Jul 21

Trade Deadline Inception


Warner Bros. PicturesUpside down, boy you turn me, inside out …

Each of the following passages is rooted in something real. And yet each reality offers a mystery.

I just had so many different thoughts, and this is me trying (and, as you’ll see, mostly failing) to make sense of them. But whether I make sense of them or not, 10 days from now, on July 31, baseball’s no-waivers-required trade deadline, we get the kick.

* * *

After a night like Tuesday – not to mention confirmation that Manny Ramirez will be out for a while – this Dodger team might seem to have a cloud of doom over it.

It’s a Dodger team that hasn’t been very healthy, hasn’t been (except for a short stretch in May) very lucky, hasn’t been very deep and lately hasn’t been very good.

Rafael Furcal has exceeded expectations, as has Hong-Chih Kuo for all of 30 of the team’s 840 innings pitched this season. Andre Ethier is a little better than expected, though not as much since early May. Same with Jamey Carroll. And after that, who?

The issue is not whether the Dodgers are out of contention. They’re not. They could be leading the wild card race inside of a week. And unless you’ve completely ruled out the possibility of the upstart Padres having their own problems, the NL West is wide open.

We’ve all seen this show before – twice in recent years, in fact. In 2006 and 2008, the Dodgers had tremendous swoons, only to recover from them.

Each time, they got help at the trade deadline – without blowing up the team.

So, what now?

* * *

Well, it’s not just about now.

At the end of this season, starting pitchers Hiroki Kuroda and Vicente Padilla become free agents. So does outfielder Manny Ramirez – who admittedly might not have much to contribute for the remainder of the year. Casey Blake looks increasingly like he’s not going to hit enough to hold down third base. Russell Martin has devolved into a No. 8 hitter.

Those are the major concerns, before you even get into injury risk for Furcal and Kuo, or paying for James Loney’s power uncertainty, or whether Blake DeWitt is a legitimate second baseman, and so on. People complained about the Dodgers needing to reload after the 2009 offseason, but the 2010 team will require even more new ammo.

And so, dual considerations. If you go for broke this year, you could be digging a hole so deep for the 2011 Dodgers that they can’t recover. But is the hole for 2011 so deep already that you might as well go for broke?

* * *

Scott Halleran/Allsport/Getty Images
Mike Trombley

Random trade deadline thoughts and memories …

  • Looking for relief help in 2001, the Dodgers traded minor leaguers Kris Foster and Geronimo Gil for Mike Trombley. Trombley allowed 17 runs and 37 baserunners in 23 1/3 innings.
  • Looking for starting pitching help in 2001, the Dodgers traded minor leaguers Jeff Barry, Gary Majewski and Onan Masaoka for James Baldwin. Baldwin made five quality starts in 11 tries, finishing with a 4.20 ERA as a Dodger.
  • July 31 is not the stopping point for Dodger general manager Ned Colletti, who in the past has acquired Greg Maddux, Marlon Anderson, David Wells, Jim Thome, Padilla, Esteban Loaiza and Jon Garland after that date. All those players, and more, cleared waivers, allowing them to be moved after the so-called deadline.
  • I really do believe that Carlos Santana was traded for Casey Blake, not for $2 million. Not saying it was the right thing to do. But I don’t believe that Santana was a throw-in. I think Meloan was. Blake for Meloan and $2 million doesn’t make sense to me from the Indians’ perspective.
  • Yhency Brazoban made his major-league debut on August 5, 2004 and for the remainder of the year, struck out 27 in 32 2/3 innings with a 2.48 ERA, stranding 12 of 14 runners.
  • Is Kenley Jansen this year’s Brazoban? Or this year’s Meloan?

* * *

“Interested.”

That word ignited off the 2010 Dodger trade deadline frenzy. Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that an anonymous industry source said the Dodgers were “interested” in Pirate pitcher Paul Maholm.

A thinner piece of news, you probably could not find Tuesday. Even if this source is correct – and he might not be – it tells us nothing of how serious the interest is. But suddenly, the Dodger online world was aflame with discussion of this pitcher with 4.5 strikeouts per nine innings, a pitcher who might be as poor a fit with a poor Dodger defense as you could find.

In his past two starts, Maholm has allowed two runs in 16 innings. In two of three starts before that, he allowed 12 earned runs in four innings.

Nothing to see here.

* * *

Gus Ruelas/AP
Andre Ethier reacts after Tuesday’s game-ending strikeout.

And then there’s Peter Gammons, whom Vin Scully Is My Homeboy noted last week was thinking out loud about the Red Sox pursuing Ethier.

The one team I keep wondering about if they drop a few games back, if the Dodgers start dropping back, would they talk about Andre Ethier. He’s going to make $10-$12 million next year, the coaching staff feels with their bizarre ownership situation, they don’t want to pay Ethier and might trade him now. That would be a fascinating guy to go after.”

And when Steve Dilbeck of the Times helped spread word of this Tuesday (not to mention Alyssa Milano), more panic.

I’d say there’s no chance of Ethier being traded. If the Dodgers aren’t trading Matt Kemp, they’re not trading Ethier. But let’s say I’m wrong. Let’s say there are bluffs all around and everything and everyone is on Colletti’s table. The Dodgers would be trading Ethier at his highest value. The haul for a 28-year-old All-Star whose work ethic is unquestioned and who won’t be a free agent until November 2012 could be astonishing.

* * *

For that matter, how many teams in baseball would like to have Furcal right now?

No, you’d never trade Furcal now. But six weeks ago, you would have. A slumping, injury-prone shortstop with millions upon millions remaining on his contract? You’d have traded him for less than you’d get for him now.

* * *

I’m talking way too much about trading key players away, but allow me just a little more before I move on.

Four days before the trade deadline four years ago, I wrote a lengthy column for SI.com, advocating that being a seller lose its stigma.

… It should not be so shameful for a .500 team, a team that can only win a World Series if karma and luck fall head over heels in love, to say, “Look, we can be a long shot this year, or we can make a small sacrifice and become a serious contender for years to come.”

Teams can get hot instantly — there’s no denying that. Florida surprised everyone in 2003, went on a run and won the World Series. Houston recovered from a faceplant of a start in 2005 and took the NL pennant. If you’re three games out of the playoffs with a .500 record, the postseason possibilities may be so tantalizing that the slim odds of winning it all may not matter to you.

Good enough. That doesn’t mean it should be a sin to step back and decide that whatever you have now, you can build upon with a little more patience. It should be a choice. And it can be a choice that remains open until the moment the deadline passes, a choice that depends on whether you can get a quality deal or not, as opposed to a deal that just makes you look busy.

As for the fans, some will complain. Some will always complain. But if you show you have a plan and you make an intelligent trade for the future, sacrificing a mere two months in the process could render those complaints moot rather quickly …

I’m not saying the Dodgers should become sellers, and I don’t believe they will become sellers, but there is a case for it. And the funny thing is, the McCourt divorce provides cover for it. Ownership would get crucified by the mainstream for turning 2010 into a rebuilding year. But ownership is already being crucified. So why should we care about the bad PR, if that’s status quo and ultimately the team would be better off for it?

* * *

This website celebrates its eighth anniversary today. After proclaiming my intention to exult or vent as appropriate, my first main post wondered aloud about whether the Dodgers should be sellers.

I guess that temptation has often been with me. Buoyed by the drafts of Logan White, the Dodgers were able to make long-term commitments to developing players from within. But the Dodgers have never taken a similarly long view with regards to midseason trades.

What if they did? I know it will never happen, but what if it did?

Francis Specker/AP
Marlon Anderson follows through in the ninth inning, September 18, 2006.

* * *

Then again, does it need to happen? Manny Ramirez in 2008 was a man-made gift from the heavens. And so was Marlon Anderson in 2006.

And 2004, the most tumultuous trade deadline of them all, worked out rather well.

So why not believe? Why not go for it?

Just a week ago, the Dodgers were in fine shape, a good team that was maybe a player or two away from becoming great.

