- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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Perhaps the only constant in baseball is this: No matter which team you're talking about, it is almost always ownership and the front office that bear the brunt of fans' discontent.
This winter, the Dodgers are bearing it like never before.
The payroll has been cut, although if you factor in the residual payouts to players who aren't around anymore, it appears it's being cut by only about $5 million, and that's before any performance bonuses are figured in. The Dodgers haven't signed any big-name free agents this winter and even let one of them, left-hander Randy Wolf, walk away without much of an effort to stop him.
As a result, there is the widespread perception that the Dodgers, fresh from their first two appearances in the National League Championship Series in two decades, have taken a big step backward while their chief rivals in the NL West might have gotten better.
Owner Frank McCourt is embroiled in a well-publicized divorce, leading some to wonder whether the divorce's impact on his finances is the reason for the payroll reduction. General manager Ned Colletti finally has the job security that comes with a long-term contract, so for now, he can withstand whatever public criticism is leveled at him.
One thing at which Colletti has proved adept is giving McCourt what he wants, even if that means a payroll of less than $100 million.
A master at getting maximum bang for his buck, Colletti has replaced Wolf in the rotation by re-signing Vicente Padilla to a one-year, $5.025 million contract, far cheaper and less cumbersome than the three-year, $29.75 million deal Wolf got in Milwaukee. Colletti also completely restocked the Dodgers' bench by signing Jamey Carroll, Ronnie Belliard and Reed Johnson, each of whom can play at least three positions, at a total base salary of $5.725 million.
And finally, Colletti deserves credit for creatively structuring the two-year deal to which he signed Manny Ramirez this past spring so that now, even as it appears the Dodgers might not get anything close to their money's worth out of Ramirez's $45 million contract, it isn't creating too much of a drag on this year's payroll.
There is no denying that Colletti has made his share of mistakes during his tenure. He is still paying off the remnants of those bad multiyear contracts he gave to Juan Pierre, Jason Schmidt and Andruw Jones, none of whom is around anymore. And one division rival that appears to have bolstered itself this offseason is Arizona, which did so by acquiring right-hander Edwin Jackson from Detroit. Jackson used to be the Dodgers' top pitching prospect until Colletti, in one of his first deals as GM, traded him to Tampa Bay for Danys Baez and Lance Carter.
In the past two years, though, Colletti has made a dramatic turnaround, shrewdly adding pieces such as Ramirez, third baseman Casey Blake, set-up reliever George Sherrill, infielder Belliard and Padilla, all of whom played critical roles in the club's recent run of success. Those moves were enough to garner Colletti, who as recently as two summers ago appeared to be on his way out, a multiyear extension. The length of his contract is still a secret to everyone but McCourt and Colletti.
Colletti's top lieutenants deserve praise as well. Assistant general manager Kim Ng barely broke a sweat in resolving all nine of the club's arbitration cases this winter to the tune of about $31 million against this year's payroll. Assistant GM Logan White has restocked the lower rungs of the farm system by continuing to draft premier talent. And assistant GM De Jon Watson has changed the culture of that farm system by doing exactly what Colletti hired him three years ago to do, implementing a common organizational philosophy that is used in every facet of the game and at every level of the farm system.
Joe Torre doesn't have anything left to prove on his way to the Hall of Fame, but he could add a nice nugget to his plaque this season. If Torre can get the Dodgers to the playoffs, he could break Bobby Cox's record for consecutive postseason appearances by a manager, a mark Torre and Cox presently share at 14.
Torre will turn 70 in July, and all indications are he will soon sign a one-year extension that will keep him at the helm through 2011. After that, he will retire and join the front office, presumably with Don Mattingly taking over as manager. To Torre's credit, though, he hasn't managed like a guy coasting to the finish line.
No one will ever mistake him for a master at in-game strategy, nor will anyone ever accuse him of being overly hands-on. What Torre does as well as any manager in the game is delegate. But that doesn't mean his coaches don't know exactly what he wants or that they fail to deliver on that. A big reason for the Dodgers' success the past two seasons is that to a man, the players have gradually bought into Torre's preferred approach to hitting: going to the plate with a plan of attack specifically tailored to the opposing pitcher, being patient and making that pitcher work.
Much of the credit for that goes to Mattingly. He brings a calming demeanor that mirrors Torre's, and since he took over as hitting coach at the 2008 All-Star break, the Dodgers are 133-96 in the regular season. They also led the NL in hitting (.270) last year.
The road will be a bit more hazardous in the NL West this year. Colorado returns basically the same team that won last year's wild card and pushed the Dodgers all the way to Game No. 161 before settling for second place, and Arizona and San Francisco have two of the best starting rotations in all of baseball. But as long as Torre is around, the one thing the Dodgers won't do is panic.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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