The strain had been evident for almost a year.
In the way the Dodgers relied on openers and bullpen games down the stretch last season. In how they were seemingly one arm short in last year’s playoffs. In their concerns about rotation depth entering this season. In a payroll that had been ballooned by a player barred from taking the field.
Since Trevor Bauer was put on administrative leave last July following allegations of sexual assault, the team had dealt with the financial and competitive ramifications created by the absence of their highest-paid player.
After the announcement Friday that Bauer would be suspended two years for violating baseball’s sexual assault and domestic violence policy, there is now a path for the Dodgers to get out from under the dead weight of his deal.
With the league’s punishment levied at long last, the Dodgers are now awaiting only the outcome of his appeal — Bauer is the first player disciplined under the sexual assault and domestic violence policy to challenge the league’s decision — to know the full financial impact.
If the full suspension is upheld, Bauer wouldn’t be eligible to play again until after his Dodgers contract has expired. The Dodgers also wouldn’t have to pay the rest of his $32-million salary this year, or any of the $32 million he was set to receive in 2023.
Even a shortened suspension would still provide the Dodgers with some financial relief — freeing up funds that could potentially be redirected to bolstering the team.
The worst-case situation for the Dodgers, that the team would have to cut Bauer and still pay the entirety of the three-year, $102-million contract he signed in February 2021, seems less likely in the wake of Friday’s suspension.
Their days of having the uncertain situation hanging over their head appear to be numbered.
Despite carrying the highest payroll in baseball, the Dodgers can certainly make use of the more than $60 million that would have still been owed to Bauer.
While they’ve continued to make big splashes since he went on leave, accquiring Max Scherzer and Trea Turner at last year’s trade deadline, and signing Freddie Freeman to a long-term contract this offseason, they’ve also had to greatly exceed MLB’s competitive balance tax.
Last year, their $285-million payroll reportedly cost them more than $32 million in luxury tax fees. Counting Bauer’s contract this year, their projected CBT payroll was in danger of exceeding the league’s new highest tax threshold of $290 million, which would have incurred a surcharge resulting in a 90% tax rate this year.
The Dodgers have shown a willingness to pay the luxury tax, and club executives have downplayed how Bauer’s situation impacted their activity in the free-agent and trade markets.
Still, they weren’t close to matching the three-year, $130-million deal Scherzer signed with the New York Mets this winter. They wanted Kenley Jansen to wait on signing this spring until they could shed payroll, before he ultimately decided to sign with the Atlanta Braves. And they entered the season without adding another bona fide ace, leaving their starting rotation seemingly thinner than usual.
If not for the uncertainty of the Bauer situation, the Dodgers could’ve had the flexibility to be more aggressive in each pursuit.
The Dodgers have nonetheless navigated the opening three weeks this season without much issue. Entering Friday, their starting pitchers had the best ERA in the majors with a 2.16 mark, and their 12-6 record was fourth best in baseball.
But the less money they’re required to pay Bauer moving forward, the more options they’ll have at this season’s trade deadline or during the offseason.
The clubhouse had long ago moved on without the pitcher. And unless he wins his appeal, Friday’s decision might free the club from the rest of his contract.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.