BY KEVIN KERNAN
Sure doesn’t take much to be a GM these days, just the ability to sign a monster check.
With the Dodgers’ $700 million signing of DH supreme Shohei Ohtani, baseball has entered a new era. Every GM or POBO (president of baseball operations) that takes the job, in their opening press conference, always chirps on about how the goal is to build through the system and create an assembly line of plug-in talent through the minor leagues.
Soon after that fails, they go out and sign free agents.
Sure, everyone wanted Ohtani and it was clear from Day 1 that Ohtani was going to sign with the Dodgers, as I pointed out here in Baseball or Bust many times; and now the Dodgers have a Core Three of Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, and Shohei Ohtani, none of these players who were developed by the Dodgers – and Freeman and Ohtani came to SoCal via free agency.
Good for the Dodgers, they will make huge money on Ohtani jersey sales alone and they are taking advantage of being a baseball destination for top talent and having more money than nearly any other team.
Those three superstars may even lead the Dodgers to their first real World Series title since 1988. I don’t count the exhibition season of 2020. That’s baseball’s version of the NBA’s In-Season Tournament; and I wonder how that banner will look when it is in the rafters hanging with real championship banners the Lakers actually earned.
We’ve entered a sports era where anything goes.
And as a result everything is quickly going downhill.
Yes, Ohtani is coming off his second MVP season, but he also is coming off his second Tommy John surgery, so who knows how good a pitcher he will be when he gets back on the mound. The Giants say they offered the same deferred contract to Ohtani as the Dodgers did, but Ohtani clearly wanted no part of being in San Francisco.
Now you can say that the Dodgers developed enough talent in their system to make the trade for Mookie Betts – but the truth is they fleeced the Red Sox’ Chaim Bloom, yet another deemed genius GM, who had no clue what he was doing and made one of the worst trades imaginable when the multi-talented Betts was sent to the Dodgers.
On February 10, 2020, Andrew Friedman pulled off a dandy, sending Jeter Downs, Alex Verdugo, and Connor Wong to Fenway for Betts, a deal that has set back the Red Sox years. Bloom is gone, but the Red Sox are still dealing in the margins. Verdugo is now a Yankee, one of those rare players who will have played for the Big Three in the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Yankees.
The free agent firestorm will continue with the signing of Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the Japanese pitcher everyone wants, and only a few teams can afford.
The free agent firestorm will continue with the signing of Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the Japanese pitcher everyone wants, and only a few teams can afford. When Yamamoto signs his monstrous contract, that will be further proof that pretty much everything baseball is doing these days with developing pitching is wrong.
Major league pitchers continue to get hurt in crazy numbers and the starting pitching market is so thin, Yamamoto will get a contract that could be as high as $300 million. Heck, even Seth Lugo, a functional major league pitcher, who pitched a career-high 146 innings last season with the Padres, signed a three-year deal with the Royals for $45 million.
Starting pitching is so thin because the Nerds in charge of teams have had a baseball generation to ruin pitching by the way they are currently “developing’’ pitching. They haven’t fixed what they are doing wrong, they have doubled down on their max effort every pitch pitching ways and have continued to get rid of tried and true development strategies like something as simple as pitchers running between starts to develop endurance.
Here is a number that simply blows me away. I talked to several scouts this week who cover the minor leagues. They rarely if ever see pitchers running the foul poles anymore, and one scout kept a tab and said all season long throughout his minor league travels he saw a total of 13 pitchers running before or after games; that’s it, 13.
A No. 17 Los Angeles Dodgers replica jersey of Shohei Ohtani is pictured at a sporting goods store in LA on Dec. 12, 2023. Ohtani has agreed to a record $700 million, 10-year contract with the club. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)
As a side note, another scout told me that when it comes to minor league batting practice, Tuesday is a big day for scouts because that’s when teams have BP outside after having Monday off. Team batting practice used to be a daily ritual, now it’s more individual cage work so team BP is Tuesday and he added that it is really a treat to see a team not have a BP pitcher – but have their young hitters trying to hit off machines cranked 95 and above.
“And you wonder why minor league teams are hitting .230,’’ one scout added.
What’s going on here?
Why are teams failing to produce quality starting pitching? And of course it’s not just pitching. The Yankees had to go out and trade for outfielder Juan Soto to finally get themselves a quality left-handed bat for Yankee Stadium.
“Where is your development?’’ one top talent evaluator said to BallNine, asking teams what the heck they’re doing. “Some teams are developing talent – the Braves have developed some talent – but where is the team, other than Arizona, that went to the World Series that didn’t have a bunch of free agents?’’
The Orioles, who have finished last or next to last in recent years, were able to draft some talented players, but they still have to add free agent talent to be a true force. Same with the Reds who have young talent – but will they spend the money to fill in the holes?
“Prospects are suspects. Until they get there and produce, they are nothing,’’ the evaluator said.
Where are those conveyor belts of talent GMs and POBOs promise all the time?
And the Yamamoto situation makes it all clear how poorly teams are doing in developing top pitching. Yamamoto is 25, and produced a 1.16 ERA last season in Japan. “It’s going to be some adjustment because over there they pitch once a week,’’ one scout said. “(Yet) everybody appears to be going to six-man rotations now so it really doesn’t matter.
