Dodgers-M’s connection not going away

 The Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers have made their first marks early in the 2013-2014 offseason after Ian Kinsler and Prince Fielder switched area codes in a blockbuster trade last week. The Tigers have received high praise for clearing money off of their books for future considerations, while the Rangers have received praise of their own for adding a premier slugger and finding space for top prospect Jurickson Profar heading into the 2014 season. Perhaps the most surprising part of this deal is that the Tigers were about to move the seven years and $162 million still owed to Fielder, although the Rangers did receive $30 million in the deal.

While Fielder’s deal wasn’t crippling to the franchise, it’s easy to see how it could become a large problem a few years down the road. The Los Angeles Dodgers find themselves looking to move an albatross contract of their own and are willing to deal one of Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier this winter. The Seattle Mariners have been connected to the Dodgers outfield surplus for a while now and have already expressed interest in Kemp. While all three outfielders are sexy in name, it’s not 2011 anymore and they all carry some pretty heavy baggage heading into 2014.

Crawford, 32, came to LA in last summer’s blockbuster deal with the Boston Red Sox after struggling mightily in 2011 and undergoing Tommy John surgery in August 2012. Crawford managed to make the Dodgers 2013 opening day roster, but only appeared in 116 games do to a hamstring injury. The left fielder may be a couple steps removed from his all-star form, he did take a step forward in 2013 posting a .283/.329/.407 line while producing 1.7 bWAR and 2.9 fWAR. Steamer thinks he’s good for 2.2 fWAR in 2014, despite a projection of 122 games. Although Crawford has been a plus defender and a capable leadoff hitter in the past, he’s a tough pill to swallow with salaries between $20 and $21 million owed in the next four seasons.

Kemp, the youngest of the trio at 29, has spent his entire career to date with the Dodgers and isn’t a fan of the trade talk surrounding him. The centerfielder hasn’t been healthy for an entire season since 2011 when he came second in the NL MVP voting and established himself as a premier hitter while 8.4 fWAR and 8.6 bWAR.  The Dodgers rewarded their star with an eight-year extension worth $160 million after the ’11 season, which will pay $21.5 million annually from 2014-19. Things quickly went downhill however, as Kemp found himself making numerous trips to the disabled list between 2012 and 2013. Most recently, Kemp underwent arthroscopic ankle surgery to repair a fractured bone in October and is expected to be “competitive” for the start of the 2014 season. For his 2013 campaign, Kemp put together a .270/.328/.395 line across 290 PA, but saw his ISO fall to .125 and his OPS+ to 105. Kemp has always been prone to the strikeout and has never been a very good fielder so he’s a huge risk as well coming off of consecutive injury riddled seasons.

Ethier has been a model of good health in comparison to his counterparts as he’s played in at least 135 games each year since his sophomore season in 2007, but he did see his 2013 season end with an ankle injury. The 31 year-old sports a career line of .288/.362/.470 in eight major league seasons, and posted career highs for home runs and RBI with 31 and 106 in 2009. Like Kemp, Ethier has always struck out a lot, a career 17 percent rate, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest he’s capable of hitting 20 home runs on a regular basis for the next couple seasons while he’s on the right side of 30. Despite the injuries, Ethier has averaged about 3 WAR in each of the last three seasons. His mobility was greatly affected throughout this past postseason as he struggled with the ankle injury, but he should be back to full health before the start of the 2014 season. Ethier is due $69 million from 2014-17, and has a vesting option for ’18 worth $17.5 million with a $2.5 million buy-out attached.

It’s well known that the Mariners are in the market for an outfielder, and possibly two since they should be uncomfortable with Abraham Almonte seeing significant playing time in 2014. The potential for the two clubs to match up exists, but to be honest, it’d take a lot to make dealing for one of the three outfielders remotely considerable. Sure they all have all-star backgrounds, but the risk level associated with each is huge. Kemp in particular, may not be ready for the start of the season, and an annual payment north of $20 million makes any player risky, save for Mike Trout.

Sure it’s possible for Kemp to repeat his 8 WAR performance, but the likelihood is debatable. It’s important to note that the 2011 Dodger team didn’t offer Kemp much protection or feature any other elite production, so it’s possible he could do it on his own with the Mariners if he was healthy for the full season. Even though Safeco Field has gotten less pitcher friendly the last few years, it’ll never be a hitter’s paradise and Kemp will likely need one of those to be in the equation if he plans on finding his 2011 form next year.

Crawford should really be a hard ‘no’ for the Mariners. He’s struggled mightily since leaving Tampa Bay and although a change of scenery out of the spotlight could be a good thing for him,  the $20 million annual salary is better spent on Jacoby Ellsbury. If the Dodgers want to give him away and pay a chunk of his salary, maybe the M’s should gamble, but realistically, his value is so low he will most likely not be leaving Chavez Ravine.

If there’s a player worth pursuing out of the three, it’d probably be Ethier. Although he may be unspectacular at the plate, he’s been consistent, he can get on base, and he’s had an OPS+ of 121 or higher six years straight. He’s a very capable defender and would definitely represent an upgrade over whatever you want to call the outfield gongshow Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay provided. His salary is a bit high for a player who has yet to put up a four WAR season, but he’d probably get a similar deal in free agency so the Dodgers will likely want at least a Brandon Maurer type of prospect.

The Mariners’ interest will likely be determined by how much cash the Dodgers are willing to include to make a deal happen. If the Dodgers are looking at a pure salary dump, then taking Ethier or Kemp off of their hands for minor league fodder is worth considering, but if they’re after any kind of value in return, they’ll have to include some salary relief. Payroll has proved to be of minimal concern to the club and they don’t consider the luxury cap threshold limiting, so they probably aren’t concerned with the financial cost of having a $20 million player sitting on the bench for the bulk of 2014.

Actually, keeping all three outfielders may be the best thing for the Dodgers unless they can find a trade that makes too much sense to turn down. Allowing the three to share the outfield with Yasiel Puig would ease the workload throughout the season and represent a potential insurance policy if an outfielder is lost for a large period of time in 2014; a definite possibility. It’s doubtful Crawford, Kemp, or Either would be happy with semi reduced roles, but considering the injury risks involved, they could probably be reasoned with. Either way, don’t expect this market to heat up too much until free agents like Jacoby Ellsbury or Shin-Soo Choo sign new deals and teams in need have fewer places to turn.

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Jason A. Churchill

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