Dodgers Must Go the Youth Route Again

In Ned Colletti's six years as the Dodgers' general manager, the organization has avoided the biggest free agent names, not even bothering to negotiate with players who signed massive long-term contracts. Instead, the Dodgers focused on one- to three-year contracts to stay with the salary restraints imposed by ownership.

They didn't pursue Cliff Lee or CC Sabathia to give the rotation a proven ace. They didn't go after Carl Crawford or Adam Dunn to shore up the lineup.

When they did spend money, it was two years for Andruw Jones, three years for Jason Schmidt, two years for Manny Ramirez, three years for Juan Uribe. All of those contracts proved a disaster, but at least they were relatively short. The reviews are mixed, but mostly negative, on the five-year contract they awarded Juan Pierre.

Adding a lot of medium-priced parts to the roster hasn't worked, especially the last two years, so the focus appears to be shifting this offseason.

In prior years, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp had to wait their turn as veterans Jose Cruz Jr., Luis Gonzalez, Kenny Lofton, Jones and Pierre received more playing time in the outfield.

This year, injuries and poor performance forced the Dodgers to trust their youth.

Power-hitting prospect Jerry Sands was called up in late April, far earlier than expected, and it was probably too soon. The Dodgers trusted speed demon Dee Gordon enough to bring him to the majors in June, also earlier than planned, then traded Rafael Furcal in late July to make permanent room for Gordon at shortstop.

When the bullpen was devastated by injuries to Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo and Vicente Padilla, the Dodgers were forced to go young on the roster.

They could have used Rubby De La Rosa, Javy Guerra, Josh Lindblom, Kenley Jansen and Scott Elbert in the early part of games while giving save chances to Matt Guerrier and Mike MacDougal.

Instead, De La Rosa saved games before moving to the rotation, Guerra became the closer, Jansen evolved into a lights-out setup man, and Elbert was used late in games to retire the toughest opposing lefties.

It didn't always work. There certainly were learning curves and struggles for the kids, especially early. But by the end of the year, there were supporting pieces around MVP candidate Kemp and Cy Young front-runner Clayton Kershaw, and the Dodgers improved

dramatically to finish 82-79 and in third place in the NL West. Now the offseason arrives, and around $45 million is coming off the payroll from free agents currently on the roster and disabled list, or already traded away. Additional "dead" money from the Pierre and Schmidt contracts finally comes off the books.

Even more money can be saved if reliever Kuo is non-tendered, or if James Loney is traded.

Many raises are coming, though. Kemp and Kershaw will get massive pay hikes. Ethier will get a healthy raise, and so will Loney if he stays. Other players on multiyear contracts -- such as Uribe, Guerrier and Ted Lilly -- took less money in the first year to balance the 2011 budget, so they'll be making more in 2012.

Colletti was told by owner Frank McCourt what his budget range will be, and it includes enough to re-sign the team's stars and to compete with other teams for a star on the free agent market. Colletti intimated during the season's final week that he'd like to pursue a big-time run producer for the lineup.

If Colletti gets his wish, the Dodgers will spend big -- maybe even nine figures big -- on a big bopper this offseason.

That cost would force him to go young and cheap on other parts of the roster.

But if the second half of this season is any indication, that's not a bad thing.

NOTES, QUOTES
--Frank and Jamie McCourt reached a divorce settlement in which she gets $130 million and he gets control of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The deal, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, removes a major obstacle in Frank McCourt's plan to retain ownership of the Dodgers by selling the television rights in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. It also sets up a showdown between Frank McCourt and Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who wants the Dodgers to be sold.

The agreement settles what is believed to be the costliest divorce in California history. The McCourts had run up $20.6 million in legal bills related to the divorce through July, according to filings with Los Angeles Superior Court.

Determining whether the Dodgers were the sole property of Frank McCourt or community property could have added at least $14 million to that total, based on estimates in a filing on behalf of Jamie McCourt.

--Manager Don Mattingly's entire coaching staff will return for the 2012 season. Hitting coach Dave Hansen, bench coach Trey Hillman, pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, bullpen coach Ken Howell, first base coach Davey Lopes, coach Manny Mota and third base coach Tim Wallach will remain on the job.

--CF Matt Kemp made it interesting in his pursuit of the 40-40 club. He needed two home runs going into the final game. He was hit by a pitch, flied out to left and grounded to short. Then he hit a two-run homer in the seventh inning, his 39th of the year, and got one more chance in the ninth. However, he struck out on three pitches. He still ends the year the NL home run champion and RBI champion (126). Kemp tied for second in the league with 40 stolen bases.