TOKYO, JAPAN - OCTOBER 22: Yoshinobu Yamamoto of the Orix Buffaloes salutes fans after the Japan Series Game One at Jingu Stadium on October 22, 2022 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
“As for Ohtani, everybody is taking it to the bank that he is going to be a guy who was a pretty damn good pitcher; but in saying that, he wasn’t a Cy Young Award winner, but I didn’t expect him to be because he was also hitting and DH-ing and doing that.’’
When I asked why major league teams are not producing a talent like Yamamoto, the scout offered this: “Our guys don’t throw as much as they do over there in Japan. We are over-protective, trying to keep them from getting hurt so they are not throwing as much. We’re failing at it.’’
That’s the bottom line. There are too many pitching injuries, especially to young pitchers.
“When scouts came into your house to sign you they would say to the parents, ‘We are going to take care of your son. We are going to take care of his arm. We are never going to abuse him. We are going to develop him. It’s about him becoming a big league pitcher.’ Well, we are not doing that now because kids are getting hurt at record numbers. Don’t we owe it to our kids to take better care of them right now – because what we are doing as an industry isn’t working. You can’t tell me that it is working,’’ the scout said. “Have all your analytic people look at the 45,000 days (lost) and the $968 million lost this year, and that is just the big league guys. How do you get better missing that many days of work?’’
The new way is not working.
“You never see the pitchers run as a group anymore where the starters would run 20 foul poles and the relievers would run 10 and do some sprints,’’ the evaluator said. “They spend their time in the weight room.’’
The Yamamoto “negotiations’’ should end soon and the big time money teams are still in the room, the Mets, Dodgers, Yankees, Giants, Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Phillies are in the mix. Teaming Yamamoto with Gerrit Cole would change the outlook of the Yankees, having two top tier starters. The Red Sox are the most desperate of the group. The Giants are under the gun too because they could not land Ohtani and they missed out on Aaron Judge last year. They did finally land a big name free agent this week when South Korea’s Jung Hoo Lee signed a six-year $113-million deal with them.
TOKYO, JAPAN - MARCH 08: Jung Hoo Lee #51 of Team Korea poses during the 2023 WBC Workout Day Tokyo at Tokyo Dome on Wednesday, March 8, 2023 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Lucas Stevenson/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Mets owner Steve Cohen is the X factor in the Yamamoto talks.
“The Mets may wind up paying him the most ridiculous amount ever,’’ one evaluator said. “Because somebody else may offer a ridiculous amount and the Mets may beat it by $10 million a year.’’
Momma, let your babies to grow up to be pitchers, but find a way to keep them healthy.
In a way I feel bad for the smaller market teams; but they have created their own issues by not focusing on developing winning ballplayers, getting and keeping top notch scouts and development people, scouting well, drafting well, and developing well.
When the Diamondbacks face the Dodgers again it will be David vs. Goliath. The D-Backs took care of business in the playoffs this past season, sweeping the Dodgers away in three games, including a solo-home run feast in the third inning of Game 3. Perhaps Ohtani should send a thank you note to the Diamondbacks for putting the Dodgers in the right frame of mind to spend $700 million, even if most of it is deferred.
In the three games, the Diamondbacks outscored the Dodgers 19-6. But it gets better. The Diamondbacks hit .284, the Dodgers hit .177. The Diamondbacks blasted nine home runs. The Dodgers hit only one home run and that was by J.D. Martinez. The Dodgers are betting on their $700 million man, hitter and pitcher, to make the difference.
To their credit, the Diamondbacks developed some of their own players that made a difference – like Corbin Carroll. This is now catch-up season for the Dodgers, who are expected to trade for Rays’ ace Tyler Glasnow to boost their starting rotation.
The Dodgers go through arms. So do the Rays.
ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 06: Tyler Glasnow #20 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches during a game against the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field on September 06, 2023 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Glasnow had Tommy John surgery in 2021 and last year suffered an oblique injury, but still managed a career high 21 starts. He will be a free agent in 2025. The Rays will also shed the contract of Manuel Margot in the deal. He is the Rays’ highest paid player at $10 million; mere chump change for the Dodgers but way too much money for the cheap Rays to handle. It won’t be long before the Rays trade Randy Arozarena as the poor get poorer in the two-tiered MLB. The Dodgers are deferring all but $2 million a year on the seven-year, $700 million deal for Ohtani, giving them another advantage.
The NL West will be fascinating, especially with the Padres having traded for Juan Soto on August 2, 2022 and giving away a lot of young talent and then turning around on December 7, 2023 and trading away Soto to the Yankees. Brian Cashman in this one-year rental of Soto is hoping for much better results than his trade for Giancarlo Stanton on December 11, 2017. Cashman desperately needs a winner.
Soto will be a free agent after the 2024 season so he should be on his best behavior in the Bronx, and superagent Scott Boras will be looking to break the bank with Soto’s contract. My early prediction is that Soto will sign with the Mets simply because they have the need and Boras goes where the money is, but all that is a long way off and there is a season to play that will offer many different story lines.
MLB has taken a page from the NFL’s book with big names changing places in the off-season, which sets up an interesting 2024.
All those GMs and POBOs who promised that major league talent would be flowing through their systems once they got their systems in place have not lived up to their promises; so now they are trying to flip the script any way they can and the easiest way to do that is with monster contracts to free agents.
After all, money talks after their BS walks.