LAS VEGAS — There was a top baseball executive a couple of years ago who proclaimed, “If you’re always rational about every free agent, you will finish third on every free agent” — a stirring, caution-to-the-wind battle cry that warmed the heart of every agent who ever used some version of the same sentiment to sell his players’ services.
Here in the waning days of 2018, as mostly uneventful winter meetings at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino draw to a close, the identity of the executive who spoke those words two winters ago stands as some sort of ironic echo from the past:
It was Andrew Friedman, president of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers, a man who, even in an industry that has become as rational about free agency as at any point in its history — to the point of pushing the sport closer to a potential labor war — stands out for his extreme rationality.
As the assembled front-office executives and other industry types prepared to leave Las Vegas following Thursday morning’s Rule 5 draft, it was becoming clear there would be no impulsive, monumental — and, some might say, irrational — burst of spending that would result in one of the two prizes of this free agent market, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, signing with a team this week. And in fact, it was becoming clear it could be weeks before either of them does.
On Wednesday, the last full day of the meetings, the action was mostly limited to some mid-level pitching moves — the Washington Nationals trading veteran Tanner Roark to Cincinnati, the Tampa Bay Rays signing right-hander Charlie Morton to a two-year, $30 million deal, and the Texas Rangers signing right-hander Lance Lynn for three years and $30 million.
For Harper, the 26-year-old superstar outfielder who spent his first seven seasons with the Nationals, the Dodgers flexing their financial might at some point this winter and importing him to Tinseltown for the next decade or so remains the optimum outcome to a free agency that was once billed as historic but that now, in the face of whole lot of industry rationality, is showing limitations.
Try as agent Scott Boras might to paint Harper’s market as teeming and vibrant, there were few teams, outside of perhaps the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago White Sox, willing to cop to being in on the bidding. Several other teams, the Dodgers included, have met or planned to meet with Harper and/or Boras, either before, during or after the winter meetings. Plenty of others, most notably the New York Yankees, have gone to great lengths to portray themselves, whether truthfully or by way of posturing, as out.
The Dodgers are the one team that checks every box for what Harper is thought to be seeking. They are a historic franchise in a major market, a perennial winner with deep coffers that plays its home games just a four-hour drive from Harper’s Las Vegas home. If they were to leap headlong into the market for Harper — at least at the terms Boras is thought to be seeking, the baseline for which is Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million deal that stands as the richest in baseball history — the whole process could be over quickly.
But of all the things standing in the way of a Dodgers-Harper deal — a list that includes the team’s glut of outfielders and its desire to remain below baseball’s luxury tax threshold — the biggest roadblock might be the Dodgers’ fierce and unwavering rationality under Friedman.
Four years after he joined the team from the small-market, small-spending Rays, and despite revenue that consistently ranks among the highest in the game, the Friedman-era Dodgers are almost legendary in their avoidance of the free agent marketplace to build their roster.
While they are quick and generous to retain their own talent — spending, for example, $144 million to keep Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner in 2016 and $93 million to extend Clayton Kershaw last month — the Dodgers’ biggest expenditure on an outside free agent remains the $48 million they gave pitcher Brandon McCarthy in 2014, three months after Friedman’s hiring.
The yawning gap between that deal and the one Harper is seeking is why there remains a healthy amount of industry skepticism that the Dodgers would be the team to blow him away with a record-setting offer.
“We have a fairly high kind of jumping-off point — as you look around the field, we feel good about virtually everywhere on the field,” Friedman told Dodgers beat reporters this week. “For us, it’s about having . . . as balanced a team as we can. There are certainly things we’d like to do before the start of the season to accomplish that, but we feel like we have a really talented team.”
But because the Harper market is likely to drag on and because the Dodgers still make the most sense as his landing spot — geographically, economically and aesthetically — they are likely to be linked to him, hypothetically or not, right up until the moment he signs.
Partly that is because the Dodgers are known to covet Harper, having claimed him off waivers in August only to fail to complete a deal that would have sent outfielder Yasiel Puig and a top prospect to Washington for three months of his services. Partly it is because the Dodgers appear to be positioning themselves to shed payroll in the coming weeks, making veteran outfielders Puig, Matt Kemp and Joc Pederson available for trade, as well as veteran pitchers such as Alex Wood and Rich Hill.
Thus the Dodgers, once that business is finished, could be the perfect candidates for a creative, shorter-term, front-loaded, option-laden offer that could allow Harper (and Boras) to set an industry record for highest average annual value — a mark held by Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Zack Greinke at $34 million — while potentially allowing Harper a second crack at free agency before he hits age 30.
While Boras has implied Harper isn’t interested in a short-term deal, it is worth pondering which he would be more likely to take: a 10-year deal from a team such as the reloading White Sox that falls short of Stanton’s total or a four-year deal from the two-time defending National League champion Dodgers at the highest annual salary in baseball history?
The answer to that hypothetical, of course, is unknown to all except perhaps Harper and Boras — because free agency, subject as it is to personal preferences, degree of risk-acceptance and even human whim, is not always a rational exercise.
Except, perhaps, for the Friedman-era Dodgers.