It doesn’t take a degree in economics to run a baseball team, but it sure can help these days.
It also doesn’t require good relationships between general managers and sitting down to talk things through multiple times, with give-and-take from both sides, to get a deal done in this era, not when so many transactions are simply consummated via text. But it still helps, especially in complicated deals.
For proof of the above statements, look no further than Saturday’s dizzying salary swap in a five-player trade that sent Matt Kemp and the two remaining years of his onerous contract from the Braves to the Dodgers in exchange for Adrian Gonzalez and his burdensome contract plus pitchers Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir and infielder Charlie Culberson, with the Dodgers also throwing in $4.5 million to even out the overall salaries swapped.
Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, in his second month on the job after two seasons in the Dodgers front office and six seasons before that as Blue Jays GM, unburdened the Braves of their last reminder of the ill-advised Hector Olivera trade from 2 ½ years ago, a trade that will haunt former Braves John Coppolella and his former international scouting chief Gordon Blakeley. Of course, Coppolella and Blakeley have since dealt with worse issues.
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But this wasn’t about exorcising the demons from the Olivera trade as much as it was about getting rid of fallout that resulted from that original sin, er, deal. That fallout being Kemp.
First, some background before discussing Saturday’s trade: Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi, 41, is a native Canadian who graduated from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned his PhD in economics from the Unversity of California, Berkeley.
Dodgers president Andrew Friedman, 41 (born two days after Zaidi), played baseball at Tulane and earned a degree in management with a concentration in finance from Tulane, then worked as an analyst at Bear Stearns for three years and as an associate for a private equity firm for a couple more years before joining the Tampa Bay Rays front office in 2004.
Anthopoulos, 40, has a degree in economics from McMaster University in his native Canada and worked alongside Friedman and Zaidi in the Dodgers' think tank/front office. So he knew what the Dodgers needed in terms of space under the luxury tax, and knew they needed to get rid of Gonzalez and dump a couple more bigger salaries to get where they wanted to be with their payroll.
That’s how all these highly educated pals got this complicated deal done after ramping up discussions Wednesday at the Winter Meetings and finalizing matters once back at their respective offices.
Once Gonzalez agreed to waive his no-trade clause if the Braves would designate him for assignment and then make him a free agent -- he was officially released Monday by the Braves -- Atlanta and L.A. team officials put their heads together and came up with a deal that left people around baseball blown away by its creativity and mutually beneficial aspects.
The Dodgers shed more than $48 million in 2018 salary commitments to that quartet they sent to the Braves, all of whom were in the final year of their contracts except Culberson, who isn’t yet eligible for arbitration, will make less than $1 million in 2018 and has four years of team control. Swapping those four guys for two years of Kemp – who’ll likely be flipped again by the Dodgers – allowed L.A. to put itself in position to stay under the $197 million luxury-tax threshold for next season, which will save many millions and put the Dodgers in better position to spend more of their enormous revenues on next winter’s illustrious free-agent class.
Meanwhile, the Braves took on nearly $30 million in additional payroll for this season, which doesn’t leave them with much more to spend this winter, but gives them a lot more payroll flexibility in 2019, when they intend to field a contender and will be better positioned to dip a toe of their own into that free-agent pool and/or trade for player(s) with high salaries. If the Braves' payroll stays the same or rises a bit, the team could possibly have $90 million -- give or take $10 million -- to spend next winter on 2019 payroll additions.
And with the $4.5 million the Dodgers included in the deal, neither teams adds payroll when the two-year salary totals are added up. While the Braves no longer seem as likely to make a deal for Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich after expressing some interest in him last week, those familiar with Anthopoulos and how he works know that he is liable to make a big, surprising trade at any moment.
And the man does like to make big-impact moves.
So I’d bet he’s not necessarily done making significant moves this winter. I’d still look for him to address third base and/or the bullpen. They might perhaps even consider changes to the rotation, although the Braves added a veteran starter (McCarthy) in Saturday’s deal, whom Anthopoulos saw at his best last season before and after McCarthy missed a big chunk of the season with non-throwing shoulder injury and finger blisters on his pitching hand. Anthopoulos said McCarthy is penciled into the rotation.
In that trade, the Braves also got an infielder (Culberson, a Georgia native) who will likely fill Anthopoulos’ stated need from two weeks ago when he said the Braves wanted to get a defensively strong backup shortstop who could play all the infield positions.
In Kazmir, anything the Braves get from him in 2018 is gravy. The former All-Star missed all last season with a hip injury and the Braves aren’t counting on him, but Kazmir told Anthopoulos that the pitcher’s offseason program is going well and Kazmir is upbeat about contributing. Again, anything he gives the Braves is a bonus, not something they were counting on when they made this deal, which was done for financial reasons as much or more than anything else.
