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BILL SHAIKIN / ON BASEBALL

Dodgers are the Big Dogs heading into baseball's winter meetings

The Dodgers and their newfound financial might are expected to cast a massive shadow over the annual free-agent bazaar. Whomever they want, they're going after.

December 02, 2012|By Bill Shaikin
  • The Dodgers likely will help make veteran starting pitcher Zack Greinke the big winner in free agency this off-season.
The Dodgers likely will help make veteran starting pitcher Zack Greinke… (Larry W. Smith / EPA )

Did you hear about the Dodgers' latest bobblehead doll? The torso is a miniature ATM, dressed in a Dodgers jersey. Ask if the Dodgers are interested in a prominent player, and the cute little thing nods yes and spits out dollar bills, all at the same time.

The Dodgers swagger into the winter meetings in Nashville, their newfound financial muscle so menacing that rival executives grudgingly suspect — and agents happily whisper — that the team is in on every available star.

"We're the opposite of the mystery team," Dodgers President Stan Kasten said.

The Dodgers had no room in their outfield for Torii Hunter, but they had the money, so they reportedly were hot for him. The Dodgers are set in the A.J.-at-catcher department, but they have the money, so they supposedly want A.J. Pierzynski to replace A.J. Ellis. The Dodgers no longer need to gamble on rehabilitating relievers, but they have the money, so they reportedly want Brian Wilson.

No, no and no. But this is what the Dodgers and their treasure chest can do: When they do target a player, they can tell him to go out and get his best offer, then come back to them so they can top it.

"Our focus is on the substance of every move first," Kasten said. "We figure out the economics of it second."

The New York Yankees dangled $140 million in front of CC Sabathia four years ago. After he considered other teams, the Yankees threw in another $21 million.

The Dodgers can take the same approach with Zack Greinke this winter. The Angels desperately need to retain Greinke — they have staked the success of their winter on it — but they are not the L.A. team on the verge of a $6-billion television contract.

This is rather fortuitous for Greinke. The New York teams are not in on him, nor are the Chicago teams, nor are the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies, and yet he might challenge Sabathia and his $161-million contract, the most lucrative ever awarded to a pitcher.

This is rather fortuitous for the Dodgers too. As the Yankees tighten their belts — they told catcher Russell Martin they could not afford to match his two-year offer from (dramatic pause) the Pittsburgh Pirates — the Dodgers can play Goliath.

The Dodgers were in bankruptcy last winter, and in the free-agent bargain bin, when they spent $25 million on five pitchers — Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, Todd Coffey, Mike MacDougal and Jamey Wright. They spent $25 million last month just for the right to talk to South Korean pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin, and they'll probably have to pay another $25 million to sign him.

If they sign Greinke, they could have four players earning $20 million next season. And, less than one year removed from bankruptcy, this is astonishing: They could miss on Greinke and still field the first $200-million payroll in National League history.

That would force the Dodgers to pay baseball's luxury tax for the first time. However, offenders are taxed on the amount over the $178-million threshold, not on the entire payroll.

For the Dodgers, a $200-million payroll would trigger a tax bill of $3.85 million — about what they will pay utility man Jerry Hairston Jr. next season. The new owners are not going to let that stand in the way of waking the echoes.

If the Dodgers flout the luxury tax as standard operating procedure beyond 2013 — even as the tax rates increase for repeat offenders — the inflationary salaries will trickle down to what would be 29 angry rivals.

"Our primary focus is to make the team the best it can be," Kasten said. "We can't just do that with money.

"Smart beats rich. The really successful major-market teams are both smart and rich. That is what we are trying to be."

Kasten and the new owners inherited a devastated minor league system and an almost nonexistent international scouting department. Of the Dodgers' top 10 prospects before the 2011 season — when the farm system already was thin — they have traded five.

Money is the shortcut, the alternative to seasons of mediocrity and rebuilding. If the Dodgers sign Greinke and Ryu, the new owners would have spent $600 million in less than one year, with the balance on contract extensions for Andre Ethier and Brandon League, the signing of Cuban prospect Yasiel Puig, and trades for Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Hanley Ramirez, Josh Beckett, Nick Punto, Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton and Randy Choate.

Yet the most significant signings might have come at a ridiculously small fraction of that price. The Dodgers hired three top executives — Gerry Hunsicker, Bob Engle and Pat Corrales — and nine scouts this winter.

Those are the men charged with restoring the Dodgers' prominence in scouting and player development, particularly on the international front. The combined annual salary for those 12 men: less than $2 million.

"There are things we still have to build," Kasten said. "It's no secret we were way, way behind the curve. These things take time, which is why we are being aggressive in our player moves."

The Dodger Way used to mean home-grown talent, not a charge card with an apparently infinite credit limit. If the Dodgers' new executives and scouts — and the ones already in place — accomplish their mission, the Dodger Way could mean a second generation of Hideo Nomo, Chan Ho Park and Mike Piazza, this time with the money to keep Piazza.

"I spent 90% of my time talking to guys like you about how we're rebuilding our pipeline," Kasten said. "I can't get any of you guys to write about it. You're just focusing on free agents."

This week, we are.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

twitter.com/BillShaikin

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