Commentary

Examining the Dodgers' hazy future

Frank McCourt's mess, how it affects the Mets, and the next Walter O'Malley

Updated: April 22, 2011, 3:17 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

There is going to come a time, one day in the future, when Frank and Jamie McCourt will be just another distant memory for the Dodgers.

Kinda like Bobby Thomson's homer. And the Darren Dreifort contract.

Now we can't tell you whether that day will arrive in the next couple of months or in the year 2019. But we can promise you it's coming. So it's time for Rumblings and Grumblings to gaze into the old crystal ball and see if we can predict where all this madness is leading.

Law & Order: McCourt TV Unit

Our first question for the Rumblings psychics is: Can Frank McCourt win his lawsuit against Bud Selig and the MLB invaders who just plopped down in his office?

One sports attorney we spoke with thinks it's dubious, but not impossible.

[+] EnlargeFrank McCourt
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireCan Frank McCourt regain control of the Dodgers?

At the very least, this attorney said, McCourt has a case, because this is not how baseball has handled other troubled franchises. The Mets, for instance, appear to be in violation of baseball's debt rules as we speak. The commissioner certainly hasn't seized their team in the past 48 hours.

And MLB didn't get involved in running the team in Texas until the owner, Tom Hicks, pulled the Rangers-mobile onto the Chapter 11 Freeway and asked for help. In fact, the Nolan Ryan/Chuck Greenberg group was allowed to take a gigantic up-front payout on the Rangers' big new TV deal to outbid Mark Cuban's group in their infamous late-night courtroom auction.

McCourt, on the other hand, was told by the commissioner that the cute TV-advance trick wasn't going to fly in his case. So McCourt's basic argument would be "Why me and not them?" And if the case winds up in front of the right judge, this could be quite the knockdown-dragout lawsuit.

"As you've seen in the NFL, these are fun cases for the judges," the attorney said. "Remember, they'd all like to be known as the judge who ruled against the commissioner of baseball."

But when we ran this scenario past another sports attorney and a high-ranking club official of one team, their reaction was: McCourt has no shot. Why? Because the commissioner's best-interests-of-baseball powers are so monstrous, they allow him to justify practically anything.

"When you sign on to buy a major league team," the club official said, bluntly, "you're basically signing on to say, 'Bud Selig can do anything he wants.'"

"Before you become part of the fraternity," the second attorney said, "you have to sign away all your rights. You're waiving your right to take legal recourse. … Baseball will argue, 'We're not taking his profits. We're not depriving him of anything. We're just not allowing him to run this business.'"

But the first attorney believes it's not as impossible to challenge Selig's best-interests powers as it's made out to be. There is language in that clause that says the commissioner can't be "arbitrary and capricious" in invoking those rights.

Two decades ago, in fact, the Cubs challenged Fay Vincent's best-interest powers when he attempted to realign them into the NL West against their will -- in an "arbitrary and capricious way," in other words. Vincent eventually backed down.

But will that argument fly in this case, in the face of evidence that the McCourts plundered their franchise by using millions of the team's dollars to fund their personal lifestyle -- and were ready to do so again? Uh, probably not. But it sure will be "titillating," as one baseball observer put it, to watch it all play out.

Meanwhile, in New York

Our second question: What does the Dodgers mess mean for the Mets?

Selig insisted vehemently Thursday that any attempts to compare the Mets' financial problems with the Dodgers' issues are "just not accurate," and "clearly not similar … in a myriad of ways."

Well, first off, we love it when the commissioner says "myriad." Second, he's correct in many respects. But third, that doesn't mean the Mets won't eventually be heading down the same path.

[+] EnlargeFred Wilpon
Noah K. Murray/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireMLB says Fred Wilpon's financial problems aren't as dire as the Dodgers'.

Selig will argue there's no evidence that Fred Wilpon wasn't putting the Mets' revenues back into the team, and that Wilpon always ran his franchise with the betterment of the Mets and the sport in mind. And in most ways, there's great truth in that.

