Divorce could hurt Dodgers' pocketbook

Dodgers officials, who haven't been busy doing much of anything else this winter, have contended the ongoing divorce of owner Frank McCourt and his wife, Jamie, won't affect the team's player payroll in 2010. The truth is, it's too early to tell.

The answer should become clear sometime around April 5 -- the day the Dodgers officially begin the season against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.

In 2009, the Dodgers left spring training with an opening day payroll of $90 million, give or take. That represented a drop of about $20 million from the end of the 2008 season. By the end of 2009, the Dodgers' payroll had increased to about $100 million.

If next spring's opening day payroll takes a similar plunge, that will be a clear indication that the divorce -- and the uncertainty about just who will end up owning this franchise when the proverbial smoke has cleared -- is having a direct impact on the front office's ability to put together a championship contender.

What is clear now is that for whatever reason, the Dodgers have been strangely inactive this offseason for a large-market club coming off consecutive National League Championship Series appearances. Each of those appearances resulted in a five-game loss to Philadelphia, a club that seems to have dramatically improved already this winter by trading for coveted right-hander Roy Halladay and signing him to an extension, signing veteran backups Brian Schneider and Placido Polanco, and even raiding the Dodgers' cupboard by signing free-agent utility man Juan Castro.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, have signed veteran utility infielder Jamey Carroll.

That's a pretty stark comparison between two teams that figure to be the best in the NL again in 2010.

At the top of the Dodgers' wish list is a fourth starter to bolster a rotation that lost Randy Wolf but still has Hiroki Kuroda, Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw. Once that is accomplished, the fifth spot in the rotation can be filled from within the organization, with promising youngsters James McDonald and Scott Elbert among the candidates along with more experienced lefty Eric Stults and knuckleballer Charlie Haeger.

Since the end of the season, the Dodgers have cleared several burdensome contracts from their books. Outfielder Juan Pierre was traded to the Chicago White Sox, saving the Dodgers $8.5 million of the $10 million they owed him for the next two years. The Dodgers still owe free-agent right-hander Jason Schmidt $2 million in deferred money in 2010, but that's well short of the $12 million they paid him last year to pitch 17 2/3 innings. They'll owe a little more than $3 million to long-departed outfielder Andruw Jones (and at least that much to Jones in each of the four subsequent seasons).

The Dodgers presently have about $40 million committed to four players -- Kuroda, shortstop Rafael Furcal, third baseman Casey Blake and left fielder Manny Ramirez -- for next season. Add in the roughly $10 million they owe Jones and Pierre against the club's 2010 payroll and you get a $50 million commitment before arbitration.

Speaking of arbitration, that is where things get dicey for the Dodgers. They have a staggering nine players who are eligible for arbitration this winter. Eight of them -- little-used outfielder Jason Repko is the only exception -- figure to get hefty raises through the process. Catcher Russell Martin was already making $3.9 million. Right fielder Andre Ethier was at $3.1 million in 2009, and he had the season of his life, finishing sixth in National League Most Valuable Player voting.

Pitchers Billingsley, George Sherrill, Jonathan Broxton and Hong-Chih Kuo, first baseman James Loney and center fielder Matt Kemp are the other eligible players.

Those eight players are going to cost the Dodgers somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 million, giving the club a commitment of roughly $75 million to barely half the roster. It'll take another $4 million to $5 million to then fill the remaining spots with "cheaper'' players who don't have enough service time to achieve arbitration eligibility.

That will still leave $10 million or so, more than enough to pursue another starting pitcher, assuming the Opening Day payroll stays at $90 million. But if the payroll shrinks to, say, $80 million, the front office probably will have to clear payroll in order to add a pitcher via free agency or trade.

That could be done more easily by trading a major league player to acquire a pitcher, but the Dodgers don't exactly have a deep deck from which to deal. They're woefully thin in places, including at second base, where two part-time players, Carroll and Blake DeWitt, are slated to platoon. Their backup outfielders, for now, are Repko and Xavier Paul, who has all of 14 big league at-bats, behind a starting outfield that will include the 37-year-old Ramirez. They don't have a backup catcher or a pinch-hitting specialist.

Any chance that more money will be freed up between now and spring training probably vanished last week, when news broke that a legal dispute between the McCourts as to whether Jamie McCourt still holds a legitimate claim to partial ownership of the club won't be decided until May 24. Team president Dennis Mannion did concede in a Los Angeles Times interview earlier this month that the McCourts' divorce could have an impact on the team's finances in 2011 and beyond, even as he insisted it would have no bearing in 2010.

Really, though, who knows what the team's ownership will look like by 2011? For a fan base that still hasn't seen the Dodgers in a World Series since 1988, and after two consecutive seasons in which the club has come so tantalizingly close to finally getting there, all anyone really is thinking about right now is 2010.

The Dodgers' ability to keep moving forward doesn't depend entirely on finances. Promising young players must continue to improve. But finances will play a role. And the price of the Opening Day roster will be a strong indication of what the McCourts' divorce means for the Dodgers' future on the field.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.