Two stars, two SoCal teams and two very different futures
Andre Ethier is signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers but has talked of leaving
Heath Bell can become a free agent but wants to stay with San Diego Padres
It's another sign of the backward business of baseball in Souther California
LOS ANGELES -- Two All Stars approaching career crossroads sit in opposite clubhouses at Dodger Stadium. In one, the team wants to keep the player but doesn't know if he wants to stay. In the other, the player wants to stay but doesn't know if the team wants to keep him. Such is the backward business of baseball, at least in Southern California's National League cities, where the organizations either can't convince their stars to stick around or can't afford them to.
In the home clubhouse is Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier, who indicated in spring training that he was possibly entering his last season with the team, and then told The Los Angeles Times on Saturday that his bosses are forcing him to play through an injured right knee. Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti wants to re-sign Ethier long-term this winter, but the 29-year-old outfielder is giving every signal that he would just as soon be traded or become a free agent after the 2012 season.
In the visiting clubhouse is Padres closer Heath Bell, who has repeatedly told the front office that he will sign a discounted long-term contract, and may even forgo free agency and accept arbitration to remain with the team for another season. The Padres are desperate for Bell to decline arbitration and become a free agent so they don't have to pay him and so they can reap two draft choices as compensation, but Bell said Tuesday he is leaning toward staying put.
Why Ethier would want to leave Los Angeles is fairly obvious. The Dodgers have yet to extend him, the franchise is in bankruptcy, the fan base is in shambles, and embattled owner Frank McCourt is more inclined to litigate than sell. Whether Ethier is bothered more by his knee or his environment, his batting average has sunk from .311 at the All Star break to .254 after.
Why Bell wants to remain in San Diego is more complicated. The Padres are in last place, 16 games under .500, and their payroll is $45 million, 28th in the major leagues and lowest among teams with modern ballparks. But Bell was born in San Diego and grew up admiring Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, who signed discounted contracts as a matter of course. Bell earned his first closer's job with the Padres, bought a house in North County for his wife and four children, and has posted at least 35 saves in each of the past three seasons, never with an ERA over 2.71.
"At some point I became a leader here," Bell said. "Young guys look up to you. They tell you they don't want you to go. That means a lot to me. If I decline arbitration and walk, I'll be letting them down. I'm not trying to needle the organization. I'm trying to make the organization better."
The Padres are attempting to build a young foundation, like the Dodgers did when they grouped Ethier with Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. Kemp and Kershaw have brightened this dreary summer and become candidates for the National League's MVP and Cy Young Awards, respectively. Ethier has lagged behind but is still part of the core, and even though the Dodgers were blindsided by his injury accusations, they were also frustrated by Kemp at times last season. Their patience paid off. Trading Ethier for a couple prospects could diminish the club's appeal once it finally goes up for sale.
Despite all of McCourt's missteps, he has never jettisoned a star in his prime. Padres owner Jeff Moorad, on the other hand, celebrated a 90-win season in 2010 by overhauling more than half the roster and sending first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to Boston because he was a year away from free agency. Gonzalez, who grew up in San Diego and accounted for more than 20 percent of the Padres home runs last season, is now an AL MVP favorite for the Red Sox. The Padres, meanwhile, rank 27th in runs scored. Their second-leading home-run hitter has five.
The Padres tried to trade Bell for two months and were unsuccessful, in part because he threatened to play out the season elsewhere and sign right back in San Diego for less money. If Bell follows through with his plan to accept arbitration, he could be costing himself at least two guaranteed years and more than $15 million. Bell understands why the Padres have not offered him a lucrative contract and hope he declines arbitration. They cannot carry a 33-year-old closer who takes up more than a quarter of their payroll. Yet Forbes reported that the Padres were the most profitable team in the majors last year, and while club officials vehemently disputed that report, their payroll is still less than Pittsburgh's and half of Milwaukee's.
These are the sad scenarios enabled by Commissioner Bud Selig, who approved McCourt's ownership bid even though he didn't put any money down, and then approved Moorad's even though he bought the team on a five-year installment plan. Bell hears the layaway jokes, but he does not repeat them. He looks around the clubhouse, at rookies like Logan Forsythe and Anthony Bass, and feels the same rumblings he did before 2010, when he brazenly picked the Padres to contend. He sounds as delusional now as he did then. "I think we're building this year to dominate next year," he said. "And I want to be around for it."
If Ethier is as optimistic, he is not as outspoken. He backtracked Sunday from his original comments about his knee injury, insisting he made his own decision to play hurt, and he responded by going 6-for-8 in the last two games, including a grand slam on Tuesday. Afterward, he refused to talk about the knee and parroted the same answer to every question: "We had a good game as a team. It was a lot of fun. Thank you."
Ethier is in position to force his way out of town. Bell is in position to force his way back. He can get his wish and be in San Diego next April. By July, though, he'll likely be in another familiar place: the trading block.
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