But there's one not-so-minor issue: In the Irving Picard suit on behalf of the Bernie Madoff creditors, Wilpon is accused of "using the Mets as his personal piggy bank," in the words of businessinsider.com.

So if the Mets wind up losing that suit -- assuming it ever makes it that far -- they would, in essence, be guilty of doing pretty much what McCourt is accused of: using club funds for their personal benefit, just in a more roundabout way.

The difference for the moment, said the second attorney, is that MLB has concrete proof, thanks to the McCourt divorce trial, of where the Dodgers' money went. The Mets' situation, however, is "not as clear-cut," because the case is in its early stages.

But either way, people all over baseball portray the Mets as being "in dire financial straits." So eventually, they predict, Selig will have to act.

One baseball source predicts Wilpon's efforts to sell a minority stake will ultimately allow the minority buyer to purchase the rest of the team. But in the meantime, a deal of that sort would provide Wilpon with "a soft landing" that would play out over several years.

Others describe the commissioner's office as already being heavily involved in trying to craft that sale, and even in figuring a way out of the Madoff suit. In the end, however it turns out, one source said "Bud will give the Wilpons a graceful exit."

In McCourt's case, obviously, all Selig is after is any kind of exit. So it's no wonder that, in the commissioner's mind, these two situations are so "clearly not similar." But if you look deeply enough, you find they're more intertwined than he'd like to believe.

The Next Walter O'Malley

We don't know yet who will gallop into Chavez Ravine on a noble steed and rescue the Dodgers from the evil McCourts. But our final question is: How fast will their honeymoon expire?

The line in front of the "For Sale" sign could be so long, there's almost no point in speculating who will be standing in it. Could be a group fronted by former agent Dennis Gilbert. Could be a group that includes former Braves and Nationals president Stan Kasten. Could be just about anyone.

But whoever it is, we know this: They'd better run this franchise like the behemoth it is, as opposed to the way the McCourts ran it.

"The pressure will be on whoever takes ownership to go for it," pronounced an official of one NL team. "Whoever takes it, the spotlight will be on them."

This, after all, is a team that has drawn more than 3 million people in 16 consecutive non-strike seasons, packed in nearly 3.8 million as recently as two years ago and is about to get its own regional sports network. So the heat would be on the next owner to push the payroll -- criminally slashed by $30 million by McCourt at one point -- into the $150 million range, if not higher.

"If you've got new owners next winter, and Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are out there, and they don't go after them," the same NL official said, "won't the fans look at that and say, 'Same old crap'? Right now, those fans are outraged by all the other stuff. So anybody who improves on that will look good at first. But in the end, it's still a baseball team."

Of course, it hasn't been run like one lately, despite the best efforts of men like Joe Torre, Don Mattingly and Ned Colletti. But there needs to be a time, after all this ownership madness shakes out, when that needs to change.

Our crystal ball says you can bank on that happening. Then again, our crystal ball also said the Red Sox were going to win the World Series. So don't come looking for your money-back guarantee on any of this.

Ready to Rumble

• Here's one more still-unanswered Dodgers question: Why was Bud Selig in such a hurry to announce his hostile takeover of the club that he didn't have his "representative" ready to report for point-man duty as soon as the announcement came down Wednesday?

Best theory we've heard so far: He was determined to make sure McCourt didn't take his TV money and use it to finance his divorce settlement, and decided he couldn't afford to wait even another few days to act.

• Is there any hitter in next winter's free-agent class who will be affected by Adrian Gonzalez's contract? We can't find one.

Albert Pujols? "He's not affected by anybody," said one GM. "He's too good."

Prince Fielder? "I don't think Scott Boras would allow himself to be affected by any other contract, other than his own contracts," said an NL executive. "So I don't think the Gonzalez deal will have anything to do with Prince."

