Commentary

Reconstructing the Dodgers

Don't expect new owners to start throwing big money at top free agents

Updated: April 14, 2012, 1:39 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

This is for all the amateur psychics out there who think they can predict the future of the soon-to-be back-from-the-dead Los Angeles Dodgers.

This is for all the free agents who think they can just drive past Chavez Ravine on the Pasadena Freeway next winter and find quarter-billion-dollar contracts floating in the breeze.

Don't be so sure you know where this is leading. That's our advice.

Don't be so quick to assume the new, improved Dodgers of Stan Kasten and Magic Johnson can't wait to start handing out the largest contracts in the history of the solar system. We're cautioning you now. That just might be a dangerous assumption.

To predict the future, you should always study the past. That's what our history teachers always told us in the seventh grade, anyway. And some of us in that class were actually awake at the time, amazingly enough.

Well, what do you find if you study Kasten's past, back in the day when he was the president of the Atlanta Braves (1986-2003) and Washington Nationals (2006-10)? You don't find a single contract that will remind you of, say, the Prince Fielder deal. We'll tell you that.

In all that time, Kasten's teams never handed out a contract longer than five years to any free agent from outside their organization. And the only six-year deal, even to one of their own players, went to Andruw Jones in 2001 -- at a time when he was 24 years old.

[+] EnlargeMagic Johnson
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireIncoming owner Magic Johnson sat with outgoing owner Frank McCourt on Opening Day at Dodger Stadium.

So do people within the industry see this man suddenly turning into a spend-a-holic who starts firing nine- and 10-year deals at whoever wants to take them? Heck, no.

"That's not Stan Kasten's M.O," said one veteran agent. "I'm sure they'll be a franchise that makes moves. But I'm also sure that when Stan makes decisions, it won't be like the kind of decisions Mike Illitch makes."

"When it looks like a sure thing, it ain't," said another prominent agent. "Look at the Nationals. Ted Lerner has more money than God, and look how long it took him to start handing out big contracts. And did he hand them out while Stan was there? No. It happened after he left. So I know everyone anticipates him spending wildly now. But I'm not so sure."

Is it coincidence that the Nationals stuffed $126 million in Jayson Werth's pockets a couple of months after Kasten departed? We don't know anyone in baseball who thinks Kasten would have signed off on that deal.

And maybe Ryan Zimmerman would have gotten his six-year, $100 million extension (an eight-year, $126 million commitment when you add in his current contract) even if Kasten were still in D.C. But we'll never know that. Will we?

All we know for sure is how Kasten's teams have operated in the past. And while it's true that history shows us his teams in Atlanta were at or near the top of the National League in payroll for years, it also shows us this was a man who never appeared to be working from the "You Too Can Be a Steinbrenner" playbook.

So what can we learn from that history? Nobody in baseball has a better feel for that than Kasten's longtime general manager in Atlanta, John Schuerholz.

"It's fair to say this group is out to re-establish the great Dodger brand," Schuerholz told Rumblings. "But how that translates into making decisions to spend big money on big-name free agents, I don't think that's automatic."

Now would Schuerholz be surprised to see the Kasten/Magic Dodgers chasing the most ballyhooed free agents in the game? No, he "wouldn't be surprised to see them do that," he said.

"But I don't think they'll do it every day," Schuerholz said. "I don't think they'll do it all the time. What I'm sure they'll do is what Stan has always tried to do -- build a rock-solid organization and build it largely around homegrown talent. And at the same time, I'm sure he won't shy away from the right free agent. But I underline the word, 'right.'"

In all those years in Atlanta, the "right" free agent didn't come along very often. But there were times, Schuerholz conceded, when he and Kasten did opt to stretch beyond their normal budget parameters for "the right player at the right time."

And by that, of course, he was referring to -- who else? -- Greg Maddux. Heck, you were expecting maybe Charlie Puleo?

"When we signed Greg [in December, 1992], both the length and the dollars went outside our guidelines," Schuerholz said. "But Stan and I both felt it was the right thing to do."

When the Braves shocked the world (and the Yankees) by signing Maddux, they were willing to make him the second-highest paid pitcher in baseball, behind David Cone. They were also willing to give him their first-ever five-year deal.

