Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Baseball [Print without images]

Friday, September 16, 2011
Most unlikely offseason spenders

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

Frank McCourt is a lot more familiar with spending humongous sums of money than the Florida Marlins are. And we have the divorce court documents to prove it.

But when this offseason arrives -- which, in the case of the Dodgers and Marlins, will be in, oh, about 20 minutes -- these two teams just might turn out to be the most surprising big spenders of the baseball winter.

Hey, we know what you're thinking. You're thinking your wife spent more money at the mall last week than the Marlins spent on their entire roster.

And you're thinking that the Dodgers aren't exactly sure whether they're being run these days by Frank McCourt, Jamie McCourt, Bud Selig or a bankruptcy court in Delaware -- so how can they even dream about tying up Matt Kemp for the rest of the decade?

Well, if that's what you're thinking, we don't blame you. But it's time to step back and look at these two pictures from a whole different vantage point.

There are lots of reasons, you see, why teams turn into spend-aholics at any given moment in time. So you should recognize this important fact of sporting life: Sometimes, baseball teams spend money just because, well, they have to.

And for the Marlins and Dodgers, this is a HAVE-TO kind of offseason.

Can't you make a case that 2012 will be the most important season in the history of the Marlins' franchise, with their new ballpark finally opening? You can. And you should.

Can't you make a case that the Dodgers, as 2012 approaches, are a team that HAS to find a way to keep hundreds of thousands of fans from stampeding in the other direction -- or else? You can. And you should.

So it's no wonder, then, that people around the game are suddenly buzzing that both of these teams appear poised to conduct business as unusual this winter, that both are ready to do Something Big.

But what might that be? Let's take a look:

The Dodgers

They're not going to win the NL West, but the Dodgers are locks to lead the league in one important category:

Attendance droppage.

At their current attendance pace, they're about to do something no other team in baseball has done this year -- and something the Dodgers have done only twice (in a non-strike season) -- in the 50-season history of Dodger Stadium: They're about to make more than 623,000 paying customers disappear.

Albert Pujols
Want a boost in attendance? Need to fill that offensive black hole at first base? Then ink Albert Pujols.

They're headed for a 17.5 percent attendance plummet, the largest of any team in this sport. And you don't need to be a descendant of Walter O'Malley to understand why.

These people are appalled by the owner. That's essentially why. So to lure them back, the Dodgers realistically have two choices:

A) Frank McCourt can take the hint and give up his surreal battle to keep hanging out in the owner's box, or B), the Dodgers need to do Something Big to show what's left of their fan base that, contrary to popular belief, they're still trying -- and, whatever that is, it had better lead to a whole lot of winning on the field, in a hurry.

Well, it's clear by now that McCourt never got that "it's-time-to-get-out" memo. So that leaves Plan B. If Frank McCourt really intends to hang onto his team and make this work, what other choice does he have?

He needs to get Kemp signed for the long haul. He needs to extend Andre Ethier. Both can be free agents after 2012. And if they spin out the revolving door, the Dodgers might not be any good again until about 2019.

But that's not all. The Dodgers need to make a serious run at Prince Fielder and/or Albert Pujols this winter. They rank 29th in the big leagues in home runs at first base (nine). They rank 28th in OPS at first base (.690). It's become the most important offensive position in the sport. So a failure to go first baseman-shopping this winter would send an alarming signal to any fan who cares about their future.

And where would the money come from? In the short term, who knows? But any deal for Kemp, Ethier or a big free agent would extend far enough into the long-term ozone that sooner or later, SOMEBODY with some stability will own this team -- and be able to pay those bills. Right?

The only question, then, is whether McCourt is ready to authorize this plan of attack. And GM Ned Colletti told Rumblings it's his "intent" to do whatever needs to be done to keep the players who need to be kept and to add the kind of players who need to be added.

"It's our intent to sign some of our core guys long-term," Colletti said. "It's also our intent to improve the club."