Ryan Braun
Braun

• And then there's Ryan Braun's five-year, $105 million extension (on top of the five years and $40.5 million left on his current deal), which sent tremors through the baseball biz this week. Said an official of one smallish-market club: "I literally can't believe it. I don't even know how to respond. Twenty million dollars [a year] is becoming ordinary now." Asked which contract stunned him more, Troy Tulowitzki's or Braun's, the official replied: "It's a tie for me."

• But what's just as interesting about Braun's deal is what it says about Fielder's future. "The message I get," said one agent, "is they think they have no chance to sign Prince Fielder, so they needed to make sure they had this guy in the fold." Couldn't agree more. The early buzz is that Scott Boras wants $200 million for eight years (i.e., $25 million a year) for Prince. And that won't be happening in Milwaukee.

• So where might Prince land? The Nationals are often mentioned as a potential destination for Fielder or Pujols. And clubs that have spoken with them describe them as having a hefty reserve of money to spend on the right player or players over the next couple of years. But one source who has talked with them extensively thinks they're more likely to spread that cash around than they are to throw it at either Pujols or Fielder.

"They're not going to spend $20 million a year on that kind of player," he said. "I just don't see that. Why would they sign Fielder for $200 million when they wouldn't sign Adam Dunn for $50 million? What sense does that make? And $300 million for Pujols? If he wants $300 million, no one is going to do that."

• OK, maybe. But if you tuned out a week and a half ago, when Pujols was hitting .150 after 10 games, you might not have noticed something big developing in the Midwest: Albert's back. Over the past nine games, he's hitting .351, with five homers, a .784 slugging percentage and 1.199 OPS.

"I didn't see him early, but he's the same Albert now," one scout said. "He's got more holes at the bottom of the strike zone than he's had in the past. And he doesn't look good on breaking balls. But it wouldn't surprise me if I looked up tonight and see he's hit three home runs on breaking balls down. So until I don't see bat speed and I see him chasing pitches he never chased, I'm going to assume he's the same old Albert."

Joe Mauer
Mauer

• A follow-up to Tuesday's Rumblings discussion about whether Joe Mauer's offense alone would justify his contract at another position: An AL executive referred us to the invaluable FanGraphs site, which uses Wins Above Replacement to gauge what a player would be worth in free agency. The formula varies, but it generally comes out to between $4 million and $5 million for every WAR point.

So Mauer's year-by-year value over the past five seasons computes to $22 million in 2006, $13.3 million in 2007, $25.5 million in 2008, $36.1 million in his MVP season of 2009 and $20.4 million last year. And virtually none of his WAR points were derived from his defense, which is rated at minus-2 WAR for his career. So his average value over the past five seasons comes out to $23.4 million a year -- right in line with his $23 million-a-year contract. Moral of the story: If he keeps on hitting, he's worth the money at any position.

Broxton
Broxton

Closer Trouble, Chapter 1: One NL executive wonders how much longer the Dodgers will stick with the fading Jonathan Broxton as their closer. Two years ago, his fastball averaged nearly 98 mph, and opponents hit .165 against him, with a .479 OPS. This year, his fastball is down to 94.8, and opponents are hitting .286, with a .902 OPS. In 2008, Broxton faced 285 hitters and allowed just two homers. This year, he's already served up two long balls to the first 39 hitters he's faced. "When you have a closer who starts giving up home runs," the exec said, "it's time to find a new closer."

Closer Trouble, Chapter 2: Here's an NL scout on Ryan Franklin: "He's got the biggest guts in that bullpen -- and the worst stuff. To be honest, his stuff hasn't been there the last two seasons. … And the last thing you want to say about your closer is: 'He's gotta be fine.'"

Nathan
Nathan

Closer Trouble, Chapter 3: Could be a long road back to the closer's gig for Joe Nathan. "Having seen him at his best and knowing him, it's hard to watch, knowing how proud he is," one scout said. "His fastball is 90-92, without life. His command's not there. He's fighting his delivery to get any kind of finish. And he's never gotten anything in sync. I've seen him three times, and he hasn't been effective yet."

