If the currency of the game today is young players under contractual control, the instinct of most clubs is to hoard such currency. Even draft picks, lottery tickets such as they are, have become so valuable that the next round of collective bargaining is likely to include a reworking of the free-agent compensation system. No one anticipated that the market value of some Type-A free agents would be harmed because clubs don't want to give up a draft pick or two as compensation.
Come July and the top of the home stretch of the pennant race, though, old-fashioned urgency took over in large markets. The opportunity to win now is why the Phillies set aside their plan to restock the farm system and traded for Roy Oswalt, and why the Yankees traded for Lance Berkman, Kerry Wood and Austin Kearns, all veterans whose best days are in the rear view mirror but are known quantities.
Perhaps no general manager, though, better understands and executes the Pennant Race Rules of Engagement than Ned Colletti of the Dodgers. Hamstrung by the bitter divorce battle between owner Frank McCourt and Jamie McCourt, Colletti, for the third year in a row, upgraded the Dodgers with veteran players without busting the payroll -- a net addition of $3 million. The main cost was more young players shipped out of the Dodgers' system -- a cost, despite today's draft-and-hold mind-set, that might not be all that expensive.
Colletti swung trades for outfielder Scott Podsednik, 34, pitchers Ted Lilly, 34, and Octavio Dotel, 36, and infielder Ryan Theriot, 30, while also getting his trading partners, the Cubs and Pirates, to throw in $3 million. That means that in July and August of the past three seasons, Colletti has added Vicente Padilla, 31 (at the time of the acquisition), Jim Thome, 39, Rafael Belliard, 34, Jon Garland, 29, Greg Maddux, 42, George Sherrill, 32, Casey Blake, 34, Manny Ramirez, 36, Podsednik, Lilly, Dotel and Theriot -- a dozen established major league veterans -- while increasing his payroll by a net $7.5 million.
In 2008 and 2009, Colletti's moves helped to propel the Dodgers to NL West titles and into the NLCS each time, a huge leap forward for a franchise that had not won a postseason series since 1988.
"I always believe that if you have a team capable of reaching the postseason you owe it to your players to do everything you can to make it happen," Colletti said. "Any time you can upgrade an area even by an nth degree you try to take a shot at doing it."
A third run to the postseason will be extremely difficult. Colletti's upgrades may be moot, given the Dodgers' post All-Star break malaise, which includes six straight losses. They begin play tonight trailing first-place San Diego by 10 games in the loss column, and seven behind wild card leader San Francisco. Lilly gives their rotation depth, Dotel fortifies a bullpen that may get Ronald Bellisario back in a week or so, and Podsednik and Theriot have been key complementary players on previous playoff teams. But the Dodgers still sorely need power from Manny Ramirez (rehabbing a calf strain) and Andre Ethier (.140 since the All-Star break).
"I think our team is better than it was a week ago," Colletti said. "We addressed problem areas that needed to be addressed. Whether it shows up in games, I can't tell you. Let's see what the next couple of months bring."
Critics would charge that in patching his club in July and August three years running that Colletti is draining his farm system. Indeed, by sheer volume, he has shipped off 18 young players to acquire 11 of those veterans. (Padilla was a free agent signing as a released player.) Some of those prospects were "name" players, though that is more of a function of the increased, often breathless coverage of minor leaguers who never have played a day in the big leagues.
As Colletti pointed out about his deals this July, "If you wanted to put together a top 10 prospects list, we feel like our top 10 are still here." That list would likely include pitchers Kenley Jansen, Chris Withrow, Aaron Miller, Ethan Martin and Nathan Eovaldi and position players Dee Gordon, Ivan DeJesus, Trayvon Robinson and Jerry Sands.
Colletti relies extensively on scouts Bill Mueller, Jose Vizcaino, Aaron Sele and Mark Sweeney, all former big league players, who typically are assigned to scout the Dodgers' own minor league players, often sitting on teams for 10 games at a time. "You have to study your own people," Colletti said. "You should know your own players inside out. It's not just a nine-inning look. It's a pregame look, a spring training look and everything else beside the nine-inning look."
Third baseman Andy LaRoche, for instance, was considered by Baseball America as the Dodgers' top prospect in 2007. LaRoche helped the Dodgers get Ramirez in 2008, a franchise-changing trade. LaRoche has been a .231 hitter over more than 1,000 plate appearances for Pittsburgh, a perennial non-contender.
Likewise, Jon Meloan was considered a top pitching prospect who Colletti put in the deal with Cleveland to get Blake. Meloan pitched for five organizations in a 14-month span and now, at age 26, has not pitched this year because of elbow surgery. Catcher Carlos Santana, the other player in that deal, is 24 years old and does have a chance to be a frontline player, if not a star.
Oakland GM Billy Beane likes to say there are three seasons within the baseball season: two months to figure out what you have, two months to change it and two months to let it ride. And if your team plays in a large market with packed houses and finds itself in late July with a shot at the playoffs, change becomes a mandate, not an option. Prospects, the darlings of April, begin to hold less currency in late July when the playoffs are at stake.
Colletti has managed to extend the season of change into August. In the past two seasons he turned up Padilla, Thome, Belliard, Garland and Maddux in August. He will fish the same post-non-waiver trade deadline waters again. "There are players that will become available the last week or two in August," he said.
Being bold and resourceful three straight seasons is a job requirement for Colletti as the McCourts wage their own battle. Despite the two straight NLCS appearances, the Dodgers' payroll has sunk from $118 million in 2008 to $100 million in 2009 and now to $96 million in 2010.
Meanwhile, Dodgers fans keep packing Dodger Stadium. When it comes to per-game attendance, the three teams at the top of the standings, all of them big market teams, all of them under pressure to win now, all acted with urgency last week: in order, the Yankees, Phillies and Dodgers. Now Colletti must hope that it's not too little and too late for Los Angeles.