Colletti went on record last week as saying his team is "not that far away" from being good again. And all the proof he needs is that, since July 6, the Dodgers are 36-25, the fourth-best record in the National League. But he still sees "a lot of room for improvement," so he emphasized one more time that the "intent" is to be aggressive in making that improvement happen.

But will he be allowed to conduct business as "normal," as the free-for-all to determine who owns this team swirls over the baseball end of the operation?

"I guess that remains to be seen," Colletti said. "But I know what our intent is. And I know what we're going to try to do."

It's easy to be skeptical about whether McCourt will sign off on that approach. But we'll ask this again: What other choice does he have?

The Marlins

They aren't just moving into a new ballpark. They're moving into a new universe.

For 19 seasons, the Marlins have been playing baseball in a stadium with no roof, no air conditioners, virtually no revenue streams and no reminders that anything of note ever occurred there that wasn't accomplished by a bunch of men wearing shoulder pads.

So when this team sets up shop in its gleaming new 21st-century baseball palace in Miami next spring, this is its time -- to change everything.

Prince Fielder
If the Marlins really want to make a big splash, signing Prince Fielder would do it.

The Marlins know it. The entire baseball world knows it. And that explains why so many folks within the sport -- agents, other front offices, even players -- are hearing that the Fish could be chasing some big, big names this winter. And by that, we don't just mean Ozzie Guillen.

Albert Pujols? Prince Fielder? Jose Reyes? Aramis Ramirez? C.J. Wilson? From all indications, they haven't ruled anything out.

"With our payroll going up, we have a chance to put together a team at a payroll level we don't currently have," team president David Samson told Rumblings. "And that could involve anything -- trades, free agents or a combination of both."

They're not saying exactly which names they might pursue, or how much higher that payroll will be soaring. But face it: There's nowhere to go but up. And the fact is, it needs to go up -- because if they want to survive, if they want to keep people streaming into that ballpark beyond next year, the pressure is on.

This is their shot -- maybe their only shot -- to open eyes, to shock the world, to re-energize a fan base that has tuned them out. And just hiring a famous manager won't be enough -- although that's clearly on their agenda, too.

They'd hoped to build momentum by contending THIS year. Oh, well. They'd hoped that Josh Johnson, Hanley Ramirez, Logan Morrison and Mike Stanton were going to pole-vault into the superstar stratosphere THIS YEAR. Oh, well. At least Stanton did his part.

But even though that part of the plan didn't work, those are still four potentially great players, when healthy, who could form a core group that any team would love to build around. Now, the challenge is to do more. Much more.

And everything we hear indicates they recognize that. So suddenly, the vibe that people in other front offices are getting is that the Marlins plan to go "all-in," that they're "going to be aggressive" on a bunch of big names this winter, and that they're "going to pay" if that's what it takes.

It's hard to imagine them piling upward of 200 million bucks in front of someone like Pujols. But that talk just doesn't go away.

It's hard to comprehend the concept of the Marlins being the highest bidder on someone like Reyes. But their current shortstop, the artist formerly known as Hanley, has already said publicly he would move to third base to make room if that happens.

And there are rumblings that this team will be firing on all cylinders, trying to reel in a top-of-the-rotation starter to pair with Johnson -- because, as the Marlins look around at the rotation the Phillies roll out there and the staffs the Braves and Nationals are building, that's the only way to do business in the NL East.

Samson said they haven't formulated the specifics of their game plan yet, because "we don't know what the market is. And we don't know what the feelings are of the [baseball] people who'll be putting the plan together. We just don't know those things yet. But we're definitely going to start talking -- about everything."

So it will be fascinating to see where this leads. But as easy as it is to be skeptical, remember this: They only get to open their new park once. They only get one chance to attract people to check out the scenery as the new tourist attraction it is. After that, they'll need to give those people a reason to keep coming back.

And you know, we know and they know that a roof and an air conditioner won't be a good enough reason. So gentlemen, start your checkbooks. The only thing riding on it in beautiful downtown Miami this offseason is, well, everything.

