Shame we can't see Dodgers' true potential

BY Ken Rosenthal • March 19, 2010

Defenders of Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt — the few that exist — point to the team’s two straight appearances in the National League Championship Series.

They talk about how McCourt upgraded Dodger Stadium, opened a new spring training facility in Glendale, Ariz., spent on players such as left fielder Manny Ramirez and a high-priced manager, Joe Torre.

Not good enough.

The Dodgers should have capitalized upon their revenues, traded for an ace at one of the last two non-waiver deadlines and reached the World Series by now.

They should be dominating the NL West, a division in which no other team approaches their financial might. Instead, they’re fretting over their starting rotation, which lacks an ace at the top and depth at the bottom.

McCourt’s finances were in question even before his personal life sparked the creation of He says the Dodgers are not affected by his messy split from his wife, Jamie, but would be better off admitting the obvious.

At least then he could explain this embarrassment.

The Dodgers’ payroll will be lower than the Minnesota Twins’. It will not be that much higher than the Tampa Bay Rays’. And it will be about half the Boston Red Sox’s, not including deferred compensation.

Imagine if the Dodgers operated like an actual high-revenue team, one that led the majors with a home attendance of 3.7 million last season.

Imagine if their payroll was $150 million instead of approximately $85 million for the players on their roster — and approximately $100 million including deferrals, according to major-league sources.

A high payroll is no guarantee of success, but the Rockies, Giants and the rest of the NL West should be grateful that McCourt owns the Dodgers — and fearful that the divorce ultimately might force him to sell.

People complain about low-revenue teams that pocket revenue-sharing money. The Dodgers represent a different kind of scandal, a high-revenue team that operates with little regard for their fans’ investment.

Imagine if McCourt had succeeded in his bid to buy the Red Sox in 2002. The Curse of the Bambino would be steaming toward its second century, and Sox fans would be burning Frank and Jamie in effigy at Faneuil Hall.

Maybe worse.

Not all is lost; while many of the Dodgers' decisions in recent years seemed financially motivated, a good number were justifiable on baseball grounds.

The apparent restrictions on general manager Ned Colletti forced him to become creative, a skillful bargain shopper. The team certainly benefited from retaining younger players such as center fielder Matt Kemp and left-hander Clayton Kershaw rather than trading them for high-priced veterans.

OK, but the what-if game is maddening.

Four aces have been traded within the past 20 months — left-handers CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee and righties Jake Peavy and Roy Halladay. The Dodgers were involved in trade discussions for each, but struck out on all of them.

The Brewers, a mid-revenue team, landed Sabathia. The White Sox, not exactly known as big spenders, grabbed Peavy. The Phillies — the Dodgers’ opponents for the last two NL championships — acquired Lee and then Halladay, trading Lee in the process.

In the cases of Lee and Halladay, the Dodgers’ best trade chips were not close enough to the majors — and Halladay, armed with a full no-trade clause, wanted to play in Philadelphia.

In the case of Peavy, the Padres wanted a killer deal to trade within the division, and the Dodgers were reluctant to take on the pitcher’s inflated contract while he was injured.

Sabathia was a real possibility in July 2008, sources say. But finances contributed to the holdup.

The Dodgers wanted the Indians to pay part of the more than $5 million remaining on Sabathia’s contract. The Brewers made no such request — and a winning offer.

Maybe the addition of Sabathia would not have lifted the Dodgers over the Phillies and then the Rays for the 2008 World Series title.

Maybe, even though Sabathia later indicated as a free agent that he wanted to pitch for the Dodgers, the Yankees would have made the high bid, anyway.

Dodgers fans surely would have loved to find out.

Instead, the distrust of McCourt by fans and media has grown to the point where every decision by the Dodgers is viewed as financially driven, fairly or not.

Well, if the Dodgers had a $150 million payroll, they might not have needed the Indians to pay the approximately $2 million remaining on third baseman Casey Blake’s contract in ’08.

They still would have traded more than one player for Blake; pitcher Jonathan Meloan alone was not enough. But in exchange for the cash, the Dodgers had to part with a higher-quality prospect, catcher Carlos Santana.

Now fast forward to this offseason.

If the Dodgers had a $150 million payroll, they could have offered salary arbitration to free-agent left-hander Randy Wolf and second baseman Orlando Hudson without shuddering over the potential consequences.

The team feared that both players might accept, with Wolf commanding $12-14 million and Hudson $8-9 million. Most high-revenue clubs, though, would be willing to sign a pitcher of Wolf’s quality at an inflated price for one year.

Hudson was trickier — he would have done better in arbitration than he did in his $5 million free-agent contract with the Twins. But the Dodgers could have gambled that Hudson, after getting benched in September, did not want to play for Torre again.

In the end, the Dodgers did not retain either player. They also did not receive the high draft picks that arbitration offers produce when free agents depart.

Their decisions probably were correct for a team in a financially strapped position. The Dodgers, though, should not be such a club.

They’re the Los Angeles Dodgers, for crying out loud.

Imagine if they acted like it.

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