* * *

Roy Oswalt? Jayson Werth? Dan Haren? Ben Sheets? David DeJesus? Scott Downs?

There are some names that could help the Dodgers. But not many.

Dee Gordon? Chris Withrow? Ethan Martin? Jerry Sands? Aaron Miller? Allen Webster? Joe Etc.? Who’s irreplaceable? Who’s gonna make you go, “I don’t miss him that much – so it was worth a shot.”

* * *

You need to be smart, and you need to be fortunate. And you can do that as a buyer or a seller. It truly doesn’t matter which. If you are smart and fortunate, you will win.

The Dodgers won’t be sellers. We can be sure of this. They will either stand pat or acquire someone to help immediately. They might try to acquire someone but end up standing pat because the price was too high. But those are the options.

But the thing is, if you acknowledge that standing pat is a possibility – and that standing pat probably means you won’t win in 2010 (because the teams that rallied from the depths avoided standing pat) – then how can you not entertain the option of trading for the future instead of the present?

If standing pat is a worse choice than selling high, why wouldn’t you be in talks to sell high, as a backup plan?

The answer is one of public relations, of public perception. But this morning, not too many people like the 2010 Dodgers right now anyway. And those that do aren’t the ones who are likely to complain about sacrificing the 2010 Dodgers to make them more competitive in 2011 or 2012.

That’s the paradox.

* * *

Anyway, enough about Plan B. Plan A is to improve the 2010 Dodgers now.

It can be done. Ownership or not. Roy Oswalt’s contract or not. You can make smart trades. The Dodgers have done it before. They can do it again.

Ten days until July 31. Let the freakout begin.

Jul 01

Who’s got two thumbs, a famous limp around the bases and now manages the Arizona Diamondbacks?


Mike Powell/Getty ImagesThis guy

Friday in Arizona, the Dodgers will meet their (history) maker.

Kirk Gibson has been named interim manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, replacing the man from my alma mater, A.J. Hinch, who lasted only 212 games before getting the axe, the axe, the axe.

The guy who hired Hinch was fired as well. Josh Byrnes was replaced as general manager of Arizona on an interim basis by Jerry Dipoto.

Stories galore inside of the next 24 hours: Ex-Dodger Edwin Jackson goes for his second no-no in a row, ex-Dodger Gibson goes for his first managerial win, and we wonder if Logan White or Kim Ng might become ex-Dodger executives before next season.

Jun 28

Joe Torre and the future of Dodger managing


Jeff Chiu/AP
Don Mattingly and Joe Torre

Joe Torre’s primary skill set is at most one thing: He nurtures the clubhouse.

I don’t know of anyone, even his stanuchest supporters, who touts Torre as a brilliant tactical manager. He has had moments of strategic inspiration, but they seem more than undermined by his justifiably maligned use of his pitching staff and other odd lineup and bench moves. Some of the criticism of Torre is overblown, but there’s a layer of truth to it that dates back to his Yankee days.

When Torre finally lost his temper on Wednesday after the Dodgers’ ninth-inning baserunner follies and criticized some of the players for their decision-making, I understood, but I also felt it was the pot calling out the kettle. So much of Torre’s job is decision-making, and so often it goes wrong. Sometimes he makes a good choice that goes bad, but other times his choices are simply indefensible. How many times has Torre not seemed mentally prepared for the game at hand? Does a collapse like Sunday’s not lay in large part at Torre’s feet, most notably in his overuse of Jonathan Broxton? It’s not as simple as “his players didn’t do their jobs.”

And I say all this with no particular axe to grind. This is not a “Fire Joe Torre” post. I generally like Torre as a person. I don’t happen to think that Torre is much worse at game strategy than your garden-variety manager. But let’s face it: With Torre, you’re betting that the force of his even-keeled personality outweighs his flaws. He ‘s a bright man, but you’re not thinking he’s going to take you to the top because he’s a grandmaster chess player.

Torre’s contract ends after this season. This past weekend, he told reporters that he would decide in September whether he wants to come back for more with the Dodgers, although even then, there’s a question of how much the McCourt ownership will want to pay him for the privilege — or whether anyone up top will even be able to focus on the question. The McCourt divorce trial is currently scheduled to begin August 30. What kind of negotiations are there going to be with Torre during that time? If the Dodgers are in fourth place, will there be any negotiations at all? Or is it all in general manager Ned Colletti’s hands?

It’s possible that the Dodgers will take decide that, with all their other concerns heading into 2011, they’d like stability in the managerial chair and will quickly give Torre what he wants to stay. If the Dodgers bounce back to the top of the division, I’d almost be willing to bet on it.

The only other possibility on the horizon is that Don Mattingly will be the Dodger manager next season. It has been spelled out in no uncertain terms that Mattingly is the heir apparent, and if the Dodgers fall out of the race, Mattingly could be named the 2011 Dodger manager before the 2010 season ends.

This, my friends, gives me the willies.

Mattingly is Joe Torre without Joe Torre’s personality or experience. Mattingly has never managed a regular season baseball game and has never coached for anyone except Torre. Obviously, Mattingly’s baseball knowledge is not limited to his time by Torre’s side, but surely his tactics are going to be heavily influenced by Torre. And that, while not being the worst thing in the world, is not anything to be excited about.

Then you have to ask yourself, is Mattingly the type of person who can nurture a clubhouse, who can make a team better when the game isn’t going on?

I don’t know Mattingly at all, so I’m not qualified to answer that question. But my concern is that Mattingly is being handed this job not because of any actual qualifications, but because he’s perceived (hoped) to be Torre II. He’ll continue Torre’s winning ways just by having soaked up his innate Torreness.

If it were that simple, I don’t think Laker fans would be concerned about Phil Jackson leaving.

As a counter-example, Tim Wallach has both coached on the major-league level and managed on the minor-league level for the Dodgers. He was named Pacific Coast League Manager of the Year in 2009. This season, he has been doing a barefoot walk across the coals, because the Dodgers’ pitching problems have absolutely burned their top affiliate in Albuquerque. In this season alone, Wallach has had to use 17 starting pitchers this season in 74 games. He has very little in the way of top-rated AAA prospects right now. He has had to work without the safety net of a Joe Torre and then some.

This resume doesn’t prove that Wallach will be a successful major-league manager. But I can’t see how it isn’t a better resume than Mattingly’s, whose entire managerial C.V. consists of, “He’s Don Mattingly, Yankee legend and student of Joe Torre.”

As the Dodgers prepare to bid farewell to Torre, this year, next year or whenever, they have some responsibilities, some explicit, some implicit. For one thing, Major League Baseball requires the Dodgers to interview at least one minority candidate for the position. Whether you believe in this rule or not, I’d argue that the Dodgers should not make this interview a token activity, but rather at least one of a number of serious interviews, a wider exploration into whether anyone is better than Mattingly for the job. Clearly, Mattingly has impressed people in the organization, but has he done so in ways that really matter? If they pause and step back, are there not potential managers out there who would be more compelling?

By writing this piece, I risk giving this decision more importance than it deserves. The talent on the field is still more important than the talent in the dugout, and a hire of Mattingly isn’t going to ruin the Dodgers. Mattingly is not Torre, and given what happened Sunday, some might say that’s a good thing. But the Dodgers should ask themselves whether a Mattingly hire would bring continuity in all the wrong places.

May 06

Dodgers can only wonder, ‘What next?’


Getty Images
Stat o’ the Day: Just 27 games into the Dodgers’ 2010 season, Ramon Troncoso has already pitched in 11 losses.

It may be early, but the fans are going wild – and not in a good way.

Wednesday’s 11-3 loss to Milwaukee marked the one-month anniversary of a Dodger season that began with an 11-5 loss to Pittsburgh. Two days shy of one year since Manny Ramirez’s suspension, it’s remarkable to think back and realize: The Dodger community was probably in better spirits that sorry day than now.

The wreckage of the Dodgers’ start to 2010 fits perfectly with the narrative that began in the offseason, which foretold that the divorce of Frank and Jamie McCourt would have a domino effect that would leave the franchise in ruins. And while this isn’t exactly Carthage, it is last place in the National League West in May.

