Ned Colletti proves himself again

LOS ANGELES -- No member of the Los Angeles Dodgers will be gripping his seat more tightly, living and dying more agonizingly game after game for the next couple of months than Ned Colletti.

He hasn't formally interviewed for his job since the fall of 2005, but he's on stage right now, trying out his lines for a director, a producer and a casting director.
There may not be a more wobbly position in sports than to be a vestige of the previous regime, especially one as unpopular as Frank McCourt's.

That's why Colletti -- in his seventh season as the Dodgers' general manager -- is in this awkward stance, auditioning for a job he already has.

You can understand the frantic urgency with which Colletti approached Tuesday's trade deadline. It might be his last chance to put his imprint on this team before somebody else comes in and tears it all down. It might be his last chance to prove to the new owners that he's not just a steward of the dark years, but the right leader for a new era in Dodgers baseball.

Colletti talked about Shane Victorino with Philadelphia Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. until about 2 a.m. Tuesday, woke up, brewed a little coffee and, by 6, was back on his phone.

He had spent the previous evening staging a two-area-code standoff with the Chicago Cubs over Ryan Dempster while simultaneously landing reliever Brandon League from the Seattle Mariners.

Six days earlier, he had groomed a landing spot for enigmatic infielder Hanley Ramirez when the Florida Marlins decided to hit eject on one of the game's brighter talents.

In the span of a week, Colletti executed the most complete makeover in baseball, while preserving the core of the Dodgers' minor-league system. That, if nothing else, should give the new ownership a head start on writing Colletti's contract extension.

It's hard enough at this time of year, with so many teams in contention and scouring other teams' rosters, to fill one need. Colletti filled four, landing quality, major league players at the highly acceptable cost of Josh Lindblom, Nate Eovaldi and a bunch of minor leaguers the Dodgers didn't consider to be their core prospects.

"I think it's a better team today than it was yesterday and a better team yesterday than it was the day before," Colletti said.

The Dodgers' owners have lavished praise on Colletti when they're asked. Team president Stan Kasten called Colletti his "permanent GM" earlier this season.
Tuesday, co-owner Magic Johnson talked about the work Colletti and Kasten put in before the non-waiver deadline even while acknowledging that the owners "hoped to do more."

"I'm happy for Ned," Johnson said. "He's improved the team, that's what it's all about. The fans can see it, the players are feeling good. They were feeling good when Hanley was just here."

Of course, these late-summer shows of confidence tend to mean little by November.

So, for now, these moves were Colletti chipping in for an overachieving team that has withstood injuries to its best players, brutal hitting slumps and an erosion in starting pitching to open Tuesday in a first-place tie with the San Francisco Giants.

"It's significant to them that, hey, there are people paying attention," Colletti said. "They had a good two-thirds of the season and we're going to do what we can to improve. I think if you don't do that, you're running a risk."

Second baseman Mark Ellis walked in the clubhouse Tuesday afternoon and saw a new face. League was getting dressed just across the room from him. The other times he had seen League, he was standing 60 feet away, trying to hit his mid-90s fastball. He'll see another new face Wednesday, when Victorino shows up and hits right in front of him in the leadoff spot.

"It adds an energy," Ellis said. "We know that we put ourselves in a position to win and they evaluated what we needed to get better and they found some good guys to add to our team."

It's not as if Victorino, at 31, is going to fix the Dodgers' shortcomings. He's batting .261 and has lost some of his once-lethal speed. His defense is solid, but hardly Gold Glove-worthy. But the Dodgers have gotten scant production from their leadoff hitters and cycled eight different players in and out of left field, so Victorino -- who is to make his Dodgers' debut Wednesday -- certainly looks to be an upgrade.

Dodgers leadoff hitters have batted .221, gotten on base at a .279 rate and managed two home runs. Dodgers left fielders rank 15th in the National League in slugging percentage.

Ramirez has already hit a game-winning home run. Randy Choate and Brandon League may not be household names, but they represent the kind of bullpen depth that can carry a team deep into October.

Colletti has had his share of misses at the trade deadline. Dealing away James McDonald (10-5, 3.38 ERA in Pittsburgh) for Octavio Dotel comes to mind, as does parting with Carlos Santana (the best-throwing catcher in the AL) to land Casey Blake.

But he also signed off on July 31, 2008, when Andy LaRoche and Bryan Morris went to the Boston Red Sox for Manny Ramirez.

We know how that one ended, and so does everyone above Colletti's pay grade in the Dodgers' organization. So, until we know more, he deserves the benefit of the doubt.