By now, it is a large part of the perception of him as a top executive: Andrew Friedman doesn’t do big free agent deals. Though he has made nine-figure offers, as he did for Zack Greinke two winters ago, none have been accepted, and to this day, after 12 seasons running teams, the biggest free agent contract he has handed out was the five-year, $80 million deal he gave closer Kenley Jansen 14 months ago to remain in L.A.
“There’s not a hard and fast rule,” Friedman said Friday, walking between practice fields at the Dodgers’ spring training complex at Camelback Ranch. “But if you look back over time, there are a lot more free agent contracts that haven’t worked out than have.”
Friedman’s steadfast aversion for big-ticket free agents has put the Dodgers, who lost in Game 7 of the World Series to the Houston Astros just 3½ months ago, under a glare of scrutiny — along with other large-market teams suddenly preaching austerity, and a slew of small-market teams adopting the “tanking” model — during this contentious spring between MLB and its union over a sluggish free agent market. And that aversion could get its biggest test ever some nine months from now, when the best free agent class in recent memory, if not all-time, arrives on the market.
That class is expected to be headed by Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper and Baltimore Orioles shortstop Manny Machado, both of whom will be just 26 years old at the start of the free agent signing period, and could also include Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw, should he exercise an opt-out in his contract and choose free agency.
Many in the industry look at the Dodgers, with their future needs, their geography and especially their streamlined financial picture — as currently constructed, they will be under the luxury tax threshold in 2018 for the first time, after being over it, and paying the resulting penalties, in each of the past five years — and see a team poised to make a huge play for Harper, who grew up in Las Vegas and whose family typically travels to Dodger Stadium to see him play when the Nationals are in L.A.
But to imagine such a play by the Dodgers, particularly when Harper’s price tag could exceed Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million deal that stands as the largest in the game’s history, would require one to ignore Friedman’s history, and it would require Friedman himself to ignore his own nature.
“You’re always looking at your payroll over a multiyear horizon,” Friedman said Friday, wading carefully around questions about not only Harper, but all of next winter’s free agent class. “And who’s available in different classes. And what your actual needs are … Having flexibility — even if you can’t associate it with a specific name right now, flexibility is always a good thing.
“And we feel like we’re in good position, as we look out over the next three to five years, with our young base of major league players, and the players we have coming up through our system, our veteran core, and some financial flexibility. That’s the position you want to be in.”
In a strange winter of blockbuster trades (Stanton to the New York Yankees), monumental signings out of Japan (Shohei Ohtani to the Los Angeles Angels) and a lot of gridlock and stagnation, one of the more significant and portentous moves was the trade the Dodgers made with the Atlanta Braves in mid-December.
It looked like a simple swap of bad contracts — with Matt Kemp, a Dodger from 2006-14, coming back to L.A., and Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy, plus young utility player Charlie Culberson and $4.5 million cash, going to the Braves. But as the layers were peeled away, it was revealed as a brilliant bit of financial sleight-of-hand on the part of the Dodgers, and one that seemed designed in large part to position the franchise for a run at Harper, Machado or anyone else they want next winter.
Though the money and debt changing hands was equal, the $43 million the Dodgers will owe Kemp is spread out over the next two seasons, while the combined $47.5 million owed to the other players was for 2018 alone. That’s significant because baseball’s luxury tax is calculated based on average annual value (AAV), and Kemp’s AAV figure of $21.5 million, less than half of what they would have owed the other players, allowed the Dodgers to get their 2018 payroll below the luxury tax threshold of $197 million — thus resetting their tax rate from 50 percent to 20 percent should they exceed the threshold again in 2019.
“Oh, I hadn’t noticed,” Friedman told reporters on a conference call the night of the trade, when asked if the move positioned the team for the great 2018-19 free agent class. “Is there a big free agent class next winter?”
Among the observers who watched Friedman’s financial wizardry with particular interest was Kershaw. As a staunch union member, Kershaw, like most players, resented the way the richest teams, including his own, appeared dead-set on staying below the luxury tax threshold — one big reason for the severe slowdown in this winter’s free agent market.
“I think we all kind of knew it was more of a financial move than a [personnel] move,” Kershaw said of the Kemp trade. “But I’ve seen Matt be the best player in baseball for a year and a half. And I know that he can still do that to some extent. As for the luxury tax situation for some of these big-market teams — I understand they don’t want to pay the taxes. Fine. But at the same time, these teams are making plenty of money. As a player, I don’t care. I want them to sign the best players. If it’s a money decision that we don’t sign guys, it’s not acceptable to me — especially in the big market we play in.”
But as a player who might just be a free agent himself at the end of this season — by opting out, he would forego the nearly $71 million he is owed in 2019 and 2020 — it helps his own bottom line to have multiple large-market teams, including his own, with the financial wherewithal to be major players next winter.
“To be honest,” Kershaw said Friday, “I haven’t even thought about my situation.”
So, to recap: Kershaw isn’t thinking about next winter, and neither is Friedman, if you wish to believe them. Meantime, all the pieces are shifting in a way that ensures both of them could be at the center of the wildest, priciest free agent frenzy in history — that is, if they want to be.