|Hanley Ramirez is one of five major pieces the Dodgers added during trading season. (US Presswire)|
The new Los Angeles Dodgers owners are the anti-McCourts, which is about the best thing they could possibly be.
When the new Dodgers group -- led by Mark Walter, Magic Johnson and Stan Kasten -- bought the team back in spring training, there were a couple of obvious, positive hints that good things were coming. One was the presence of the iconic Magic, who hasn't stopped beaming his patented beam since they won the team.
Even better was the record $2.15 billion sale price, which accurately reflected the new group's interest in owning and running the marquee franchise.
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Baseball rejoiced at the sale price, and its good fortune.
And now, all the sport watches with varying parts admiration, awe and fear as the new group attempts to reinvigorate the once-proud franchise and rule the sport. Their outlook regarding player acquisition is somewhat Steinbrennerian, though not any of the rest of their methods. The combination is proving perfect.
Dodgers fans, once the most consistently loyal in baseball but beaten down by years of McCourtian abuses, are starting to return to their beautiful but fraying ballpark. Attendance, at an average of 41,357 per game, is up 12.6 percent.
Competitiveness, effort and morale (and spending) are up even more.
Janet Marie Smith, the stadium guru, has just been hired away from the Orioles. Dodger Stadium is about to undergo a facelift befitting the upgraded roster.
Even better, the Dodgers' payroll, driven down to a bare-bones $90 million or so to start of the season (yes, below even that the small-market Milwaukee Brewers), already is up more than 20 percent to about $110 million. And counting.
The Dodgers have acquired five major pieces so far this trading season, and longtime GM Ned Colletti said that whenever a new transaction was completed, the response from above was always the same.
"They were excited," Colletti said, "And then they said, 'What's next?' "
What's next? That could be the rallying cry of the new group, the Guggenheim Partners, led by the respected self-made Chicago financier Walter, sports lifer Kasten, who is best known as the president for the Atlanta Braves teams that won an impossible 14 consecutive division titles, and of course Magic, who is known to everyone in L.A. (and probably everywhere else, too).
Magic's presence alone put a smile as wide as his own on the face of everyone inside the Dodgers clubhouse once it was revealed that the ex-Lakers great and his partners had outmaneuvered Connecticut hedge fund billionaire Stevie Cohen and a few other rich folks to seal the deal and buy the team from the reviled McCourt. The ex-owner managed to drive down excitement, interest and public trust while still driving up the price to record territory.
Losing bidders sniffed that the unheard-of price meant there would be nothing left over to run the team, to acquire players or to bring back the trust. But Kasten, whose unusual combination of hype and secrecy works for him and his teams, made this promise early this season to CBSSports.com: "Do you think these people spent their last $2 billion?"
Turns out, that was no threat but a promise.
Turns out, there was plenty more where that came from.
The Dodgers, now 59-51 and a half a game behind the archrival Giants in the NL West, had enough left to add five veteran players, including Hanley Ramirez and Shane Victorino, to a team that weathered many key early injuries (for a while Nos. 2, 3 and 4 hitters Mark Ellis, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp were out) under popular manager Don Mattingly, the New York icon and Joe Torre disciple who rules a room that seemingly grows more talented every few days.
"If there's a deal that improves us, we'll do it," Colletti said. "We're not going to be reckless."
Perhaps not, but they aren't necessarily done, either.
Their spending rep was sealed when they took the full $38 million remaining on Ramirez's contract after the Marlins thought they were pretty close to a deal to send the oft-malcontented Ramirez to the A's for better prospects but only about half of his $16 million yearly salary.
The Dodgers clamored for a third middle-of-the-order piece since Mannywood unceremoniously ended following its whirlwind tour.
So they got Hanley, who had been struggling in the .240s for more than a year but is still only 28 and brings baggage that, compared to Manny's, could fit inside an overhead bin.
