’t been encouraging.

Especially with the new shift limitations putting more pressure on individual athleticism, the Dodgers have some tricky decisions to make in the infield. Chris Taylor might be asked to play more second base after years spent mostly in the outfield. Max Muncy, a slugger whose positional flexibility was buoyed by positioning gymnastics, will be limited mostly to third instead of second, and even that will be a serious challenge.

In the outfield, non-tendering Bellinger means the Dodgers are currently relying on Trayce Thompson (a 2022 surprise who looks more like a flash in the pan than a long-term find) and James Outman, a big, athletic rookie who will turn 26 in May. Miguel Vargas will likely find a place to play with his promising bat but doesn’t figure to be of much help anywhere defensively. A couple of top prospects — Andy Pages in the outfield, Michael Busch on the infield — are close enough to the majors to consider, but they aren’t viewed as impact players to save spots for, a la the Yankees and shortstop Anthony Volpe.

It all adds up to a plan that leaves more to the imagination than the recent “championship or bust” Los Angeles teams have been willing to. Next season is looking an awful lot like a bridge year in LA — or maybe a bridge first half — so it’s natural to wonder what the bridge is building towards.

Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman (left), president and part-owner Stan Kasten (center) and manager Dave Roberts (right) have combined to field baseball's winningest team in recent years but won the World Series in only the shortened 2020 season.  (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman (left), president and part-owner Stan Kasten (center) and manager Dave Roberts (right) have combined to field baseball’s winningest team in recent years but won the World Series in only the shortened 2020 season. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

What the Dodgers are saving for

Despite frustration from their original pursuit of Ohtani when he left Japan, the Dodgers “truly want” the two-way superstar, according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. With the designated hitter now universal and rotation flexibility already a staple for the Dodgers, Ohtani looks like a great fit.

Not that the idea of ​​acquiring Ohtani needs much marketing help. Indeed, he would look like a great fit for a lot of teams — an otherworldly talent who could be the default preseason pick for baseball’s best player for the next few years.

Ohtani will turn 29 in the middle of the 2023 season and 30 in the middle of 2024, which would be his first year on his new deal, potentially with his new team. Given what we just saw for stars such as Judge, Turner and Xander Bogaerts, Ohtani could command at least nine years and $400 million if he continues to perform as he did in 2021 and ’22. Familiar foes such as the San Francisco Giants and New York Mets also figure to be gearing up for the Ohtani bidding, and apparently we can’t count out AJ Preller’s San Diego Padres anytime a superstar is available.

Besides the significant financial demands, Ohtani requires some roster specifications. He needs to be in the DH slot almost every day and has thus far pitched in a six-man rotation. (That would be a reason, among others, for the Dodgers to prefer Martinez on a one-year deal, instead of the two-year deal Justin Turner got from the Boston Red Sox.)

And if the Angels do disappointing Angels things again in the first half of 2023, the Dodgers need to at least be prepared to try to trade for Ohtani and make a lot of this happen at this summer’s deadline. Actually landing Ohtani, as Friedman is aware, will likely require some uncomfortable decisions.

Finally, there are some additional considerations for why the Dodgers, MLB’s preeminent combo of financial and on-the-field power in recent years, are saving now to splurge later.

  • The club’s ill-fated deal with suspended starting pitcher Trevor Bauer runs out after 2023, and Rosenthal has reported that at least part of their caution this winter stems from concern that his ban might be reduced by an arbitrator, requiring the team to pay out part of the remaining money.

  • Urias, the teenage phenom-turned-ace, will hit free agency after 2023 if no extension deal is reached, leaving the Dodgers’ rotation outlook very thin on proven, healthy starters. Walker Buehler will likely miss all of 2023 because of Tommy John surgery.

  • The upcoming starting pitching options beyond Ohtani look stronger and younger than this winter’s crop (to the extent that we can forecast these things ahead of time). Aaron Nola, Jack Flaherty, Lucas Giolito and German Marquez are due to hit free agency next offseason. Also keep an eye on Corbin Burnes and Shane Bieber, elite pitchers up for free agency in 2025. Their smaller-payroll teams might decide to deal them away, should extension discussions prove fruitless.

Beyond Ohtani, next year’s free-agent class is probably going to be headlined by third basemen: Rafael Devers and likely Manny Machado, assuming he stays healthy and chooses to exercise his opt-out. Perhaps the Dodgers are also interested in Devers and/or a reunion with Machado, although those wouldn’t seem to inspire the same sort of plotting as an Ohtani pursuit.

Even if the Dodgers go out this winter and trade for an outfielder under team control — the Pirates’ Bryan Reynolds or a post-hype option such as the Mariners’ Jarred Kelenic could make some sense — their overall plan seems straightforward: Retain and test young position players, slide under the CBT threshold for 2023, fill gaps with one-year commitments or defensively viable young players, and keep options open at DH and in the rotation.

It’s a rare moment of look-ahead suspense for a Dodgers team that has been living relentlessly in the now — and a team that, to be clear, could easily still be favored to win the NL West in 2023. Ohtani, though, seems to be the rare player who’s worth the restraint required in preparation — as long as the Dodgers are willing to go the extra mile to get him.

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