INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Here's what a soft budget, what likely will be baseball's largest payroll in 2013 and a general indifference toward the looming luxury tax buy the Los Angeles Dodgers: Freedom.
After a summer in which they cleared the Boston Red Sox, of all franchises, of their economic burden, the Dodgers use the word a lot as they step into their first offseason under new ownership. No longer bound by shortsighted frugality that was beneath them as a market and an enduringly iconic brand, the Dodgers are players again.
In a Thursday afternoon scene that was peculiar for those who have seen one organization wither while the other ascended to soaring financial superiority, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti spoke of his new flexibility while Yankees general manager Brian Cashman considered the challenges of a fresh (and relative) frugality.
In a room with a 20-foot ceiling, no more than 30 feet separated the two. And while the Yankees remain in name and reputation (and ferocity of checking account) the most secure entity in the game, for the first time in 13 years they probably will be outspent in player payroll. From the early wisps of financial mismanagement to the final gutting of bankruptcy, the Dodgers have emerged under new ownership as, to borrow a term from agent Scott Boras, economic Goliaths.
Just a year ago, Boras had cracked that the Dodgers were shopping in the fruit-and-nuts aisle in free agency. His assessment today?
"Oh, I think they bought the store," he said, laughing. "I think the Dodgers organization has made it clear they're about superstars and they understand Los Angeles."
Whether it plays on the field – the Yankees' financial firepower has brought them a single World Series championship since 2000 – is a matter for Colletti and his advisers, and then to manager Don Mattingly, and then to whatever lineup forms from his pencil.
Until then, the Dodgers speak of opportunity when the self-imposed financial ceiling is, at worst, negotiable, while the Yankees abide by Hal Steinbrenner's attention to the bottom line, a jarring notion even when his bottom line still looks damned gluttonous to all but a few owners.
"You always have your restrictions, whether it's in terms of what ownership provides, what the Basic Agreement provides or the opposition provides," Cashman said. "These are new challenges. And all of these problems are solvable. We just try to be smart."
The Yankees, surviving Steinbrenners and Cashman have been in retreat mode – at least in thought – since owners and the players' union agreed to a $189 million luxury tax threshold for the 2014 season. That might be of little consequence to most franchises, but the Yankees aren't most franchises. Their payroll has been above $200 million for the past five seasons and in six of the past eight, but now there is great benefit to coming in under the threshold even for one season. Tens of millions of dollars are at stake. And on the day the Yankees likely will learn their closer, Rafael Soriano, their right fielder, Nick Swisher, and their No. 2 starter, Hiroki Kuroda, will decline their qualifying offers, so too could their presumed competitive advantage in the American League East be at stake.
By the time Cashman's flight lands in New York on Friday night, he'll almost certainly need a new right fielder, have a rotation to deepen and a bullpen to augment. A one-year contract for Mariano Rivera is coming, and already the Yankees have six players – Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson – under contract for almost $120 million. By 2014, three of them – Rodriguez, Teixeira and Sabathia – are due nearly $75 million.
Agents shopping free agents already have found the Yankees resistant to players and contracts that would threaten the organization's budget for 2014.
"Things change," Cashman said. "I've won a championship with the fifth- or sixth-highest payroll in baseball."
"It was a long time ago," he said. "But I've done it."
The Dodgers, meantime, could double last year's opening-day payroll, which was $105 million. The process began over the summer, when they acquired Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Hanley Ramirez. They also extended Andre Ethier's contract and soon will consider the same for Clayton Kershaw. While Colletti shops for pitching, more than $190 million is on the books for 2013. Already, the Dodgers are carrying $134 million for 2014 and nearly $90 million for 2015, 2016 and 2017. Additionally, the team is making hires in its front office and across its scouting department, both domestically and internationally.
[Related: Ultimate MLB free-agent rankings 2012-13]
Every winter, it seems, one franchise or another becomes the "new" Yankees. Just a year ago it was the Angels. Before that it was the Philadelphia Phillies, unless it was the Red Sox, unless it was the Detroit Tigers. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it doesn't even work to be the original Yankees. The San Francisco Giants have won two of the past three World Series and in those seasons combined spent in payroll a little more than the Yankees do in one.
But, you know, after too many years spent in financial disarray, the Dodgers are eager to live a little.
"As far as we're concerned," Colletti said, "we've got the freedom to think and to do bold things."
Colletti said he had a "rough idea" what his payroll target would be, adding, "It's open to debate depending on who becomes available.
"As of now, we haven't been discouraged to have any thought or not consider any player."
Often aggressive and creative in the worst of times, Colletti is backed now by Guggenheim dollars and Magic Johnson charisma. As a result, Dodgers' heads are clearing finally from a wickedly hazy McCourt hangover. After a period in which it was all Colletti could do to keep the team competitive, the climate has changed. Now there's no reason not to be competitive. Now the game changes in L.A. Now there's freedom, and all that comes with it.
"It should have always been a very popular destination," he said. "It's probably more in line with that description than it's been in my time here.
"I think we'd all rather play with a full deck."
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