Dodgers Offseason Grade Thus Far: D

November 18, 2008

Because baseball lacks an NBA-style salary cap, there is a true "haves versus have-nots" disparity in the sport. For every spend-whatever-it-takes New York City franchise, there are several dull, small market, expansion-esque franchises operating on a shoestring budget and a “moneyball” philosophy. Somewhere in the middle is the anomaly known as the Frank McCourt era Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers operate in the nation’s second biggest media market. Every year, win or lose, the franchise meets the attendance gold standard of 3 million fans. Despite this prosperous financial potential, the team still operates under a small market mentality.

Not too long ago, incompetent “moneyball” disciple Paul Depodesta was hired to run the franchise on the cheap. What resulted was a low cost, essentially minor-league lineup containing the likes of such legends as Hee-Seop Choi.

When common sense prevailed, Ned Colleti was hired, and the Dodgers did see an increase in their spending. However, that increase has not been commensurate with what an income-generating, Los Angeles-based team should be spending on personnel.

For Dodgers fans, this offseason will bring them some peace of mind in a sense. At a minimum, they will finally know whether their organization is a serious, top-of-the-line franchise that competes for championships each year, as in the O’Malley days, or whether they are merely rooting for just another team in the pack, capable of an occasional playoff run here or there, but not much more. They will learn their answer by watching the Manny Ramirez sweepstakes.

Prior to trading for Manny, the Dodgers were struggling with the mediocre Diamondbacks to win one of baseball’s weakest divisions. Injuries mounted, and Colleti tried to bolster the club by trading for Casey Blake. That trade helped the club, but still left them struggling. Soon after, the Dodgers acquired Ramirez, and a different effect was witnessed from their trade. The club was transformed.

Ramirez’s hitting display was comparable to Barry Bonds during his 73-homer year, only Manny was more clutch. For Dodgers observers, such productivity had not been seen since Pedro Guerrero’s explosive 14-homer month in the 80’s. The Piazza’s, Sheffield’s, and Strawberry’s never produced in such a manner.

More important, Manny made the other players in the lineup better, as team batting average increased. The Dodgers, despite losing closer Takashi Saito and starter Brad Penny to injury, likely were baseball’s second-best team down the stretch behind the champion Phillies.

As the season would down, Dodger management repeatedly was asked about Manny’s contract. The club only gave evasive and non-responsive answers.

When negotiations opened, the team deliberately offered Manny a contract below his fair market value, absurdly guaranteeing him only two years, with an added club option for a third year. Then, in an attempt to appease fans, and provide them with the illusion that they had really “tried” to land Manny, they went public with the monetary terms only, deliberately omitting any mention of the years offered on the contract.

Observers had seen this type of conduct from McCourt before. Back when free agent Adrian Beltre was courting offers, the Dodgers first gave an 8 million dollar deal to Giant slugger and clubhouse grouch, Jeff Kent. The prioritizing of Kent was a slap in the face of Beltre. That insult was compounded later by the Dodgers offering Beltre a below market deal. Safe to say they did not get a second chance to re-up their offer.

History now appears to be repeating itself. By deliberately offering a lowball deal, and then not increasing that deal during their exclusivity period, the Dodgers have given Manny zero indication of being wanted. Should Ramirez be offered a fair market deal from a legitimate contender he most likely would accept it, without giving LA a chance to counteroffer.

In order to understand the reasons behind the Dodgers' conduct, three questions must be asked:

1. Why would the Dodgers not sign such a productive player? Too much salary?

The lineup the Dodgers put on the field during the NLCS was perhaps the best bargain in the history of modern baseball. Youngsters James Loney, Jonathan Broxton, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Blake DeWitt, and Russell Martin, all earned below the major league average due to their limited years in the bigs. Vets Ramirez and Blake cost the Dodgers nothing salary-wise, since their former clubs continued to pay for them. In Ramirez’s case, the windfall was more extensive, as the club reaped the benefits of increased ticket and merchandise sales.

Fast forward now to the offseason. The salaries of Kent, pitcher Derek Lowe, infielder Nomar Garciaparra, and shortstop Rafael Furcal, all will be taken off the books due to their status as free agents. Brad Penny’s salary of 9 million is gone as well, after a 2 million buyout.

Only a few pricey contracts remain on the payroll – those of Juan Pierre, Jason Schmidt, and Andruw Jones. And Jones’ contract will run out at the end of 2009.

From a financial standpoint, the Dodgers' reliable attendance and payroll flexibility, permits the team to seal the deal with Manny. Money should be no excuse.

2. Do the Dodgers fear a physical decline in Manny?

This past year Manny showed no signs of slowing. The one potential liability, his defense, also never surfaced as a problem. This guy should be able to produce MVP-like numbers for 2-3 years.

Granted, in a four or five year deal, he would be in his forties. His production likely will slip, and at that point, he will be less of a bargain. But, if he brings the Dodgers a title in the interim, it will be a wise investment.

Still, the franchise has quietly put forth the notion that money set aside for Manny could be better spent on a dominant starting pitcher, namely C.C. Sabathia.

One problem with that idea is that Sabathia already has been offered a large, multiyear deal that will be more costly, cumulatively at least, than a 5-year Ramirez contract. If the Dodgers are truly sincere in their belief that pitching is the key, then they will compete aggressively for Sabathia’s services. If they were only trying to divert attention from the Manny negotiations, then they will let him slip away too.

The other more obvious problem is that Sabathia may not be the answer. It is important to remember that the Dodgers pitching staff was among the best in baseball last year. Their success made no difference until Manny brought some much-needed pop to the lineup. More important, Sabathia played poorly in the playoffs.

With the exodus of slugger Matt Holiday from the Rockies, and the possible departures of long-time foes Jake Peavy and Trevor Hoffman from San Diego, the West again is ripe for the taking. If a championship is truly the goal in 2009, then Manny must be resigned.

3. Are the Dodgers reluctant to sign Manny because they are greedy?

McCourt knows he will draw 3 million fans no matter what. Technically, he can let Manny go, exploit the loyalty of the fan base, and still collect his money. He could choose to treat fans like mindless drones and laugh all the way to the bank.

However, McCourt has stated that he wants a winner in Los Angeles. He does not want merely an entertaining product, but a title contender. By making such claims, he has put himself on the line. In this world, you get what you pay for. If he wants to win he must pay for it, even if it means financial risk.

If the Dodgers offer proper money and years, and Manny still chooses to sign elsewhere, then the fans cannot complain for such good faith efforts. Manny simply had a different preference.

But it is a wholly different matter when a team in the second largest market gets outbid.

Manny already should be signed, but there is still time. Dodger fans will know soon whether McCourt's talk is cheap.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for

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