A different ownership situation might have bred a different start to the season, it’s true. No, a pair of happily married McCourts would not have turned the 2009-10 Dodger offseason into a wheeling-and-dealing free-for-all – not after reaching the National League Championship Series two straight years, certainly not after the Jason Schmidt and Andruw Jones debacles of recent offseasons. But Frank and Jamie surely wouldn’t have made fewer moves if they were still going steady.

But what’s sad about the 2010 Dodgers is that the doleful divorce has been only one of many, many, many other things that have gone wrong this season. Here begins “Lament: Why Even in Their Worst Nightmares, the Dodgers Couldn’t Fathom Being This Bad.”

Chapter the First: A Rotation Off Its Axis

Harry How/Getty Images
Mixed bag: The last 23 batters Chad Billingsley faced Wednesday did not score; the first four did.

Consider, if you will, that the Dodger starting rotation at the end of the 2009 season was made up of Randy Wolf (having something of a career year), a wounded Hiroki Kuroda, a staggering Chad Billingsley, a green Clayton Kershaw, and Vicente Padilla having, well, two great weeks.

Though spring training 2010 began with Wolf in a Milwaukee Brewers uniform, there was every reason to believe that at least 60 percent of that bunch would be better than they were – in contrast to Wolf, who you’d reasonably expect to decline after everything imaginable went right for him at age 33. And in fact, that’s exactly what happened with Kuroda, who has a 2.08 ERA while averaging 6.9 innings per start this year.

But though they have had their moments, Billingsley and Kershaw haven’t exactly been the equivalent of, say, Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez, who has pitched 41 1/3 innings with a 0.87 ERA and 44 strikeouts. The growing pains are still evident – more painfully in the case of Billingsley, who is only six months younger than the cherry-picked Jimenez, but more fable-busting for Kershaw, who was supposed to be the guy with the head on his shoulders but instead has walked a mind-boggling seven batters per nine innings in ’09. Both still have bright futures, but the need for more consistency remains. (Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles has more on Billingsley.)

Then there was Padilla, who had two fine starts in the postseason but otherwise had been a forgettable pitcher for most of the past five years or more. The Dodgers chose him in January over Jon Garland, a pitcher they thought enough of five months earlier that they traded infield prospect Tony Abreu for him. The 30-year-old Garland, who signed with San Diego for a guaranteed $5.9 million (including a potential 2011 $600,000 club buyout), has an ERA of 2.06 (adjusted ERA 184) over 35 innings in six starts. The 32-year-old Padilla, who signed with the Dodgers for a guaranteed $5.025 million plus incentives, has pulled a mini-Schmidt: 21 2/3 innings, 6.65 ERA (61 ERA+) and an indefinite stay on the disabled list. This wasn’t the divorce or the budget talking. The Dodgers made a pretty simple either-or choice, and at least to this point, they chose wrong. (And did so even with the character issues that are supposedly so important to Dodger general manager Ned Colletti being in Garland’s favor.)

The fifth spot in the Dodger starting rotation had a number of candidates, though ideally there should only have been two: James McDonald and Scott Elbert. McDonald was the 2008 and 2009 Dodger Minor League Pitcher of the Year who had a rough start in 2010 before finishing the year strong. Elbert is considered by many to be an even brighter prospect. However, neither came close to making any kind of case in spring training that they belonged in the rotation – though they were given little opportunity while manager Joe Torre quickly turned his focus to pitchers who had no more minor-league options, like perennial also-ran Eric Stults and knuckleballer Charlie Haeger, along with a cascade of scrapheap veterans like the Ortiz Unbrothers, Ramon and Russ. Honestly, it was reasonable to suspect that someone from McDonald, Elbert and frenemies could give the Dodgers inconsistent but useful enough output in the back of the rotation – and the Dodgers have certainly had their share of luck in this area in recent years – but it hasn’t come close to happening. That in turn made the Dodgers particularly ill-prepared, at least at this point, for an injury to one of their front four starters, even Padilla.

This brings us back to the four pitchers most talked about this Dodger offseason. One was Wolf, who had a 4.91 ERA after three starts this season but has since allowed two runs in his past 14 innings. Two was John Lackey, who signed a five-year, $82 million contract with the Red Sox and has a 3.89 ERA. Lackey figured to be a B version of the former Dodger with the famous seven-year contract itch, Kevin Brown – not quite as expensive but not quite as good and arguably every bit as likely to get injured for part of his contract. Lackey raises a good question: Do you pay big money for a pitcher even knowing that one of those years he’s likely to spend on the DL? I would have said no – and perhaps that’s ultimately a question for the accountants – but given the Dodgers’ current pitching desperation, many people would probably be inclined to say yes.

Pitchers three and four are Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, the most-discussed trade targets of the past year. Whatever efforts the Dodgers made to acquire them, the organization has ultimately had to bet that what they had in Kershaw and Billingsley (among other young players) in the long term would be worth more than what they would get out of Lee and Halladay in the short term – not a bad bet, but strictly as of May 2010, a losing bet.

So there you have it. We’ve discussed close to a dozen starting pitchers, and of that group, only Kuroda has given the Dodgers a happy beginning to 2010. Some of the misfortune the Dodgers brought upon themselves; some of it has been ill-fated – but when you add it all up, it’s almost a clean sweep for Murphy’s Law over Los Angeles.

Chapter the Second: The Blahpen

Kathy Willens/AP
George Sherrill: 0.65 ERA as a Dodger in 2009, 9.00 in 2010.

When your best reliever (Jonathan Broxton) hasn’t even pitched nine innings all year, when your next-best bullpen success story is a Rule 5 draftee (Carlos Monasterios) who remains on the roster, things have gone horribly wrong.

Maybe it all started with Ronald Belisario, for virtually all of spring training trapped in a distant land like a passenger crashing with Oceanic 815, his absence shifting the balance of the bullpen when the season began ever-so-slightly yet ever-so-significantly. His MIA act, accompanied by another ill-timed injury to lefty mesmerizer Hong-Chih Kuo and an almost complete reversal-of-fortune by 2009′s stellar set-up man, George Sherrill, turned a key Dodger strength into a disaster area. In the Dodgers’ first 15 games of 2010, the bullpen lost five – that alone made a huge difference between the Dodgers being 11-16 this morning as opposed to 16-11, of being 5 1/2 games out of first place as opposed to just half a game. And that doesn’t even count games like Wednesday’s, in which the bullpen was handed a one-run deficit and let it multiply by 800%.

What did the Dodgers do wrong with their relievers? Not a lot. Yeah, if money were no object, they could have outbid the Angels for a guy like Fernando Rodney, who signed for an exorbitant amount of money for a reliever: two years, $11 million. Or they could have spent $50,000 on a chaperone for Belisario. Beyond that, what they assembled was battle-tested and looked like one of the best bullpens in baseball. It just hasn’t worked out that way.

Chapter the Third: Defenestrate the defense

Danny Moloshok/AP
Charged with 10 errors last year, Casey Blake has made half that many this year.

Wednesday, Major League Baseball announced that a change by the official scorer gave James Loney a throwing error for a play that occurred against the Reds nearly two weeks before. It kind of fit: The Dodger defense has been so poor this year that it can pick up errors without even playing.

The defense had actually been on a modest streak of errorless games recently until Wednesday night against the Brewers, when Casey Blake threw in the dirt in the seventh inning of what at the time was a one-run game. Before the night was over, the team botched a rundown play and Blake made another error, his fifth in 24 games.

It felt very familiar. For most of the year, the defense has been toxic. The expected weak spots, such as Ramirez in left field, haven’t even been the story. There have been mistakes all over the field, to the extent that Matt Kemp’s 2009 Gold Glove in center field is being examined for “Dewey Defeats Truman” inaccuracies.