This is next-level creative trading, folks. A deal that truly benefits both teams in their present situations.
In that respect, it’s the opposite of the trade that led to the whole untenable situation the Braves found themselves in with Kemp.
Back on July 30, 2015, a day that will live in Braves infamy for some time, Coppolella sent lefties Alex Wood and Luis Avilan, infield prospect Jose Peraza and more to the Dodgers for Cuban third baseman Olivera, whose performance and attitude were so unimpressive in his first half-season with the Dodgers that they were willing to eat the $28.5 million signing bonus they had given him six months earlier. Which should have set off enough alarm bells for the Braves to avoid delving into that quagmire, but didn’t.
Blakeley had badly wanted the Braves to sign Olivera that previous winter, but the Dodgers outbid them. Now, the Braves were going to get him after all. And in retrospect it's easy to see why the Dodgers were surely saying as Olivera went out the door, good riddance.
After just 30 major league games, 20 hits, two homers and one suspension after an arrest for domestic assault, Olivera was dumped again, this time sent to the Padres by the Braves, who agreed to take on the remaining three years of injury-plagued Matt Kemp’s contract at $21.5 million annually, subsidized a little by $3.5 million from the Padres via the Dodgers in a previous trade that sent Kemp from L.A. to S.D.
Is your head spinning yet? Bottom line: Kemp wears out his welcome quickly and is a shell of the player who got that eight-year, $160 million contract to begin with from the Dodgers are his career-best 2011 season, when he was the National League MVP runner-up and, as I said at the time, should’ve won the award over Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun, even before we learned that Braun tested positive for steroids after the season.
Kemp was great back in 2011, and for significant stretches since then, but now he struggles with hamstring and other leg issues that certainly aren’t helped any by the fact that he is carrying a lot of extra weight. He put on an alarming amount of pounds during the 2017 season after reporting to camp in good shape compared to the overweight condition in which he arrived when he first joined the Braves in 2016.
And frankly, the Braves needed to trade him now not just because he had degenerated into arguably the worst defensive left fielder in baseball at this point, but also because he gave off a lot of bad signs that you simply don’t want in any clubhouse, much less in a clubhouse with impressionable young players and a team that’s trying to move forward in its rebuilding project after three difficult seasons.
I mean, the last thing you want is for a top prospect, say a certain young and perhaps impressionable outfielder, to come up and see the indifference and, at times, outright disdain shown by a highly paid veteran and big-name star in matters related to the team and the many demands that are made of its players including off-the-field functions -- things that can test a veteran’s patience, sure, but things that veteran leaders know how to handle, not by complaining publicly in a clubhouse with teammates and reporters around, but by going to the manager or other team official.
Anthopoulos had only been with the Braves for a month, but he’d been told from Day 1 by plenty of people inside and outside the organization that Kemp had to go, some way, somehow. Preferably long before spring training.
And now, that cloud has been lifted from the organization. And that young outfielder referenced above, super prospect Ronald Acuna, has a spot waiting for him in the Braves lineup, whether that’s on opening day or in late April or May. And whether Acuna’s in the lineup or Lane Adams is keeping the spot warm, the Braves are significantly better defensively with Kemp gone, and Anthopoulos made it clear last week at the Winter Meetings that improving the team’s defense was a top priority, even if it was only at one or perhaps two places. Nowhere were they worse defensively than in left field.
The Braves didn’t add a big-time free agent or trade for a top performer, but with Saturday’s deal Anthopoulos took care of a lot of issues in his first significant transaction since taking over as Braves GM and executive vice president. He’s running baseball ops now, and he showed Saturday why the Brave entrusted him with the keys.
• Hey, let's close with this classic break-up tune from The Manhattans, what do you say?
"LET'S JUST KISS AND SAY GOODBYE" by The Manhattans
I called you here today for a bit of bad news
I won't be able to see you anymore
Because of my obligations, and the ties that you have
We've been meeting here everyday
And since this is our last day together
I wanna hold you just one more time
When you turn and walk away, don't look back
I wanna remember you just like this
Let's just kiss and say goodbye I had to meet you here today
There's just so many things to say
Please don't stop me 'till I'm through
This is something I hate to do
We've been meeting here so long
I guess what we done, oh was wrong
Please darling, don't you cry
Let's just kiss and say goodbye Many months have passed us by
(I'm gonna miss you)
I'm gonna miss you, I can't lie
(I'm gonna miss you)
I've got ties, and so do you
I just think this is the thing to do
It's gonna hurt me, I can't lie
Maybe you'll meet, you'll meet another guy
Understand me, won't you try, try, try, try, try, try, try
Let's just kiss and say goodbye...