--LHP Ted Lilly had fun in his final start. He singled home a run in the fourth inning. He tried to bunt his way on base, but it went foul. He tried to steal second base, and he was thrown out. And he pitched seven scoreless innings to end his season with an ERA under 4.00 (3.97 to be exact) and a 12-14 record.

--LHP Clayton Kershaw wasn't officially told that he's starting on Opening Day 2012, but manager Don Mattingly figures his ace just assumes it. Last year, on the final day of the season, Mattingly told Kershaw that he was starting the following Opening Day.

--LHP Hong-Chih Kuo will return to his native Taiwan this offseason, and he isn't sure if he will pitch again. He missed part of this season on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder, brought on by a second case of the yips. Kuo said he needs a break mentally and physically. He'll only play again if he enjoys it again.

--RHP Kenley Jansen set the record for most strikeouts per nine innings in baseball history in the final game, even though he didn't strike anybody out. Jansen induced two flyouts to end the game and get the save, after Ramon Troncoso gave up five runs earlier in the inning. Jansen finished with 96 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings, a rate of 16.01 per nine innings. That betters the record of 15.99 set by Cubs RHP Carlos Marmol last year.

--UT Eugenio Velez didn't start the finale because the game mattered to the Diamondbacks for playoff seeds in the National League, so manager Don Mattingly felt the need to field his best lineup. Velez pinch-hit in the eighth inning and grounded out to second base. He ends the season 0-for-37, the most hitless at-bats by a non-pitcher in a single season in major league history. The old record, 0-for-35, was set by Pittsburgh's Hal Finney in 1936. Velez also broke the all-time record for hitless at-bats by a non-pitcher, as he is now 0-for-46 dating back to last season. Brooklyn's Bill Bergen (1909), Dave Campbell of San Diego, St. Louis and Houston (1973) and Milwaukee's Craig Counsell (earlier in 2011) had shared the mark at 0-for-45.

BY THE NUMBERS: 2
-- Games the Dodgers' projected starting infield played together this year. It was supposed to be James Loney at first base, Juan Uribe at second base, Rafael Furcal at shortstop and Casey Blake at third base. Instead, Uribe led the team with 53 starts at third (Blake had 49 and Aaron Miles started 45). Jamey Carroll started 54 at shortstop, followed by Dee Gordon with 50 and Furcal with 36. Miles started 61 and Carroll 56 at second base. Loney started 134 games at first base.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It initially helps, but you have to win, too. The ultimate is winning with a star attraction. We've got two (players) starting to become star attractions. If we can bring in another star, a carrier-type to help our chances to win, I think you get a double effect." -- GM Ned Colletti, on the long-held belief that "stars" are needed in Los Angeles.

BIGGEST NEEDS: Another bat in the middle of the lineup. Free agent 1B Prince Fielder would be perfect, yet very expensive. If RHP Hiroki Kuroda returns to Japan, a No. 2 or 3 starting pitcher will be needed to replace him.

FREE AGENTS:
C Rod Barajas, INF Aaron Miles, INF Jamey Carroll, 3B Casey Blake, OF Juan Rivera, RHP Hiroki Kuroda, RHP Jonathan Broxton, RHP Jon Garland, RHP Vicente Padilla.

Colletti would like to bring back Barajas and Rivera, but it will have to be at the right price. Miles and Carroll were quality veteran leaders who played more (and better) than expected, but only one is needed when rookie Justin Sellers can do the same. Broxton and Blake, coming off injuries, are doubtful to return. Padilla has been sidelined most of the past two years by injuries, but he's been effective when healthy and could return on the cheap.

ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: 1B James Loney, CF Matt Kemp, RF Andre Ethier, LHP Hong-Chih Kuo, LHP Clayton Kershaw.

The Dodgers would like to lock up Kemp and Ethier to long-term contracts before they become free agents after the 2012 season. Kershaw has three years left until free agency, so a long-term deal is possible, but he could go year to year. Kuo is a tough non-tender decision, and he might retire. Loney will remain unless a big-bopper free agent is signed.

IN LIMBO: 3B Casey Blake, RHP Jon Garland.

Blake and Garland have options that won't be exercised. While there's often chatter about the Dodgers trading RF Andre Ethier this winter, Colletti continues to insist he wants Ethier long-term.

MEDICAL WATCH:
--INF Juan Uribe (sports hernia surgery in September 2011) should be ready well before spring training.

--RF Andre Ethier (arthroscopic right knee surgery) in September 2011) should be ready well before spring training.

--RHP Rubby De La Rosa (Tommy John surgery in August 2011) won't return before August 2012.

--RHP Jonathan Broxton (arthroscopic right elbow surgery in September 2011) should be able to begin a throwing program in late October or November.

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