The defense broke the levee on the already cracking Dodger pitching, helping spoil what really was a true onslaught by the Dodger offense in the opening days of the year. The Dodgers averaged 6.5 runs in those first 15 games, but lost eight of them. And yet at seven of eight positions, this was the same defense that the Dodgers took to the NL playoffs last year. The mere aging of players Blake and Ramirez doesn’t begin to explain it. Did the Dodgers not prepare properly in spring training? Who knows? But this was another walk off the cliff that at least in part appeared out of nowhere.

Chapter the Fourth: Yes, Everyone Gets Injuries

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Manny Ramirez has a 1.159 OPS – but only 52 plate appearances.

… so we won’t cry too long over the Dodgers’ sick bay.  Losing Kuo was one thing, losing Jeff Weaver was barely anything, but losing Padilla was a problematic thing, and then Ramirez and Rafael Furcal going out almost simultaneously was a big thing. No one expected either Ramirez or Furcal to play 162 games, but in a better Dodger world, they would have at least made it through April. Heck, Ramirez made it into May last year before he was unceremoniously sidelined by what turned up in the lab.

In any case, it’s fair to say that the Dodgers knew in advance they would need a bench this year – and it’s no secret that Colletti has always liked to have depth. But again, some choices that had nothing to do with the divorce have gone awry. For example, on December 16, Jamey Carroll (36 in February) signed with the Dodgers for nearly $4 million over two years. Two weeks later, Kelly Johnson (28 in February) signed a cheaper contract in overall value with Arizona: one year, $2.35 million. Carroll has a .383 on-base percentage but just one extra-base hit. Johnson was just named NL Player of the Month after going 25 for 80 with eight doubles and nine home runs – a .404 on-base percentage and .750 slugging percentage.

Brad Ausmus and Garret Anderson have been wasted signings, albeit relatively inexpensive ones. You’re never going to get ‘em all right, and you can certainly argue that so far, Ronnie Belliard has been worth the $825,000 he lost weight to earn from the Dodgers, while Reed Johnson has been what you’d expect him to be. But those are the few breaks the Dodgers have caught, in a first month that exposed another nagging worry sooner than they would have hoped.

Chapter the Fifth: Five months to go

Wednesday, Billingsley gave up four runs in the first inning – then pitched five shutout innings and could have come out battling for a win in the seventh inning had Carroll, well, been able to hit his first three-run homer in 2,574 career plate appearances. Yep, this is when you bring out the unseemly disclaimer: It’s still early.

I haven’t even wanted to mention that the 2009 Colorado Rockies started with an 11-16 record at this time last year, exactly where the Dodgers are today – and then lost 12 of their next 19 before bouncing back with a months-long hot streak that scared the pajamas off every NL rival going into the playoffs. When John Ely, who was something like the Dodgers’ No. 14 starter entering spring training, is the guy you’re counting on for the second week in a row to prevent a series sweep, it’s not auspicious. If Kuroda goes down at some point this year, the Dodgers could give their 91-loss 2005 a run for its worthless money. But yes, it’s still early.

Maybe with happier owners, the Dodgers sign Wolf. Mainly with different owners, the Dodgers splurge for Lackey. Maybe there’s a parallel universe where the Dodgers make the big trade for Lee or convince Halladay that the West Coast ain’t so bad. But the Dodger problems in 2010 have been much more than the loss of one veteran pitcher.

And that’s with some things that people expected to go wrong not doing so at all. Kuroda wasn’t done as a pitcher. Ramirez wasn’t done as a hitter. Broxton has not been scarred by Jimmy Rollins’ game-winning double in the 2009 NLCS. Andre Ethier hasn’t regressed – he’s an early contender for the Triple Crown. James Loney is showing signs of life.

For that matter, Juan Pierre, the supposedly reborn savior from 2009 who was sent to the White Sox for 2010, is batting .226, with seven walks and 15 steals in 19 attempts but no extra-base hits.

It’s still early – but whether it’s early enough for a turnaround or just early in a miserable year, I don’t know. Even for a team playing ball both on the field and in divorce court, so much can change between May and October. After all, look at what’s happened to the Dodgers between October and May.

Apr 09

Is indecision a problem in managing a team? I don’t know …


Kyle Terada/US Presswire
Joe Torre

As much as I might procrastinate, I never turn in work late. But when it comes to difficult decisions, sometimes I’ll take those past the expiration date — in other words, by the time I make the decision, it won’t matter what I’ve decided.

Simple example: There’s a sale on something I might want to buy, but by the time I decide to go for it, the sale is over. Or there’s a story I might want to write, but by the time I commit to requesting interviews, someone else has gotten there first.

I got to wondering how much major-league managers (or for that matter, general managers) share this trait. We talk a lot about in-game strategy when it comes to managing; I’ve still got a diatribe at the ready about Joe Torre’s use of Jonathan Broxton in Pittsburgh this week. But today I’m thinking out loud about how many wins might come from decisiveness, how many losses might result from the lack of it.

Should the Dodgers be more decisive by this point about whether James McDonald is a starting pitcher or a relief pitcher? Should they have been less decisive a few years back about turning Jonathan Broxton into a reliever instead of a starter?

If you’re unsure about a roster decision, do you just put it off? To paraphrase Branch Rickey, is it better to get rid of a player a month too soon than a month too late?

Blake DeWitt (a subject of discussion in this morning’s comments) –went back-and-forth between the majors and minors last year, is it time to commit to him staying in the majors in 2010?

I’m not attempting to answer these questions today. Perhaps some of these kinds of decisions should be made sooner, others later. It’s obviously important to make the right decision, but how important is when you make that decision? Is timing an underrated skill in management?

As a postscript, Roberto Baly of Vin Scully Is My Homeboy points to one decision Torre has been putting off — how long to stay with the Dodgers — and wonders if Torre has any inclination to flee the McCourt mess for the Mets mess.

* * *

Eri Yoshida, the 18-year-old female knuckleballer from Japan, is coming to California to pitch:

(Yoshida) signed with the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League. The team said she will report to spring training next month. …

Yoshida will be the first female to pitch for a pro team in the United States since Ila Borders retired more than 10 years ago, the team said. …

“We are really looking forward to having Eri as a member of the Chico Outlaws this season,” team president Mike Marshall said. …

Yes, that’s former Dodger outfielder Mike Marshall speaking.

The 5-foot, 114-pound Yoshida became Japan’s first female pro baseball player last year when she pitched for the Kobe Cruise 9 in the Kansai Independent League.

She was 0-2 in 11 appearances with a 4.03 ERA, giving up seven runs in 10 2-3 innings. …

The Outlaws open on the road on May 21 in Tijuana and return for their home opener on May 26th.

* * *

Josh Wilker of Cardboard Gods can be heard in an NPR interview Saturday.

Mar 11

Why Don Mattingly and not Tim Wallach?

Steve Dilbeck questions the Dodgers’ fascination with coach Don Mattingly over Albuquerque manager Tim Wallach at Dodgers Blog, and I can’t say I don’t share it — only I might frame as “Why Don Mattingly and no one else?”

The answer is that Mattingly would theoretically carry forward the success that Joe Torre has had, but should we really feel so certain that Mattingly, for better or worse, is Torre II?

Writes Dilbeck:

… Mattingly has never managed. Wallach, who led Albuquerque to the playoffs last season and was named the Pacific Coast League manager of the year, will return to the helm of the Isotopes this season.

Does any of this sound familiar? Echoes of Mike Scioscia, perhaps?

When Tommy Lasorda finally stepped down, the Dodgers named coach Bill Russell to succeed him in 1997. Scioscia was a bench coach. When Russell was ousted in the middle of the ’98 season, Glenn Hoffman was named manager. When Hoffman was fired at the end of the season, Davey Johnson took over.

Scioscia, who in 1999 managed at Albuquerque, was passed over one time too many, resigned and then went onto become one of baseball’s finest managers for the Angels. …

… Wallach also said he sees no problem with Mattingly’s inexperience as a manager.

