With the Dodgers playing better, local media members are now making their annual pronouncement that the team needs to "make a move." The Dodgers could use an upgrade in their starting rotation -- as could every team in MLB -- and this year's top midseason prize is pitcher Roy Oswalt, who just requested a trade out of Houston.
Bill Shaikin of the LA Times basically says Oswalt would make the Dodgers a World Series team. Shaikin challenges the Dodgers, saying that a trade would be "proof positive" that the divorce isn't affecting the team financially.
There's no question that simply inserting Roy Oswalt into the rotation make the Dodgers a better team. But the real question is if acquiring Oswalt would be worth the cost. I say trading for Oswalt is risky and hardly guarantees a deep October run.
Oswalt is owed $15 million this year, $16 million next year, and has a $16 million club option for 2012 with a $2 million buyout. It's possible that Oswalt could request the option be picked up in order for him to dealt, since he has a no-trade clause that he's agreed to waive. If Oswalt gets traded midseason, he's still guaranteed $23 million, but could potentially put his new team on the hook for $39 million.
Divorce aside, the Dodgers have actually been pretty consistent with payroll obligations under Frank McCourt. They've gotten a lot of press for only having an $85 million payroll, but they're really spending $102 million in player salaries this year when deferred money and Juan Pierre's contract are factored in. They spent about the same last year. With their current roster, they're projected to be committed to just over $90 million next season, depending how the arbitration process shakes out.
The most the Dodgers have ever spent under McCourt is $118 million in 2008, a season that saw them add Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake mid-year and not actually pay their salaries. It's pretty clear to me that Dodger revenues currently compel McCourt to spend between $100 and $110 annually in player salaries. The only way for them to go higher is for them to increase revenues or find an owner who is willing to take a bigger financial risk. I won't address the second point, since we know McCourt will own the team for this season and we don't know what will happen in divorce court
As for the first part, I don't see any evidence that Dodger revenue has increased this season. While their attendance remains strong, it's slightly down from last year, and anyone going to games or watching on TV can tell that the no-show rate is fairly high. That could be due to the economy, the team's early struggles, or the hit the team's brand has taken with the divorce. Either way, they're not making more money at the gate. I also don't notice a dramatic difference in sponsorship this year, but it's very hard to know sponsorship revenue figures. My guess is that it's roughly the same as last year.
Now, a postseason run can be financially lucrative for any team. Being able to host Games 6 and 7 of an NLCS could fetch $3 million a game. (Teams and players share gate receipts in the first four games, but the home team takes most of the revenue from "if necessary" games). World Series games can potentially bring in double an LCS. But even the best teams are completely unpredictable in the postseason, and doing any kind of financial "planning" with playoff games is foolish. (I have plenty of thoughts about how the Dodgers could increase revenue, but that's a discussion for a different day.)
All of this brings us back to Oswalt. Acquiring him would basically max out the Dodgers this year and next year, unless the Astros pick up part of his contract. The Dodgers would have little room to maneuver if they felt another move was necessary before the deadline, and they would have trouble acquiring more help and/or depth in the offseason.
If the Dodgers knew that Roy Oswalt would guarantee them a World Series trip, then they might pull the trigger on a trade. But anyone who is paid to observe Major League Baseball games should probably have noticed that acquisitions for big name pitchers fail about as often as they succeed. Furthermore, the team with the best rotation entering the postseason doesn't always win.
In 2001, the Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, and ever since then media types have been clamoring for their teams to get an ace pitcher to recreate that desert magic. But none of those media types talk about the 2002 Diamondbacks, which won more games than the 2001 team, and was favored to repeat. Those D'Backs started the playoffs with Johnson and Schilling again, and got swept by the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round. The Anaheim Angels won the World Series that year with Jarrod Washburn, Kevin Appier, Ramon Ortiz, and a rookie named John Lackey making postseason starts.
For years, the Atlanta Braves had the best and deepest rotation in the majors with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. They occasionally had another big gun like a Denny Neagle or Steve Avery (in his prime). Yet despite having the best starting pitchers, the Braves only managed one World Series win during 14 consecutive postseason appearances.
Last year, entering the playoffs, all I kept hearing was how the dominant Cardinals rotation of Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Joel Pineiro would out-pitch the soft-tossing Dodgers. The Dodgers swept them. The year before, the smart money was on a Cubs team with a rotation of Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, and Rich Harden. The Dodgers swept them too.
Anyone could take a look at playoff rotations since the Wild Card era began and find that plenty of teams with mediocre starting pitchers win series over teams with great starting pitchers. That's not to say teams don't need great pitchers. It obviously is a tremendous advantage. But it's pretty clear that starting pitching is just one of a multitude of factors that go into winning postseason games. Individual matchups and key plays get magnified in the postseason, and it's just too hard to predict what will happen in October.
With all that in mind, it might still make sense for the Dodgers to trade for Roy Oswalt if he were truly a dominating starting pitcher. But I'm not so sure if he is. At 32 years of age, Oswalt is coming off his worst season as a professional, going 8-6 with a 4.12 ERA in 2009. He's had some trouble in recent years with his lower back and hip, and it's easy to be cynical and wonder if he isn't going to have a more significant injury at some point in his career.
It's true that Oswalt has been effective and durable for most of his career, and he's off to a great start with a 2.66 ERA. But it would be a real surprise if his ERA stayed that low throughout the season. As I noted earlier, we've seen too many big name pitchers fall apart quickly for me to think that a $23 million commitment to one is a smart investment. We're living in a time when Carlos Zambrano is in the bullpen, Jake Peavy has an ERA near 6, Brandon Webb can't get off the DL, and Jason Schmidt is retired. Not long ago those were the best pitchers in the National League.
Still, simply inserting Oswalt into the Dodgers rotation tomorrow would make them a better team, so part of this comes down to a question of cost. Even though Oswalt has requested a trade, the Astros are under no obligation to trade him. There are only two reasons for them to oblige: 1) To save money 2) To acquire prospects to help them in future.
The fact is there are few teams in this economy that want to take on a minimum $23 million commitment for Roy Oswalt. Even the Yankees and Red Sox probably don't want to. It's possible the Astros will have to pick up some of Oswalt's salary in order to get a top prospect out of the deal. The Blue Jays actually needed to pay $6 million of Roy Halladay's salary in order to get some quality prospects from the Phillies. If the Astros are willing to do that, then Oswalt could get dealt to the team with the best package of prospects.
The Dodgers could probably only afford Oswalt if the Astros pay part of his salary, but they don't have much in the way of prospects to offer. I'd personally hate to see them mortgage what little future they have by sending a Dee Gordon or a Josh Lindblom to Houston. John Ely has proven this year how valuable a good young pitcher can be to a team. With Ely, Clayton Kershaw, Hiroki Kuroda, and Chad Billinglsey (who is looking good again), the Dodgers don't have a rotation to panic about in October.
Perhaps there is a package of prospects out there that makes sense for both teams. There may be some players who Dodgers scouts have soured on, and could wind up being the next Joel Guzman or Jonathan Meloan. But without that right prospect and without a significant financial commitment from the Astros, it doesn't seem like a Roy Oswalt deal is realistic or practical.