On the other hand, that was 20 years ago, remember. So that blockbuster was for (ready for this?) a whopping $28 million over those five years. Nowadays, Kasten might find himself talking to pitchers who think they should be making nearly that much per year. For six or seven years. So even if you adjust for inflation, it's a different world.

But when Schuerholz was asked if he could see Kasten's Dodgers rolling the dice on any pitcher for $20-25 million a year, the reply was very telling.

"I don't think Stan rolls the dice at anything," Schuerholz said. "I don't think he's ever rolled the dice. Stan analyzes. He relies on his experience and his instincts … and he makes an analytical decision about what's the right thing to do for the franchise."

Obviously, the right thing to do for the Dodgers, at this critical point in their history, won't have much to do with what was right for the Braves in 1997 or what was right for the Nationals in 2009. And everyone understands that.

So Kasten has told his friends in the business he knows that he and Johnson have to operate the Dodgers as a big-market club. It's what their public demands. It's what the entire sport needs.

But there are also questions. First question: After spending $2 billion dollars for the franchise, how much further in the hole can the new owners go?

"The problem is, they'll be losing money at this price for a long time," said an official of one club. "But they also know they've got to get their fans back."

Second question: How much money can this group really afford to lay out before the dollars from its new TV deal start flowing in 2014?

"Remember," said one of the agents quoted above, "they can't see daylight until they make a TV deal. And you also have to remember, you don't know what the financial structure of that deal is going to be."

If the Dodgers make a deal with a huge up-front rights fee, that's one thing. But if they start up their own regional sports net, as an independent entity, that's a totally different animal.

But either way, and no matter which world-famous free agent they may be flirting with, said John Schuerholz, "Stan's not going to say, 'Let's give this guy $100 million because he wants it.' Stan's going to say, 'Why?'"

Oh, the answer may very well be: "Because it's the right thing to do for the future of the Dodgers." But it had better be -- because if anyone is still assuming this team will be serving up as many nine-figure deals as Dodger Dogs any time soon, we repeat:

That could be a very dangerous assumption.

Ready to Rumble

[+] EnlargePlay Is Under Review
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesUpon further review, instant replay is, well, under further review. Stay tuned.

• By Opening Day, you labor fans will recall, baseball was supposed to have expanded instant replay to include fair/foul and trap/catch calls. Well, whaddaya know. That hasn't happened. Has it?

So what's the deal? Sources indicate the real story here is that there's a push behind the scenes for a major overhaul to the entire replay system. (Excellent idea.) So instead of having umpires jog off the field to go look at disputed calls, there would be a replay ump, or umps, in New York who could make decisions within seconds and keep games moving.

The only hang-up there is: All sides (players, owners, umpires) have to agree to that. And everyone ran out of time to implement it for this year. But it would now be a surprise if that change doesn't happen by next season.

• A look at baseball's Opening Day payrolls reveals all you need to know about how this sport's salary structure is changing. For instance:

Three teams not named the Yankees (Phillies, Red Sox, Angels) have payrolls of $150 million or more this season. There had been three in history before this year.

Two clubs (Phillies and Red Sox) had a payroll within $40 million of the Yankees' payroll. You know how long it had been since more than one team fit that description? How about 11 years -- dating back to 2001.

Fourteen of the 30 teams now have payrolls of more than $90 million -- tied for the most in any season in history.

And the biggest change is at the bottom, a reflection of new rules in the labor deal. This will be the first season ever in which no teams have a payroll of less than $50 million. As recently as last year, there were five.

• Bud Selig said on Opening Day that the DH isn't coming to both leagues any time soon. Union head Michael Weiner told the National Press Club the same thing this week. But that doesn't mean there aren't signs the landscape is beginning to shift on this issue.

One National League GM who is concerned about the long-term ramifications of having two leagues with different rules is the Brewers' Doug Melvin. And you can't blame him. The DH rule has a lot to do with why Prince Fielder no longer hits cleanup for him, Ron Roenicke and Bernie Brewer.

Asked about the exit of Fielder and Albert Pujols from the NL Central, Melvin replied: "What's happening is that National League teams just can't compete on the length of contracts for guys like that. The Cardinals and our team were both willing to give those guys six years. But when the length of those deals got to nine and 10 years, we just couldn't compete" -- not when AL clubs have the DH to protect themselves on the back end of contracts that long.