The new Dodgers, who also extended Ethier for $85 million over five years and signed lightly scouted Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig for $42 million, were only warming up. To infielder Ramirez, outfielder Victorino, relievers Brandon League, Randy Choate and starter Joe Blanton, they tried hard to add Phillies star left-hander Cliff Lee.
When Lee went on waivers last week, a vast majority of GMs surveyed by CBSSports.com said no one would have the loot and guts to claim him and risk taking a contract that, if accepted, would have committed any claiming team to nearly $30 million a year to an over-30 pitcher with two wins and an ERA close to 4.00. The numbers didn't seem to add up. Many added, though, that if anyone did make that claim, it would be the Dodgers.
And indeed, it was. And they did.
They didn't even hesitate. Their scouting reports suggested Lee was still an ace.
In their minds, Lee was next.
Colletti's previous cost-conscious teams have been known for August pickups, like Marlon Anderson, Ronnie Belliard, Jon Garland, late-career Jim Thome and later-career Greg Maddux. But this was far different. This was a near nine-figure commitment.
Other owners watch with awe, and some with amusement.
"They borrowed $2 billion," said one competing owner, referring to the insurance monies backing the buy. "So what's another $100 million?"
The Dodgers not only claimed Lee, they made offers of players for him. (Colletti and Kasten wouldn't talk about waivers or Lee, since waivers are supposed to be a secret and Lee is still a Phillie, but others confirmed their involvement.)
Word is that beyond taking the bold step of putting in an unprecedented claim for a pitcher with two victories and nearly $100 million to go on his contract, they made brief but spirited efforts to acquire him with multiple trade offers before being pretty quickly shut down by the Phillies.
It became obvious Philly had no intention of letting Lee go, despite the back-loaded contract, the $12.5 million buyout and perhaps the club's best chance to reload a team that needs a third baseman, center fielder, new bullpen and a lot more than anyone could have imagined.
The Phillies, inhibited by Lee's no-trade veto power to the Dodgers (and 20 other clubs) as stipulated in his contract, anyway, would only have considered accepting significant major-league pieces back for Lee (and that's beyond L.A. taking the full $95 million to go), according to sources.
"[Phillies GM Ruben Amaro] needed to be overwhelmed," a person with Phillies ties said, confirming Amaro's public stance that they intend to build around their vaunted trio of starters, which also includes Roy Halladay and the recently extended Cole Hamels, whose new $144 million deal could have been seen as a reason to let Lee go but wasn't.
"We feel like we have a better chance of being a championship club with those three guys at the top of the rotation," Amaro explained by phone.
The Phillies' mandate is to win soon, so they aren't the perfect trading partner for the Dodgers, who nonetheless made two other deals (Victorino and Blanton) with them. The Cubs weren't, either, as the Dodgers declined to give up right-handed pitching prospect Allen Webster, instead offering two lesser prospects, for Ryan Dempster.
Generally speaking, though, the Dodgers are the most willing trading partner in baseball, a far cry from the days of McCourt, whose specialty was something between the hard bargain and the rip-off. McCourt, who had the Dodgers' payroll lowered like no other the past couple years, from $110 million to $100 million, then to $90 million (or $5 million less than what remained on Lee's deal), even insisted the Red Sox pay Manny Ramirez's salary when they acquired him in July 2008).
"We're back to thinking about players in a baseball context," said Colletti, who had nothing bad to say about McCourt (he might be the only one). "Salary is part of the checklist. But it's not necessarily an obstacle."
The Dodgers also did make a play at one point before the deadline for star Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, as Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe reported. but as one Red Sox person noted regarding their lack of interest in trading Gonzalez, "It takes two to make a deal."
Even without Lee or Gonzalez, no one improved during this trading period more than the Dodgers. Even better, they kept their raft of top pitching prospects, including Zach Lee, Ruby De La Rosa, Webster and Chris Reed.
The Dodgers have quickly switched from cash hoarders to talent hoarders. They have eschewed squeezing the green and are back to bleeding blue.
Only one question remains: What's next?