'Business as usual' is not good news for the post-McCourt Dodgers
The Frank McCourt Dodgers have declining attendance and no star players
Bud Selig has all but confirmed that a second wild card will be added for 2012
The extra wild card will benefit the Red Sox, Yankees and Giants, among others
What does the MLB takeover of the Dodgers mean for the baseball operations of the club? "Business as usual" is the operative phrase around the offices of Dodger Stadium -- and that might not be a good thing.
Under Frank McCourt's ownership, the Dodgers are fielding a team that features no star players, with declining attendance that could influence future spending and a weakening footprint in the amateur market, especially internationally. Dodgers fans may be happy about the prospect of a McCourt ouster, but it may mean more difficulty for the club in a transition period. Here are some possible impacts on the on-field product:
Midseason acquisitions. Don't expect a blockbuster move unless it's a payroll-neutral one. Like most teams, the Dodgers set aside some room in the budget for midseason acquisitions, but it's complementary-player type money, not impact-player money, according to a club source. GM Ned Colletti has the budget he was given at the beginning of the year and probably not a dime more.
Draft. Last year, with the 28th pick overall, the Dodgers went $4.2 million over slot to give first-round pick Zach Lee $5.2 million. Do you really think MLB is going to let the Dodgers go above its own slotting recommendations with the 16th pick this year? (The slot money for that pick is about $1.5 million.) Look for the Dodgers to play it safe this year.
International signings. Once a leader in international signings, the Dodgers have conceded much ground in the global bidding wars. According to Baseball America, only six of their top 30 prospects are international signings. Only eight teams, all in smaller markets, have fewer top international prospects.
Last year, according to Baseball America, the Dodgers handed out none of the top 100 international signing bonuses. The most they gave an international player was a $50,000 bonus. It's difficult to think that MLB is going to open up the international budget.
Attendance. It was down 16 percent from last season after 11 home dates. The Dodgers have no star players in a star-driven town. None of their players ranked among the 20 most popular in baseball last year according to jersey sales. If they don't stay in the NL West race throughout the summer, attendance could crater, which would affect 2012 operating income.
Extensions. Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and James Loney all are heading into the walk year of their contracts next year. Jonathan Broxton is eligible for free agency after this year. Contracts that buy out free-agent years for them, unless heavily club-friendly, would seem difficult with all the questions about the team's cash flow and ownership.
Other player costs. When MLB ran the Montreal Expos, owners refused to call up players for the September stretch drive rather than foot the extra bills to pay, feed and house them. The Dodgers are not being run with other owners' money, but commissioner Bud Selig is watching every dollar spent, giving at least the appearance of an imposed financial austerity program.
The 2010 Rangers, who were run under MLB supervision until they were sold in bankruptcy court, would seem to give some clues about the road ahead -- though the Dodgers' situation is murkier. The Rangers did swing trades for Cliff Lee, Bengie Molina and Jorge Cantu, but they made sure that they received cash back in every trade, they "borrowed" money from their draft and international signings budget to add to the major league payroll, they drained the small reserve that they had set aside for in-season acquisitions, and they went conservative in the amateur draft.
With the 15th pick, the Rangers gave slot money to high school outfielder Jake Skole. They even asked Boston for $350,000 in the Jared Saltalamacchia trade to help sign a lower draft pick.
The Dodgers, however, are not as talented or as much of a contender as were the 2010 Rangers. They are coming off a losing season with not much help on the way. The transition period -- and no one knows how long this could last or what's on the other side -- could be a difficult one.
The commissioner has all but confirmed that a second wild card will be added for the 2012 season. This bears repeating: It's a terrible idea if he's going to play a best-of-three wild-card series and it's a good one if he plays a one-game knockout round.
Baseball's postseason is already saddled with a bloated inventory of non-decisive games and off-days. Adding more of them is a huge mistake because a) nobody is going to watch up to four games between second-place teams that don't decide anything and b) the best teams over 162 games (division winners) will get penalized by sitting around for five or six days while baseball turns itself over entirely to runner-up teams. Bye weeks in football? Good. Bye weeks in baseball? Not good.
Big-time entertainment programming is event-oriented -- not series-oriented. It's why social media blows up for scheduled events such as the Oscars, NFL playoffs and March Madness. It's win or go home on days that are scheduled months in advance.
Baseball, now that the All-Star Game has lost luster because of interleague play and Opening Day has been diluted by having 18 teams off, has no big events for which you can plan. Game 7 of the World Series? You don't know if you're getting one until 21 hours before it's played.
And how rare are Game 7s (or LDS Game 5s) anyway? Of the 21 series played in the past three postseasons, only two have reached the full complement of games. That means two winner-take-all postseason games in three years, while wild-card knockout games would guarantee baseball at least two such games every year
Now baseball has the chance to own an event -- a dedicated day on the sports calendar -- with a wild-card knockout game in each league. It better not blow it just because managers and general managers are whining about how "unfair" it is for their season to come down to one game. There's an easy comeback to such whining: You just played 162 games; win your division and you don't have to worry about a knockout game.
The Red Sox and Yankees. They are almost guaranteed to be in the playoffs every year. Why? When I retro-fitted the two-wild-card format for 1996 through 2010, the second wild-card team in each league won an average of 89 games. In their past 18 seasons combined since 2002, the Yankees and Red Sox have failed to win 89 games only once (2006 Red Sox: 86).
The Orioles and Blue Jays. From 1996 through 2010 it took an average of 98 wins to win the AL East and 95 wins to win the AL wild card. Now you can build a team to win 89 games and have yourself a playoff team. That lowering of the bar should encourage Baltimore and Toronto to amp up their spending on free agents this winter.
The Giants and the rest of the West. In the 1996-2010 retro-fit, 16 of the 35 teams that qualified for the second wild card (including ties) came from the AL West or NL West.
The Giants tied Seattle for most retro-fitted second wild cards; they would have had four more cracks at the postseason from 1996 through 2010 with a second wild card. That's great news for San Francisco, which could position itself for a mini-dynasty by keeping its young pitching intact. The Giants are a dangerous postseason team with that pitching, and the second wild card gives them more chances to get into the tournament in the first place.
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