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Dodgers Buying the Pennant?

2012 September 7
by Brian Goff

For me as with most fans and observers, the Dodgers-Red Sox trade that brought Gonzalez, Crawford, and Beckett west created an initial wow factor especially in view of the acquisition of Hanley Ramirez.  A couple of days after, however, and even without the less-than-dominating performances of the Dodgers in the last week, does it really turn them into a juggernaut for the next few seasons?

Money matters, but money well spent matters most.  Whether the expanded Dodgers payroll yields dividends for them could go either way, but it is no lock.  Jonah Keri at Grantland frames this maybe yes — maybe no answer nicely:

when you throw every fiscal strategy of the past decade out the window, are you crazy … or a genius?

Squeezing out a few extra runs for pitchers like Clayton Kershaw would seem almost certain to help a mediocre club improve.  However, as Keri reasons, the impact of the mega-trade may underwhelm expectations: Gonzalez may be just passed his peak, Beckett has had durability issues, Crawford is still recovering from injury.

In addition to these factors, or just bad luck in performance, the incremental impact of players can be less than observers imagine because they tend to view all impacts as complementary and don’t account for substitution effects.  Only one guy can hit cleanup, no matter how many bangers you have.    That may not matter quite as much in the American League with the DH.  In the NL, with the pitcher in the lineup and often weaker hitting catchers or shortstops, moving Andre Ethier from hitting fourth to sixth my mean a drop in numbers or, at least, not as much of a boost as one might predict.  In addition, finding the optimal balance between inputs — starting pitching, relief pitching, power hitting, situational hitting, getting on base, defense — is not all about just compiling big names.  Also, the subtle differences (and random variation) that drives outcomes in the long run regular season versus short run playoffs can pour cold water on a strong regular season with a disappointing playoff.

Very recently, the Phillies went from supposedly unstoppable juggernaut to medicore.  With the acquisitions of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Raul Ibanez and Hunter Pence to a team that had already won a world series, the teams seemed poised to dominate the National League.  They won 97 games in 2010 and 102 in 2011, both very successful regular seasons but way short of historic.  In terms of They went to and lost the 2009 Series, and slowly eroded from there.  In spite of strong starting pitching, injuries to key players along with disappointing performances by some players and a weak bullpen made them mortal.  They were good, even very good in the regular seasons — just not great and certainly vulnerable in the playoffs.

The Yankees of the 1980s and early 19902 illustrated that money spent is not equal to money well spent.  Through trades and free agent signings, they added some of the biggest names, or, in some cases, shooting stars, of the era including position players such as Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, Ken Griffey, Jesse Barfield, Rok Kittle, Gary Ward, and Danny Tartbull.    Some of the players, like Henderson, performed well while others were busts in the Big Apple.  In the 1990s, they developed key players from their system and used their money to entice a couple of key pitchers along with customized, non-stellar free agents to become a historically great team.

Of course, these are familiar themes to the efficient money analysts that Keri notes.

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