Dodgers' payroll is worth it

Bryant Illustration

SEVEN MONTHS AFTER they came two wins short of reaching the World Series for the first time since the Reagan administration, the Dodgers are awash in swagger. Magic Johnson & Co. spent $2 billion to buy the team in 2012 -- then spent $217 million more on players last year. Now, after losing in the NLCS to the Cardinals, their payroll is a history-making $229 million, $30 million more than the Yankees'. Much of it, of course, goes to Clayton Kershaw, who signed a record seven-year, $215 million contract extension in the offseason. But some of it also goes to unproven 27-year-old Cuban infielder Alex Guerrero, whose $28 million deal prompted one GM to refer to the big-spending Dodgers' way as "shooting ducks with howitzers." (Guerrero failed to win ?a starting spot out of spring training and is still in Triple-A.)

Much has changed under baseball's analytics revolution, nothing more than the way fans consume the game. Awe and wonder have given away to the cold calculation of the accountant's chair, to a culture of thoughtful but sometimes joyless evaluation of metrics and "value." From that narrow perspective, the Dodgers might appear reckless.

But team president Stan Kasten and GM Ned Colletti are unapologetic, as they should be. The Dodgers are not the Royals or the Twins; they are a big-name megafranchise in a game that rewards massive financial imbalances. They also play in a city that thrives on the power of the marquee. Even after failing to make the playoffs from 2010 to 2012, the Dodgers announced a reported 25-year, $8.35 billion TV contract in 2013. They have doubled their season-ticket base since 2012 to 35,000 -- nearly the entire capacity of Fenway Park -- and rank first in MLB in attendance at 46,194 per game (through May 16). It is appropriate to apply to the Dodgers what Tommy Lee Jones' character said of the fictional pharmaceutical company Devlin-MacGregor in the movie The Fugitive: "That company's a monster."

"There's an iconic, historical nature to us and a handful of other clubs," Colletti told me earlier this spring. "We're a major market. We have a massive following with tremendous resources. We don't intend to be where we are forever, but we needed to make up for the past four years. We needed to fight irrelevancy. We needed to turn it around overnight."

As the Dodgers hover around .500 this season, all their extra spending does not appear to be bringing them closer to a championship. At the same time, baseball has added two wild-card teams, foolishly following football and every other sport toward trying to duplicate the randomness of the NCAA tournament. Last year's World Series was the only time since 1999 that the teams with the best record in each league actually played for the title. By that logic, it makes little financial sense for a team like LA to spend $200 million for a 12.5 percent chance to win the World Series when spending $100 million less offers a 10 percent chance.

That's one way to look at it. Another way is to pay attention to the Astros, who profit from the false narrative that low spending equals intelligence and big spending equals wastefulness. Despite sitting in the nation's fourth-biggest city and 10th-largest TV market, they have the second-lowest payroll in baseball. Supposedly, the Astros have a plan, but baseball history is littered with dim-witted small-market teams whose plans never paid off. There is no sense in this either.

"Our payroll should always be near the top," Colletti says. "Look at it this way: Shouldn't we be near Philly and Boston? We're an iconic name."

Likewise, the Yankees shouldn't operate as if they were the Pirates. Imagine the Steinbrenner family, or the Dodgers' owners, pocketing revenues instead of spending them on players. That doesn't sound like serving the fan base. There isn't much point in having financial muscle if you're not going to use it.

"I always say that smart beats rich," Kasten says. "But it's better to be smart and rich. We're trying to incorporate the right elements beyond money. Look at Boston. The Yankees for about the last 15 years or so have done it being smart and rich. Smart is good, like Oakland, Tampa Bay. But smart and rich? Well, that's a tough combination to beat."

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