The Dodgers, a team with a payroll higher than $300 million, recently acquired a 36-year-old second baseman who hit just .217 with a .617 OPS this season for the Philadelphia Phillies, the worst team in baseball. The trade for Chase Utley was made to replace an injured former All-Star, Howie Kendrick, who replaced the All-Star Dee Gordon, who was traded away during the off-season.
It's crazy when you think about it, but these are the kind of moves the Dodgers can make due to the financial flexibility afforded to them by having an enormous budget. And why wouldn't they make the trade? Utley was hitting .484 with a 1.227 OPS for the Phillies since coming back from the disabled list because an ankle injury. Paving over mistakes and injuries with money is the whole point of that vault of gold the Dodgers are sitting on.
While that's neat and all, it does beg the question: Is this necessary? Why does a team with so much money and the second-ranked farm system in the majors need to trade for an aging veteran on a hot streak? The answer is that the Dodgers, who have lost five consecutive games, are still currently a flawed team in the middle of a quasi-rebuild. Their payroll affords them many luxuries, but it's also what keeps expectations predictably and impossibly high.
It's important to remember that the Dodgers had already cashed in on some of those luxuries. Almost $90 million of the payroll is devoted to masking the previous regime's past mistakes. Even more dead money has been spent on injured players on the roster. The end result is an imperfect team that understandably is still expected to win.
With so much talent, and expectations so high, the stark reality is that the Dodgers are limping into the stretch run with a only a 1 ½-game lead over the rival Giants and just an 76 percent chance of making the playoffs. That percentage seems high, and to an extent it is, but the team's playoff odds are supposed to be closer to that of the Cardinals (99 percent) or the Royals (100 percent). And while manager Don Mattingly, general manager Farhan Zaidi, and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, have maintained calm publicly, there's absolutely an undercurrent of concern when it comes to the remainder of 2015—a concern that was not supposed to exist with this Dodgers team.
Remarkably enough, by most measures, fans should feel that same calm about the 2015 Dodgers. It sure doesn't seem like it at times, but the Dodgers offense—led by All-Stars Adrian Gonzalez and Yasmani Grandal, and the breakout star Justin Turner—is the second-best in the majors when adjusted for league and park (109 wRC+). They also have the third-best rotation in the league (3.24 ERA)—anchored by Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the best 1-2 punch in baseball—which has the majors' second-best fielding-independent pitching numbers (3.38 FIP). Better yet, all of those metrics have carried over into the second-half—albeit with slight drop-offs. Since the All Star break, the Dodgers' offense has maintained their season-long production (106 wRC+), and the rotation ranks fifth (3.31 ERA). Los Angeles also now has the best fielding independent numbers (3.24 FIP).
Those numbers seem even more remarkable when one considers that the Dodgers had one All-Star caliber starter (Hyun Jin Ryu) and one middle rotation arm (Brandon McCarthy) go down with injuries before the end of April. They have also endured month-long injuries to several regulars (Kendrick, Carl Crawford, Kenley Jansen), and had their best position player over the previous two years (Yasiel Puig) miss a third of the season, and then fail to round into form after his return.
Being in first place despite these setbacks sounds like such an accomplishment, and in a way it sort of is. But fans are still incensed and nervous about the team's prospects because they believe the team has underperformed. Despite performing well in clutch situations, the Dodgers are just 15th in runs scored—27st since the All-Star break—which indicates that things just aren't gelling together like they are for the Cardinals.
Furthermore, the bullpen's 4.17 ERA (ninth-best 3.43 FIP) is eighth-worst in the majors this season, and second-worst since the All-Star break at an almost comically disastrous 6.00 ERA (fourth-worst 4.50 FIP). Sure, those numbers also indicate that things may just not be breaking quite the right way for the Dodgers—there's probably been some bad luck and some bad coaching—but the reality of the situation is the same: The richest team in baseball is left hoping things will just even out in the end.
Most frustrating is that the Dodgers are a good and a potentially great team. But they are also flawed, and it's too late do anything about it. And now Utley is immediately thrown into this mess.
Like so many of the Dodgers moves this year, it's hard to argue against the buy-low acquisition of Utley, who was once an elite HOF-caliber player and has put up a well above-average season as recently as last year. But the major deadline deals by the Dodgers also made sense, as Mat Latos and Alex Wood filled gaping rotation holes and Jim Johnson and Luis Avilan provided support for the tattered bullpen. But for the most part they've only helped pour gasoline on a dumpster fire.
Utley becomes just the latest in a group of short-term fliers that should probably work, but could also fail. Eventually something has to click, right? Eventually one of these have to work out, right? The players do have to snap out of this and perform to their abilities, right? But again, $300 million should leave you with more than just hope.
The Dodgers—who by the way were no hit on Friday by a guy (Mike Fiers) who had never previously thrown a complete game in his five-year career—enter the stretch run still predicted to win 90-91 games, still with a division lead, and still as one of the favorites to win the World Series. And their struggles this season might be as a result of some bad luck. But the actual standings are all that matter.
While the Dodgers are a team of young stars and breakout players like Grandal and Turner, the team's core is mostly comprised of players like Gonzalez, Greinke, Kershaw, Andre Ethier, Jimmy Rollins, and now Utley, who have helped bloat the Dodger payroll to more than $300 million. We'll soon find out whether this was money well spent.