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Bill Shaikin SUNDAY REPORT

Hot stove league starts early for Dodgers

September 30, 2007|Bill Shaikin

Frank McCourt wouldn't talk last week, as his Dodgers deteriorated from a contending team into a kindergarten.

Winter recess starts today. So does next season.

The Dodgers are a disappointment on the field, an embarrassment off the field. McCourt, the owner, ought to tell the Dodgers' relentlessly loyal fans why he believes the season turned so sour and how he plans to correct it.

The general manager assembled a fourth-place team, with a payroll roughly twice as much as each of the teams that finished first, second and third.

The manager befuddled players of all ages with his strategies and could not stop players from publicly pointing fingers at each other, even after a closed-door meeting in which he told them to blame him rather than one another.

The players simply collapsed over the final two weeks, closing within 1 1/2 games of a playoff spot and then losing 10 of 11 games.

These are the weeks that will be freshest in the minds of McCourt's customers when he asks them to renew their season tickets, almost certainly at higher prices. The Dodgers also finished fourth two years ago, and McCourt let the general manager dump the manager, then fired the general manager.

There is no indication McCourt has the same fate in mind for this general manager, Ned Colletti, or this manager, Grady Little. Yet McCourt has not spoken up to support either one.

If Colletti stays, McCourt should say so today. Then, by the end of the day, Colletti should announce that the Dodgers have picked up Little's option for 2009.

Colletti already has said Little would return next season, but the Dodgers cannot afford to bring back the embattled manager without guaranteeing his contract beyond then. In this clubhouse, the sense that a rough start next year could doom Little could be toxic.

The antidote for venom is victory. The question is inescapable, given the fine performances of Chad Billingsley, Matt Kemp and James Loney in the second half: Couldn't the Dodgers have won -- and saved $36 million as well -- had they started the season with Billingsley in the starting rotation ahead of Mark Hendrickson and Brett Tomko, Kemp in the outfield rather than Luis Gonzalez and Loney at first base rather than Nomar Garciaparra?

"I don't think that's accurate," Colletti said. "We've seen continued development from the young players. There are still days they're finding their way."

The game plan, Colletti said, has not changed since he arrived two years ago: Nurture the young kids, but don't throw them to the wolves. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies did just that, enduring several lean years, with the payoff this season and in seasons to come.

"There might be a correlation between patience and market size," he said.

"This was two years to give the kids the time they need and at the same time give us a chance to compete. While some franchises would wait, Dodger fans have waited long enough.

"We tried to support it with veterans on short-term deals. Last year, it turned out pretty good. This year, we've been disappointed. It hasn't worked this year. At the same time, the kids have gained in the process."

And so no more veterans in the way of these kids? "In my mind, there won't be as much of a need," he said.

The kids have seized first base (Loney), catcher (Russell Martin), two outfield spots (Kemp and Andre Ethier) and two pitching spots (Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton). Rafael Furcal is set at shortstop.

That leaves second base, third base and center field as the positions to plug in upgrades -- and yet Colletti has veterans blocking the way at each one.

McCourt could go big. He could go get Alex Rodriguez for third base, and he could go get a center fielder -- Torii Hunter, Aaron Rowand, Mike Cameron, Andruw Jones.

Then the Dodgers could move Juan Pierre to left and trade Andy LaRoche and either Kemp or Ethier for a strong young arm or two. Jeff Kent would remain at second base, no longer the only power threat in the batting order.

If the Dodgers can afford to spend $70 million this winter to rebuild concession stands, they can afford $40 million to rebuild their lineup. McCourt desperately wants to sell 4 million tickets next season, and A-Rod couldn't hurt.

Or McCourt could commit to the kids, forcing Colletti into some uncomfortable conversations. Colletti said pitching and defense still wins at Dodger Stadium. The pitchers need more support up the middle, a better arm in center field and more range at second base.

So Pierre moves to left anyway, one year after Colletti signed him to a five-year contract to play center. Tony Abreu plays second, and Kent is asked whether he would prefer to split third base with LaRoche or be traded.

In either scenario, because Garciaparra apparently can no longer stay healthy enough to play the field every day, he is asked whether he would prefer to stay here as a part-time player or be traded to an American League team so he could serve as a designated hitter.

The starting rotation should be satisfactory, with Billingsley following Brad Penny at the top and Derek Lowe and Esteban Loaiza pitching for new contracts. Broxton, Joe Beimel and Scott Proctor set up closer Takashi Saito.

Colletti said the payroll for next season has not yet been determined. He would not comment on particular players or scenarios but said, "We're open-minded to improving the club anywhere we can improve it."

Next season starts one month too soon for the Dodgers, again, two decades without a postseason series victory. Next season starts today for Colletti, once McCourt tells us so.

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bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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