Ready to Rumble

• Before we pick apart the 2012 schedule, which was released this week, here are two things the announcement of that schedule tells us about next season:

1) If realignment happens at all, we now know for sure it isn't happening next season, because this schedule is more of the same old, same old.

2) Baseball may well add a wild card in each league at some point, but we're hearing that isn't going down in 2012, either. With the 2012 regular season set to finish Oct. 3, it means Game 7 of the World Series wouldn't take place until Nov. 1 WITHOUT adding a wild-card round. So there just isn't room on the calendar for this schedule and an extra game or three.

• If you look closely at next year's interleague schedule, what will you find? You'll find the same schedule mess that's been driving the call for realignment. That's what.

Even after all the talk in recent months about these exact issues, teams in the same division still aren't playing the same schedules -- or even similar schedules in some cases. And this is one of those years when it ought to be simple, because theoretically, East plays East, Central plays Central and West plays West. But just the NL East-AL East inequities alone tell you all you need to know:

NL EAST: The Braves play six games against the Yankees. The Phillies play zero games against the Yankees. The Braves, Nationals and Marlins play 18 interleague games apiece. But the Mets and Phillies only play 15 apiece.

AL EAST: The Red Sox's three interleague trips take them to Philadelphia, Miami and Wrigley. The Yankees, naturally, play none of those teams, home or away. But the Yankees do get two "rivals" next year -- so they'll play six games each against the Mets and Braves. The Red Sox, incidentally, play no games against the Mets.

Does this make sense, except to the marketing department? You tell us.

Jose Reyes
Reyes

• The buzz coming out of Flushing is that the Mets have very little interest in waiting around this winter for Jose Reyes to decide whether to stay or bolt. One source who's tight with the Mets brass tells Rumblings they're "either going to be in or out real quick."

The Mets' baseball people haven't met yet to lay out their offseason game plan. But if Reyes' preference is to test the market, collect offers and then ask the Mets to counter, there are indications that the Mets don't want to play by that script. And Reyes' lackluster second half (.277/.316/.378, with only six stolen-base ATTEMPTS) only figures to reinforce their reluctance to do anything crazy right out of the chute to keep him from exploring the market.

Francisco Rodriguez
Rodriguez

• And then there's a guy who's no longer the Mets' problem: Francisco Rodriguez. When he vented to cbssports.com this week about his setup role in Milwaukee, he may have thought he was just letting the world know he wants to sign this winter as somebody's closer. But all he really told other teams is that wherever he goes, it will be about him, period.

"He's just telling you what he's all about and what's really important to him," grumbled one NL exec. "All he had to do was say, 'When I talk to teams in the offseason, I want to close.' How hard is that? But it didn't come out that way."

The same exec said he looks at this incarnation of K-Rod as "probably just a 5 or 6 million-[a-year] guy. He might give you 30 saves, but he also might give you 10 blown saves. He's just not the same guy. When you look at this stuff, he's only throwing 90-91 [mph] now. So it's not like people will be ramming down his door."

Jim Thome
Thome

• A close friend of Jim Thome says Thome is seriously torn about whether to play next year.

"It all depends on who he gets an offer from and what the situation is," the friend told Rumblings. "If it's a legitimate World Series contender and it's the right role for him, I think he'd come back. That's what's driving him now. He clearly wants to win a World Series."

But is there a team out there that really fits his needs and that description? Thome needs to be a DH at this stage of his career. And the Yankees, Tigers and Rangers don't seem likely to play in the DH market this winter. The Red Sox figure to re-sign David Ortiz. It's hard to see the Rays pursuing a player as one-dimensional as Thome. And the Angels don't need a DH with Kendrys Morales returning and Bobby Abreu's option already vested for next year. So this very well might be the final two weeks of Thome's Cooperstown-worthy career.

David Ortiz
Ortiz

• Speaking of Ortiz, if the Red Sox felt as if there was no market for him this winter, they'd no doubt love to lure him back with a deal similar to the one Jason Varitek signed in 2009 (one year, plus a complicated mutual option). But other AL teams think Ortiz will have multiple suitors after a big year -- even within the AL East alone.

