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Dodgers' booms and busts coexist

Steve Henson
Yahoo Sports

PHILADELPHIA – In the Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse, overpriced flops coexist with bargain buys. And if anybody minds, he keeps it to himself.

Tucked inside the trainer's room, hidden behind closed doors or – in the case of two prominent names – not even with the Dodgers as they begin the National League Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies are a half-dozen players raking in exorbitant salaries for minimal to no production.

Meanwhile, leading the Dodgers to the NL West title and brink of the World Series are players making peanuts or getting their salaries paid by their former teams, a group enjoying the ride that cost less than a middle reliever.

Has there ever been a team with such an inverse relationship between cost and production?

The Dodgers' payroll is a substantial $118.5 million. Yet the lineup in the sixth inning Sept. 23, the day the Dodgers defeated the San Diego Padres 10-1 and practically sealed the deal on the division title, cost owner Frank McCourt a grand total of $2.547 million.

The Lineup:

P: Chad Billingsley: $415,000

C: Russell Martin: $500,000

1B: James Loney $411,000

2B: Blake DeWitt: $390,000

SS: Angel Berroa: Free

3B: Casey Blake: Free

LF: Manny Ramirez: Free

CF: Matt Kemp: $406,000

RF: Andre Ethier: $425,000

The Royals, Indians and Red Sox are picking up Berroa's, Blake's and Ramirez's salaries.

The other six players have yet to reach arbitration eligibility. The same is true for eighth-inning setup reliever Hong-Chih Kuo and closer Jonathan Broxton, who make a combined $846,000.

When the Dodgers take the field Thursday for Game 1 against the Phillies, it will be like a supermodel walking the runway in a thrift-store wardrobe. The players most responsible for the team's first postseason victory in 20 years, a shocking three-game sweep of the NL favorite Chicago Cubs, combine for 2.2 percent of the payroll.

Consider this: The starting lineup of the 1988 Dodgers World Series champions made quadruple the money of the Sept. 23 lineup, a staggering comparison given the salary escalation in baseball the last two decades.

So where did the other 97.8 percent of the payroll go?

To outfielder Andruw Jones ($18.1 million), who is in the Dominican Republic trying to locate his swing, and to pitcher Jason Schmidt ($15.67 million), who has been injured for two years and never got out of minor league rehab games this season.

To 40-year-old second baseman Jeff Kent ($10 million), who hurt a knee and has been relegated to pinch hitting, and to Nomar Garciaparra ($9.75 million), a handsomely compensated utility infielder.

To Brad Penny ($9.5 million), a sore-armed and just plain sore starter who left in a huff to sit around a campfire on his ranch in Tulsa, Okla., and to Juan Pierre ($8 million), an extremely well-heeled pinch runner.

The only highly paid players expected to make regular contributions are Game 1 starter Derek Lowe ($10 million) and shortstop Rafael Furcal ($13 million), who returned just in time for the playoffs after a back injury sidelined him for three months.

Making sense of such a topsy-turvy situation isn't easy. The same front office that wasted money on players who were old or unmotivated or injury-prone or simply overrated is the same front office that displayed admirable restraint with the jewels of its farm system, hoarding prospects, resisting numerous trade offers and rarely rushing them to the big leagues.

General manager Ned Colletti admits he made mistakes on free-agent signings. He also beams with pride watching Martin and Loney, Kemp and DeWitt, Billingsley and Broxton. They were drafted before he came aboard but developed under his command.

"Going back three years, the team I inherited was 71-91 and didn't have any tradeable parts except the prospects," he said. "Yet we were very protective of them. We decided not to touch that group."

While the prospects ripened in the minor leagues, Colletti dove into the free-agent market with mixed results. The first player he signed after landing the GM job in November 2005 was Furcal. The three-year, $39 million deal Colletti gave him was considered steep, but it became the Dodger blueprint – relatively short deals with high average annual values.

"The free agent market these days is ultra-expensive and ultra-unpredictable," Colletti said.

Deals of three years for Schmidt in 2007 and two years for Jones this season backfired. But at least the Dodgers soon will be rid of the contracts. One year from now, the only free-agent contracts left will be those of Pierre and starter Hiroki Kuroda. Of course, with the upper end of Los Angeles' farm system nearly devoid of top prospects, Colletti could be active again in the free-agent market, perhaps pursuing some combination of Ramirez, a starting pitcher and a third baseman.

First, though, there is an NLCS to play, and most of those playing will do so on the cheap. Manager Joe Torre helped ease the transition from old money to young-and-hungry without the clubhouse bubbling up and spilling over with rancor, as it did during the Dodgers' late-season 2007 collapse. Not only did harmony reign, but the Dodgers got hot down the stretch and begin the NLCS having won 22 of their last 30 games.

Torre's currency is experience, and his résumé demands respect. Informing veterans that their services would be needed only sporadically was something very few managers could have pulled off.

"It's very difficult," Torre said. "I mean, I'm very loyal, I'd like to believe, to the more veteran players, because I just feel there is a certain amount of accomplishment to play in the major leagues for a long time.

"And the fact that even though all these players want to play, they respected the fact that I have to make this decision. And even though I'm loyal to a lot of the veteran players, my first loyalty has to be the entire 25. And they've made it very easy on me, even though it wasn't easy for me to tell them what we were doing."

Garciaparra, Kent and Pierre haven't griped publicly about their roles, nor did they privately gripe to Torre, beyond making it clear they'd prefer to play every day. Same with Greg Maddux, a first-ballot Hall of Famer who barely made the NLDS roster and was relegated to mop-up duty.

"They are mentors, and so is Manny," Billingsley said. "We've got veteran guys to learn from. Everybody is doing something. The hitters are propping each other up. The pitchers learn from Lowe and Maddux every day. We all play well together."

It's almost as if the veterans, with their mega-millions, are player-coaches at this point. The cost-effective core will lead the Dodgers into territory the franchise hasn't seen in a generation. Many of those players hadn't started kindergarten when Kirk Gibson pumped his fist and limped around the bases.

"It's to the point where we have everything down pat, or think we do," Billingsley said. "We've got some experience now. Some of us had a tester in the playoffs two years ago. We climbed the ladder together. We know what we can do."

And should they be successful, someday they'll be the ones bloating payrolls.