Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said Tuesday that it is unlikely his club will be able to pursue a big-name free-agent power hitter this winter, effectively ending all speculation the Dodgers will be in the hunt for slugging first baseman Prince Fielder.
"As of today, unless something changes, I think it looks less realistic,'' Colletti said. "I think we have to figure out other ways to produce runs.''
Colletti's comments could be a sign that with the Dodgers presently in bankruptcy and owner Frank McCourt having put the team up for sale, the team's 2012 player payroll actually will be lower than the $97 million it was in 2011. Colletti told reporters during the Dodgers' season-ending series in Arizona the final week of September that McCourt already had given him a payroll budget for 2012, with some flexibility both upward and downward, and Colletti seemed to hint at the time at an increase over 2011.
But Colletti now says the pending sale of the club has rendered that budget largely moot.
"A decent percentage of it has been thrown into uncertainty,'' he said. "But again, we have players we think we can sign, and we have players we think have a chance to be better in (2012) than they were in (2011). What you build in November, December and January and what you have in February and what you start the year with is not what you end up with in August, September and October. It's a starting point. We think we have a chance to be competitive out of the gate, and as the season goes on, we think we have a chance to add a player or two who can make a difference.''
Without specifically mentioning the fact the team is up for sale, Colletti said the inability to pursue a big bat this winter was because of "the dynamics of what we have been through,'' a clear reference to the pending sale.
Colletti remains optimistic that the Dodgers can be competitive next season even without adding an offensive threat of the caliber of Fielder. He pointed to the team's strong finish in 2011 -- the Dodgers won 44 of their final 71 games to finish with a winning (82-79) record -- and to the fact that two players with strong track records, first baseman James Loney and right fielder Andre Ethier, had down years while another, third baseman Juan Uribe, spent most of the season on the disabled list.
If all three perform to their capabilities, Colletti said, the Dodgers should be fine.
"I think under any examination, their seasons were not indicative of their careers and how well they have played in the past or how powerful they have been or how run-productive they have been,'' Colletti said. "They are all younger players, too, who should be reaching the apex of their careers. We can reasonably expect them, and they probably expect it too, to have better 2012s than '11s.''
Bankruptcy and payroll uncertainty aside, the Dodgers clearly aren't hamstrung in terms of offseason maneuverings. Although it hasn't been announced, sources told ESPN The Magazine's Buster Olney that the team in on the verge of agreeing to an eight-year, $160 million contract extension -- the richest contract in Dodgers history -- for All-Star center fielder and possible National League Most Valuable Player Matt Kemp; in the past two days alone, the Dodgers have added two veteran free agents in everyday second baseman Mark Ellis and backup catcher Matt Treanor; and the team still is hoping to re-sign veteran starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, although Colletti admitted payroll concerns could play a part there.
While the Dodgers long ago identified a long-term contract for Kemp as one of their top priorities, the length and size of the deal served to raise eyebrows considering the Dodgers' current financial state. However, the deal was not subject to approval by the bankruptcy judge because, according to a source with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity, signing players is considered part of the "normal course of business,'' which bankrupt companies are allowed to conduct.
That new owner will be on the hook for the bulk of Kemp's contract, if not all of it. That leads to the question of how that contract will affect the sale price. One source said it actually would render the club more valuable because it is now guaranteed to field one of the game's marquee players through at least the 2019 season -- a claim that makes sense in light of a widely reported but often-disputed story that the Dodgers were close to signing marquee free-agent outfielder Vladimir Guerrero just before McCourt finalized his purchase of the team in 2004, but backed off the signing so as not to drive up the sale price.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.