“He’s a baseball guy,” Wallach said. “He’s been Torre’s bench coach. I mean, I can’t even imagine how much he’s learned being with Joe all these years. If that’s how it works, I got … he’s a baseball guy. I think he’ll be fantastic.

“I’m getting experience to someday hopefully manage (in the majors). I would love it to be here, but if it’s not here, I appreciate the opportunity. I love the Dodgers. I always come back to the Dodgers. But they’re giving me an opportunity and I’m very happy with the opportunity.”

* * *

Heralded Cuban import Aroldis Chapman is scheduled to pitch for the Reds against the Dodgers at Camelback Ranch on Friday.

Update: Brian Giles has retired. Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com has details.

Mar 03

Ronald Belisario trouble: Much ado about almost nothing

It bothers me that the Dodgers seem more upset about relief pitcher Ronald Belisario’s current visa problems than they were about his arrest for driving under the influence last summer.

I understand that with the DUI still awaiting adjudication, there’s a presumption of innocence for Belisario, who pleaded not guilty. So my point is not that the Dodgers should have immediately disciplined Belisario for the arrest.

Rather, it seems to me if you’re going to cut the guy some slack for something that serious, you should do the same for his visa issues.

Yeah, Belisario messed up with his paperwork – for the second year in a row.  It stinks. But it happened. Yet, even as manager Joe Torre tells Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com that the situation is now out of Belisario’s hands and at the mercy of the U.S. government, general manager Ned Colletti is still in a snit.

“While he is sitting in Venezuela, other people are here trying to make the club,” Colletti said. “Maybe one of them will take food off his table.”

Forgive me for thinking Colletti is sounding a little like Inspector Javert.

Meanwhile, all this talk about the Dodgers losing Belisario to waivers continues to be overblown, as I suggested a week ago. Jackson reports that the Dodgers can “suspend Belisario without pay and require him to stay behind in extended spring training.” So Belisario can be punished more than amply for his sins, without the Dodgers losing him forever.

Odds remain that Belisario won’t miss any more regular season time because of his visa problems in 2010 than he missed when he went on the disabled list in 2009 – for an injury that some would argue happened because of the Dodgers’ irresponsibility in their use of him. The Dodgers, as Colletti suggests, have plenty of candidates to replace Belisario in the short-term – it’s not as if his visa problems will make or break their season.

The attention to this issue, it seems to me, is the result of having not enough things to complain about. The McCourts aren’t a presence in Arizona right now, and the silly furor over Manny Ramirez last week has died down. It’s almost like people are having too good a time – so by all means, let’s make an example of Belisario.

And I know I’m asking too much, but I just wish the attention were centered on an issue that might actually mean something.

Feb 19

Logan White gave thumbs up to Eric Gagne signing

Dodger scouting guru Logan White told general manager Ned Colletti that he thought Eric Gagne would be “competitive” after watching Gagne throw this month, writes Ken Gurnick of MLB.com. Colletti added other thoughts about Gagne’s unlikely candidacy to make the Dodgers.

… Colletti said Gagne’s inclusion in the Mitchell Report was not a factor.

“He’s not the first player to sign a contract after being in the Mitchell Report and this also isn’t his first team since,” he said. …

Now, can Gagne go from Indy ball to make the cut for the Dodgers’ bullpen, one of the deepest in the league? Jonathan Broxton is the All-Star closer, former Orioles closer George Sherrill sets up, Ronald Belisario and Hong-Chih Kuo follow them with Ramon Troncoso now established in middle relief and Jeff Weaver the most likely swingman. That leaves maybe one spot up for grabs and about a dozen arms against which Gagne will compete. What are the chances?

“It’s too early to tell,” said Colletti. “But you don’t walk away from the opportunity to have somebody who has been really successful see where they’re at. It would be shortsighted if you don’t give people like that a chance. The bullpen is one of our stronger areas, but you have no idea what can happen over the next seven weeks, who gets hurt, who has lost it somewhere along the line. I’d rather have choices to make.”

* * *

Update: Russell Martin, “who focused on improving his flexibility last off-season, went back to his old strength-based training program this winter,” writes Dylan Hernandez of the Times.

Feb 17

Ned Colletti believes Randy Wolf ‘would have taken’ arbitration

Dodger general manager Ned Colletti was interviewed on Sirius XM radio’s “Power Alley” by Seth Everett and Jim Duquette (link via Vin Scully Is My Homeboy), and he gave this explanation of why the Dodgers didn’t offer Randy Wolf salary arbitration. I had heard this from sources off the record, but this was the first time I believe I’ve heard it on the record.

“The reason (we didn’t offer arbitration) was we thought he would take it,” Colletti said. “At $12-13 million a year, we weren’t prepared to do that. And you know what, the people I’ve talked to since, that are very close to him, say that ‘You know what, he would have taken it.’ And I wasn’t prepared to pay him $12-13 million for one year, nor was I prepared to pay him $8 or $9 million for three years.”

The last part of the comment refers to a scenario where Wolf would have leveraged the potential eight-figure annual salary into a multiyear contract that would have been cheaper annually but ultimately guaranteed him much more money.

I still believe that the Dodgers should have offered Wolf arbitration. I do feel that Wolf, who had 2 1/2 sub-par seasons in a row before turning things around in mid-2008, is poised to decline entering his age-34 season in 2010 – so despite how good he was for the Dodgers in 2009, if you’re convinced he was going to accept arbitration, there is a case that you can find better ways to spend money. Whether the Dodgers have done that or not is another matter.

Feb 09

In search of truth about Frank McCourt and the Dodgers


Frank McCourt has a lot on his mind.

Dodger fans might not believe. But Frank McCourt believes.

It’s not an act.  He’s not just saying the right thing to say the right thing.  Every so often, in fact, he says the wrong thing – something that raises more questions about him than answers – because his belief in his good intentions is so strong that he doesn’t always seem to realize when his words leave him open to second-guessing.

He wants the support of Dodger fans, in part because the support obviously will do him good, but also in part because he believes he’s earned it. He understands that fan dissatisfaction is part of the game any time you’re not celebrating a World Series title. He understands that he’s a target, though he doesn’t seem to accept all the reasons the red dot on his back has grown into the size of the flag of Japan. He even understands, though he’s not one to talk much about them, that he makes mistakes. But he believes he will be vindicated in the end, and he is not planning for that end to be this year, courtroom or not.

That’s my verdict after six years of observing McCourt since he (and, for most of those years, his wife Jamie) took over the Dodgers and, more to the point, after more than 60 minutes of a one-on-one interview with him Jan. 29, coincidentally the sixth anniversary of his news conference to discuss his purchase of the team.

Of course, what McCourt believes about himself ultimately isn’t relevant. What’s relevant is whether the Dodgers organization will thrive going forward. And I’m going to go this far: This team will live or die on its judgment – on the judgment of McCourt and the people he employs – rather than on McCourt’s finances. His bank account, despite what most people have concluded this offseason, is not destroying the team.

If the Dodgers falter, it will be because of insufficient intellect (or insufficient luck), not insufficient dollars.

The anti-arbitration defense
The pivotal moment of the 2009-10 Dodgers offseason was when the team didn’t offer salary arbitration to free agents Randy Wolf and Orlando Hudson. The twin decisions surrendered not only two players who made key contributions to the Dodgers’ 2009 playoff run – the team’s fourth in six years, McCourt would hasten to remind you – but also the potential for top draft picks that would come as compensation if the players signed elsewhere. The moves lit the flame of fan concern, whether you were more concerned with the short-term or long-term future. It seemed an unmistakable retreat.

Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire
The Dodgers are betting that letting Randy Wolf go won’t come back to haunt them.

Wolf is probably headed for a decline after having an unexpected career-best year at age 33, but it’s still hard to say that he wouldn’t have helped the 2010 Dodgers in some way – or that the draft picks that would have come in place of him wouldn’t have helped down the road. So why not offer him arbitration, unless you couldn’t afford to?

“I think that the downside wouldn’t have been horrible,” McCourt said, “because he’s a very good pitcher, and he pitched very well for us and he was a model citizen. From the area, really classy young man and so forth. But the judgment was made, and again, judgments are judgments. They’re not perfect. No one has a crystal ball.

