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Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Updated: July 26, 10:23 AM ET
What will Ned Colletti become?

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- It was a coincidence more than anything. A function of the proximity of the Los Angeles Lakers' training facility to the airport that Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti was landing at Wednesday afternoon.

But man, was it fitting that Colletti and the Dodgers borrowed the Lakers' conference room to speak Wednesday afternoon about the team's trade for Miami Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez.

For years the Lakers have been the gold standard in this town. Always willing to spend what it takes to compete for championships in the NBA, always believing that those investments pay off in the long run because of what they mean to your brand and fan base.

It has been a long time since the Dodgers were that kind of franchise.

Former owner Frank McCourt kept payrolls in the middle of the pack long before divorce proceedings crippled his finances and sent the franchise into a two-year purgatory of frustrating instability and inaction.

People forget that. The financial chaos created by the divorce was a final straw, not the beginning of McCourt's dysfunction.

In fact, the Dodgers' biggest whiff -- the most impactful trade they could have made but were not given the financial authority to do so by McCourt -- came in 2008, nearly 18 months before McCourt filed for divorce.

That was the year the Dodgers believed they had a deal in place to send five prospects -- none of whom were highly touted catching prospect Carlos Santana -- to the Cleveland Indians for CC Sabathia, Casey Blake and Jamey Carroll.

Ned Colletti
Dodgers GM Ned Colletti says he's "always going to be scrappy" but now, under a new ownership group, he can take trade ideas to another level.

It would've been a game-changer. The kind of trade that could've pushed the still-young core group of Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Russell Martin and James Loney to another level. And it would have added only about $5 million to the Dodgers' payroll the rest of the season.

A nominal price for a large-market club with designs on contending for a World Series. But when it got to the ownership level, McCourt nixed it, adhering to his plan not to take on salary, and indicating the Dodgers were not the kind of team that could sign Sabathia when he became a free agent that winter.

Forty-eight hours after McCourt nixed the deal, the Milwaukee Brewers traded for Sabathia. The Dodgers were able to rework it somewhat and land Blake, but this time they had to give up Santana to get the Indians to pay the remainder of Blake's salary.

When they fell short to the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Championship Series that year and again in 2009, you couldn't help but wonder how different things might have turned out if McCourt had authorized the trade for Sabathia.

Colletti never complained about the financial constraints he had to work with under McCourt. It's not his nature. Whenever I've asked over the years about it, he often says something like what he said when I asked again Wednesday, "I honestly try to spend my time thinking about what I can do rather than what I can't do. It just wastes your time."

But now that the new ownership group has empowered him to make "baseball decisions" without worrying about their financial consequences, now that he has capital behind him to follow through on his convictions, we may see a different version of Colletti than what he has had to be since McCourt hired him 2005.

He laughed when I floated the idea during an extended conversation Wednesday afternoon. "I'm always going to be scrappy," he joked. But he didn't dismiss it either.

"I've always had the same ideas, but I wasn't always able to take them that extra step or that extra two steps," Colletti said. "You'd have them and then you'd say, 'Oh, we can't be doing that.'

"Now if it's the right move we're encouraged every day to go do it. [Team president Stan Kasten] encourages us every day. Ten times a day. Stay aggressive. Let's go. It's great to hear that voice and those words."

Yes, Colletti has given out big contracts over the years to players who haven't panned out. He'll always be asked how, as a former assistant GM of the San Francisco Giants, he didn't know Jason Schmidt's shoulder was so bad when he signed him to a three-year, $47 million contract in 2006. The names Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones will be on his resume, too.

But it's important to remember those only stick out because of how few large contracts Colletti was empowered to hand out to the top free agents on the market while the Dodgers were under McCourt's ownership.

The real difference between the Dodgers and other large-market clubs, between the Dodgers and what they should've been but only now appear to be under their new owners, isn't really the ability to spend money, but the ability to blow money. To take a shot at something and be wrong.

Digest that for a minute.

No GM and no hitter bats 1.000. The best of both hit better than .300. Under McCourt, though, Colletti had very few appearances at that plate.

Mostly he just attempted to do more with less. To find character guys and veterans, willing to play on one- or two-year deals, who could complement the young core of Kemp, Ethier, Martin and Loney. To make it work, or at least hope it would.

The Dodgers had some good pitching in those years, but they never had enough. The 2009 playoffs were particularly revealing. The Dodgers had to rely on journeymen Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla and a still-young Clayton Kershaw against the formidable rotations of the St. Louis Cardinals (Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Joel Pineiro) and the Phillies (Cole Hamels, Pedro Martinez and Cliff Lee).

I asked Colletti if he ever allowed himself to feel regret at the way those seasons ended. Or to imagine how differently they could've gone if they'd been able to acquire an impact player like Sabathia.

He shook his head. This wasn't a productive or enjoyable road to go down.

"I don't know," Colletti said. "You never know how one play changes a game or how one player changes a team. It's great conversation and it's great to banter about. But we always did the best we could."

It was an honest answer. As honest as he could give while still being respectful of McCourt, whom he once enjoyed a good relationship with.

Before the chaos spawned by the divorce, Colletti and McCourt spoke often. The owner challenged his thinking and forced him to deepen his thought process. But in the last few years, McCourt retreated behind his army of lawyers and consultants. He wasn't around the front office as much, his concerns were understandably elsewhere.

In some ways those days still feel recent and raw. The consequences of McCourt's decisions are still evident in the Dodgers' lineup. They are the reason Prince Fielder is in Detroit and Sabathia is in New York.

But in a lot more ways those days feel like a long time ago after what the Dodgers pulled off Wednesday.

Hanley Ramirez is a risk. He has had injury and attitude problems. It's inexplicable a hitter capable of hitting in the .340s hit .243 last season and was hitting .246 at the time of the trade.

But good clubs take risks on guys like that, knowing the potential reward far outweighs it. The return on the investment has nothing to do with the player's salary and everything to do with how much better he could make the team.

Good franchises, the kind the Dodgers' new owners promised they would become, the kind Colletti now leads, make baseball decisions.

Colletti leaned on a scout named Bill Latham before making this baseball decision. He needed to know why Ramirez had fallen off and whether he might climb back up again. Latham had scouted Ramirez for years.

"I trust my scouts," Colletti said. "And Latham kept saying, 'There's a lot of life in this kid, there's a lot of ability. He probably needs a change of scenery, but he can still play.'"

It was all Colletti needed to hear. In a lot of ways he could relate. He's the same man he always has been. His office hasn't changed in the three months since McCourt sold the team to the group fronted by basketball legend Magic Johnson but controlled by Guggenheim Partners CEO Mark Walter.

But the scenery around him is very different now. The landscape has changed.

The Dodgers are a different franchise under these new owners. Will Colletti be a different GM?