A year ago at this time, on the eve of spring training, money was on everyone’s mind as the Yankees’ Hal Steinbrenner and the Mets’ Steve Cohen jockeyed for position atop MLB’s payroll leaderboard.
Cohen wound up wearing the title belt — the top luxury threshold unofficially bears his name, after all — but Steinbrenner actually outspent him on free agents that offseason by virtue of his $537.5 million tab (Cohen was runner-up at $482.1 million).
It’s worth rehashing all of this now for one simple reason: Neither the Yankees nor the Mets made the playoffs in 2023. Steinbrenner barely bought himself a winning record (82-80) and Cohen was the not-so-proud owner of a 75-win season.
The moral of the story? There really isn’t one. No cautionary tale to heed, and to that end we present the 2024 Dodgers, who spent $1.2 billion this winter after lying in the weeds last season with the sixth-ranked payroll, behind the Mets, Yankees, Padres, Rangers and Phillies.
The Dodgers' decision to sit back in the pack, relatively speaking, was no coincidence, and their vision became crystal-clear this offseason when Shohei Ohtani and Japanese ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto hit free agency.
In November, there was the illusion that any team with $1 billion and a dream could persuade these generational talents to don their uniform. In reality, the two seemed destined to wear Dodger Blue from the jump.
Ohtani’s supposed free-agent tour, cloaked in airtight secrecy, fittingly mutated into a viral social-media meltdown — a wild goose chase on X (the site formerly known as Twitter) before he unveiled the Dodgers himself with an Instagram announcement.
Two weeks later, Yamamoto headed to Los Angeles as well, apparently using the Mets’ $325 million offer to get the same number from the Dodgers, happily joining his former teammate from Japan’s WBC-winning roster last March.
Signing either one of those players would have been a spectacular offseason success for any team. But getting both? That was almost too much to process for the rest of the league, though we could say the same for what the Mets did for the previous two years with Cohen’s billions. Or the Padres blowing huge amounts of cash in A.J. Preller’s shock-and-awe efforts to buy a World Series crown. In each of those cases, however, the checkbook makeovers didn’t work.
Now it’s the Dodgers’ turn, with Ohtani limited to DH duties this season after last September’s elbow surgery and Yamamoto having to adapt to pitching in the majors.
“This offseason has been pretty amazing to watch, honestly,” Clayton Kershaw told reporters this past week after signing a two-year, $10 million contract to remain a Dodger.
''There’s definitely a part of me that wanted to be a part of that,” Kershaw said. “Winning an offseason doesn’t mean anything, but it’s a pretty good clubhouse of guys. The talent is probably the best I’ve ever been a part of. I’m hopeful that I can be a part of it, too.”
A year ago, Cohen was vilified around baseball for outpacing his peers on the spending front, but commissioner Rob Manfred — speaking at the owners' meetings Thursday — wasn’t quite as quick to criticize the Dodgers for doing the same thing this offseason. While Manfred acknowledged that “it’s the time of year to fret about disparity,” the commissioner mentioned how neither the Mets nor the Padres made it to the World Series (or even the playoffs, for that matter) and added, "We’ll see how it goes.”
Cohen used this winter to recalibrate under the guidance of new president of baseball operations David Stearns. His Mets ranked ninth in spending this offseason, with a total of roughly $104 million, according to Spotrac. That was only one spot below the Yankees, who came in at $117 million.
Just to show how things were flipped this offseason, the Royals were second ($400 million) — mostly because of the $288 million extension given to Bobby Witt Jr. — the defending National League champion Diamondbacks were fifth ($166M) and the Reds were sixth ($127M).
Sure, the Dodgers were in a different stratosphere from this next group, but these lower-tier markets throwing some cash around definitely punches a few holes in Manfred’s “disparity” argument. As the commissioner stated, however, only time will tell which of these strategies ultimately wins out.
(It should be mentioned that the Diamondbacks got to the World Series last October despite ranking No. 21 on the payroll list at $119 million, one spot below the Tigers.)
As for the weeks ahead, there’s more money to be spent, too, with plenty of impact free agents still available. Despite the assumption that the top of the pitching market would move once Yamamoto agreed with the Dodgers in late December, reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell has yet to sign, along with Jordan Montgomery. On the offensive end, Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman, J.D. Martinez and Jorge Soler remain on the market.
For the Yankees and Mets, much of the spring training chatter will be about their pending free agents: Juan Soto and Pete Alonso.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman put the bow on his offseason early by trading for Soto at the winter meetings in December, but he’s just a one-year rental at this point, and an expensive one at that. Soto and the Yankees avoided arbitration by agreeing on a record-setting $31 million contract.
As for Alonso, the homegrown Met pulled in $20.5 million, and Stearns sounds willing to shelve the extension talk until a much later date.
““The best thing for us is for Pete to have a great year, and the best thing for Pete is for Pete to have a great year,” Stearns said this past week on the Foul Territory podcast. “And then we’ll go forward from there. We’re certainly invested in trying to keep Pete a Met. And I’m hopeful that over time we’ll be able to work that out.”
When teams show up for spring training this week, everything will seem possible again. The feeling doesn’t last, so enjoy it while you can.