Friday, December 17, 2004

Strange Days

The dismantling of the 2004 NL West division winning Dodgers continues. Normally, a team has to get old and make a few trips to the postseason before a rebuilding phase starts. Paul DePodesta has apparently decided that one playoff win was as good as this team was going to get.

I've already commiserated over the fact that the Dodgers got outbid by the Mariners (God, I never thought I'd put that string of words together) for the services of their homegrown 25-year-old star, Adrian Beltre. As my head was reeling from that unpleasantness, I heard about the possible Green-Vasquez-Unit deal.

That trade is on holdup as of this moment, as Arizona tries to coax Green into accepting a contract extension to play in Phoenix. The Dodgers are reportedly trying to wheedle another player for their suddenly depleted lineup, and even Randy Johnson is rethinking life in the Bronx. However, I'll try and analyze the deal as it is.

The Yankees get rid of their rotation headache and land the Big Unit, which combined with Pavano, Wright, Brown and Mussina gives them the killer rotation they were lacking last year. They also lose their two best prospects, but that's not saying much, considering how barren their farm system is. The Diamondbacks lose Randy, but in return they get a very good starter who's something of a medical question mark, a tremendous young bullpen arm, and Shawn Green, a streaky slugger who can be alternately devastating and whimpering, but who's probably due for a comeback year.

The Dodgers would get Javier Vasquez, who had three and a half very good years before becoming unglued in the 2nd half of 2004. He's still owed $34 million over the next three years, but I figure that the Yankees will be paying a portion of that. He should be better this year, pitching in Dodger Stadium, and he doesn't have the medical uncertainties surrounding Brad Penny. Neither of the two prospects are blue-chips, although Dioner Navarro might be able to compete for the starting catcher job this spring. Losing Brazoban is hard to swallow (and he's not the kind of guy you want to give up if you're starting a youth movement), but he was probably the deal-breaker; Arizona wouldn't make the trade without him.

DePodesta must really want Green and Penny out of here. Yes, Green has a bad contract, but he's only owed $16 million for 2005, and then the Dodgers are done with him. The Dodgers are going to end up owing Vasquez as much as twice that amount, and are on the hook with him until 2007. Unless this trade is a pure salary dump (which it may very well be), the only way this makes sense is if the Dodgers use the money to sign at least two of the top remaining free agents, perhaps Clement and Drew, or maybe Delgado. As is stands right now, the Dodger lineup and rotation is headed for a 100-loss season.

On the surface, this trade indeed looks like a Kansas City Royal-type salary dump. I've been fuming over McCourt and his empty promise to keep a $100 million payroll, but what makes no sense here is the Jeff Kent signing. Why commit that kind of money to an aging player like that if he was looking to cut payroll? By himself, Kent is nearly worthless. Combined with other big hitters in a potent roster, he can be a valuable down-lineup role player. DePodesta has been saying that the Dodgers will field a competitive team with a big payroll next year, and the Kent deal would seem to indicate that. So I've got to believe that the Dodgers are still going to be players in the free-agent market, or what's left of it.

One more note: The LA Times this morning reported that the Dodgers final offer to Beltre was a ridiculously low six years, $60 million. If that was really the case, then I get the feeling the Dodgers never really had any intention of re-signing Beltre. That's a serious lowball offer, only made to give McCourt plausible deniability: "Hey, we tried to re-sign him! We made him an offer! It's not our fault he took the money and ran!" Between that offer and the one he eventually got from the Mariners, I guess I can't really blame Adrian for signing with Seattle - although he and Boras aren't blameless; the Dodgers should have been given the opportunity to match that offer. Other sources are indicating that the Dodger offer was actually six years at $70 million, which is a bit more reasonable. But it seemed to be more important to Boras and Beltre to get the higher annual salary and be able to return to the free-agent market at age 30, when he'll be able to sign yet another lucrative contract.

The past 24 hours have been unnerving, to say the least. It's impossible to tell what direction this team is heading in. It's like being a passenger in a bus that you have no idea what the destination is. You just have to sit back and trust that the driver knows what he is doing, and you'll either be very happy or very upset when you disembark. Until then, you just have to wait.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Welcome to the Neighborhood

For five and a half years, Dodger fans had to put up with Adrian Beltre and his mediocre production, all while listening to the pie-in-the-sky stories of his seemingly limitless upside and potential. And yet we stood by him loyally, through the two-year appendectomy recovery and season after season of .260 batting averages and 20-odd homeruns, telling all the doubters and naysayers, "Just you wait. He'll be great someday, watch and see."

So, in 2004, he finally got great. He put up one of the greatest seasons for a third baseman in history, in his walk year, of course. And this is what we get for it? Jilted by Scott Boras, who drove Beltre straight to the team offering the fattest bi-weekly paycheck. The Dodgers offered more years and more money, although presumably at a lower annual rate. The loyalty of the fans and the organization who invested in him, was patient with him, and for whom he blossomed into a superstar obviously didn't matter in the least. He's a whore just like the rest of them.

And as we watch Tim Hudson get traded not to the Dodgers, but to the Braves, and see the holes in the roster turn into gaping chasms, we can all sense a more disturbing trend at work here. The Dodgers will no longer be contenders for the premium players in baseball. We will not be able to sign the big-time free-agents, or swing the blockbuster trade that nets us a superstar. The competitive, $100 million+ payroll we were promised by Frank McCourt was apparently a myth. The high-rent district inhabited by the Yankees and Red Sox and (ugh) Angels is now off-limits to us. We are now permanently relegated to the part of town that the A's and Pirates and Brewers live in. This is where the clubs who live off the scraps from other teams reside. Who can't keep their own stars from bolting at the first sign of free-agency. Who live and die on the success of their farm system and the wit and guile of their management. It's a precarious existence in this neighborhood.

We don't need to be like the Yankees, greedily gobbling up the premium players on the market every offseason. And we sure don't want to be like the Mets or Orioles, giving bloated contracts to undeserving or past-their-prime free agents. But we also don't want to be like the A's either, always skating by with a bargain-basement team that wins only if they overachieve. Don't get me wrong, I love a scrappy group of unheralded overacheivers as much as the next guy, but that's not the baseball model the Dodgers should be following. Hiring a Billy Beane protege like Paul DePodesta should have introduced an element of that, but that should not be the overall modus operandi for the tradition-rich, major-market Los Angeles Dodgers.

There is no reason we should have been spurned by our own star free-agent, especially considering the deal he ended up signing for was a lot less outrageous than I personally thought it was going to be. I can't believe the McCourts couldn't at least match the five years, $64 million Beltre got from the Mariners. That's less per year than Shawn Green is making and slightly more than Darren Driefort, both of whom will be off the Dodgers' books by 2006. And at only five years long, it's not as constraining as the six- or seven-year contract that the Dodgers were reportedly offering. For all his talk about the folly of tieing up a lot of money in a single player for a long period of time, DePodesta revealed that his only real constraint in re-signing Beltre was the thinness of Frank McCourt's wallet.

Major League Baseball thought they were going to keep a drag on player salaries by forcing the team in the 2nd-biggest media market in the nation into the hands of a cash-strapped owner. As this winter has seen, other teams like the Angels and Mariners have stepped up and brought back a return of the free-spending days of the late 1990s. And the Dodgers are left behind in the low-rent neighborhood, clipping coupons and shopping at Wal-Mart, while the Mariners and Scott Boras take Adrian Beltre out for dinner at Pastis and a spending spree at Barney's.

I guess I can't blame him. A whore has to look good, too.