Dodgers a Big Letdown This Winter

Mark KriegelCorrespondent IDecember 19, 2008

Eight weeks have passed since the World Series. The winter meetings have come and gone.
The Yankees did what they said they would, committing $243 million to two pitchers.

The Mets, doing what the Mets always do, spent a lot, but less lavishly than the Yankees.

The Red Sox offered Mark Teixeira an eight-year deal worth a reported $184 million. The Angels also offered Scott Boras' prized client an eight-year deal.

So far all the big market teams have played to type—except one. That would be the Los Angeles Dodgers. The more they wait, the more you suspect a big-market team playing a small-time game.

The Dodgers don't have their own cable channel like the Yankees or the Red Sox or the Mets. Then again, they drew more than 3.73 million fans last season, third best in the majors. In the five years since Frank and Jamie McCourt have owned the Dodgers, they have not drawn fewer than 3.48 million.

What's more, they would seem to be in an ideal position to make a key free-agent signing. You hear a lot about economic uncertainty. But the Dodgers' forecast is relatively certain and healthy.

The team's core—Russell Martin, James Loney, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and Chad Billingsley—remains young and affordable. What's more, the expiring contracts of Brad Penny, Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Kent and Derek Lowe amount to a $36 million drop in payroll.

In other words, they've got some money to play with. They've got some options. They're not the Kansas City Royals. Besides, L.A. shouldn't be a hard sell for players. You get all the big-market glory, but not the pressure of playing in New York or Boston.

Still, to this point, the Dodgers' big offseason move has been re-signing Rafael Furcal. The shortstop's salary will be about $3 million less than he had been making. You wonder what the Dodgers are saving for.

Forget about bidding on Teixeira. The Dodgers were never in the game. More curiously, they were never in the game for CC Sabathia, either. Not only was Sabathia the best starter on the market, he made it very clear he wanted to play in California.

They offered Manny Ramirez—who carried a previously boring and underachieving team into the NLCS—two years at $45 million. If that's an obscene amount for someone to hit a baseball, it's a lot less offensive than what some of these Wall Street bums and hedge fund types were getting in bonuses. More than that, though, it was an offer Ramirez and Boras were sure to reject.

Jamie McCourt made a tactical blunder here. Last month, while appearing for a charitable initiative to eventually refurbish or build 50 new baseball fields in Southern California, she told the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez that the team was merely thinking of its fans during tough economic times.

"If you bring somebody in to play and pay them, pick a number, $30 million, does that seem a little weird to you?" she asked. "That's what we're trying to figure out. We're really trying to see it through the eyes of our fans. We're really trying to understand would they rather have the 50 fields?"

I'm not diminishing the Dodgers' charitable works, certainly not when a team like the Yankees keeps shaking down the City of New York (the latest request was for another $370 million in bonds).

But a little context is in order. The Dodgers have pledged up to $5 million for the ball fields over an indefinite period of time. That's not even a middle-reliever. If the Dodgers really wanted to feel their fans' pain, they'd lower ticket prices.

"What Jamie was seeking to do was have a philosophical debate about how intelligent it is to spend this sort of money," said team spokesman Josh Rawitch, referring to free agency. "In no way was she trying to intimate an either/or situation. The Dodgers are committed to the community no matter who the players are."

OK, fair enough. I'll also accept Rawitch's assertion that his bosses have been egregiously miscast as tightwads. "There's an impression out there that for some reason we haven't spent money or that were not willing to spend big dollars on free agents," he said. "But if you look at the track record since the McCourts purchased the team nothing could be further from the truth."

Consider some of the guys they've signed the last few years: Derek Lowe, Jason Schmidt, Kent, J.D. Drew, Garciaparra, Andruw Jones. If they didn't turn out well, they didn't come cheap, either.

Still, none of these arguments get the Dodgers off the hook. As the McCourts no doubt understand, owning a baseball team is a kind of public trust. But this particular team is a big market club with a substantially diminished payroll. Such a fabled franchise can't plead poverty. The fans have a right to expect something, and now more than ever, a good team to get them through bad times.

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