Dodgers' real work begins now
Management knows improvements are needed, but exactly how is the question
PHOENIX -- The Los Angeles Dodgers won the final battle Wednesday night of a war they long ago lost, initially starting fast and ultimately just edging the Arizona Diamondbacks 7-5 before 41,791 at Chase Field, but the Diamondbacks didn't really care. They had the luxury of not really caring, because they, after all, are going to the playoffs, something the Dodgers can't claim despite playing at a .616 clip since July 6.
We saw many things this season that will stick in the memory for a long time. We saw Matt Kemp come tantalizingly close to joining the 40/40 club, hitting his 39th home run in the seventh inning but failing in the ninth to get the last one. We saw Kemp put up a season for the ages anyway, challenging for the Triple Crown for a time, and we may yet see him bring home the National League Most Valuable Player Award. We saw Clayton Kershaw better than he has ever been, and he is as close as a pitcher can be to a lock for the NL Cy Young Award.
We saw the development of rookie shortstop Dee Gordon, who didn't disappoint, and we saw the emergence of fellow rookies Kenley Jansen and Javy Guerra into a dominating one-two punch at the back of the bullpen.
We even saw a record-setting performance by one Eugenio Velez, who went hitless in 37 at-bats, the most ever for a full season.
What we won't see this season is any more baseball played by anyone in a Dodgers uniform. It is for this reason that the real work for the Dodgers begins Thursday morning. Not for the players, mind you. They get to pack up their Escalades and disperse to their scattered mansions for the next 4 1/2 months, and the front office gets to stress and agonize and lie awake nights figuring out how to make sure this doesn't happen again.
And, unresolved ownership issues and bankruptcy aside, this is fixable, even in the short term. To his credit, Frank McCourt, the embattled and increasingly unpopular guy at the top, appears ready to commit resources to make sure of it.
"We have an idea of what [next year's payroll] is going to be," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said this week. "I wouldn't say it is considerably higher. It's still in the formulative stage. This is actually a lot earlier than usual. Most of the time, you don't find out what your payroll is until sometime in November, and there has always been a flexibility attached to it, a few million up or down."
Colletti wouldn't reveal what that number is, but all indications are it will be higher than the roughly $98 million it was this year (not counting deferred money owed to players who aren't here anymore). The Dodgers also have about $45 million to $50 million coming off the books from this year's payroll, and they need to add a big bat and maybe a starting pitcher to their roster this winter.
First, let's consider that big bat thing.
There are two marquee free agents expected to come onto the market, both of them slugging first baseman. One is Albert Pujols, and frankly, I can't imagine the St. Louis Cardinals letting this guy get out of town, even if whatever they have to pay him hamstrings them financially for years to come. Pujols is the de facto mayor of what might be the best baseball city in America. The educated guess here is that he ultimately stays put.
That brings us to Prince Fielder, who is almost certainly headed out of Milwaukee as soon as the Brewers' postseason run is over. Will the Dodgers have enough cash to be in the running for a guy like that? We shall see. In recent years, they haven't been in a position to even compete for such a player. But this year, with McCourt desperate to win back fans who have abandoned the club in large part because of him, it might be different.
"I would love to have him here," said Kemp, a close friend of Fielder's. "He could definitely help us."
But in what is expected to be an extremely thin free-agent market, if the Dodgers don't get Fielder, is there anyone else out there who would make that much of a difference? They figure to get Juan Uribe back from the disabled list by next spring, but please.
Furthermore, what happens if Hiroki Kuroda goes back to Japan? The free-agent market for starting pitchers this year consists of C.J. Wilson and a bunch of guys who aren't as good as C.J. Wilson. Can the Dodgers begin next season with a five-man rotation of Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, a wing and a prayer?
Now, let's take a look at the guys who already are here.
The Dodgers are open to signing Kershaw, Kemp and Andre Ethier to long-term contracts, with emphasis on Kemp and Ethier. Kershaw is about to get a lot more expensive than the $500,000 the Dodgers paid him this year, especially if he wins the Cy Young, but he also is entering his first winter of arbitration so the Dodgers have him under control through 2014.