“I, by the way, can see both sides of this debate, very, very clearly. To me this is one really good baseball debate, in terms of ‘Do you or don’t you.’ I think, like I was saying before, what would have happened (if we had offered arbitration), maybe Randy Wolf knows, but I don’t. And I don’t think the downside would have been bad for the organization, because he’s a good pitcher and a good guy, but I think that the judgment was made that we (could) do even better for the club.”

That decision will certainly be tested, as will the one with Hudson. The second baseman’s signing last week of a one-year, $5 million contract with Minnesota might have vindicated the Dodgers’ decision on him, since Hudson could potentially have earned twice that amount in salary arbitration, based on the typical raise awarded to an arbitration-eligible player who earned $8 million the year before.

The roughly $5 million the Dodgers saved can help make up for the lost draft picks had Hudson refused arbitration – after all, the chances of a low first-round pick earning back the team’s investment in him, plus $5 million, aren’t all that high – while the combination of Blake DeWitt, Jamey Carroll and Ronnie Belliard could come close to approximating Hudson’s 2010 value, while saving another $2.5 million or so.

But speaking before Hudson had inked the deal, McCourt argued that too much about the Dodgers’ commitment to their future, whether the 2010 team or the 2013 team, was being inferred from the Hudson decision, no matter what kind of contract he was going to sign.

“I think anybody can pick one or two examples and jump to a conclusion,” McCourt said. “Their opinion is valid – I respect their opinion – but it doesn’t mean that their conclusion is right. There are 101 decisions that get made and judgments that get made every day.”

McCourt would argue that the Dodgers weren’t afraid to offer Hudson arbitration because they didn’t have the money, and it wasn’t that they didn’t care about the draft picks.

“I think it’s really important that the club invest in the long term,” McCourt said. “There’s no question about that.”

But do the actions of the McCourt Dodgers back up his words?

Developments in development
McCourt feels his regime isn’t given enough credit for its investment on the player development front, whether for scouting or for Camelback Ranch, the team’s year-old spring training facility in Arizona. In addition to being a boon for those fans who couldn’t make the journey to venerable Vero Beach (albeit a disappointment to those who could), Camelback has boosted the organization’s development efforts.

Morry Gash/AP
Opening Day at Camelback Ranch, March 1, 2009

“That went from vision to reality in like 15 months,” McCourt said, “literally from a napkin to the reality. It was tumbleweeds, flatland and nothing, and now it’s considered the single-finest spring training facility in all of baseball. We broke the Cactus League record for attendance in our first year. We’re gonna kill it this year because a lot of people didn’t even realize it was there … and we have what is the state-of-the-art development operation there for this organization. So it’s really as much [about] our farm system as it is about spring training.

“So that is an example I think of two things. One is execution on vision and finding a way to do that, but two, it’s also a way of being resourceful – taking a little bit of heat by the way, [because] there’s a lot of people who said ‘Don’t move from Vero,’ and I respected their viewpoint, but it turned out to be the right decision, and the organization is much better off in terms of our development, our ability to meet our goal to have the finest development system in the game by having Camelback Ranch. To me that’s much more tangible evidence of our commitment to [development] than not offering Randy Wolf arbitration.”

It’s too difficult to say whether McCourt is right about this, because it’s too difficult to measure the importance of what he’s extolling. Will Camelback Ranch turn borderline major-leaguers into legitimate ones? If it’s true, then the McCourt Dodgers have hit a home run in development, no matter how many Dodgers fans realize it.

But how would anyone know? After all, this is a team that already has a 17th-round draft pick from hockey country, Russell Martin, and a sixth-round pick who specialized in basketball, Matt Kemp, who have each won a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove in the same year. Both were drafted before the McCourts bought the team and developed long before Camelback was even imagined. Cinderella stories are part of the game. Teams have always depended on those.

So even if the Dodgers have made a step forward in development, the pressure remains to have the best possible draft scenario and to retain the right prospects to sustain the team over the long haul.

McCourt certainly claims to believe in this.

“Just thinking back over the last six years,” he said, “I think that the pressure on the organization has probably been greatest in terms of moving young talent for the quick short-term fix, and I think for the most part we’ve resisted doing that, and it’s paid off in a huge way. The consistency, the success we have on the field is I think directly related to committing to finding and cultivating that young talent, and being patient with that.”

Santana Mas
If there was a moment that really seemed to call into question the Dodgers’ ability to commit to prospects, it was when the team traded Carlos Santana and Jonathan Meloan in mid-2008 for a three-month test run of Casey Blake. (Blake re-signed with the Dodgers as a free agent after the 2008 season.) It was widely reported, to the point that almost no doubt remained, that the Dodgers included Santana, a catcher who was having an explosive year in A ball, so that they wouldn’t have to pay approximately $2 million in Blake’s remaining ’08 salary.

McCourt said in the interview that he had “no idea” about that aspect of the trade, that this was general manager Ned Colletti’s territory. This is an example of the plausible deniability McCourt periodically exercises that seems not quite so plausible, given the level of detail with which he’ll talk about other aspects of the Dodgers. Subsequent to the interview, neither Colletti nor anyone else with the Dodgers would comment about this on the record.

However, a source within the Dodgers organization insisted that the following was true: The Indians were not going to trade Blake to the Dodgers unless they got Santana in the deal. His inclusion had nothing to do with money.

If you know my policy on anonymous sources, you know that I always say you should take them with a grain of salt. So please do. But also realize that the original report was never confirmed on the record, either.

In any case, there’s still a baseball debate to be had on the trade, even if Santana was the centerpiece for the Indians rather than a money-saving throw-in. Was Blake worth the price of a red-hot catching prospect? Blake had immediate value but was aging. Santana had all the promise in the world, though he was a 22-year-old in A ball who might end up moving out from behind the plate defensively.

Even if the original reports about the trade were true and the Dodgers did it to save $2 million, it’s not like they haven’t spent that $2 million and more elsewhere since then, and rather recklessly at times to boot (Guillermo Mota fits this bill rather perfectly).  On the other hand, if my source is correct and the Dodgers simply believed Santana and Meloan for Blake was a smart move, was the team right to do it?  It was debatable then, is debatable now even after Blake’s presence on two division-winning Dodger teams, and will continue to be debatable for some time to come.

Focusing on the $2 million distracts from the real issue, which is how well the Dodgers evaluate players and needs, whether it’s Santana for Blake, Andy LaRoche for Manny Ramirez, Tony Abreu for Jon Garland, and so on.

“The Santana trade is an example of … the pressure to trade players in course of season,” McCourt said. “You give up real value for that. Sometimes you’re able to — sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes what you give up is less than what you thought it was, sometimes it’s more than what you thought it was. There’s always pulls and tugs on this.”

That war-o’-tug also applies to what the Dodgers are willing to pay players, whether they’re drafted as amateurs or signed as free agents.

Playing the slots
Just six months ago, at a time when we now know the McCourts’ marital strife was putting them and the organization on a path toward its current courtroom turmoil, the Dodgers did something very unusual for them. They exceeded major-league baseball’s guidelines on what they should offer second-round draft choice Garrett Gould, giving him more than $300,000 more than someone in his draft slot was supposed to get.

It was ammunition for both sides of the McCourt debate – for those who point out that he’ll sign the check when necessary, as well as those who wonder why such a gesture is so rare for the Dodgers. For his part, McCourt says he doesn’t plan to make a habit of going over slot.

“My personal opinion is that in the amateur draft, we do extremely well at living within the system that’s in place,” McCourt said. “We’re one of 30 teams. And even though we’re a big-market team, and we could step out and go on our own way and blow through the sort of recommended slotting for each of these, and just go ahead and turn our back on the other 29 clubs and go ahead and pay anything for anybody, I think it’s the wrong thing to do philosophically. We’re one of 30 clubs. We should play by an overall understanding that the draft is designed for a reason. It was designed to give teams that didn’t do as well the opportunity to sign the best players, if they were smart enough to identify those players, for a certain amount of money.

