What's next, Dodgers?
Whether your regard for new Dodger manager Joe Torre elevates him to sainthood or renders him a commoner, know that his arrival in Los Angeles doesn't end the tug-o-war fundamental to the Dodger organization in 2007.
It raises the questions of how much tug will Torre have and which way he'll yank.
It's true that Dodger fans have every right to expect a more peaceful clubhouse in 2008 after they were blindsided in September by the revelation that it had become a hotbed of bitterness and resignation under then-manager Grady Little. Torre commands the kind of respect that no player is likely to rebel against -- successfully.
But the disagreement at the heart of the crisis precipitating Little's departure and Torre's arrival still festers: How much should the Dodgers expect from older or younger players? Who should be on the roster itself?
Monday's introductory news conference yielded few clues in that direction, in no small part because Torre confessed to having less insight into his new club than a fourth-grader getting his first set of baseball cards.
"I don't know my team, obviously," Torre said. "I've been in the American League for the past 12 years."
To back up his statement of relative ignorance (which may have been a bluff, for all we know), Torre offered that his greatest knowledge of Brad Penny, the ace of the Dodgers in 2007, was as the guy who gave the Yankees a hard time back in the '03 World Series when Penny was a Florida Marlin. Torre added that his closest personal dealing with 16-year veteran Jeff Kent was the phone message Kent left with Torre over the weekend.
With Monday's confab out of the way, Torre can begin getting up to speed on the organization -- blessed with a to-die-for core of talented 25-and-under players, as well as one of the largest payrolls in the National League -- and weighing in on who should come, stay and go.
It has still been only 3½ months since Los Angeles, 100 games into the 2007 season, stood atop the National League West with a 56-44 record, trailing the New York Mets by .001 in winning percentage for the best record in the NL.
But two things -- neither occurring in the clubhouse but rather out on the field for everyone to see -- caused the team to lose 15 of 19 games and fall into fourth place. Under the weight of injuries, the Dodgers' pitching began to fall apart. The team also went into a prodigious batting slump with runners in scoring position.
Revisionist history tells us that by this time, the clubhouse bickering that would become so infamous had already begun. Yet as Little struggled to field a lineup that would make everyone happy, the Dodgers actually went on a 19-9 run to move within striking distance of the playoffs. As late as Sept. 15, with two weeks to go in the season, Los Angeles was only 1½ games out of the NL wild-card lead.
Off the Dodgers went on their final road trip of the season. Destination: Colorado. What was thought to be a winnable series became the Dodgers' brick wall. They lost their next three games -- by a combined four runs -- to all but seal their demise (and launch the Rockies toward the stratosphere).
Since then, there has been nothing but finger-pointing in the Dodgers organization -- first at the younger players for not being mature enough, then at the older players for not remaining good enough, and finally at Little for not being finger-pointing-preventive enough.
With the arrival of Torre, the recovery of the Dodger clubhouse might be a fait accompli, but the composition of the roster is anything but. The team probably has one player that no one wants to trade -- catcher Russell Martin, who was the team's most valuable player on the field and perhaps its most mature player off the field -- despite being only 24.
The keys to the mystery of the Dodgers can probably be found in two people: neither of them named Alex Rodriguez.
Matt Kemp, at the age of 23, emerged as perhaps the Dodgers' most dangerous hitter, with an on-base percentage of .373 and slugging percentage of .521. But Kemp has also been ground zero for The Kids Aren't Alright maelstrom, via reports of general cockiness as well as more specific if bizarre accusations. (The Los Angeles Times related a story expressing a veteran's complaint when Kemp moved a trash can.)
Clayton Kershaw, 19, is regarded by some as the top pitching prospect in the entire minor leagues -- a potential staff ace. The lefty struck out 163 batters in 122 innings at the A and AA levels. He is regarded with such awe that some Dodgers chat room commenters avoid even uttering his name, for fear that it might poison his destiny.
Is Torre willing, if not eager, to develop Kemp's considerable talent and manage whatever attitude problems may or may not exist? Is Torre willing to wait a year or two for Kershaw to emerge and become a top-drawer member of the staff, at the risk of his fizzling out? Or will Torre push Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti to use them in a package to pursue AL ace Johan Santana from Minnesota -- at the risk of losing Santana to free agency following the season and leaving the Dodgers further from title contention than they are now?
With a 67-year-old Torre on board, does potential become a four-letter word? And in the end, how much influence will Torre have on transactions, period?
A Rodriguez signing would be a game-changer on numerous levels for the Dodgers. But by revealing the team's mindset toward home-grown players on the rise, the fate of Kemp and Kershaw will tell us much more about the direction of the Joe Torre Dodgers than any of the innumerable options awaiting the organization --- regardless of how much input Torre has. Because as Torre would be the first to tell you, no single man -- or manager -- is greater than the team.