Are the Los Angeles Dodgers positioning themselves for a run at a big free agent, and what does that mean for the San Diego Padres?
On Friday, the Los Angeles Dodgers traded Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig and Alex Wood to the Cincinnati Reds. Kemp and Puig have made a habit of harassing Padres’ pitchers, so San Diego’s starting staff will hardly mourn the move. Plus, there’s been bad blood between Padres players and Wood.
However, shedding those contracts may also make the rival up I-5 more likely to make a big move. Kemp alone will be paid $21.5 million in 2019. The Dodgers have taken on Homer Bailey’s $28 million in guaranteed money but already released him. Despite his contract, the Dodgers have shed enough salary to give the team more wiggle room in trying to avoid the luxury tax threshold.
Kemp, of course, spent time in a Padres uniform during the 2015-16 seasons before being moved to the Atlanta Braves. When the Padres acquired Kemp, the team actually did the Dodgers a huge favor. Los Angeles had been wanting to free up space in the outfield for rookies and had serious concerns about his declining defensive abilities, to say nothing of his attitude. The only reason the 34-year-old Kemp landed back in Los Angeles this year was a salary dump that included another former Padre, Adrian Gonzalez.
As a Dodger, Kemp has been a menace at the plate against San Diego, batting a cumulative .305/.357/.491/.848. Ironically, playing for the Padres in 2015, he managed only a .262/.285/.489/.774 batting line. Apparently, he did little to endear himself to his teammates in San Diego. And, on his way out the door, he disrespected both his former teams by proclaiming that he’d “never really played in a baseball town before.”
The mercurial Yasiel Puig has also harassed Padres’ pitchers, batting a healthy .269/.357/.459/.816 in his career with Los Angeles. Puig now leaves the only team he’s ever known. He arrived in Los Angeles in 2012 after a harrowing escape from Cuba. From the beginning, he drove Dodger coaches and managers nuts with his antics and uneven performance. At 28 Puig has the raw talent to be a game changer if he can just develop some level of discipline.
As a coach for the Dodgers, Turner Ward had apparently helped smooth out some of Puig’s rougher edges. When he left L.A. to become the hitting coach for the Reds this offseason, Ward may have thought he could escape Puig’s hugs and kisses. Instead, Puig will bring his act to Cincinnati.
Since Alex Wood accused Jose Pirela of stealing signs in June 2017, he has not been popular with Padres players or fans. Wood threatened to hit Pirela, benches emptied, and both Andy Green and Dave Roberts ended up being ejected from the game.
This year, Wood moved to the bullpen in September and had probably become expendable thanks to the prospect of young studs like Walker Buehler and Julio Urias teaming up with veteran starters. Although Wood held San Diego batters to a .213 average in his tenure with the Dodgers, they would probably prefer to face him than Buehler or Urias. On May 4, the 23-year-old Buehler and three relievers pitched a collective no-hitter against the Padres in Monterey Mexico. Overall this year, the rookie went 8-5 with a 2.62 ERA, 0.096 WHIP, and 151 strikeouts. Last year the 20-year-old Urias had his season derailed by shoulder surgery in June. He returned to pitch in the postseason this year giving up only two runs in seven appearances.
Since the trade, rumors have circulated widely that the Dodgers will sign Bryce Harper, one of the two big names on the market. The Dodgers apparently have no interest in reuniting with Manny Machado, who wore out his welcome after playing 66 games for LA last year. Harper has indicated he would love to put on Dodger blue.
In his seven years with the Washington Nationals, Harper has batted .279/.388/.512/.900 with an average of 32 home runs and 91 RBI. At 26 and in his prime, he boasts a 27.4 WAR and 139 OPS+ during that period. Pitchers for the Padres would hardly relish having to face him in 18 games rather than six.
Despite their wealth, the Dodgers remain very wary of paying the luxury tax and will maneuver to stay under the threshold of $206 million next year. However, the specter of recent playoff heartbreak and a World Series Championship drought that has lasted 30 years could motivate the team to blow through the threshold.
In recent history, the Dodgers have owned the Padres, and this trade won’t change the dynamic despite the fact that Kemp, Puig, and Wood have performed well against San Diego. Unfortunately, the Dodgers have a deep, versatile lineup and a strong pitching staff. The arrival of San Diego’s heralded rookies will begin this year, and we will start to learn whether they will provide the firepower needed to compete against the bully up the freeway.