This wasn’t an introduction as much as it was a celebration.
As Freddie Freeman slipped on a Dodgers jersey on the second-floor deck of his new employer’s spring training headquarters, cheers broke out in the adjacent stadium.
Baseball operations president Andrew Friedman slapped Freeman on the back and shouted down to the fans gathered on the stadium’s concourse: “It’s official!”
Freeman turned to the crowd and pumped his fists.
The Friday afternoon news conference marked another triumph for the Dodgers’ free-spending owners, who have signed a player to nine-figure contract in each of the last three years.
But the six-year, $162-million agreement with Freeman was also a testament to the promise of the likes of infielders Michael Busch and Miguel Vargas, pitchers Bobby Miller and Ryan Pepiot, minor leaguers the Dodgers are counting on to become household names.
“You can’t dismiss the fact that we still have a lot of young guys coming that are very talented that a lot of people don’t know about yet,” manager Dave Roberts said.
The Dodgers can sign players such as Freeman and Mookie Betts to expensive long-term deals in part because they know they can rely on younger and less expensive labor to make up significant parts of their future rosters.
“I can argue that the next five year’s outlook is better than what we accomplished over the previous five,” Friedman said.
The Dodgers’ payroll is now more than $290 million, which exceeds the fourth and highest luxury tax threshold. They don’t have many financial commitments beyond the 2023 season, however, as the only players to whom money is guaranteed after that are Freeman, Betts and Chris Taylor.
Taylor has a manageable deal worth an average of $15 million annually through the 2025 season.
The team’s pricier and longer investments are in Freeman, who will earn an average of $27 million annually through 2027; and Betts, who will count for $30 million annually against its luxury-tax threshold figure through 2032.
But the Dodgers could be adding some other high-priced expenditures in the relatively near future, as their two best starting pitchers are two and three years away from free agency, respectively.
Julio Urías, baseball’s only 20-game winner in the last five years, will be able to test the open market after the 2023 season.
Walker Buehler, a two-time All-Star, will be a free agent after 2024.
Provided Urías and Buehler remain healthy, they would be in line for nine-figure contracts. Even if the Dodgers don’t re-sign them, they would have to replace them, and pitchers of their caliber won’t come cheap.
“I think you look back over the last 10, 15, 20 years, and there are a lot of large-revenue teams that had success and then fallen off a cliff,” Friedman said. “What’s really difficult is to be able to sustain it over an extended period of time.”
As much as the Dodgers have spent on players under the ownership of Guggenheim Baseball Management, they have demonstrated that even they have limits.
Fielding a $290 million team year after year isn’t an optimal strategy, as repeat luxury-tax offenders not only pay a higher financial penalty but also have their top picks pushed back 10 spots.
The Dodgers remained under the luxury-tax threshold in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
A robust farm system can help keep down costs by providing the major league roster with players who will earn close to the major league minimum in the first three years and salaries determined by the arbitration process in years four through six. Productive young players are especially valuable when the team’s highest-earning players start declining.
That will eventually happen here too. Freeman will be 38 when his contract expires. Betts will be 40.
The Dodgers are hopeful their next generation of prospects can balance their roster both from baseball and financial perspectives, similar to the way Buehler and catcher Will Smith did in recent years.
Five of their minor leaguers were included in the MLB Pipeline’s list of the game’s top 100 prospects that was published Friday.
Three of them were projected by MLB Pipeline to reach the majors this year: right-hander Miller, second base Busch and third baseman Vargas.
The fastball of Miller (No. 57 in the rankings) was clocked consistently at 100 mph in a recent scrimmage in minor league camp. The left-handed-hitting Busch (No. 67) could be the team’s second baseman of the future. Vargas (No. 94) has emerged as a possibility to eventually replace Justin Turner at third base.
Pepiot, another right-hander (No. 60 in the 2021 rankings but unranked this year), could also make his major league debut in 2022.
Corner outfielder Andy Pages (No. 68) was signed as a 16-year-old in 2017 after leaving Cuba. He homered 31 times last year for High-A Great Lakes.
But the Dodgers’ consensus No. 1 prospect is Diego Cartaya (No. 28), a 20-year-old catcher from Venezuela. Compared favorably to Salvador Perez, the 6-foot-3 Cartaya batted .298 for Class-A Rancho Cucamonga last year as a teenager.
One team executive predicted this week that Cartaya will evolve into the face of the franchise. If the Dodgers are to remain perennial World Series contenders as Freeman and Betts age, Cartaya or another player of his generation will have to.