There are a lot of different reasons why a baseball club decides to trade a player in the middle of the season. It many cases it’s because the player’s contract expires at the end of the year and the team expects him to depart via free agency, so they decide to try to get some value for him. This usually happens with clubs who have fallen out of contention. Another reason is financial: if the team is unable to afford the player’s salary, or needs to free up cash. This summer it’s possible that we’ll witness a confluence of these two factors in Los Angeles.
After failing to buy the Red Sox, Frank and Jamie McCourt completed a largely debt-based purchase of the Dodgers in 2004. Since then their fiscal style has been, shall we say, less than austere, and it all came to light when Frank and Jamie split up. It’s been a particularly messy and public divorce, one made worse by a shoddy prenup, and the team has fallen on tough times. At the end of April Major League Baseball seized control of the Dodgers’ finances. The team has over $400M in debt and has seen a drop in season tickets this year. Worse, Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times reported on Tuesday of this week that the Dodgers lack the finances necessary to meet payroll through the end of this month. The $30M loan that McCourt received from Fox earlier this month, a loan which seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for Commissioner Bud Selig, only provided funding for April’s two payrolls and the first payroll in May. This is what’s known as a cash crunch. Right now, the Dodgers are having trouble paying the bills.
The baseball season is still young. The trading deadline is a little less than three months away. Yet this mess of a situation in Los Angeles might mean that the Dodgers become more likely to trade some of their more expensive players this summer. One intriguing name is Hiroki Kuroda. He’s signed only through the end of this year and for a relatively hefty salary of $12M. Despite my best efforts (I heart Hiroki), he remains one of the more underrated pitchers in the game. Since 2010 his K/BB ratio is 3.31, similar to Zack Greinke, Felix Hernandez and Tommy Hanson. He has a 3.44 FIP and a 3.43 ERA. He’s gotten goten ground balls at a 50.5% clip, nearly identical to Chris Carpenter. Carpenter is a decent comp for Kuroda over the past two years, except Kuroda has walked fewer batters. Kuroda has no doubt benefited from facing weak NL West lineups and from pitching in a pitcher-friendly home ballpark, but his skillset is strong and he’d represent a great midseason rotation addition for a lot of contending teams.
As evidenced by the divorce proceedings and interactions with the MLB Commissioner’s office, McCourt isn’t one to shy away from a fight or go away quietly. Say what you want about him, and Dodgers fans can say plenty, but he clearly has a backbone and he’s proud of the fact that he owns a baseball club. For this reason he may be less likely to punt on the season and trade away his expensive pieces, especially if Major League Baseball is providing any sort of financial backstop for the club. Yet the math could become a bit different if McCourt is still experiencing a cash crunch in a few months and if the Dodgers have fallen out of contention in the NL West. They currently boast a 15-19 record, 4.5 games behind the division-leading Rockies. Maybe a disappointing season from the Dodgers will encourage McCourt to decide to free up some cash in the short-term to help his long-term goal of retaining control of the franchise. Shoot, perhaps he’d be willing to pull the trigger on a salary dump now. The Dodgers aren’t short on pitching, but they are short on cash.
There’s something a bit macabre about this whole affair. The divorce is ugly, and it’s sad to see a great franchise like the Los Angeles Dodgers be put in this situation because of the personal affairs of ownership. I’ve always liked the Dodgers, and I’ve always felt nostalgic when I see their stadium and the palm trees and the classic white uniforms. It’s a little uncomfortable to feel like a vulture circling overhead waiting for the wildebeest to finally give up the ghost and collapse into the desert sand. But this isn’t a community softball league, and the Yankees may need to pick up a a pitcher this summer. I feel bad for Dodgers fans, but here’s to hoping that Cashman can pounce with quickness if an opportunity arises.