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Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Updated: November 8, 11:16 AM ET
Dodgers spending like Yankees

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

The name on their jerseys still says Dodgers. Their iconic ballpark is still known as Dodger Stadium. And last time we checked, Tommy Lasorda was still bleeding Dodger blue.

But if we could inject the current regime of the reborn Los Angeles Dodgers with truth-in-advertising serum, you know what they should actually be called these days?

Yankees West.

Yessir, these aren't Frank McCourt's Dodgers anymore. They're definitely not Jamie McCourt's Dodgers anymore. And they sure as heck aren't the honorable federal bankruptcy judge Kevin Gross' Dodgers anymore.

Ohhhhhhh no. This is now a franchise with gigantic dreams. This is now a franchise with gigantic plans. And, in a related development, this is now a franchise with a gigantic payroll -- that might just be growing even more gigantic any minute now.

Adrian Gonzalez
Adrian Gonzalez has $127 million remaining on his seven-year, $154 million contract.

As the Dodgers of Stan Kasten, Magic Johnson and Guggenheim Baseball Management charge into their first offseason as the owners of history's first $2.15-billion baseball team, they have already transformed their organization in far more than 2.15 billion ways.

They're reinventing their stadium. They're reaching out to re-engage a fan base that fled the McCourt era in a mass stampede. And they're going global, in every sense of that word.

But nothing paints a more vivid portrait of the Dodgers' dramatic transformation than their rapidly escalating payroll.

A mere seven months ago, the roster that the bankruptcy-court Dodgers put on the field on Opening Day had a lower payroll ($90.75 million) than the Brewers, Twins or Marlins. Now, here we are, barely more than half a calendar year later, and it's fair to ask this once-mind-boggling question:

Is it possible that, one day soon, the Magic/Kasten/Guggenheim Dodgers could have a larger payroll than (gasp) the Yankees?

"Absolutely," said an official of one club. "In fact, I think they already do."

Wait. Really? Could that be true? Let's take a look.

According to figures compiled by Baseball-Reference.com, here are the payroll commitments of the Yankees and Dodgers, not just for 2013 but for 2014 and '15 as well:

So there you go. Not only do the Dodgers have more guaranteed dollars committed to signed players than the Yankees do for next year and the year after, but the gap is more than $50 million -- for each of the next two seasons. Shocking, isn't it?

Now clearly, that gap will shrink, if not disappear, by next April. But if we're even raising this topic, what does that tell you? It tells you the Dodgers plan to operate in a stratosphere that no National League team in history has ever entered. That's what.

And we're not just referring to dollar signs, either.

"Everything is totally different now," said general manager Ned Colletti, who was hired by McCourt, back in rosier times, in November 2005. "Now we can think bold thoughts. Now we can do bold things. We can think progressively and aggressively. Obviously, we've got to be wise with our choices. We can't be reckless. But now we're encouraged to think big, to think global -- if we see a toothpick, to think redwood tree.

"That's how [Guggenheim CEO] Mark Walter, Stan Kasten and Magic Johnson think. That's how they became successful in their lives. And that's how they've encouraged us to think. So it's totally different now than the first seven seasons I was here. Now we can have discussions on players we could never discuss before."

And they're having them, too. Every minute of every day. About players such as Zack Greinke. About players such as Anibal Sanchez. About potential trade targets whose paychecks would never have computed for this team if bankruptcy court were still in session.

It's just one more sign that life at Chavez Ravine couldn't possibly feel more different than it did this time last year. Or the year before that. Or the year before that.

We've heard many tales these past few months, from baseball people and former Dodgers employees, about the final years of the McCourt era. They make you wonder how the Dodgers even managed to put a team on the field every night, let alone a team that never won fewer than 80 games in any of those seasons.

As McCourt became increasingly consumed by his divorce, his battles with Major League Baseball and, ultimately, his trip to bankruptcy court, he wasn't just a distracted owner. He was practically an invisible owner.

And that meant his baseball people operated in a vacuum, wondering how many days it might be before the owner would surface to weigh in on (and often veto) even the most mundane moves.

An official of one club told a story about visiting a friend in the Dodgers' baseball operation one day, looking around and realizing the executive offices had turned into a "ghost town." And that was before this team was being run under the auspices of a bankruptcy judge.

Everything is totally different now. Now we can think bold thoughts. Now we can do bold things. We can think progressively and aggressively.

-- Dodgers GM Ned Colletti

Meanwhile, the Dodgers' payroll -- once one of the highest in the sport -- began steadily declining, from nearly $120 million in 2008 to $90 million last year (not counting deferred money owed to the long-departed Manny Ramirez and Andruw Jones).

So when this team had a need to fill -- or six -- the baseball people no longer looked at which players were available and asked: "Which of these guys should we go after?" The question they were forced to ask, Colletti said, was: "Who could we afford?"

The answer, at least last winter, was this esteemed group: Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano, Mark Ellis, Matt Treanor, Jerry Hairston Jr., Adam Kennedy, Juan Rivera, Tony Gwynn Jr. and Jamey Wright.

They were the nine free agents the Dodgers signed last offseason. Yu Darvish and Albert Pujols, they weren't. But what did they have in common? You could probably guess. They were all willing to work for no more than four million bucks a year.

Now roll the clock forward to 2013 -- and the new first baseman in town, Adrian Gonzalez, will be raking in nearly $4 million a month. Imagine that.

