Of all the hot conversations currently buzzing around Dodgertown, one of the most intriguing topics is general manager Ned Colletti's being accused of blocking younger players from advancing within the Los Angeles Dodgers organization by signing dozens of castaway veterans.
Last week, we provided an analysis of all 18 players Colletti has signed for $1 million or less, and as of Wednesday afternoon, he added another in 30-year-old relief pitcher Lance Cormier. What we didn't analyze, however, was how these 19 signings affect the prospects on the farm who may be ready to blossom as big leaguers.
The first name that comes to mind is outfielder Xavier Paul. Because Paul has no options remaining on his contract, he's the player who's affected the most and could very well be involved among the initial player transactions that occur leading up to Opening Day.
Before we go any further, it should be explained how player options actually work, since the average fan commonly misconstrues the meaning or simply isn't aware of the true definition of the term.
From the point at which a player is first added to the 40-man roster, he is given a total of three option years. While they are often referred to as options, this is somewhat misleading. In a given option year, a player may be sent down to the minors and recalled as often as the team pleases while only using one option. In other words, an option is an entire season during which the club may move him to and from the minor leagues without risk of losing him to another organization.
There are a few minor exceptions to the rule, one being that once sent to the minors, a player can't be recalled for a period of 10 days. The second is that a player with five or more years of Major League service may not be sent to the minor leagues on an optional assignment without his consent. The bottom line is after his three option years are depleted, that player is out of options. Beginning with the following season, he must clear waivers before he can be sent to the minors again. Such is the case with Xavier Paul.
Fans familiar with Paul are still excited about his skill set. Without question, he has the second-best outfield arm in the organization next to the rifle of Matt Kemp. Paul's speed—one aspect of the game the Dodgers are lacking as a team—is one of his best assets.
Paul has shown impressive numbers in the minors. His best season came in 2008 for the Las Vegas 51s when he hit .316/.378/.463 with nine home runs, 28 doubles, 68 RBI and 17 steals, primarily batting lead-off or second in the lineup.
Although Paul was given his share of opportunities over the course of his option years, some feel he wasn't granted enough reps at the big league level to prove himself.
After three round trips from Albuquerque to Los Angeles last season, Paul played in a total of 44 games. His average before his third call-up was a productive .281, but just before being sent back to Albuquerque in August, he drifted down to a .231 average. Still, there weren't many players on the squad hitting much better at the time, as the entire team was amidst a tremendous drought for most of July and August.
After his final demotion of the season in August, Paul said he was told by general manager Ned Colletti to work on his mental approach to the game and "being a big leaguer."
From the moment Ned Colletti signed free-agent outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. to a one-year deal worth $675,000, Paul's future with the Dodgers became uncertain. Gwynn's contract is a Major League deal, and because he's also out of options, Gwynn cannot be optioned to the minors without clearing waivers first.
Some believe that during Cactus League play this spring, Paul will be in direct competition with Gwynn for a roster spot. The problem, however, is that Gwynn was already promised $675,000, and based on his theme of business practices, owner Frank McCourt is unlikely to let a player walk without getting any type of production in return. Such was the case with Garret Anderson last season when the Dodgers carried him through the middle of August with a batting average of less than .200.
Although it's not unprecedented, it's very unlikely the Dodgers will carry six outfielders on the 25-man roster only for the sake of the many double-switch opportunities that will present themselves over the course of the season.
So, in a nutshell, although there's a remote chance he earns a roster spot outright, Paul will either be traded, claimed by another club off waivers, or will pass through waivers completely and accept an assignment in the Dodgers' farm system.
Some fans around Dodgertown are still haunted by the club's loss of Shane Victorino to the Philadelphia Phillies via the Rule 5 draft in 2002. For those unfamiliar with Rule 5, a club has either four or five years—depending on the age of the player—to assign him to the 40-man roster.
The Dodgers actually let Victorino walk twice. Others still cringe about the thought of trading a 22-year-old Paul Konerko to the Cincinnati Reds for Jeff Shaw in 1998. Even the thought of trading Cody Ross to the Reds for Ben Kozlowski in 2006 leaves some cowering—and that's not even mentioning the names of Carlos Santana, Blake DeWitt or Lucas May.
With five players virtually locked-in to the 2011 outfield corps—Jay Gibbons, Marcus Thames, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Gwynn—another player affected immensely is Jamie Hoffmann.
The Dodgers kept Hoffmann on the 40-man roster for the entirety of the 2010 season because they didn't want to lose him to Rule 5. With future stars Trayvon Robinson and Jerry Sands on the horizon of breaking into the bigs, Hoffmann has nowhere to turn.
Because he does have options, Hoffmann would have been a logical choice to make the 25-man roster even before acquiring Gwynn or Thames. A decent majority of clubs around the majors always keep at least one player with options among their outfielding crew, if only to maintain flexibility. Because the Dodgers have five outfielders with no options virtually locked-in, what you see is what you get. If there was a player with options among them, there would be the chance of movement or fluctuation based on player performance.
As mentioned previously, even if any of the bunch is batting below the Mendoza Line or showing horrendous defensive tendencies, chances are Colletti lets them run their reign as long as possible because their contract would need to be bought out before they are released.
Also, with newly acquired Gabe Kapler and Eugenio Velez manning the outfield at Triple-A Albuquerque right beside Hoffman, Robinson and Sands, deserving players from the Double-A ranks are blocked from being promoted.
