|Thursday, February 13
Updated: March 14, 5:50 PM ET
Los Angeles Dodgers
By Rob Neyer
2002 in review
Thirty-year-old center fielder Dave Roberts, acquired from the Indians for a song, finally got a chance to play semi-regularly and responded with a .353 on-base percentage and 45 steals out of the leadoff slot. After failing to meet expectations in Atlanta, left-hander Odalis Perez came to the Dodgers and became the best pitcher on the staff, going 15-10 with a 3.00 ERA and accounting for all four complete games by Dodger pitchers.
What went wrong?
At the All-Star break, Japanese right-hander Kazuhisa Ishii was 11-4 and looked like a lock for Rookie of the Year honors, but he went just 3-6 with a 5.42 ERA down the stretch, and his season was ended on September 8 by a line drive to the head, courtesy of Houston's Brian Hunter.
In retrospect, the critical decisions were:
2. Turning Eric Gagne into a closer. True, he might eventually have come around as a starter, having pitched brilliantly in that role in the minors. But in 43 major-league starts, Gagne was just 9-12 with a 5.01 ERA, so the Dodgers sent him to the bullpen. To say the least, he thrived in his new role, setting a franchise record with 52 saves (while blowing only four).
3. Placing their faith in Perez and Roberts. Essentially cast-offs from other organizations, both Perez and Roberts stepped in and immediately played big roles for the Dodgers: Perez as their best starter, and Roberts as their leadoff man against right-handed pitchers. These were the first gutsy moves by new GM Dan Evans, and both paid off in spades.
Looking ahead to 2003
2. How much does the Crime Dog have left? He's 39, but Fred McGriff shows few signs of slowing down, having hit 31 homers in 2001 and 30 in 2002. Dodger Stadium is a tough place to hit, though, and he may be hard-pressed to pad his Hall of Fame credentials.
3. Will the real Joe Thurston please stand up?
Can expect to play better
Can expect to play worse
A closer look
Those are baseball's buzz words of the moment, and for good reason.
And payroll flexibility is exactly where the Dodgers have fallen seriously short in recent seasons. When Rupert Murdoch bought the franchise in 1998, a number of misguided pundits -- yes, including yours truly -- predicted that the Dodgers would outspend and thus outplay every other team in their division, if not their league.
Well, they did outspend everybody. But in the five seasons since Murdoch took control, the Dodgers have finished third, third, second, third, and third. They did post winning records in four of those seasons, but it's safe to say that the rest of the National League hasn't exactly been quaking in its collective boots.
And if there was any quaking, it presumably ceased on December 11, 2000. That was the day the Dodgers signed Darren Dreifort to a five-year, $55 million contract. With that contract, it became apparent that, for at least the short term, Murdoch's seemingly unlimited millions would be spent so foolishly that the rest of the league had little to fear.
Two years earlier, one season into Murdoch's reign, the Dodgers had signed Kevin Brown to a megadeal -- seven years, $105 million (not counting the Learjet) -- that did put the fear of God into the rest of the league. But while Brown pitched brilliantly in 1999 and 2000, since then he, like Dreifort, has done little but collect gigantic paychecks and put in hundreds of hours of rehab time.
Here's what the Dodgers paid those two guys over the course of 2001 and '02, along with the number of wins they received from the two:
Brown $30 million 14 wins Dreifort $20 million 4 wins
Eighteen wins for $50 million isn't good. And things might get worse before they get better. The Dodgers still owe Brown and Dreifort $80 million over the next three seasons: $45 million to Brown, $35 million to Dreifort. Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd has drawn plenty of heat, and deservedly so, for signing Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle to long-term deals for big bucks. But what about the crazy deals that ex-Dodgers GM Kevin Malone gave to Brown and Dreifort?
The Dodgers opened the 2002 season with a $95 million payroll, (approximately) tied for fifth in Major League Baseball with the Mets and the Braves. But sometimes a $95 million payroll ain't all it's cracked up to be (just ask the Mets). When you see that the Dodgers spent something like $25 million on Brown and Dreifort, and another $12 million on Karros and Grudzielanek, you can then begin to understand just what kind of job Jim Tracy did in getting this club to 92 wins. The Dodgers may have spent $95 million, but Tracy had something like $60 million worth of ballplayers to work with. They were, as one person close to the organization only half-jokingly suggests, "The Little Dodgers That Could."
But will the Dodgers could again in 2003?
It's not hard to imagine them contending for the division title, especially with both the Diamondbacks and Giants looking somewhat weaker. McGriff should be better than Karros. Thurston should be better than Grudzielanek. Izturis should be better than Izturis, and Beltre should be better than Beltre. So just right there, you've got an infield -- almost half the lineup -- that figures to improve across the board. If everybody else can just hold steady, the Dodgers win three or four more games and they're still playing in October.
Except it's not that simple. It never is. Somebody's going to get hurt -- Brian Jordan, quite possibly, or McGriff ... who knows? -- and the Dodgers have nobody on the bench or in the minors who can step in and contribute. Which means if the Dodgers are going to win 90-plus games again, they need to get something that they're not counting on.
And the most likely something is 25 or 30 starts from Brown. Though he's considered a disappointment, let's not forget that he was one of the game's best pitchers as recently as September of 2001.
The Dodgers deserve a great deal of credit for playing postseason-caliber baseball without a healthy Brown. But they're not quite good enough to do it again.
Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season and irregularly in the offseason. His e-mail address is email@example.com.