The most consistently competitive team in baseball did the unthinkable: It signed the offseason’s two most expensive free agents, traded for another much-needed starting pitcher, signed yet another proven run producer, and brought back a franchise icon. The Los Angeles Dodgers turned themselves into an overnight, $300 million Super Team for 2024.
All this even though we know all-in, Super Teams don’t work in baseball.
That’s the cliché. There are too many roster spots and too much playoff uncertainty, and so offseason spending sprees bring more regret than rings. The San Diego Padres and New York Mets tried to splurge their way to a championship only to end up selling off parts and watching the playoffs from home. The Baseball Gods just won’t allow such a team to succeed.
Except, sometimes they do.
The Dodgers — with the game’s largest payroll, its brightest superstar, and more than a decade of regular season success — are trying to do what a handful of others have done: win the offseason and win the postseason all in one year.
Yes, the past 30 years offer numerous, notorious examples of spending sprees gone wrong. The Colorado Rockies couldn’t fix their pitching problems despite signing Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle in 2001, the early-2000s Texas Rangers never had a winning record with Alex Rodriguez, and when the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies brought together Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, their four aces were knocked out of the playoffs in — of all things — an epic pitcher’s duel. The 2011 Boston Red Sox, 2012 Miami Marlins, 2013 Toronto Blue Jays, and 2014 New York Yankees made massive offseason splashes that took them absolutely nowhere, and the Mets pushed payroll to unprecedented heights the past two offseasons with a lone playoff win to show for it. Not even a series win; just one game.
Even this winter, despite committing more than $1 billion in free agency, the Dodgers are not overwhelming favorites. PECOTA projects them less than a half-win better than the steadily improving Atlanta Braves, and FanGraphs has the Braves as the best team in baseball according to projected WAR.
Clearly, offseason spending is not a foolproof path to postseason success, but despite its dismissive reputation around baseball, it doesn’t have to be a roadblock either. Other teams in the past 30 years have picked the right moment, gone all-in on the right team, and taken themselves from good to great in a single winter.
What can the teams that have successfully pulled it off teach us about what the Dodgers have done or, more importantly, what they might do next?
1997 Florida Marlins
The lesson: It doesn’t necessarily happen all at once.
The Dodgers’ offseason has been stunning, but it didn’t come out of nowhere, and that’s how it was with the first great Marlins team.
In their fifth year of existence, the Marlins went all-in when owner Wayne Huizenga spent almost $90 million adding Bobby Bonilla and Moisés Alou to the lineup, Cy Young Award candidate Alex Fernandez to the rotation, and veterans Jim Eisenreich, John Cangelosi and Dennis Cook to the bench and bullpen. The Marlins also brought in veteran manager Jim Leyland. In its 1997 season preview, Sports Illustrated noted that the Marlins’ payroll was nearly four times that of Leyland’s previous Pittsburgh Pirates team.
And it worked. The Marlins won 92 games, made the playoffs as a wild card, and won Game 7 of the World Series on an 11th-inning walk-off. The fact they shed payroll by tearing the roster to pieces the very next offseason only reinforced the memory of the ’97 Marlins as a one-time-only, all-in success story.
Except the team was hardly built in a single offseason. Most of the rotation — Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Liván Hernández — was signed the previous winter. So was center fielder Devon White. The Marlins had traded for right fielder Gary Sheffield and closer Rob Nen in 1993, setup man Jay Powell was acquired in 1994, and first baseman Jeff Conine had been an original Marlin from the 1992 expansion draft. Middle infielders Luis Castillo and Edgar Renteria were homegrown rookies, also among the earliest to join the organization.
The Dodgers have a similar backstory. Their offseason splurge was historic, but it wasn’t a radical departure. They’ve long been regarded as perhaps the best-run team in baseball, with one of the game’s highest payrolls and most successful minor-league pipelines. They traded for Mookie Betts in 2020, plucked closer Evan Phillips off waivers in 2021 and signed Freddie Freeman in 2022. They drafted and developed Will Smith and Gavin Lux. They’ve spent a lot of money this winter. But that’s not all they’ve done.
2009 New York Yankees
The lesson: Not everything is going to work.
The Dodgers have been trying to build World Series winners for more than a decade, usually without winning an actual ring. The Yankees can relate.
Having built their late-90s dynasty through a combination of homegrown talent (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams) and massive trade or free-agent additions (Paul O’Neill, David Cone, Roger Clemens), the 2004 Yankees tried to rekindle that magic by trading for Kevin Brown and Javier Vázquez, signing Gary Sheffield, and then completing their blockbuster deal for reigning MVP Alex Rodriguez. The result was a 101-win regular season and a historic ALCS collapse to the rival Red Sox. For the next four years, despite all that talent, the Yankees failed to win a single playoff series, and they missed the playoffs altogether in 2008.
So, in the months after that ’08 disappointment, the Yankees tried again. George Steinbrenner’s son Hal took primary control of the team, Joe Girardi replaced Joe Torre as manager, and the Yankees reloaded their roster with CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett and Nick Swisher. They won 103 games and beat the defending champion Phillies in the World Series.
The Yankees spent big to add to a historic core and it paid off. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
Again, the Dodgers comparison is fairly easy. Much like the early 2000s Yankees, the Dodgers of the past decade have been consistently successful — 11 straight playoff appearances, 10 as division champs — but they have only the 2020 World Series ring to show for it. Zack Greinke was excellent for the organization, but the Dodgers never won a title with him. A bold trade with the Red Sox netted Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford but didn’t get the Dodgers beyond the NLCS. Same for the 2021 blockbuster for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner.
For the better part of a decade, the Dodgers have been consistently excellent, while also constantly searching for the right combination that will finish the job in October. Maybe this 2024 roster is it.
The lesson: Give it some time.
One inevitable truth about long-term deals: They last a long time.
The 2022 Rangers loaded their roster by signing two of the market’s top three free agents — Corey Seager and Marcus Semien — for a combined half-billion dollars. They also signed Jon Gray for $56 million, traded for Mitch Garver, and signed Matt Moore and Martin Pérez to one-year deals.
The Rangers promptly lost 94 games and fired both their manager and their general manager.
So, what are they doing on a list of successful, all-in offseasons? They’re here because the winter of 2021-22 was the dramatic shift that set the stage for a championship in 2023.
The 1999 Arizona Diamondbacks offered a similar lesson in patience. After winning just 65 games in their inaugural 1998 season, the Diamondbacks splurged in their first normal offseason, spending more than $115 million in free agency on Randy Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre, Greg Swindell, Armando Reynoso and Steve Finley. The D-Backs also traded for Luis Gonzalez and Tony Womack, and signed Byung-Hyun Kim and Erubiel Durazo off the international market. Two years later — with most of those 1999 additions still in place — they toppled the mighty Yankees in the World Series.
For the Dodgers, the core of Ohtani, Betts, Freeman and Yamamoto will be together for the next four years, and all but Freeman will be together for at least the next six. In the worst-case scenario, such long-term deals can become albatrosses, but in the best-case scenario, they provide multiple bites at the apple. Successful spending sprees don’t have to yield championships right away, though generally speaking, the sooner, the better.
(Top photo of Ohtani at Dodgers fan fest: Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)