Newly acquired catcher Hector Gimenez, who is also out of options, may be facing the waiver wire after Colletti acquired free agent Dioner Navarro. Because he began his stint as a Dodger on the 40-man roster, Gimenez finds himself in the exact same scenario as Xavier Paul. If Colletti had intentions of pursuing someone like Navarro, why sign Gimenez in the first place?
Due to the offseason acquisitions of infielders Juan Castro and Aaron Miles, players such as Ivan DeJesus Jr., Russ Mitchell and Justin Sellers may be blocked from having a legitimate chance of making the Opening Day roster. Although DeJesus, Mitchell and Sellers have yet to prove themselves at the Major League level, having Castro or Miles as reserves on the 25-man roster isn't exactly something to write home about.
Pitchers such as Travis Schlichting and Jon Link, who both saw several call-ups last season, are in essence blocked because of the overwhelming number of relievers acquired over the winter. On the plus side, because of the reliever Ronald Belisario's revelation, Blake Hawksworth is now a lock and will have an opportunity to prove his effectiveness in Dodger Blue. Heading into spring training Hawksworth, who is also out of options, was on the borderline of contending for a roster spot.
Of course, in terms of the bullpen, most of the aforementioned is moot only because Ramon Troncoso, Carlos Monasterios and Scott Elbert, among others, may see some action at some point in the season if by chance the Opening Day bullpen implodes like it did last year or any string of injuries appear.
Some feel Ned Colletti is attempting to corner the market on relief pitchers and become a broker of sorts. By snatching up any reasonably priced reliever in sight, there's a chance he feels every MLB club in need of bullpen help may come running to him at the trade deadline and present him with some attractive bartering options.
In defense of Colletti, another theory exists explaining the reasons he spent in the manner he did rather than invest in two or three big-market superstars that could change the outcome of a game with the swing of a bat.
Perhaps Colletti was never aware of the exact amount of payroll Frank McCourt intended on allocating to the player budget. And, in reality, it's possible McCourt himself didn't know how much money he would have available for the players' salaries. He still has yet to announce an official figure.
If indeed the budget was changing day by day, then Colletti's game plan could have been changing in the same manner. It could be McCourt's intention to raise the payroll as much as possible in an effort to appease the fan base.
In January, after Fox advanced an undisclosed sum of money for the purposes of team payroll, Colletti signed free-agent outfielder Marcus Thames, in addition to former All-Star Mike MacDougal, Merkin Valdez, Ron Mahay, Aaron Miles and Lance Cormier.
If Colletti knew heading into the offseason he would have $110 million to work with, he may have spent differently. Instead, maybe he reacted based on the fluctuating figures McCourt was giving him.
In addition, the divorce and the uncertainty of team ownership is preventing Colletti from signing any long-term, high-profile deals. As it stands right now, the longest tenured Dodgers are Ted Lilly, Juan Uribe and Matt Guerrier, who all signed three-year contracts valued at $33 million, $21 million and $11 million respectively. McCourt could be spending in this particular fashion just until his stake as owner becomes truly defined heading into the future.
That being said, with star players Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Rafael Furcal not being offered extensions as of yet and heading into contract years, it gives Colletti the flexibility of moving these players before the 2011 trade deadline—most specifically Kemp, especially if he shows any of the negative characteristics that haunted him last season.
While it's a given all three of these players will be seeking eight-figure contracts regardless of their 2011 performances, it's horrifying for Dodgers fans to think the club may be outbid by one of the wealthier or more financially secure organizations in the offseason.
Because of McCourt's inability or refusal to compete with the larger market clubs, Colletti's hands are seemingly tied knowing the Dodgers will lose out on the most sensible and productive deals that present themselves every single time.
For all intents and purposes, Colletti's using his best judgment and is trying to utilize all available resources—sans the ability to execute any blockbuster deals. Colletti has been involved in baseball operations for well over 28 years now, and there's no doubt he's knowledgeable enough to handle his position. Perhaps his only available direction without the proper financial means was to build depth—something the Dodgers certainly lacked in 2010.
However, rather than stick with the more traditional approach of promoting from within the organization, Ned has decided to employ the tactic of giving opportunities to middle-of-the-road or castaway veterans whose careers may be in jeopardy. While this is a calculated gamble, the chances of a player already in the Dodgers' system finding success could be about the same as a player whose best years are behind him.
Sure, the Los Angeles farm system is in a state of disarray and also needs to be replenished, but the thought of signing an astounding 25 free agents in a single offseason—enough to field a ball club in itself —is absolutely mesmerizing.
So far, Colletti has been safe in terms of the players he's let walk or dealt away not having an overwhelming amount of success. Carlos Santana's name often creeps up as Colletti's worst mistake, however the catcher still has yet to prove his worth with his performance on the field.
Anything can happen over the course of 10 years, but for Los Angeles, an outfield of Ethier, Victorino, and Kemp with Cody Ross as a reserve sounds like heaven right about now. While general managers take gambles by not renewing contracts, signing free agents, or making often questionable trades, it's sometimes painful to let a player walk away from an organization without being 100 percent certain of their abilities.
Fans across Dodgertown are just hoping Xavier Paul doesn't become the first Shane Victorino of the Ned Colletti regime.
And, ironically enough, when comparing Paul's tools and abilities to those of Victorino, there's an eerie similarity.