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Dodgers President Dennis Mannion addresses state of the club

On Baseball

Randy Wolf never has been confused with Johan Santana. However, the Dodgers’ recent decision not to offer salary arbitration to Wolf raised concerns among fans.

The Dodgers led the major leagues in attendance last season, advancing to the National League Championship Series for the second consecutive year. Wolf was their most dependable pitcher, and yet the Dodgers decided they could not afford to risk him accepting a one-year contract at an uncertain price.

As Wolf, John Lackey, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay have joined new teams, the pitching-depleted Dodgers have imported no player more significant than utility infielder Jamey Carroll.

The day-to-day control of the team now rests with President Dennis Mannion, whom Frank and Jamie McCourt hired as chief operating officer two years ago. In a career that started in 1982, Mannion has worked in various business capacities for the Philadelphia Phillies, Colorado Avalanche, Denver Nuggets and Baltimore Ravens.

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No one outranks Mannion at Dodger Stadium, where owner Frank McCourt has fired his estranged wife as chief executive officer and entrusted daily operations to Mannion. Frank McCourt now works out of an office in Beverly Hills, focusing on development opportunities for Dodger Stadium and the parking lots that surround it.

The Dodgers just about broke even last season, according to a high-ranking baseball source who did not want to be identified because clubs are not required to reveal their financial results. For now, according to the source, Commissioner Bud Selig considers the Dodgers no different from many other clubs that have limited spending during these uncertain economic times.

In an interview with The Times, Mannion declined to say how many millions of dollars the team must pay in debt service every year. He discussed a variety of other topics, including the Wolf decision and a litany of others including the series of events that may indicate the team is under financial constraints.

An edited interview with Mannion:

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How would you say the divorce proceedings between Frank and Jamie McCourt have impacted the Dodgers’ spending this winter? Have you been asked -- by Frank McCourt, by Major League Baseball or by anyone else -- not to take on major long-term contracts this winter?

Our baseball and business decisions have not been impacted by the proceedings. Neither [General Manager] Ned [Colletti] nor I have been asked by anyone to limit long-term liabilities.

So how would you explain to skeptical fans why the Dodgers are not in on any of the best free agents?

Ned has demonstrated a fantastic ability to read the talent market. We made back-to-back NLCS appearances for the first time in three decades as a result of Ned’s ability to make the right acquisitions at the right time. We want the same thing our fans want, a team that can compete for a world championship year in and year out, and we’ve been in that position for the last two seasons. We expect that to continue.

As far as development opportunities go, what’s on the table?

I think the capital markets have put us in the position of being on hold. In the meantime, I think there’s a colossal opportunity in doing basic reconfiguration of the reserve-level concession stands and the loge-level concession stands. I think there’s an enormous opportunity, and we’re going to do this this year, of adding a great number of portable (concession) locations. With mobility, you can adapt yourself to crowd size and crowd traffic. We’re continuing to build our production assets up so that we will be ready to put a new scoreboard and sound system. My hope is that we’ll see that in 2011. We’re developing a number of events that we’ll be announcing for fans to participate in that are on non-game days.

Will these be baseball-related events?

Yes. They run the gamut from mini-fantasy camps to kids’ clinics.

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Will they be affordable, unlike the $500-per-person batting practice evenings?

Yes. The “Under the Lights,” as unaffordable as it was, sold out six times. To your point, we are developing new experiences that are affordable to the common fan.

And what on-field developments can you share?

I do believe there is positive news on its way, coming in due time, and that’s Ned’s call. Obviously, you could dial in on the coaching staff. As far as it goes relative to player acquisition, that is a very fluid process. It was last year, and it will be this year too. So I have a lot of confidence, and Frank has a lot of confidence, in Ned’s ability to work the system and come up with the right opportunities for us.

Does that mean Joe Torre is in line for a one-year contract extension, through 2011, after which he would join the front office and Don Mattingly would replace him as manager?

Right. That’s what he’s working on.