“You talk to baseball, they think the Dodgers are fantastic. We sign our players, and we generally sign our players within the recommended amount. Now nobody can make us not pay more, but I do believe in the fact that we’re part of a league, that the league designed the draft to achieve a certain objective, and I don’t believe the Dodgers should be the team that turns that whole system upside down.”

The Dodgers do sign most of their most coveted draft picks; they got their top 10 in 2009 and their top nine in 2008. But in each of the four years prior to that, the Dodgers drafted but failed to sign a pitcher who was coveted at the time: David Price (4.17 ERA/108 ERA+ through age 24 with Tampa Bay), Luke Hochevar (5.88 ERA/75ERA+ through age 26 with Kansas City), Alex White (first-round pick by Cleveland in 2009 after passing up the Dodgers and going to North Carolina, 21 years old) and Kyle Blair (now entering his junior year at the University of San Diego, after posting a 3.13 ERA in an injury-shortened sophomore season).

At least one is likely to make the Dodgers feel regret (though Price publicly emphasized that he wanted to go to Vanderbilt), while another is more like a bullet dodged (the failure to sign the disappointing Hochevar created a domino effect that enabled the Dodgers to draft — and sign — Clayton Kershaw). There are times the Dodgers should go over slot, and there are times they shouldn’t. If you grant that the Gould example shows the Dodgers are capable of doing so under McCourt, it’s again easier to believe that their success in finding and developing amateur talent will be driven by their baseball acumen, not their bank account – not completely, anyway.

And even McCourt admits that there has been places of weakness in amateur signings under the current ownership.

“We have to do better in the international arena,” he said. “That’s to me as much of a function of our ability to actually identify the talent that we want to sign.  I think we need to spend more money singing international players and young talent from around the world that we can bring here. Find me the talent, and we’ll sign it. But you’ve got to find the talent. We need to do a better job, and Ned is doing that now. He is now focused on expanding our scouting and the quality of our scouting and the quality of our identifying these types of players.”

Still, one might still wonder about McCourt’s altruistic posture regarding going over slot in the draft. For all that 30 Musketeers talk, baseball is a cutthroat sport – and certainly, no one’s laying their overcoat over a mud puddle in the major-league free agent market. So why hold back?

“Because we’re one of 30 teams,” McCourt reiterated, “and just like everything else in life, you can’t take the amateur draft and pull it out of the context of all the other discussions that you have with the other owners about what’s good for the game. The Dodgers can’t say, ‘Oh yeah, we want your support on this issue, whatever it is, to the other owners, that we think this would be good for the game if we could all agree on Issue X.’ And then on Issue Y, they say, ‘What we think would be good for the game would be for the big market teams to sort of live up to the spirit – and the letter, by the way – of what was agreed upon in terms of the draft and what the purpose of the draft is,’ and the Dodgers say, ‘On that, we don’t want to agree.’ You can’t just agree on what’s good for you and not agree on what’s not, if you expect any type of collaboration in the sport.

“We certainly have the flexibility of making exceptions, and I want to keep that flexibility, but I think as a rule, I want to be credible in the eyes of everybody. It’s obviously about winning and the fans – that’s Job No. 1 – but I also want to be credible overall, because there are things that the Dodgers need and want from time to time, that are good for the Dodgers and our competitive situation, that I want people’s support on. And you know how it works in life.  It’s hard to get support if you haven’t been supportive when it matters to other people.”

That last quote raises larger questions. What do the Dodgers want “support” on? In response to a follow-up, McCourt said he had nothing specific in mind, though one surmises it could mean things like the share of revenue a big-market team like the Dodgers gets from MLB.com, or what percentage the Dodgers give up in revenue sharing. (For an example of this kind of rationale from up north, consider San Jose Mercury News writer Andrew Baggarly’s recent blog post theorizing a connection between the Giants’ negotiations with Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum and the team’s effort to keep the Oakland A’s from encroaching on their territory in nearby San Jose.)

If the Dodgers were to preserve an extra 1% in revenue in some major area, that might have a lot more positive impact on the franchise’s long-term health than David Price could. I can’t tell you how real this is, but I will say it’s something I hadn’t considered.

Budget barriers
Of course, some fans reading the articles over the past six months about the McCourts’ personal spending would just say that the extra 1% would just be going to fund someone’s first-class vacation. The issue of whether the Dodgers are spending enough of their revenue on the current major-league payroll is a thorny one.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
The McCourt ownership committed major millions to Manny Ramirez less than one year ago.

We know that spending the most doesn’t guarantee a World Series championship – even the Yankees just went nine years between World Series titles, and just look at the Mets and Cubs. But assuming you’re not just throwing money away, spending can increase your odds for a title. And so it’s legitimate to wonder whether the Dodgers are doing all they can.

“Generally speaking, we do spend at that level just below the Yankees and the Red Sox,” McCourt said. “I think our focus has to be on generating additional revenues so that we can spend and compete regularly. I’m not saying we’re going to get to the Yankees’ level, but I’d certainly like to close the gap.”

Contrary to popular perception, the Dodger payroll is not really down compared to a year ago, though it has been higher in the past. The Dodgers’ 2010 major-league payroll appears to rest just below $100 million at this moment, a figure not only far below the Yankees but also one that would barely have placed the team in the top 10 in baseball in 2009 (source: Cot’s Baseball Contracts). It’s almost exactly where it was at the start of the 2009 season. The big drop is in comparison to 2008, when it was approximately $118 million, but it is already about $15 million higher than it was in 2005. So there has been some reduction from the peak, but it hasn’t bottomed out. And the Dodgers’ payroll will increase later this year, if not from a midseason acquisition, then at least from paying out incentives they have already offered some current players (though the same could be said of many franchises).

Nevertheless, for some fans, the calculation is simple: A team in the No. 2 U.S. market that leads the National League in attendance should lead the NL in money spent. McCourt believes, not incorrectly, that this is an oversimplification, because revenue depends on many factors: not just attendance but ticket price, plus such other elements as the size of your local TV revenue (an area that the Dodgers, under their current contract, lag teams like the Mets).

“The Dodgers have had and continue to have very modest ticket prices,” McCourt said, “and if you look at where we stand in our ticket prices vs. where we stand in terms of our payroll, you’ll see there’s a pretty good symmetry there.”

With a typical Dodgers bleacher seat costing more today than a box seat in the O’Malley era, one could be excused for taking exception to the idea that Dodgers ticket prices today remain “modest.” Inflation is natural, and the cost of the cheapest Dodgers tickets can still be lower than the cost of a movie, but that doesn’t mean the Dodgers aren’t raking in some big bucks from admissions, and certainly parking and concession rates are anything but affable. While the Dodgers’ average ticket price (not including premium seats) was lower than that of the Cubs, Mets, Phillies and even Nationals in 2009, according to Team Marketing Report (pointed out to me by Maury Brown of The Biz of Baseball), the capacity of Dodger Stadium was more than 10,000 seats higher than any of their ballparks.

But it’s true that the Dodgers probably aren’t leading the league in ticket revenue, that other major-market teams also charge through the roof for food and souvenirs (TMR had the Dodgers’ sixth in their overall Fan Cost Index, with a dollar value unchanged from the year before), and that the Dodgers definitely aren’t tops in TV income. And so one might be able to prove that the Dodgers should be spending more for what they’re bringing in, but not necessarily very much more – especially if one factors in the amount of money deferred to future years to help pay for the team’s commitments to its 2010 roster. (Basically, payroll is higher than appears in your rear-view mirror.)

McCourt acknowledged even if his claims are correct, he can’t win a debate with the fans about whether the Dodgers are spending enough, and so his focus remains on further increasing the team’s revenue.

“It’s just what it is,” he said. “We have do to a better job of creating those connections (between revenue and spending) for our fans, so that they understand that investment in the team and where the money goes, or if there’s resistance there, do a better job of finding other streams of revenue to be able to supplement that.