Hey, did we just mention Adrian Gonzalez? Funny we should bring him up, because nowadays, there is no more perfect symbol than him of how life in the Dodgers' cosmos has changed.

Only 23 months ago, the Padres traded him to the Red Sox, a team that could afford to pay him. You would have thought the Dodgers would have been popping the Moet Chandon just to see him exit their division. You'd have thought wrong.

In truth, their reaction, in large part, was frustration -- that a player who was such a perfect match, both for their lineup and for their diverse, multi-cultural market, couldn't even enter their orbit.

"When I saw Adrian Gonzalez get traded to Boston," Colletti said, "I thought, 'There's one of those players we're not ever going to have the opportunity to get, even though a player like that and the Dodgers would have been a great fit.' I saw him go, and I thought that ship had sailed."

Can't blame him. And Gonzalez, as it turned out, was thinking almost exactly the same thing.

"When Adrian went to Boston," said his agent, John Boggs, "we looked at the Dodgers as a possibility. But with their ownership situation, there was no way it could be a probability. So we didn't even think about them, because there was no way that was going to happen. It couldn't even have been a topic, because their ownership was in such turmoil, it wasn't even a rational conversation we could have."

But it's funny how the earth spins, isn't it? In the span of a year and a half, the Red Sox zigged in one direction. The Dodgers zagged in the other direction. And late last summer, their worlds collided, in the form of an unprecedented nine-player, mid-August waiver deal in which the Dodgers took on Gonzalez, plus Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Nick Punto and (drum roll, please) a quarter-billion dollars in salaries.

Carl Crawford
Carl Crawford, who had Tommy John surgery in August, is owed $102.5 million through 2017.

A quarter-billion.

It was risky, given how dramatically all those men had underperformed in Boston. And it was definitely pricey. But remember the mission statement laid out by Magic Johnson, by Stan Kasten, by Mark Walter: Think bold thoughts. … Do bold things. … When you see a toothpick, think redwood tree.

The shockwaves of this particular bold move continue to reverberate through the industry. But if you're still having trouble digesting it, maybe that's because you're only looking at it as a baseball trade.

What this really was, though, was a massive capital investment -- not just in four baseball players, but in the rebranding of a once-golden franchise.

It was a statement to a skeptical fan base that the McCourt era was now basically as ancient a part of history as the Roman Empire.

It was a statement, too, that the Dodgers were a monster franchise again, with deep pockets and the courage to do things no team had ever done.

And the acquisition of Gonzalez -- a 30-year-old middle-of-the-order hitter of Mexican-American descent -- was designed to give this team a marquis attraction, to pair with Matt Kemp, to serve as the centerpiece of the Dodgers' forthcoming new TV deal.

That won't just be any old TV deal, by the way. We're talking about one of the most humongous local TV deals in the history of any sport -- a deal baseball people expect to be so rich that it's possible just one season of it could pay the entire quarter-billion-dollar tab from that Red Sox blockbuster. Quite a concept.

"And you can't forget the value of credibility," Colletti said. "I think that trade increased the credibility of this franchise immediately. I know that people still have to play, and people still have to be productive, and we've got to win games. And I know none of that is guaranteed. But there's this feeling around the Dodgers right now. I know the players feel it. I know the staff feels it. And I believe the public feels it, too -- that this is a new team. And it's a new day."

So where is that new day leading them? It's a question that fascinates people around the sport.

One longtime AL executive says those Yankees comparisons apply on many levels, starting with an ownership group that he believes is following a George Steinbrenner-esque model, at least for now.

"What I see them trying to do," the exec said, "is trying to break through by spending a lot of money early, to put stars in place, to get a winning team on the field and to re-establish their brand after Frank McCourt. But they've already done that. So I don't see them as giant players in this [free-agent] market. They have money, but I don't see where they'd spend it. I just can't see them spending $20 million a year on Zack Greinke."

Maybe not. But people all over baseball report that the Dodgers are clearly in the mix on Greinke, on Sanchez and on Huroki Kuroda, the three top free-agent starting pitchers on this market. On the trade front, they've told other clubs they can still take on money in a deal for a big-name, big-buck starter or third baseman. And Colletti doesn't deny that even with a payroll that could approach $190-200 million, "in the right situation, we can continue to add."

Is there a limit to how high their payroll sky can rise? Of course. Is there a limit to how much luxury tax they're willing to pay? Obviously. But will those limits remind anyone of the days, not so long ago, when McCourt was questioning every dollar they spent? You're kidding, right?

"I'll say this again. When they came in, they said, 'Think bold thoughts,'" Colletti said. "So I think that way now. So if there's an opportunity right now to make this club better, we can take advantage of that opportunity. Do we have financial responsibilities? No doubt. But we also have the ability to make this club better."

Beneath the surface, the real point of emphasis is to plow money into scouting, development and the international market, to restore the luster of the Dodgers' once-glittering system, which had fallen into low-budget disrepair under McCourt. But that's a project for the long haul.

In the short haul, what we have here is the kind of franchise none of us have ever witnessed before in a market not known as New York. Thinking bold thoughts. Spending bold dollars. Taking bold chances. Because they're the Dodgers. The new Dodgers.

"I'll take those chances," Ned Colletti said. "I understand all the risks. I know I'm held accountable to win, but that's OK. I'd still rather play with this deck than the deck I had to play with for three years."