But Kemp and Ethier will be eligible for free agency next fall -- unless the Dodgers lock them up. Still, Colletti hinted that even if he does sign them to long-term deals, those deals would have to be backloaded and neither player would be likely to get much more in the first year of those deals than they would get through the arbitration process.
There is another factor here, as well: Ethier's quirky personality has begun to wear thin on teammates and staff alike, according to various sources. And given his track record -- he has averaged .291 with 18 homers and 74 RBIs in six big league seasons -- and his age (30 next April), he probably has enough upside that the Dodgers could get a nice package of players back if they were willing to trade him.
Not that it's likely to happen.
"I think we need him," Colletti said. "He is a middle-of-the-order, left-handed-hitting outfielder who has power and is a good hitter. He is very hard on himself, and he is about as close to a perfectionist as we have, and we all know that is impossible for all of us. In the first half, our offense was kind of pivoted toward two players, and that was probably unfair to them to some extent."
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This second-half resurgence by the Dodgers, who finished 82-79 and in third place in the NL West, 11 1/2 games behind the Diamondbacks, coincided with an individual awakening by first baseman James Loney, who now figures to stick around for a while after it appeared earlier in the year he was a surefire non-tender.
Others aren't so fortunate. Jonathan Broxton, the team's former All-Star closer, hasn't pitched since May, and he wasn't very good then. He'll be non-tendered. Another possibility is Hong-Chih Kuo, the team's former All-Star setup man who no longer dominates, mostly because he is dealing with a mild-but-recurring case of the yips. He made $2.725 million this year and would get more through arbitration, so his best bet to remain is probably to take a non-tender and then re-sign with the Dodgers for a pay cut.
Others who may or may not return are veteran infielders Jamey Carroll and Aaron Miles. Both are free agents. The Dodgers could certainly find room on the roster for both of them, but if team officials decide they like what they saw from rookie Justin Sellers, there likely wouldn't be room for three utility guys. There also will be plenty of interest from other clubs in both Carroll and Miles, so we'll have to see what happens there.
There are other potential free agents the Dodgers may look to hold onto. Most notably, they are primary catcher Rod Barajas to potentially hold down the fort with A.J. Ellis as the backup until newly acquired prospect Tim Federowicz is ready to take over, possibly sometime next year; and veteran outfielder-first baseman Juan Rivera, who was acquired for a song at the All-Star break and whose arrival more or less coincided with the Dodgers' turnaround.
The Dodgers will need a second baseman because both Colletti and Mattingly say they like Uribe at third, and neither Carroll, Miles nor Sellers is probably an everyday answer there. Dee Gordon has nailed down the everyday shortstop job. If rookie Jerry Sands doesn't win the everyday left-field job in spring training, he'll likely begin the year at Triple-A, but he wouldn't figure to stay there long.
The bullpen is as good as it has been in recent memory, Jansen and Guerra probably a better duo than Kuo and Broxton were at their best and maybe the best tandem the Dodgers have had since Guillermo Mota and Eric Gagne. The middle relief was a bit of a question, especially down the stretch, but Mike MacDougal -- another potential free agent the Dodgers would really like to keep -- was outstanding, and Matt Guerrier is here for two more years for better or worse, and Blake Hawksworth isn't even eligible for arbitration for another year. And, Scott Elbert and Josh Lindblom had breakthrough years.
And that's pretty much it for now, although we know the parameters will change dramatically by spring training because they always do. Trades will be made that we didn't see coming, and so on and so forth. The Dodgers finished strong, which means there is hope for the near future. But as good as everyone felt about themselves as they packed up their stuff and said goodbye to each other after the game, they also knew, to a man, that the overall season they had in 2011 simply won't be good enough in 2012.
"I'm proud of our club, the way they kept playing," Mattingly said. "A lot of good stuff happened through the course of the season. But the negative was we didn't win enough games."
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.