“We’re very committed to Dodger Stadium. We’re committed to actually doing more at Dodger Stadium, (but) there’s no help out here whatsoever in terms of investment in a stadium. It’s all done by the owner’s checkbook. And it’s not like getting the city of New York or the state of New York to build a new stadium, or one of these other cities or whatever. So it all factors in and it’s just what it is. These are just facts. It’s not like we can’t figure out ways to be resourceful and be very successful with the facts as they are. And I think we have been. And that’s why I think we’ve laid the foundation to achieve the goals I set out when I came here, the first of which is sustainable excellence — a team worthy of the fans’ support that can compete in October on an annual basis – and that’s our goal, to be able to play every October. And then once we do that, we’ll be able to start winning in October our fair share of the time, or maybe more than our fair share.

“We can generate the revenue to be able to compete on an annual basis, and to do it without having a dysfunctional business. We’re not really doing it to make money. You don’t do it for that reason. If you do that, you’d be in a different business.”

On the precipice
In seemingly every interview he gives, McCourt points out the Dodgers’ triumphs since his name was put on the team: the four playoff appearances in six years, plus the first two NLCS appearances for the Dodgers in two decades. McCourt hasn’t reconciled himself to the fact that those accomplishments mean little to fans who believe a turning point in the franchise’s future came when divorce papers were filed. The past is not enough for everyone to keep the faith.

As I’ve pointed out before, there’s a very good chance that he’ll be a victim of his own success (however much of that success is his). Though McCourt would be the first to say that the Dodgers still need to achieve the ultimate goal of a World Series title, the reality is that they’ve much more room to descend than ascend, and that particularly this year, he’ll be a lightning rod for any downturn.

However much one buys what McCourt is selling, the Dodgers haven’t faced any real adversity in 2010 – yet.  What will he do if things go wrong? Will the Dodgers be toast? Would he sacrifice a year of contention to rebuild the team, or would he spend to get the team back on the beam?

“First of all, I’m never going to be thrilled about overpaying for a free agent,” McCourt said. “I think it’s not a smart thing to do organizationally, and we haven’t made 100% great decisions on some of those signings. It wasn’t like we didn’t have good intentions, and it wasn’t like we didn’t think when we signed the player (that) they were going to help the team.

“Having said that, I’ve been as clear as I’m capable of being that … we’re the Los Angeles Dodgers; we don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘OK, we’re not going to win this year — we’re going to wait until next year.’ We’ve made a statement to our fans that our goal is to compete each and every year. So that means that there might be times, in order to fulfill that promise to the fans, that we step away from our philosophy and our core, and we do it not because we’re ignoring or turning our back on our core philosophy, but we’re fulfilling our promise to the fans and we’re improvising. And under that hypothetical, if you have to improvise to continue to win, you improvise.

“To me, what I wouldn’t do is do something that was rash and short-term and give up a bunch of young talent which would have impact for years to come, in order to do something in the short term. But the one thing about signing a free agent that is beneficial is, it’s just money. It’s just money. And if you’ve signed the right player, that can help you then and there, and you can keep your prospects intact, it can be a very, very smart thing to do.”

Perhaps the most fascinating thing to me about McCourt is his insistence that fans understand the big picture of what he’s trying to do, because wherever I go — inside the world of Dodger Thoughts or outside it – I see little else but concern over the impact that the divorce between McCourt and his wife, Jamie, will have on the team.

“People know we care about them,” McCourt said. “I agree, we have to do better, but where I would respectfully disagree is that on the whole, fans I think do see the trajectory, do see the direction.

“And I know during the last quarter of last year, maybe, people were filling in the blanks, because I purposely wasn’t talking. And I felt No. 1 … and I’m steadfast in all this, that it was inappropriate to talk about my personal situation. It was a private family matter, and I’m not going to talk about it.

“As far as the team however, which I started to talk about after the holidays, I just felt that a period of time had to go by. I needed it myself. I just felt it would have been very inappropriate to act like nothing had changed in my life – because something had fundamentally changed in my life. And I think I just needed to take a step back and reflect on that. I wanted to respect my kids; I wanted everyone to know that I’m not without feelings. It’s a very sad, difficult thing.

“And I tried to add the only issue that I feel is relevant, and that’s the issue of ownership and the fact that I have a binding agreement that is crystal clear on that point – unfortunately a matter of public record now, never intended to be — but anybody can go read it. And so it’s business as usual. We’re just going to go ahead and try to win a world championship. …

“We can disagree whether people are excited. … That’s fair game. And the good part is, we’re going to see how we do this year. We’re going to see how fans respond. But I think from my perspective, I need to be focused more on trajectory. I can’t be focused on the daily “What does this mean? What does this mean?” We have a longer-term plan and longer-term direction, and we’ve got to stay the course and be relentless in putting it into place.

“I personally think Ned’s just hitting  his stride. I think he’s got solid talent; I think he has a real sense of where we’re going and where we want to go. And we do have to be clear on the next five years, in terms how we’re going to close some of these gaps, how we’re going to grow.”

Maybe it will turn out that the money really is the issue for the McCourt ownership, whether it’s because Frank was dead wrong about what his resources are or dead wrong about the strength of his post-nuptial agreement with Jamie.

But the evidence is more compelling that the Dodgers largely spend when they want to, that their relatively quiet offseason mostly reflected a lack of exciting options in the free-agent market, that their bargain-hunting is a strategy to avoid wasting money rather than a recourse to avoid spending money they don’t have. That’s why the fate of the Dodgers isn’t tied up in the possibility of McCourt going broke, but rather in the management’s ability to make solid baseball decisions.

One hundred million dollars is enough to buy a World Series title, if you know what you’re doing. The question is the same as it ever was: Do the Dodgers know what they’re doing? Frank McCourt believes they do. We’ll see if he’s right.

Feb 06

Time to stop believin’ in ‘Don’t Stop Believin” at Dodger Stadium

The betting here is that the playing of “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the middle of the eighth inning at Dodger Stadium will disappear, now that former Dodger exec Dr. Charles Steinberg is no longer around to champion it. Maybe it would have disappeared even if Steinberg had stayed. It wasn’t getting any fresher over time. (Sorry, Eric.)

If the Dodgers decide to replace the Journey anthem with another song, what would you like it to be?

My default answer on questions like these is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to (Score a Game-Winning) Run” or Sam Cooke’s “Shake,” but I don’t think too hard about such things.  I’m really quite satisfied with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the seventh.  But I am interested in your ideas …

* * *

Great find by the Sons of Steve Garvey: It’s their dad in the make-you-squirm early’-80s television series, Masquerade.

* * *

James McDonald wants to be in the Dodger starting rotation – for real, writes Ken Gurnick at MLB.com.

“I want to be a starter,” McDonald said. “Last year, I didn’t even know. This year I’m coming in with a different mindset, and starting is all I’m thinking about.” …

McDonald said he grew up as a pitcher with a stint this winter in the Dominican Republic.

“It was a great learning process,” he said. “You’re facing a lot of older Latin guys down there and they know how to hit so you have to learn how to pitch. I came out of it a way better pitcher.” …

* * *

Dan Evans gets due praise from at Dodgers Blog from Steve Dilbeck, who chats with him.

Evans was hired as the Dodgers’ general manager in 2001 at a time the team seemed mired in mediocrity and the farm system had lost its way.

Most publications ranked the team’s minor league system near the absolute bottom in baseball, but in three short years it was ranked in the top 10.

Evans rebuilt the front office and brought in good people like Kim Ng, vice president and assistant general manager, and Logan White, assistant general manager of scouting. And then they went to work.

They drafted Matt Kemp, James Loney, Russell Martin, Chad Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton, players the team is now built around, as well as Jason Repko and James McDonald.

“I’m really proud of the fact that these guys panned out,” Evans said. “I was really lucky. I had a terrific staff. I feel good about what we did there.”

* * *

Phillies Nation took a look at the Dodgers using Wins Above Replacement.