That problem may not have stopped the Reds from taking their chances on locking up Joey Votto through 2023. But if NL teams continue to watch their stars head for the other league, that's the kind of "catalytic event" Selig says it would take for the National League to finally cave and adopt the DH.

Rays

• We keep hearing from folks who find it hard to believe the Rays headed into this season with Jose Molina and Jose Lobaton as their catchers, when they had arms to deal for a front-line catcher at any point this winter. The reason, says an executive of one club that's spoken with them, is that they've never been looking for a short-term answer.

"They want to add an every-day guy who will be there for their future," the exec said. "There's no point in trading pitching for a short-term catcher."

Scouts who cover the Atlanta system say the Rays have followed highly regarded 21-year-old Braves prospect Christian Bethancourt "diligently." But the Braves are in no rush to move Bethancourt, especially with Brian McCann's free-agent clock ticking.

• Speaking of McCann, here's Schuerholz on how the Yadier Molina deal affects the Braves' ability to keep their All-Star catcher:

"Sure, it affects it. Absolutely. Does the Votto contract make it more difficult for teams to sign other first basemen? Does the Brandon Phillips contract make it more difficult for teams to sign other second basemen? Of course. They all do. They impact all of us. … Of course, it makes it more challenging.

"Our organization has always been able to keep our players whom we wanted to keep. And our hope is that we're going to keep Mac. We hope he's here for a long time. But I'm pretty sure he and his agent read the papers and watch television. And they may even log onto the Internet now and then. So there are no guarantees."

Buster Posey
Posey

• Finally, you could understand why the Giants would have told Buster Posey to stop blocking the plate. But they didn't tell him to set up halfway to San Jose when he's about to take throws from the outfield. Posey allowed a run to score last weekend because he couldn't reach a baserunner with a swipe tag. And it was much the same in spring training.

"He's giving runners the entire H.O.V. lane to cross home plate," said one scout. "I can understand being cautious after what happened to him, but that's a little too cautious."

Five Astounding Facts of the Week

1. The Phillies, believe it or not, started four different first basemen in the first four games of the season. Many of you just had to know how rare that was. So we asked the Elias Sports Bureau. And the answer is: They're the first team in modern history (i.e., since 1900) to do that. That's almost enough to make Keith Law miss Ryan Howard.

Miguel Cabrera
Cabrera

Prince Fielder
Fielder

2. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun played five years together, and never once in all that time did they hit two homers (or more) apiece in the same game. So how long did it take Prince and Miguel Cabrera to go multi-homering in the same game? Exactly two games -- of course. They both went deep twice on Saturday.

3. When Jordan Schafer and J.D. Martinez homered off Jamie Moyer last weekend, they did something no other hitters had done in 40 years -- hit a home run off a guy who was 49 years old. The only two other men in history who had ever homered against a 49-year-old pitcher: Mike Lum (versus Hoyt Wilhelm) on Sept. 17, 1971, and Harvey Hendrick (versus Jack Quinn) on Sept. 17, 1932.

4. When the Astros won two out of three against Colorado in the first series of the year, they ended one of the most embarrassing streaks in franchise history -- because it was the first time they'd been over .500 at any point in any season in 378 games. Last time before that: July 29, 2009, when they were 51-50. So what team has the longest streak now? Would you believe the Twins? They're up to 168 in a row, since the end of the 2010 season.

5. Finally, as loyal reader Steve Vecchione reports, we had an all-time box-score-line rarity on Saturday. It was crazy enough that Ubaldo Jimenez and Brandon Morrow compiled virtually identical box-score lines (7 IP, 1 hit, 2 runs, 3 walks, 3 strikeouts). But this was also the first game in the live-ball era in which two different pitchers went at least seven innings in the same game, gave up no more than one hit and still found a way to allow two runs. Hey, of course it was!

Tweets of the Week

• From one of our favorite baseball-loving comedians, @Matt Goldich:


• And this show-biz note from one of the most entertaining Tweeters on earth, the Batting Stance Guy, Gar Ryness (@BattingStanceG):


Late Nighter of the Week

From Jay Leno on Tuesday:

"Today was Opening Day at Dodger Stadium. Actually, a little different this year. Instead of throwing out the first pitch, they threw out the last owner."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com