Things are looking up for Dodgers

LOS ANGELES -- It takes a lot to leave Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti at a loss for words, but like many around baseball, even he was still digesting the magnitude and ramifications of the agreement to sell the Dodgers for $2 billion last week.

"What did I think of it?" Colletti said with a wry smile. "I thought that's a round number. And I thought Frank [McCourt] did very well."

He was smiling because it was his team that sold for such a staggering price. His team that will soon be owned and operated by a group who can drop that much on the front end and still be talking about pursuing the best free agents on the market, renovating Dodger Stadium and reinvesting in an international market it was once the vanguard in.

It's not clear how long Colletti will be entrusted to be the Dodgers' GM -- his contract is up after this season -- but he will likely be here for the rest of this season. Which means for the first time since McCourt hired him in 2005, he might get to operate like the general manager of a large-market franchise.

Let that sink in for a minute.

For the first time in a long while, the Dodgers are being talked about as one of baseball's elite teams again, one that might flex some financial muscle from time to time. As a franchise that could force other franchises to react to it, as the San Francisco Giants so clearly did earlier this week by signing right-hander Matt Cain to a $112.5 million extension before the Dodgers could make a run at him as a free agent this winter.

Most of those changes come into play next winter, but as the team begins its season in San Diego against the Padres on Thursday afternoon, you can't help but wonder if the impact could be felt sooner. Like, if the Dodgers need a bat at the trade deadline, will Colletti be allowed to take on future salary? Or if right fielder Andre Ethier has a season that would make the team want to give him an extension before he hits free agency this winter, will Colletti be able to swing that?

"I haven't really given it much thought," Colletti said, choosing to let everyone connect the dots themselves over any bold statements that could sound silly later.

Fortunately, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly wasn't nearly as coy.

"It's pretty amazing when you consider the highest team before was like $800 million-something [the Chicago Cubs sold for $845 million in 2009]," Mattingly said when asked about the Dodgers' sale.

"But I think coming from the East Coast and that type of franchise I was in, I think you always know that the Yankees and Dodgers are two premier franchises and you knew those two were kind of like bigger than everybody else from the standpoint of the city they're in, the historical value of the franchises. So you knew it would be different, but it's still a huge number."

So does the value of the franchise dictate how it will run? Can we expect the Dodgers to start acting the part now?

As far as Mattingly is concerned, that's a no-brainer.

"I think you look at the big city, the big markets and what they're able to do when they need a piece," he said. "Really, you're better off having your own homegrown guys. If you look at what the Yankees were able to accomplish with [Derek] Jeter and Mariano [Rivera], [Andy] Pettitte and Bernie [Williams], they all came through the system. Really, you would like the same thing here. Guys that come from the organization, they're really tied to the organization and proud of that organization. That's the environment you want.

"The advantage to me that the big markets have is that when you need that piece to put you over the top, you have the resources to go do that."

Mattingly all but called for the Dodgers to go get that kind of a piece in October, saying in an interview with 710 ESPN, "We need a bat. We need a bat that's solid. It's a kind of a day-in, day-out bat. We need that one-two punch. To me that's the biggest need."

And while the Dodgers did make an under-the-radar run at free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder, the fact they felt the need to downplay expectations throughout spoke volumes.

In the end, the Dodgers were actually right in the middle of the bidding for Fielder -- offering him a front-loaded seven-year, $160 million contract with an opt-out after three or four years, according to a source.

But the fact we find it so surprising and hard to believe the Dodgers were actually in on Fielder says everything you need to know about how the club has been run under McCourt. The team has sat out far more free-agent pursuits than it has entered, choosing instead to find bargains at the margins and commit only to short-term contracts.

While the Dodgers made the playoffs in four of McCourt's first six years as owner, including back-to-back NLCS appearances in 2008 and 2009, you can't help but wonder how much farther it could have gone if Colletti had been given the financial wherewithal to go out and add the pieces the club needed.

All that's in the past now. And it's going to feel like a very long time ago once the new regime officially takes over at the end of the month.

"The energy is definitely different, there's definitely a different vibe," Mattingly said. "You felt it the first day of spring with the fans in the stands. ... It's hard for me to explain because my focus is narrow: 'Get ready, prepare, prepare, prepare.' You know what's kind of going on peripherally but you can't do anything about it, but there's just a different energy amongst the fans."

Maybe it always feels this way around Opening Day. Maybe it feels a little like this everywhere. That's the beauty of it, right? Everything feels fresh; every team feels like it's got a chance.

But there's a very big difference between hoping something good will happen in a new season and knowing there's an ownership group that's fundamentally unconcerned with dropping $2 billion just to get started.