Dodgers' plans could be more frugal, focused this winter

A year ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ front office team flew to Nashville in the middle of negotiations for their No. 2 and 3 starting pitchers and three months removed from the most expensive trade in baseball history.

This weekend, they will head a little bit south of there -- to Lake Buena Vista, Fla. -- for the 2013 winter meetings and their aspirations figure to be more modest.

Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said his focus is on adding relief help and signing a third baseman, adding only that if, “something else comes out of the blue, we’ll obviously look at it.”

It’s no coincidence. The Dodgers’ owners have been frank about their intentions since they took over. They would spend lavishly early, rebuild fan loyalty and accelerate the team’s rebuilding, and then settle in, allowing the longer-term investments in scouting and player development to take seed. A year ago, the focus was on getting better. Now, coming off an appearance in the National League Championship Series, it’s on getting younger.

Already this winter, you can see the plan in action. The Dodgers thus far have allowed 13 free agents to walk, with three of them already signing elsewhere. They are in talks to retain third baseman Juan Uribe and, according to reports, nearing agreement to hold onto reliever Brian Wilson, but neither deal figures to exceed two years in length.

They signed Cuban defector Alexander Guerrero, 26, to a four-year, $28 million deal a few days after the season ended, declined a $5.75 million option on steady second baseman Mark Ellis, 36, and later signed Dan Haren as a stopgap solution to their shaky starting pitching depth. Even that can be viewed as part of the youth movement. Acquiring Haren on a one-year, $10 million contract (with a second-year option) as opposed to swinging a four-year deal with the likes of Ricky Nolasco will open a spot for one of the promising starters who finished the season at Double-A Chattanooga, Ross Stripling, Zach Lee or Chris Reed.

The Dodgers will stay active. It’s in general manager Ned Colletti’s nature and, after Jacoby Ellsbury agreed to a seven-year, $153 million deal with the New York Yankees, teams seeking outfielders will be more motivated to try to acquire one of the Dodgers’ excess outfielders, whether it be Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier.

The Dodgers still don’t have a third baseman and, if talks fall apart with Uribe, the free agent options are grim. Their bench is virtually barren after the losses of Nick Punto, Skip Schumaker, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Michael Young. They could probably use another veteran reliever or two. But they’ll be in a good posture, able to sit back and listen rather than force the action.

The Dodgers’ plans with their starting rotation are the most difficult to read. There has been rampant speculation they will make a run at Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka once the new posting system is in place, but there are indications they’re not willing to outbid the New York Yankees. Team president Stan Kasten told reporters at last month’s general managers’ meetings that, “it wouldn’t surprise me if we went through the winter without a huge move . . . not that it couldn’t happen.”

Even if the Dodgers don’t make a huge move (and the total package for Tanaka is expected to top $100 million), they’re not exactly going to be pinching pennies. They already have $182 million committed to 13 players for 2014 and they’d like to work out long-term contracts with Clayton Kershaw and Hanley Ramirez before they reach free agency next November.

With four healthy, experienced starters and Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley expected back from surgery by June, signing Tanaka seems like a longshot. Acquiring David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays also seems difficult if the Dodgers are serious about building from their farm system moving forward.

If anything, the Dodgers will be everybody’s favorite straw man at the winter meetings. Because of last year’s moves and because everybody knows they’re flush with money off their new TV deal, they’ll be rumored to be in on some major free agents they’ve shown scant or no interest in. That’s the nature of the beast at the winter meetings.

It’s more instructive to follow the signs and most of them point toward smaller-scale moves heading into 2014. It may not sound like it if you're a big fan of baseball's hot stove, but that's the good news.