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It’s Back to Business for Dodgers : Team Has Its Work Cut Out as Nine Face Free Agency

Times Staff Writer

It began with David Cone knocking Jay Howell’s curve and suggesting that Orel Hershiser was lucky.

Next, Don Baylor questioned Howell’s courage and said he couldn’t handle pressure.

Bob Costas then demeaned the Dodgers’ stuntmen and called the lineup for Game 4 one of the worst in World Series history.

All of it infuriated the Dodgers, who used it for motivational fodder.

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Now?

Well, the Dodgers shouldn’t let this ruin their winter.

They shouldn’t take this out on their families.

But here’s one more clip-and-display item, this one for the kitchen bulletin board:

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The Dodgers, some are saying, may be the first team in 85 years to have won a World Series and face immediate rebuilding.

Yes, the champagne isn’t even dry yet, the parade isn’t until Monday and they won’t be posing in the Rose Garden until Wednesday, but the reality of the Dodgers’ accomplishment, cynics are saying, is that a face lift is likely, even if a heart transplant is not.

In other words: Character and determination are to be admired, but can overachievement take the place of a 3-run homer forever?

Executive Vice President Fred Claire, architect of the 1988 renaissance, wasn’t basking in the glow Friday.

He was already at work on 1989 plans, talking with representatives of the club’s 11 potential free agents, all of whom the Dodgers will attempt to re-sign, Claire said.

In fact, he eliminated 2 of those 11 question marks Friday, picking up the 1989 options on Mike Scioscia at $1.1 million and John Shelby at $550,000.

Does the club need to rebuild?

“That’s too strong a word,” Claire said. “We’ll be looking to improve, but we’re in so much of a better position than we were a year ago that there’s no comparison.

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“A year ago, we were talking about a major overhaul. We knew we had to acquire a shortstop, relief pitcher and more offense to be competitive.

“No club can afford to stand pat, but now we’re only talking about some fine-tuning. Can the club as constituted remain competitive?

“If we sign the players eligible for free agency, the answer is yes. I can’t feel any other way, considering it just won a championship. The first order of business are the free agents.”

Eligible players cannot file for free agency until 15 days after the World Series. In that time, they can only negotiate with their own clubs. Claire said he hopes to do as much business as possible in that period.

With Scioscia and Shelby taken care of, the 9 remaining Dodgers eligible for free agency are pitchers Fernando Valenzuela, Jay Howell, Alejandro Pena, Jesse Orosco and Mario Soto; infielders Steve Sax and Alfredo Griffin; outfielder Mike Marshall, and utility man Mickey Hatcher.

Two other players, outfielder Danny Heep and catcher Rick Dempsey, are eligible for arbitration but can become free agents only if the Dodgers do not tender contracts, which is unlikely.

Of the others, Claire said that each will be told that the Dodgers have interest in re-signing him, though there are obvious considerations, such as salary, length of contract and the club’s likely insistence on a lockout clause, which requires a player to forfeit his salary in the event of a lockout by the owners--if there is a player strike when the collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of next season.

Sax and Griffin, of course, represent the heart of the infield, Marshall the only power aside from Kirk Gibson, and Howell the bottom line in the bullpen. Finding replacements would be difficult.

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Valenzuela, who earned $2.05 million this year, represents an intriguing puzzle because of his physical uncertainty.

There has been speculation that the Dodgers will attempt to sign him for the maximum 20% pay cut, but sources within the organization say that he will be offered the same $2.05 million, for a single season.

Claire said he would have a better grip on his overall direction after 3 days of organizational meetings beginning in Phoenix Thursday.

It has been speculated that the major objective will be the acquisition of a proven power hitter to play first base, preferably a right-handed hitter. Names such as the New York Yankees’ Jack Clark and the Cleveland Indians’ Joe Carter have been mentioned, but Claire said the pursuit of a first baseman isn’t necessarily the goal.

He said the added experience of third baseman Jeff Hamilton and the World Series showing of Franklin Stubbs offer hope that the club can generate additional power from within.

It seems likely, however, that the Dodgers will make a run at Clark, Carter or a hitter of that type, though it will take pitching to swing a deal, and Claire said he is “very reluctant to break up one of our strengths, a foundation of our success.”

And he may be particularly reluctant considering the uncertainty surrounding Valenzuela and the likelihood that John Tudor will have an elbow operation that could sideline him for all of 1989.

The Dodgers emerged from the World Series with a 3-man rotation of Orel Hershiser, Tim Belcher and Tim Leary. At this point, they will go to spring training with the still unproven Ramon Martinez and William Brennan competing with the rehabilitating Valenzuela, Soto and Ken Howell for the fourth and fifth starting spots.

Claire said he was confident that Martinez would emerge in the manner that Belcher and Leary did this season, but is he confident enough and deep enough to include Leary in a deal for Clark or Carter?

“We’ll look at all areas and consider all options,” he said, dodging the question.

One option, of course, is free agency. Emboldened by the success they enjoyed through the signing of Gibson, the Dodgers may be more willing to try it again, though the 1988 crop is likely to be a modest one, unless Tim Raines is freed through the Collusion II decision.

Pitchers Bruce Hurst of the Boston Red Sox, Mike Moore of the Seattle Mariners, Mike Flanagan of the Toronto Blue Jays and Andy Hawkins of the San Diego Padres head the eligibility list, excluding Dodgers.

Jeffrey Leonard of the Milwaukee Brewers and Dave Henderson of the Oakland A’s are the only real power hitters eligible to try free agency.

Claire said that no avenue can be ignored, but he was high in his praise of the Dodgers eligible for free agency, saying they never made issues of their contract uncertainty.

“We could not have achieved what we did if the club hadn’t been focused on its responsibilities day after day,” he said. “No one looked ahead, and that’s a tribute to the players.”

The players, of course, have admitted that they didn’t expect to win the division title or the National League playoffs or the World Series. They have acknowledged that they were matched against teams with better talent.

“I’m very positive about this team and its continued success,” Claire said. “We won a world championship and we want to use it and build on it.

“We’ve re-established the Dodgers as a winning club and organization. We’ve also established a style of play that will be there for the entire system.”

Claire described that style as aggressive, intense and team-oriented.

“Our competitive nature was outstanding, and I see no reason to change or break that up,” he said.

No team has won consecutive World Series titles since the Yankees in 1977-78. In a time of parity--or as some say parody--character and chemistry mean a lot.

The problem, as previous 1-year wonders have found, is that character and chemistry can quickly dissolve amid a continuing lack of talent.

The difference with the Dodgers, Claire said, is that they have the outstanding pitching that others might have lacked.

His goal, he said, is to continue to build around it, filling in as needed while the farm system, reduced by injury, bad drafts and force-feeding through the mid-'80s, re-establishes itself.

After 2 years and a few accusations that he couldn’t pull the trigger when it came time to close a trade, Claire has a World Series victory and the probability of an award as executive of the year.

“We had a plan and stuck with it,” he said of the comeback from 2 straight seasons of finishing 16 games under .500. “No one can take that away from us. It took time and effort, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. To be able to share in this accomplishment is something I’ll never forget.”


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