Tracing the L.A. Dodgers' Rapid Rise in the 3 Years Post-Frank McCourt
One of the most storied franchises in all of sports, the Los Angeles Dodgers had become an embarrassment under the leadership of owner Frank McCourt.
Despite a strong start to his tenure—the team went to the playoffs four times in six seasons after he purchased the club in 2004—Dodgers fans were rejoicing when McCourt finally relinquished ownership and Guggenheim Baseball Management took control on May 1, 2012.
McCourt and his wife, Jamie, who was the CEO of the team, announced their separation in October 2009, shortly after the team won its second consecutive division title. Over the next two seasons, their divorce proceedings were a constant topic surrounding the ballclub.
McCourt's mismanagement of the team's finances were also revealed—N.Y. Daily News reported (h/t The Wall Street Journal) in February 2010 that, according to court filings, McCourt had incurred a $390 million debt against the team—and by the beginning of the the 2011 season, it was unclear if he would even be able to meet payroll.
After McCourt reportedly received a $30 million personal loan from Fox to meet payroll in April of 2011, per Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times, Major League Baseball took control of the team. Commissioner Bud Selig then appointed a representative to oversee the day-to-day operations of the organization.
"The Dodgers have been one of the most prestigious franchises in all of sports," Selig said in an April 2011 statement. "And we owe it to their legion of loyal fans to ensure that this club is being operated properly now and will be guided appropriately in the future."
A potential huge television deal was McCourt's last hope, but Selig did not feel it was in the best interest of the game to approve it. The Dodgers filed for bankruptcy in June 2011, and after a season in which attendance took a major hit—they went from third in baseball with an average home attendance of 43,979 per game in 2010 to 11th, with only 36,236 per game in 2011—McCourt agreed to sell the team.
Since the new ownership group—an outfit which includes Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson—took the reins, it's been a quick ascent back to the top for the Dodgers. Here's the sequence of events that helped them get there.
June 2012: Yasiel Puig Signed to 7-Year Deal
At the time, the Dodgers' signing of Cuban defector Yasiel Puig in late June 2012 didn't seem like a major deal. In fact, the seven-year, $42 million pact seemed like an overpay considering how little buzz he had received once he became eligible to sign with a major league team.
Part of the reason was that he was overshadowed by a more established Cuban star, Yoenis Cespedes, who had signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Oakland Athletics four-and-a-half months earlier.
There also wasn't much information available on Puig, who was only 21 at the time and hadn't played in a year, according to Ben Badler of Baseball America. Several executives expressed disbelief in the contract terms.
"I don't know what's going on in Dodger land," said one international director, via Badler. "They must have seen something."
They sure did see something that no other team did. And despite the multiple issues Puig's had on and off the field due to a lack of maturity and discipline, it would be hard to find one team in baseball that wouldn't give him at least the same deal that the Dodgers did.
July 2012: Hanley Ramirez Acquired from Marlins
Dodgers ownership made it clear early on that it was willing to spend top dollar to make its team a World Series contender as quickly as possible. The group's first opportunity to do that came in July 2012, when Marlins shortstop/third baseman Hanley Ramirez, whose value had taken a tremendous dip after a mediocre season-and-a-half, became available on the trade market.
For two-and-a-half years of Ramirez and veteran lefty reliever Randy Choate, it cost the Dodgers young starter Nathan Eovaldi, who was a prospect with a mid-rotation profile, and minor league reliever Scott McGough. Of course, the Marlins were more interested in unloading salary after a disappointing start to a season that began with high hopes.
The Dodgers were happy to oblige.
Their willingness and ability to take on the remaining $37.3 million on Ramirez's contract allowed them to bring in a former star who was only 28 years of age. Ramirez had a fairly good chance to return to his MVP-caliber form once he returned to full health, moved back to his natural position at shortstop—the Marlins moved him to third base to accommodate free-agent acquisition Jose Reyes—and into a situation where ownership wasn't looking to sell off talent, as was starting to be the case in Miami.
Ramirez had a decent finish to the 2012 season after joining the Dodgers, posting a .774 OPS with 10 homers and seven stolen bases in 64 games, and then played the best he had in years during a 2013 season that was interrupted by separate injuries. In 86 games, Ramirez posted a 1.040 OPS with 20 homers to help lead the team to a division title.
Set to become a free agent after the 2014 season, Ramirez is now in line for one the richest contracts in the game. The Dodgers won't be able to buy low this time, but it probably doesn't matter. Whatever Ramirez costs, the Dodgers can afford it.
August 2012: Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett Acquired from Red Sox
Still in the playoff race and looking to make a splash, the Dodgers matched up with the Boston Red Sox on a rare blockbuster trade in late August of 2012.
Heading to Los Angeles were three former superstars with massive contracts—Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett—and utility infielder Nick Punto. First baseman James Loney and four minor leaguers went to the Red Sox, a team looking to clear its payroll of future obligations to aging players.
While the clear winners in the deal were the Red Sox, who used their newfound payroll flexibility the following offseason to help build a team that would eventually win the World Series in 2013, the Dodgers also became better with the players acquired in the trade.
And, just as important, they made a statement to their fanbase that they were going to do whatever it took to build a winner. Adding three household names who were proven stars gave their fans something else to get excited about.
While not quite the players they were in their heyday with the San Diego Padres and Tampa Bay Rays, respectively, Gonzalez and Crawford are still very good players. They've contributed greatly to the team's turnaround and are part of the reason why the team is considered to be a World Series favorite.
