The Dodgers might have problems building around All-Stars like Andre Ethier… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Phoenix — The Dodgers used to be able to entice free agents by offering the chance to play for a perennial winner, and in front of a packed house. These are strange and troubled times in Los Angeles, with prospective free agents taking notice as their teams visit Dodger Stadium.
As the Dodgers and San Diego Padres battled for fourth place in the National League West last weekend, all the empty seats stunned the Padres' All-Star closer, Heath Bell.
"It's a lot sad, with nobody being there," Bell said Monday. "When I was a kid, the Dodgers could have been really bad and there would still be people in the stands. Now there's nobody."
The Dodgers will have holes to fill this winter, lots of them. However, with the Dodgers' bankruptcy case scheduled to extend into January, it is uncertain how much money the team will have to spend, or whether any spending would be authorized by owner Frank McCourt, Major League Baseball or the bankruptcy court, and who will emerge from court as the owner of the team.
Even if the Dodgers could show free agents big money, the players might not shrug off the residue of the ownership turmoil.
"What visiting players are saying to me is, 'It's different.' That spreads around the league," said agent Scott Boras, who has front-row seats at Dodger Stadium.
"L.A. was always a place where there were 40,000 fans in the stands. The Dodgers were always one of the top five teams in spending. In the player community, both of those dynamics have changed. Players are shocked by it."
Luis Gonzalez, who played for the Dodgers in 2007 and went through free agency four times, said he believed the off-field drama would influence prospective free agents.
"It plays a huge factor," Gonzalez said. "I think there's a lot of insecurity. If you're a big-time free agent, there's a lot of instability there right now.
"It's hard for any agent to want your client to go there, especially thinking about how much money they owe their former players."
Prince Fielder, the Milwaukee Brewers' All-Star first baseman who figures to be among the most coveted free agents, said he would evaluate teams first and foremost on their ability to win.
"That's the obvious part, especially for you to be somewhere in the long term," Fielder said. "Hopefully, they'll be a winning team."
Would he sign with a team in bankruptcy, when the long-term owner is unknown?
"You never know," he said.
Bell said he would consider the Dodgers, if the Dodgers wished to consider him. Michael Cuddyer of the Minnesota Twins, an All-Star who plays first baseman and the outfield, was not sure how seriously he would consider a team in bankruptcy when he hits free agency this fall.
"That plays a part. It's a real thing," Cuddyer said. "You've got to take into consideration what their front office is like. They've got to figure out what their front office is like, too."
Cuddyer fairly gushed about crowds of 40,000 turning out to support the Twins, even as they fell 20 games under .500 this season.
"You can't ask for anything better than to come to the park and see a full house," Cuddyer said.
Texas Rangers pitcher C.J. Wilson, another All-Star free agent to be, grew up a Dodgers fan. He said he would be concerned with whether the Dodgers could retain All-Star outfielders Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp.
Ethier and Kemp are eligible for free agency after next season, but the bankruptcy case could make it difficult to sign either or both to long-term extensions this winter.
"You just hope they don't lose players like Matt and Andre because they can't afford to keep them," Wilson said. "You have to keep guys like that."
However, Wilson said, he believed the Dodgers would rise again.
"It's too good a franchise to get dragged through the muck this long," he said.
Neither Ethier nor Kemp expressed a desire to flee the Dodgers and their off-field chaos.
"I'll give the Dodgers all the chances in the world to sign me back," Kemp said. "I have nothing but great things to say about the organization. I want to be a Dodger. I love the fans there."
Said Ethier: "We're here for the long run. We want to see this thing turn around and get back to where we were in '08 and '09."
Those consecutive appearances in the NL Championship Series seem distant now, the sellout crowds, too. Still, as McCourt fights to keep the team, Ethier forgives the fans for not showing up.
"We understand sometimes there is going to be some boycotting of games in L.A. to make a point," Ethier said.
"L.A. is still an unbelievable place to play. We're having a bad little hiccup. Everyone knows it's going to get better. It has to."
In the short term — perhaps even through this winter — Ethier said he understands that the Dodgers might be unattractive to some free agents. But he predicted the Dodgers would at some point reclaim their place among baseball's elite.
"Baseball can't allow a major team like the Dodgers to become irrelevant," he said.