One of those AL East suitors just might be Toronto, where Ortiz has a history with the manager, John Farrell. And you should never count out the Yankees, even if there doesn't seem to be a logical baseball fit.

"The Yankees are an obvious possibility, just because of the ballpark and the rivalry," said one AL exec. "The baseball guys there wouldn't want to do it. But face it: Sometimes they do things for other reasons. And it wouldn't hurt that he could flip 40 balls out a year in that park."

• Contrary to what you might have heard, the Giants' new CEO, Larry Baer, WILL need to be approved by MLB and the other 29 owners, even though Baer has been a high-ranking official within the franchise for years. And theoretically, baseball could use that approval process as leverage to push toward a resolution of the never-ending squabble between the Giants and A's over rights to the San Jose area. Indications are, though, that that isn't likely, because Bud Selig has long viewed that dispute as being far more complicated and complex than your average tug-of-war over whose turf is whose.

• Finally, we got to see "Moneyball" this week, and we recommend it highly. Unless you're a scout -- or Art Howe -- we bet you'll come away thinking it was fun, thoughtful, well-written, well-acted and, for the most part, as real a depiction of the dawn of the Moneyball era as Hollywood is capable of.

Here's the Brad Pitt (as Billy Beane) line we're still chuckling about:

"There are rich teams. And there are poor teams. Then there's 50 feet of crap. And then there's us."

Five Astounding Facts (Friday edition)

A.J. Burnett
Burnett

1) A.J. Burnett is up to 25 wild pitches this year, in a mere 30 starts. And how hard is that? Well, look at it this way: The anti-A.J., Mark Buehrle, has only thrown 21 wild pitches -- in his whole career, all 12 years, 363 starts and 2,463 2/3 innings of it.

2) Had the Astros been able to score two runs in the ninth Wednesday, they would have done something just about unheard of -- sweep a three-game series from a team (the Phillies) that started that series 46½ games ahead of the Stros in the standings. So how long has it been since a team that good got swept by a team that far back in a series of three games or more? Would you believe 1925? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last time it happened, Firpo Marberry's '25 Senators (96-52) got swept by Doc Prothro's lowly Red Sox (44-105) from Sept. 30-Oct. 2 -- at Fenway.

3) Whitey Herzog once said the two things a guy needs to succeed in the managing biz were a sense of humor and a good bullpen. Well, here's the proof: If all games had ended after the eighth inning this year instead of the ninth, the Cardinals would be leading the Brewers by 4½ games instead of trailing by 5½.

Pablo Sandoval
Sandoval

4) So what's more amazing: that Pablo Sandoval, a guy who'd launched one triple all year, hit for the cycle Thursday? Or that the only two cycles this season came from the Panda and George Kottaras, two speedsters who have hit one triple in their non-cycles COMBINED this year? Or that the Giants have had more cycles at Coors Field (two) in the last 20 seasons than they've hit at home (none)? Or that the Giants' last cycle in San Francisco was a Robby Thompson production back on April 22, 1991 -- at The Stick?

5) And here's the kind of perspective Pirates fans don't need, but that we'll provide anyway, free of charge. The Yankees have had 18 losing seasons in their last 104 seasons. The Pirates have now had 19 losing seasons (gulp) in a row. That's just not right.

Tweets of the Week

• Once upon a time, players used to miss the team bus and nobody ever knew about it. Not anymore. Not in the age of Twitter, as Rays ace David Price (@DAVIDprice14) just demonstrated:

Tell me why I'm (in) a police car right now…missed the bus!! Haven't done that in years…I used to miss it on purpose! Miss first period

• And you might need to be a fan of a certain late, great ABC TV show to truly appreciate the genius of this classic September tweet from the Batting Stance Guy, Gar Ryness (@BattingStanceG). But here goes:

So many Magic Numbers. Hard to keep track. Except for Hurley's: 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst