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It's Remake or Break

Dodger overhaul has big risks, but DePodesta sees potential rewards

August 03, 2004|Jason Reid | Times Staff Writer

Having completed an unprecedented overhaul of a first-place team late in a season, Paul DePodesta, the Dodgers' first-year general manager, rested and reflected Monday on what he had accomplished, and risked, during a whirlwind weekend, engineering four deals involving 14 players in an effort to bring a World Series championship to Los Angeles for the first time since 1988.

The 31-year-old executive executed a dramatic remake of a team that sits atop the National League West, has the third-best record in baseball and had the best mark in July at 21-7. Unfazed about industry or fan backlash for trading away one-fifth of a successful, close-knit group, DePodesta cast off catcher Paul Lo Duca, key late-inning reliever Guillermo Mota, left fielder Dave Roberts, right fielder Juan Encarnacion and left-handed reliever Tom Martin in deals with Florida, Arizona, Atlanta and Boston.

The trades netted pitcher Brad Penny, center fielder Steve Finley, first baseman Hee Seop Choi, catcher Brent Mayne and minor leaguers, but DePodesta failed to reel in Randy Johnson, who contrary to reports was never close to joining the Dodgers, or Colorado catcher Charles Johnson, who requested a contract extension to rejoin the team, according to numerous baseball officials.

DePodesta is under the microscope, having been roundly criticized by fans in the wake of his dizzying moves, and some baseball officials have privately suggested he did too much, trying to fix a team that wasn't broken. However, DePodesta had a plan, and the full support of co-owner Frank McCourt, to reshape the roster as much as he could before last Saturday's non-waiver deadline. It wasn't easy, but for better or worse, mission accomplished.

"With all the stress, all the emotion and everything that was built up into it, and knowing what was going to happen to me publicly for making these decisions, it was exhausting, but I was going to find a way to come through on the vision," said DePodesta, in the first year of a five-year contract. "This has been a very emotional time for me and obviously for our club, but at the end of the day, when it came down to making this club better, it wasn't personal. It was only business."

DePodesta declined to comment on his behind-the-scenes maneuvering that produced the most roster upheaval the team has experienced since the stunning 1998 trade that sent star catcher Mike Piazza to Florida. But others in the organization, as well as National League executives, paint a picture of a focused general manager who determined the Dodgers simply weren't good enough to compete in October, and figured he could quickly make them better.

Shortly after joining the organization on the eve of spring training, DePodesta confided to some outside the organization that his predecessors in the general manager's office had assembled an operation in need of a complete overhaul, and he targeted the All-Star break to begin dismantling an overpriced roster.

But a funny thing happened on the way to beginning the rebuilding process -- the Dodgers played much better than expected. They raced out to a 22-10 start and held a three-game lead in the division on May 12.

But then they lost eight in a row and 12 of 14. The Dodgers were 40-37 and 3 1/2 games behind in the division after a 7-3 loss to the Angels on July 2 at Angel Stadium. Internally, DePodesta and his staff were trying to assess whether they would be buyers or sellers as the July 31 deadline approached.

Then the Dodgers got hot again, winning eight of nine to close the first half, and nine of 10 coming out of the All-Star break. DePodesta had seen enough, informing his staff in a meeting that he planned to "go full blast" to upgrade the roster, in part because he determined the team, despite its impressive play, wouldn't last long in October.

Although DePodesta had weeks of preliminary trade talks with other teams, acquiring Finley was his focus from the outset, a Dodger official said. In fact, had DePodesta been able to trade Encarnacion for Finley, a four-time Gold Glove Award winner, the Dodgers might have been back-burner news over the weekend instead of the talk of baseball.

One Dodger insider described DePodesta as being "on a mission" to find a taker for Encarnacion, who is owed $4.435 million in 2005, has a .289 on-base percentage (.311 for his career) and is expected to undergo shoulder surgery after the season. DePodesta had hoped to bolster the front of the rotation for the stretch and next season, but sources said he could have accepted sticking with the majority of the roster as long as he replaced Encarnacion with Finley.

Arizona General Manager Joe Garagiola Jr. made it clear that wouldn't happen, triggering DePodesta's interest in finding alternatives for moving Encarnacion, bringing Finley to the Dodgers and keeping the two-time All-Star from San Diego, the only other team Finley would have waived his no-trade right to join.

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