February 26, 2024

How the Dodgers executed ‘Plan A’ with their extravagant offseason

LOS ANGELES — The plan was staggering. Bold, even by the boldest of visions, the kind of hypothetical typically crafted on a message board and rarely, if ever, actually carried out.

But it sure sounded nice. A billion-dollar offseason?

“Stuff like this,” Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “doesn’t happen.”

The Dodgers’ 100-win campaign had been extinguished for a little more than a week when Freddie Freeman met with the club’s architect, Andrew Friedman. There, the president of baseball operations charted his potential courses, even down to the one that seemed too far-fetched for even some of the sport’s deepest pockets to make come true.

“He told me Plan A, B and C and what we were going to try and do,” Freeman said.

A mere $1.2 billion-plus later, “Obviously Plan A was Plan A that succeeded.”

Successful summers and nightmarish Octobers forged this path, one laid in part long before Friedman even joined the organization. The Dodgers had adored two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani since he was just a high school pitcher in Japan a decade ago; this winter was always going to be about the franchise’s third pursuit of the sport’s biggest star. And while the club’s fascination with Yoshinobu Yamamoto only dates back a few years to Ohtani’s decade, the Japanese right-hander’s looming free agency was the subject of conversation within the halls of Dodger Stadium. Yamamoto and Japanese phenom Roki Sasaki (who could be major league-bound as soon as next winter) have been the subject of open awe within the organization “for years,” Max Muncy said.

Landing either would’ve been an unqualified success. Landing both? Inconceivable, at least you’d think. As Roberts sat in end-of-season meetings and discussed targets, he too heard Friedman and general manager Brandon Gomes point to the top two free agents and float the idea that both could be Dodgers. The mere statement was bold, but their smiles showed it wasn’t just bluster.

The club has long had the resources. But for as much as Friedman would later say this winter he wants the organization to be a “destination,” they’d never had a winter (especially in free agency) quite like this. Freeman was a Dodger in part because his market collapsed. Mookie Betts, the former top contract in franchise history, was acquired via trade. Much of their success, Roberts reminded Sunday, came from homegrown talent.

This time, they spent. And haven’t stopped since.

Ohtani and Yamamoto are both Dodgers, as are Tyler Glasnow, Teoscar Hernández, James Paxton and others now part of a team that has ascended from a 100-win club to, at least according to some, ruining the sport.

The Dodgers have won at least 100 games in each of Mookie Betts’ three full seasons with the team. (Richard Vogel / Associated Press)

“Somebody’s bankroll may be a little bit longer,” Betts said. “There’s nothing you can do about it and it is what it is. They used it. Sorry.”

Sorry, but not really.

The Dodgers’ extravagant winter started modestly. As the sport sat on ice for Ohtani, the club quietly worked on bringing pieces back. Jason Heyward and Joe Kelly each inked one-year deals to return as the club began reaching out to secondary targets, including broaching the idea of a one-year deal with Hernández. Business as usual, despite their private proclamations.

A free-agent pursuit of Ohtani largely kept in the darkness exploded on Dec. 8, when different reports surfaced that the two-way star was on a plane to Toronto (and another that he had actually already made his decision to sign with the Blue Jays). While it was a false alarm that the Dodgers themselves didn’t read too much into, Friedman compared the afternoon to a win expectancy chart, with its spikes and valleys. By the next morning, the nerves had settled. Friedman was at his son’s soccer game in Anaheim conducting a Zoom meeting with a prospective free agent when baseball’s most talked-about offseason kicked into gear.

Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo of CAA, was on the other line: Ohtani was signing with the Dodgers. The number was eye-popping: 10 years, $700 million, blowing past the previous record mark in the sport with hundreds of millions to spare. And as the sport was alerted to the new reality, the details that would shape the rest of the winter’s pursuits were still kept quiet. As Ohtani had finalized his recruitment process, he presented his group of finalists with a contract structure that went beyond unprecedented — Ohtani would defer nearly all of that salary until after the contract was complete; the two-way star spoke of looking into the concept of deferred compensation to help his future club keep spending, keep going and that his existing endorsements and supplemental income would make up the difference in the interim.

Whoever was signing him wasn’t just paying Ohtani. It was investing in him, with the $2 million annual salary just a down payment of sorts as baseball’s most unique free agent helped his new club print cash and use him as a line of credit of sorts. The Dodgers weren’t the only ones able to do this — the San Francisco Giants and Blue Jays were each willing to dive into such waters, while Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno declined to match the request in part due to an apprehension about the deferred money.

The contract formed a partnership, one that gave Ohtani about as much power as any player could have. And the trade-off was clear – he was giving up short-term money now so he could ensure the club wouldn’t stop with him.

So, they didn’t.

“I kind of just sat back and started eating popcorn and watching it unfold,” Betts said.

Within 24 hours of Ohtani’s deal becoming official, he was at Dodger Stadium helping the club woo Yamamoto, along with the likes of Betts, Freeman, Will Smith, Bobby Miller and others. As Ohtani donned a Dodger uniform for the first time, the club was putting the finishing touches on a trade with the Rays that had been in place for the better part of a week dating back to the Winter Meetings in Nashville: the club would send pitcher Ryan Pepiot and outfielder Jonny DeLuca to Tampa Bay in exchange for outfielder Manuel Margot and Glasnow, whom the club immediately inked to a nine-figure extension (with a video pitch from Ohtani to boot). And yet the push didn’t stop there. Two weeks later, Yamamoto was being introduced in front of hundreds of reporters, with a record-setting $325 million deal and a billion-dollar barrier shattered.

“It’s really something to watch,” Joel Wolfe, the agent for Wasserman who represents both Glasnow and Yamamoto, said with awe as that dust settled.

Addressing the totality of the roster continued with Hernández, who saw a cold market and inked a one-year, $23.5 million deal to fill out the middle of the lineup. After watching their rotation depth thin out by last October, they added to it further with a one-year flier for James Paxton. The total bill to date? A commitment of a guaranteed $1.22 billion in spending this winter that more than fulfills the “pledge” Friedman said they gave Ohtani.

“It shows the team is trying to win and trying their best,” Ohtani said Saturday. “I’m really happy with that.”

Ohtani was greeted by a security detail and a mob of reporters as the Dodgers dove into their new reality. Their annual fan reception turned into a celebration, a coronation of an offseason that exceeded all expectations and only raised the ones for once this club actually takes the field.

To simply place this season as championship or bust would ignore the standard already set. The Dodgers have spent before, even if not all at once like this. They’ve won, even if their Octobers, as they told Ohtani, resulted in “failure.”

This, at least for now, is the reinvigoration of a club that has found a way to avoid going stale, a prop aimed at keeping their window ajar as long as possible.

“I mean, not a lot of teams actually do these types of things,” Betts said. “For me it’s just good to know that they kept their word. They told me, I’m sure they told Ohtani, all those other guys, when you sign here, we’re going to always give you a chance to win and they have. Each and every year, we’ve had a chance to win. It’s just on us. It’s on us as players and we have to go execute. They’re doing their part, for sure.”

“To see what our ownership and front office did this offseason — it’s special,” Freeman said. “It’s special to be a part of. Now obviously they did everything they could to give us the best chance to win a World Series.

“Believe me, I wish buying a championship meant we win a championship. But I think anyone in this game knows how hard it is to win a championship. I’m just glad our ownership gave us a chance to do it. That’s really all you can ask for as players.”

(Top photo of Shohei Ohtani: Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire 2024 / Associated Press)