We hear from you and Ned that it is “business as usual.” Yet, that is becoming increasingly difficult for fans to believe, given the actions of a major-market team that just about broke even last season. In the last two years, in addition to the Wolf decision, the Dodgers have:

* Deferred more than $45 million in player salaries, most of that with Manny Ramirez

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* Traded top prospects in lieu of picking up contracts

* Declined to bid on virtually every top free agent

* Declined to bid on top international prospects

* Spent fewer dollars than any other club in the last two drafts

* Delayed playoff ticket refunds this year

* Fired more than a dozen employees

* Didn’t re-invest $19 million from the Jason Schmidt insurance payment and the Manny Ramirez suspension into baseball operations

* Deferred renovations to the loge and reserve levels, beyond center field and in the clubhouses

No one action raises a red flag, but doesn’t the totality of events suggest the Dodgers are experiencing financial trouble?

I think that you have to look at the degree of all those things and how big of an issue they really are. For example, with Wolf, this is a very complex economy. Folks were building five-year strategic plans a long time ago. They’re now into five-month strategic plans. So to take a guy and say, we’re going to offer him arbitration, and put yourself in a position where you may have been able to acquire a similar pitcher for less money later on, isn’t prudent use of a civic asset. It doesn’t make sense to do that, if you’re a good steward for your franchise.

So I think it’s imperative that, when you look at all those types of things added up, you can bunch a group of them as capital markets-based projects. You can bunch a group as staffing. You can bunch yet another group in a very, very chaotic salary period for all four major sports. I think you have to look at the totality. You have to look at that in buckets, and then you have to look at the totality of what this economic disruption has done to the entire country.

It’s a factor for every team. Gold Glovers who lead off? They go. Career leaders in home runs for a franchise? They go. Star pitchers for a franchise? They go, and then they go get somebody. Or, a first baseman they let go and he goes and wins the World Series for the Yankees? You have to do what you have to do if you’re a well-run operation. Teams that are well-oiled, well-run operations make very hard decisions, and sometimes it requires you to have restraint in how and when and where you spend your dollars.

It’s critical. Or you’re going to find yourself way on the outs, deeper in debt and in a lot of trouble. You make your decisions based on the player. Sometimes you just don’t want the player back. Sometimes it’s based on descending salaries on certain types of players. Why would you put yourself in a position where, if the guy can win -- let’s use a number -- $8 million in arbitration and his agent right now is asking $9 million, and you have a history where it comes down to $4 million, what are you thinking?

And is it worth a premium draft pick? That’s also showing bizarre behavior, in my opinion, in terms of teams bidding against themselves for draft picks. That’s been going on for a while on the amateur side of the business. But it’s happening now on the international side, with guys you don’t know anything about.

It’s strange to me to see teams operate in a way where they bid against themselves for unknown talent, and at the same time, you have this plethora of guys in the system that maybe are not developing appropriately, i.e. a (Ronald) Belisario. That’s interesting stuff to me. I think it’s really fascinating. It’s probably the upside of having very tough economic times.

Since Wolf probably would have signed a long-term contract somewhere else even if the Dodgers had offered him arbitration, how worried were you about the millions it might cost to sign the draft picks you would have gotten in return?

You’re dealing with a very fluid situation. Those millions that are potentially in play, they can manifest themselves where the opportunity is. If the opportunity is in buying more portable concession stands, then that’s what you do. If the opportunity is buying some international talent that you have a very good handle on, that’s what you do. In this particular world, you’re making those assessments on a daily basis.

We have heard many times from teams that say they have allocated money from one part of baseball operations budget to another, say, from major league free agents to scouting or player development. Are you saying your choice could be between spending on amateur talent and spending on portable concession stands?

I’m just saying you have to have that kind of a fluid mind. That’s an absurd example, to tell you the truth. I just used it to show you should be able to cross over budgets when necessary. Let’s face it, our main imperative is to win games and win a championship. So you can tell who’s going to win that battle when it’s fought.

Is there anything other than action in your mind that is going to be able to convince fans that this organization is not limited by severe cost controls, given all the things we’ve talked about?

I think actions are the only way to speak to it.

Are you convinced you’ll be able to show enough action soon?

I would hope so.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com


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