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Blue Skies Everywhere (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday February 20, 2007 9:23AM; Updated: Thursday February 22, 2007 12:37PM
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The widespread financial enrichment that has led to the dilution of power was evident in this winter's wild off-season spending: After a four-year period that saw only one new $100 million contract, four teams broke the nine-digit mark in signing big-name players. And among 2006 payrolls those four clubs ranked seventh (Cubs, who signed outfielder Alfonso Soriano), eighth (Astros, outfielder Carlos Lee), 10th (Giants, lefthander Barry Zito) and 16th (Blue Jays, outfielder Vernon Wells).

It was only eight years ago that Royals fans, protesting "payroll disparity," picketed the arrival of the Yankees for a series. But it was Kansas City that awarded this winter's most stunning contract: $55 million over five years for Gil Meche, a 28-year-old righthander with a 4.65 career ERA who has never thrown 200 innings in a season.

"You're talking about [$5.2 billion] in revenue in the game now," says lefty Randy Wolf, who left the Phillies to sign with L.A. as a free agent for one year at $8 million, plus an option. "So now there's a lot of pressure on teams to show their fans the money. What the growth has done is opened up the books more."

While player development remains the backbone of sustained success, veteran acquisitions have become increasingly important. The Dodgers are playing hardball in both areas. Last season their farm system graduated such impressive players as catcher Russell Martin, now 24; outfielders Andre Ethier, 24, and Matt Kemp, 22; and pitchers Chad Billingsley, 22, and Jonathan Broxton, 22.

Still, once outfielder J.D. Drew opted out of his contract with Los Angeles (he eventually signed with the Red Sox), Colletti moved quickly to corral a slew of expensive free agents. After missing on his first target, Soriano, Colletti talked Cubs centerfielder and spray hitter Juan Pierre out of a four-year, $36 million deal with the Giants by adding a fifth year and $8 million. Colletti dropped another $18.5 million to bring back first baseman Nomar Garciaparra for two years, $47 million over three years for righthander Jason Schmidt (formerly of the Giants) and $7.5 million for one year on leftfielder Luis Gonzalez (late of the Diamondbacks). Now L.A. has four starting pitchers (Schmidt, Wolf and righthanders Derek Lowe and Brad Penny) who have each won 16 or more games in a season -- plus at least six pitchers competing for the No. 5 spot -- and enough overall depth to take the pressure off its young players. "We signed veteran, championship-caliber players with integrity who can show the kids the way," Colletti says.

The Dodgers did win 88 games and the NL wild card last year, but as Colletti says, "Our pitching -- the starters and relievers -- wore down at the end." The hard-throwing Penny, for instance, was 10-2 at the All-Star break but threw only one relief inning in the playoffs because of a balky back. In the NL only the Nationals' starters struck out fewer batters than did L.A.'s rotation. Schmidt, 34, and Wolf, 30, provide the power arms that Colletti coveted.

"Most teams win because the starting pitchers set the tone, and that's what we hope to do," says Wolf, who won't be backed by an especially potent offense. The Dodgers' aging 3-4-5 hitters -- Garciaparra, 33; second baseman Jeff Kent, 38; and Gonzalez, 39 -- combined for 49 homers in 2006. Last year was the first full season since 1972 that L.A. had a winning record without a player belting more than 20 dingers; the club hit a league-best .286 with runners in scoring position to offset that lack of power.

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