Sure, they will be receiving bloated paychecks into their mid-30s. Again, though, the Dodgers can afford it, partly because they draw the most fans in baseball.
Why do they draw the most fans in baseball? Because their fans are enthusiastic about the team that the Dodgers' ownership group has put together. A team that Gonzalez and Crawford are a huge part of.
December 2012: Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu Signed to 6-Year Deals
While the 2012-13 offseason—the first under the new ownership group—was less eventful than had been anticipated, the two notable players acquired have made a huge impact.
After winning the bid for exclusive negotiating rights for Korean pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu in November 2012, the Dodgers signed the then-25-year-old lefty to a six-year, $36 million deal on December 9.
Considered a major league-ready hurler with a No. 3- or 4-starter profile, Ryu exceeded expectations by winning 14 games and posting a 3.00 ERA in 30 starts in his rookie year. He's been even better through five starts in 2014 (2.25 ERA, 28 IP, 19 H, 9 BB, 25 K).
A day after agreeing to terms with Ryu, the Dodgers landed the top pitcher on the free-agent market, Zack Greinke, who signed a six-year, $147 million deal.
In 28 starts in 2013, the then-29-year-old went 15-4 with a 3.23 ERA on his way to an eighth-place finish in NL Cy Young Award voting. Like Ryu, he's been even more impressive in 2014 with a 3-0 record and 2.92 ERA through four starts.
Without Greinke and Ryu, the Dodgers wouldn't have won the NL West in 2013 and we wouldn't be talking about them as World Series favorites today.
April 1-June 21, 2013: Rock Bottom
Hit by a string of injuries to key players and with a number of healthy players not living up to expectations, the 2013 World Series hopefuls were quickly turning into a laughingstock.
On June 21, they were in last place with a 30-42 record, 9.5 games out of first place.
Carl Crawford and Hanley Ramirez had barely played due to injuries. Matt Kemp, who signed an eight-year, $160 million contract extension prior to the 2012 season, was struggling at the plate. Andre Ethier, who signed a five-year, $85 million contract extension in June 2012, was even worse.
Zack Greinke missed time with an injury. Josh Beckett and fellow starter Chad Billingsley were out for the season. Brandon League, who had been re-signed to a three-year, $22.5 million deal in the offseason, lost the closer job due to poor performance.
Just over a year after taking over and creating such high expectations, the new ownership group was witnessing a disaster on the field. Manager Don Mattingly and general manager Ned Colletti were each on the proverbial hot seat as their team appeared to be dead in the water.
June 22-October 19, 2013: The Revival
From June 22 on, the Dodgers went 62-28. They won the NL West by a wide margin and advanced to the NLCS before losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in six games.
A long list of occurrences contributed to the team's revival. Here are five of the most notable:
- June 2, 2013: Yasiel Puig recalled from minors; posts .925 OPS with 19 homers and 11 runs batted in as a rookie.
- June 4, 2013: Hanley Ramirez activated from disabled list; posts 1.026 OPS with 19 homers and 23 doubles upon return.
- June 11, 2013: Andre Ethier finally heats up; posts .873 OPS with eight homers and 23 doubles over final 82 games.
- June 11, 2013: Kenley Jansen named closer; posts 1.41 ERA with 26 saves in 29 chances while holding opponents to .410 OPS in 43 appearances.
- July 6, 2014: Ricky Nolasco acquired from Marlins; went 8-1 with a 2.07 ERA in first 12 starts as a Dodger.
January 2014: New Television Contract Finalized
The TV deal that Frank McCourt was hoping would save him from his financial woes before being forced out as the team's owner eventually came to fruition in late January. The Dodgers and Time Warner Cable announced a deal that was estimated to be between 20 and 25 years and worth $7 billion-$8 billion.
Only two weeks earlier, the Dodgers agreed to a $215 million contract extension with ace Clayton Kershaw. The enormous revenue stream that would soon be coming would allow them to make the two-time Cy Young winner the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history.
It wouldn't be a surprise if they signed shortstop Hanley Ramirez to a mega-extension prior to him becoming a free agent after the season and continued to have the highest payroll in the game for years to come.
April 2014: Where Are They Now?
On paper, the Dodgers have one of the best rosters in baseball. But like every team, they're dealing with injuries (Clayton Kershaw has made just one start because of a back injury) and players underachieving (Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier each have an OPS under .600).
And yet, they're off to a strong start with an 11-7 record and find themselves at the top of what appears to be a very competitive NL West, with four teams separated by only two games.
If Kershaw can return to full health, there is no reason to think they're not still the team to beat in the National League. And if they need some reinforcements, they have a valuable trade chip in Triple-A outfielder Joc Pederson (.441 OPS, 5 HR, 7 2B, 14 BB, 5 SB through 16 games) and the financial resources to take on a big contract from a team looking to shed salary at the trade deadline.
They also have the experience of last season to help guide them along the way. They know that they're capable of being very bad, no matter how much talent is on the roster. They also know that they can be the best team in baseball at the end of the regular season and still get knocked out of the playoffs.
But more than anything, they know they have 46,000-plus fans packing Dodger Stadium each game, a TV deal that's worth over $7 billion and an ownership group that desperately wants to bring a championship back to Los Angeles. Simply put, they are in an enviable position for any franchise.
And to think, Frank McCourt was running this team into the ground only three years ago.