The Los Angeles Dodgers are trying to take over the world.
It’s an entirely sensible ambition, given a recent franchise sale value ($2.15 billion) comparable to the gross domestic product of Aruba.
The Dodgers have mustered resources for several months, plopping down a cool $250 million on a single August afternoon to acquire four players from the Boston Red Sox. Big names have arrived at such a frenetic pace — Hanley Ramirez here, Adrian Gonzalez there — that some observers are wondering if the Dodgers have a rationale for all the glitzy moves.
The Dodgers’ player payroll obligations stand at roughly $200 million for the 2013 season — second only to the New York Yankees, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Set aside the last miserly years of the McCourt regime, and that sounds about right: New York is the nation’s largest city, followed by Los Angeles. The flagship teams in each market should spend accordingly. Hardly baseball’s nouveau riche, the Dodgers are sudden arrivals to the economic stratosphere where they should have resided all along.
Plus, the Guggenheim Partners ownership group is about to expand its revenues through new television agreements — including what is expected to be a record-setting local rights deal.
The Dodgers’ international strategy has been a less-publicized aspect of their transformation since Mark Walter (and Magic Johnson, among other partners) formally took control of the club May 1. Look carefully, though, and there’s a global subtext to some of the team’s most important moves in recent months.
Outfield prospect Yasiel Puig, a Cuban defector, signed a seven-year, $42 million contract in June. Two months later the Dodgers traded for Gonzalez, a Mexican-American star who spent his childhood between San Diego and Tijuana. Gonzalez arrived in the midst of an effort to strengthen the franchise’s brand in Mexico and among Mexican-Americans, three decades after the Fernando Valenzuela phenomenon.
Earlier this month, the Dodgers hired the universally respected Bob Engle as their new vice president of international scouting. Engle, a trusted confidante of Hall of Fame general manager Pat Gillick, supervised the signing of Venezuelan ace Felix Hernandez for the Seattle Mariners, among other triumphs. With Engle in place, the Dodgers plan to blanket the map with scouting hires in Asia, Latin America and even Europe — a crucial step, now that spending caps on amateur talent in the new collective bargaining agreement have placed an even higher premium on expert talent evaluators.
Most recently, the Dodgers learned over the weekend that they had submitted the winning bid — $25.7 million — for the negotiating rights to Korean left-hander Ryu Hyun-Jin. The Dodgers have until Dec. 9 to sign the 25-year-old starter, under a posting agreement with the Hanwha Eagles of the Korea Baseball Organization.
Taken together, the investments are a dramatic and welcome shift, after the divorce of former owners Frank and Jamie McCourt drove the proud franchise into bankruptcy and forced general manager Ned Colletti to work with a cut-rate budget.
“Through all our challenges internationally in the last few years, we did maintain a good group that continued to scout and continued to be prepared in the event that we had the wherewithal to get involved,” Colletti told FOXSports.com in a Sunday telephone interview. “This is very rewarding for the people who stayed with this through the tough times, when they felt deep down that we didn’t have chances to sign players.
“When Stan (Kasten) came aboard as president and CEO, in our first conversations with Stan and Mark Walter, we told them one area we really needed to accent immediately was international operations. We couldn’t wait another year to get involved there. They said, ‘We hear you. We understand it. Let’s move forward.’”
In a very real way, the effort marked a return to the Dodgers’ multicultural identity. This, after all, is the organization with which Jackie Robinson integrated the sport in 1947. Decades later, Valenzuela, Chan Ho Park (South Korea) and Hideo Nomo (Japan) became international sensations while pitching for the Dodgers. The organization was one of the first to recognize the abundance of talent in the Dominican Republic — where Dodgers scouts signed a slender teenager named Pedro Martinez in 1988.
“It’s been in this organization’s DNA from the beginning,” Colletti said.
When the Dodgers were out of the pennant race at the 2011 trade deadline and looking to trade veterans for prospects, Colletti was struck by how many coveted minor leaguers came from outside the U.S. This year, 28.4 percent of all players on Opening Day rosters were foreign-born, according to research by Major League Baseball. “It confirms what we all know by watching the game: The international scope is huge,” Colletti said. “To improve the major-league club, to get the development system the way we wanted it, it was paramount to get involved.”
Ryu could offer the Dodgers an immediate return, assuming the sides are able to reach an agreement with the left-hander’s agent, Scott Boras, before the 30-day window closes. Ryu, who excelled for South Korea in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, is considered an option to pitch in the Dodgers’ big-league rotation right away. “Because of the limitations on international amateur signings and the draft, this (market for international professionals) is the only way a club can flex its muscle other than major-league free agency,” Boras said. “Getting a major-league-ready left-hander who throws 92 to 95 mph is a rare find in this marketplace. I give the Dodgers credit.”
Judging by the way the Dodgers have operated since Walter assumed control, it will be a shock if Ryu is their lone significant acquisition this offseason. “The Dodgers are acting like the Dodgers of old,” said Joe Longo, a player agent with Paragon Sports. “They are targeting their needs and going after them full throttle. This is what L.A. fans have been dreaming about, to be in the center of the baseball universe again. The (new owners) are doing exactly what they promised they’d do.”
As such, the Dodgers have been linked to many significant free agents, including some — like outfielder Torii Hunter — who wouldn’t have a clear everyday role given the current roster construction. But that, as they say, is the allure of Hollywood.
“This is Los Angeles,” Boras said. “This is where the media creates stars. This is where perceptions of greatness and star formation begin. The entire world comes to L.A. to learn how to create and distribute visions of people so that you can tell a story.
“I think with the advent of the Pacific Rim being much more developed and westernized, the Dodgers’ brand will be very powerful and again be known — even at higher levels — as an international brand, much along the lines of the Yankees in the late 1990s.”
Those Yankees, as you may recall, won the World Series four times in five years.