Closer Trouble, Chapter 4: Brad Lidge tells Rumblings he expects to be cleared to start throwing again in a week, which would put him on track to return in mid-June, if all goes well. But in the meantime, his fill-in -- the near-literally ageless Jose Contreras (5 saves, 0 blown saves, 8 IP, 4 hits, 0 runs, 9 whiffs) -- hasn't caused a single palpitation yet.

"I'll tell you what," Lidge said. "No one knows how old he is, but it doesn't matter. Whatever age he is, he's in his prime right now."

• Finally, an amazing thing happened Tuesday: After 16 seasons of bopping around the infield, Brewers utility wiz Craig Counsell made his big league debut in the outfield at age 40 -- patrolling left for the final two innings of a 9-0 blowout. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he's only the third player since 1900 to make his first outfield appearance at age 40 or older. The others: Chuck Hostetler in 1944 and Mickey Vernon in 1959.

Three fly balls were hit to the outfield in Counsell's two innings out there, but none wound up in his mitt. And that was fine with him, he told Rumblings.

"I didn't need any Web Gems," he chuckled. 'My heart was beating fast enough as it was."

Five Astounding Facts

Zito
Zito

1. Now that Barry Zito has made his first career trip to the disabled list, the only current starting pitchers who have appeared in 10 seasons or more without ever visiting the DL, according to Elias, are Livan Hernandez, Derek Lowe, Mark Buehrle, Bronson Arroyo and Javier Vazquez. So who's the only full-time reliever? Would you believe Dan Wheeler?

2. The Mariners hold the second pick in this year's draft. Between that choice and their next choice -- the second pick in the second round, remember -- the Rays will get to take 10 players.

3. Since A's broadcast genius Vince Cotroneo alerted us that the A's bullpen is stuffed with five left-handed relievers (Brian Fuentes, Craig Breslow, Jerry Blevins, Bobby Cramer and David Purcey), we've been trying to find the last team that could make that claim before September. Still haven't found one. If you can, let us know at uselessinfodept@yahoo.com.

Haren
Haren

Weaver
Weaver

4. It only took 18 games for the Angels' Jered Weaver (5-0) and Dan Haren (4-0) to get to a combined 9-0 for the season. Last time two teammates reached 9-0 that fast, according to Elias? Herb Pennock (5-0) and George Pipgras (4-0) did it in 17 games for the 1928 Yankees.

5. In the fourth inning Thursday, Roy Oswalt whiffed Jorge Cantu and Chase Headley back-to-back -- but it took him 21 pitches (14 of them to Cantu). So how rare is that? Our favorite pitch-count guru, Aneel Trivedi, reports Oswalt was the first pitcher to launch at least 21 pitches over back-to-back K's since Aug. 28, 2009, when Matt Thornton did it against Nick Swisher (12 pitches) and Robinson Cano (10). And believe it or not, this was the 57th strikeout of 14 pitches or more in the 25-season pitch-count era. The record: 20, by Bartolo Colon against Ricky Gutierrez, on June 26, 1998.

Tweets of the Week

• From "Late Show" tweeting genius @EricStangel:

BREAKING: Hitting .169 & having already left 5 on base tonight for Mets, MLB announces it will also oversee Angel Pagan

• And back at Plushdamentals Headquarters, the fictitious home of Nyjer Morgan's alter ego, @Tony_Plush, life on the disabled list doesn't appear to be going well for the Plushmeister:

Plush is getting tired of sitting on the bench. He just asked Coach Roenicke if he could manage for an inning. Coach ignored him.

Late-Nighter of the Week

Finally, from Jimmy Kimmel, on the Phillies' ill-fated attempt to have a robot throw out the first pitch Wednesday:

"It was the first time a robot has thrown out a first pitch since Governor Schwarzenegger at the Dodgers game."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com