Dodgers' GM looks for smart buy

LOS ANGELES -- On an unseasonably temperate July afternoon, general manager Ned Colletti sat in his Dodger Stadium suite before his team played the New York Mets. The heat wave that nearly melted the city a week ago had finally broken.

The night before, the Los Angeles Dodgers had snapped their six-game losing streak since of the All-Star Break. So you could say the heat on Colletti and his front office had finally cooled off, too.

The Dodgers, once again, would be buyers as they approached baseball's trade deadline on July 31, defined for the rest of the season as contenders and not underachievers, just as they should be with a core of talented young players, a Hall of Fame manager and the experience of two straight trips to the National League Championship Series.

"Right now, it's all buy," Colletti said. "I can't tell you what's going to happen in the next 10 days. But right now we're talking about acquiring pitching, maybe a touch of outfield … it's all in the add mode, not the subtract."

The past few years, being a buyer at the trade deadline meant Colletti had to become a bargain-hunter. He's become shrewd at finding useful spare parts and unwanted discards on the sale rack and crafting them into smart outfits to be worn deep into October.

While that yeoman's work endeared him to Dodgers fans and ownership, and rightly earned him a new contract in the offseason, it may not be enough this time around for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with Colletti.

This isn't just another season.

It's the season before a judge will decide who owns the Dodgers or whether Frank McCourt and his estranged wife, Jamie, will have to sell the franchise.

It's the season upon which manager Joe Torre will decide if enough's enough, and mercifully the last season in which Manny Ramirez will be forced to play left field in the National League.

But mostly it's the season that will let everyone know, finally, whether the Dodgers will continue to be buyers going forward.

You've heard the rumors about whether they might have to trade budding stars like Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier now, while their value is still high before they approach free agency. Maybe the Dodgers should just get what they can now, with the ownership situation so unsettled and no guarantee the franchise will be able or willing to pay Yankees-style prices for Kemp or Ethier when they hit the open market in a few years.

Right now, those are just rumors. Colletti vehemently denies the club has entertained such thoughts.

"Not going to happen," he said sternly, before the question was even finished.

"I have no thoughts right now to move Andre Ethier. We've watched him grow from a Double-A player to a very good player to one of the better hitters in the league. You can win a lot of games with a guy like that.

"That almost sounds weak, what I said about Andre, that I have no thoughts right now to move him. I don't mean that to be weak. I have no intention of moving a handful of players. Not just Andre. There's a handful of players that I have a lot of faith in and I've seen them produce. We're talking about a team that went to the LCS the last two years."

Last week, Colletti said much the same thing about Kemp in an interview with Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times.

"I've never floated his name," Colletti told Shaikin. "He's a gifted, five-tool player. He's getting better and better. He's had a tough couple of months. It's a baseball career. It's not a baseball two months. I have no intention of moving him."

Good answers -- calming for any Dodgers fan. But then came the follow-up questions.

Are you confident Andre Ethier will be with the Dodgers for a long time? Not just through the end of his current [two-year] contract?

"Some of that's up to him," Colletti said.

Are you confident it will be up to him?

"I can't predict that far into the future and you can't read that the wrong way. I don't know that much," Colletti said. "I'm not that smart."

Actually, Colletti is that smart. Not necessarily in being able to predict the future, but in how he answered that landmine of a question in the most honest way he could.

The truth is, nobody knows how the next few years in Chavez Ravine are going to go. Not Frank McCourt, not Colletti, not Joe Torre.

Which brings us back to the present: The Dodgers are sitting six games out of first place in the NL West with under a week to go before the trade deadline and Colletti thankfully is in buying mode again.

The Dodgers, like every other club with designs on winning in October, are looking for pitching.

Colletti said the team was "deep in on" lefty Cliff Lee -- who was traded from Seattle to Texas two weeks ago -- but didn't have the major-league ready prospects the Mariners were looking for to complete the deal.

Who else is Colletti calling about?

"Everybody who has been speculated as a possible acquire, for the most part we've discussed," he said.

In other words, just about every guy who's been mentioned in a trade rumor the past few months.

It is Colletti's job to evaluate these players, to weigh the benefit of acquiring them against the risk of giving up a top prospect or taking on an additional salary. Taking on additional salary isn't always considered a counterweight for buyers at the trade deadline but it has been for the Dodgers in recent years.

Two years ago, Colletti had to give up highly regarded catching prospect Carlos Santana in the trade to acquire third baseman Casey Blake from the Indians because the Cleveland Indians paid the remaining part of Blake's $6.1 million salary.

Though he has a background in public relations with the Chicago Cubs, it is not Colletti's job to worry about the public perception of those types of moves and whatever they might signal to fans.

"So do you do it [take on salary in a trade] to make a statement or do you do it to improve your club?" he asked rhetorically.

Couldn't it be both?

"I'd rather do it to improve the club," he said. "I'm results-oriented. Baseball, like every sport, is measured by wins and losses. You could craft the greatest message of all time but if you don't win another game, nobody cares. You could win every game and not say a word and everybody's happy.

"It's more important that we improve the club than anything else."

ESPNLosAngeles.com's Tony Jackson reported last week that McCourt has green-lighted Colletti to take on more additional salary at the trade deadline this year than in previous seasons.

Colletti also admits that, "I'm more open-minded than I have been in the past in terms of prospects."

Though Colletti said that his sense of urgency is always heightened, outwardly it certainly looks and sounds as if the Dodgers are operating with more of it this season than in the past.

This isn't just another season.

It is the season when the Dodgers begin to either affirm or dispel all the questions that have hung over the franchise since the McCourts filed for divorce last year.

None of those questions were raised by anything Colletti did or said. None of them should be his responsibility. None of that matters.

He's the buyer, and it's time for the Dodgers to invest.

Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.