Friedman and Mookie

By: coachemup!



 

The first step toward a long-term union between the Dodgers and Mookie Betts was as subtle as the flap of a butterfly’s wings. The two parties began to approach each other 32 months ago, when Alex Anthopoulos left the front office in Los Angeles to take over the Braves. From there began Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman’s quest for a superstar, a pursuit that can no longer be considered empty. 

Upon arrival in Atlanta all those months ago, Anthopoulos reconnected with his former employers. He sought salary relief. Friedman wanted to reset the Dodgers’ luxury-tax figure and stop paying penalties in 2018. The two sides consummated a trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy and Charlie Culberson to Atlanta. In return, the Dodgers received Matt Kemp — and the freedom to add someone else down the road. 

“This deal is a little more subtle than most,” Friedman said when the trade was announced. “Obviously, one of the main considerations in this deal was economic. But they’re part of the bigger picture, the longer-term plan. It’s a necessary, strategic part of moves yet to come.”

Friedman tested the patience of his fanbase. He still delivered on his promise, first in the coup that brought Betts and David Price to the Dodgers in February, and again this week when Betts is expected to finalize a 12-year, $365-million extension, according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. Betts did not give himself the chance to set a record in free agency. But he did strike the richest contract in Dodgers history — a record Friedman had been trying to set for years.

The journey to Wednesday was far from smooth. There were feints toward Bryce Harper and a brief, unsatisfying union with Manny Machado. The Dodgers lost the bidding war for Gerrit Cole. They never had a chance with Anthony Rendon. They couldn’t make a deal for Francisco Lindor. The whiffs in free agency and the unconsummated trades commingled with repeated October failures to stoke bitterness among fans who have not celebrated a title since 1988.

Along the way, Friedman sprinkled hints at the organizational philosophy which has made the Dodgers the envy of the sport. He absorbed criticism about his wariness of long-term deals for players with low ceilings. He denied himself instant gratification. He avoided fixation on a singular target. Whenever one star came off the board, he shifted his focus to the next one up.

When it comes to the acquisition of players, Friedman seeks freedom of choice. He never wants to feel like he must make a certain maneuver. He demands options above all else. So he might make a terrible Ahab. But he still got his man.

“There is no question that over the last couple years our competitors in the NL West would have wanted us to be more aggressive, to scratch the short-term itch,” Friedman told The Athletic this March. “And then the question gets at, how many of those things meaningfully impact your chances of winning the World Series?”

In Betts, the Dodgers acquired a player who will tip the scales in their favor well beyond the short-season chaos of 2020. Since Betts debuted in 2014, only Mike Trout has been more valuable, according to FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement. An average season for Betts features 28 home runs, 47 doubles, an .893 OPS and Gold Glove defense in right field. He hit .295/.391/.524 in 2019 and considered it a down year. He will play his age-30 season in 2023.

To bring him to Los Angeles, the Dodgers needed both the cunning of Friedman and the money of owner Mark Walter. After he bought the team in 2012, Walter forked over significant sums to acquire Gonzalez, sign Zack Greinke and retain Clayton Kershaw. The organization shifted strategies when Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi replaced Ned Colletti in 2014. The team let Greinke depart in free agency when Arizona blew past Friedman’s offer by $50 million. Friedman avoided nine-figure contracts; before Betts’ deal, the largest contract he doled out with the Dodgers was Kershaw’s $93 million extension in 2018.

As the Dodgers racked up division titles but fell short of championships, fans wondered when Walter would open his wallet once more. When the team reset its luxury-tax payroll with the Braves trade, the implication seemed clear. Harper and Machado would become free agents after the 2018 season. And the Dodgers would be right there, ready to pounce.

“Oh, I hadn’t noticed,” Friedman said after the trade. “Is there a big free-agent class next winter?”

The Dodgers had the money to sign either player. What they lacked was the inclination. Machado frustrated team officials during his cameo as a rental player in the second half of 2018. The Dodgers felt Harper was too flawed to merit a decade-long commitment. Both signed elsewhere.

A year later, Friedman targeted Cole and Rendon. Justin Turner was willing to move off third base for Rendon, but Rendon was not willing to consider “the Hollywood lifestyle.” Cole, a native of Orange County, was less concerned about life in Los Angeles. The organization deemed him worthy of $300 million offer, which would have made Cole the richest free-agent pitcher in baseball history. But the Dodgers told Cole they would need to defer some of the money. The Yankees offered him $324 million. So Cole donned pinstripes and Friedman returned to his list of targets.

Since the summer, Betts had headlined that group. The only question was his availability. Discussions with Boston broke down last summer when the Red Sox got hot near the trade deadline. In the winter, Friedman resumed talks after Boston hired another of his former lieutenants, Chaim Bloom. Unable to connect on a deal with Cleveland for Lindor, Friedman found more traction with Boston.

The Dodgers could afford Betts because they could also afford to eat half of Price’s contract. Friedman had ducked the sort of mid-tier, free-agent contracts that might bog down his payroll. The team owes $42 million in guaranteed contracts for 2022. That number falls to $0 in 2023.

The lack of millstones presented a wealth of opportunity. Friedman could have kicked the can down the road until after the 2021 season, when Lindor, Nolan Arenado and Javy Báez could all hit the market. He decided the duo of Betts and Price were worth the commitment, even if the team was only guaranteed one season with Betts. From the moment Betts joined the organization, Friedman was working on extending his stay.

Now Betts can become part of the fabric of the franchise, a pillar to stand alongside Cody Bellinger and Walker Buehler. The present looks as bright as possible, given the circumstances of this season. The future looks even brighter.

Dodgers fans can thank their team’s president of baseball operations. Friedman would be miscast in a Melville novel. But Ahab failed in his quest. Friedman didn’t.

 

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