Padres, Rangers offer a beacon of hope to Dodgers
Dodgers fans need not despair. Just because the future of the team’s ownership is locked in an ugly court fight doesn’t mean the team’s future on the field has to be unseemly as well.
For proof, look no further than the examples set this summer by the Texas Rangers and San Diego Padres.
The Rangers, who spent much of the season in bankruptcy court, are about to clinch their first division title since 1999. The Padres, whose ownership is still in transition following the divorce of longtime chairman John Moores, enter the season’s final week locked in a three-way fight for the National League West crown.
In both cases, players and executives with the two teams say the key to success was keeping the front-office turmoil from infecting the clubhouse.
The Rangers emerged from federal bankruptcy protection just seven weeks ago, when a group headed by Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan was awarded the franchise. But even before that, Ryan, the team president, and Jon Daniels, his general manager, tried to project a sense of normalcy.
“We just effectively decided we’ve got too many good things going on to let that be an excuse, let that be a distraction,” Daniels said. “We felt we could realistically win and contend and we weren’t going to kind of moan and whine about the circumstances.
“So we took that mentality. We never talked about it down around the staff or players.”
In private, Daniels and Ryan conceded that the task was daunting. As long as the team was up for sale, management was handcuffed when it came to trading for players with lucrative or long-term contracts. So it turned to the minor league system, dealing 10 prospects in a series of July trades that brought the Rangers much-needed cash and a front-line starter in Cliff Lee, infield help in Cristian Guzman and Jorge Cantu and catching depth in Bengie Molina.
Daniels did it all without taking on any salary obligations for next season.
“There are two kinds of currency in the game. There’s dollars, which we didn’t have access to. And there’s talent, which we did because of the work our scouts had done,” Daniels said. “So we just tried to get a little creative. I felt like it’s hard to ask the players and the coaching staff to focus and commit to winning and then use it as a crutch for ourselves.”
The impact in the clubhouse was immediate.
“Right there they showed the team that they’re going to do whatever they have to do to help us win,” Texas Manager Ron Washington said. “That sent a message that they were still paying attention.”
Added outfielder David Murphy: “It was a huge morale booster.”
The Padres’ sale from Moores to Jeff Moorad, which will take five years to complete, also involved some belt-tightening. Last season, San Diego let closer Trevor Hoffman go, then traded ace Jake Peavy to the Chicago White Sox, part of a two-year housecleaning that halved the team’s payroll to less than $38 million this season, higher than only the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But that didn’t prevent Moorad and first-year General Manager Jed Hoyer from making their own creative moves at the trade deadline this summer, acquiring some much-needed power in infielder Miguel Tejada, who came over from Baltimore, and outfielder Ryan Ludwick, acquired from St. Louis in a three-way deal that also involved Cleveland.
Since then, no Padre has hit more homers than Tejada. Like Texas, the Padres made both deals without adding to next year’s payroll.
“Nobody likes change. Change is hard,” said closer Heath Bell, whose 85 saves since taking over for Hoffman are the most in baseball the last two seasons. “[But] getting a new GM and kind of starting everything fresh made this organization into what it is today. It’s a lot of young guys and a lot of scrappy guys from other teams that nobody really wanted.”
Bell and Padres Manager Bud Black say that gave birth to a unique clubhouse chemistry that helped fuel the team’s rise.
“Ultimately, players know that their sole responsibility is to play,” Black said. “So all the extraordinary stuff doesn’t really affect them. They talk about it. But if doesn’t affect them.”
So why should it affect the Dodgers, no matter how long the McCourts take to sort out their differences?
“They’ve had a good nucleus,” Daniels said. “When you’ve got the [Clayton] Kershaws and guys like that, these kind of upper-end players . . . when you’ve got a talented core like that, they’re going to be all right.”
Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti has already mastered the art of trading without spending, having acquired Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake, Ted Lilly and Ryan Theriot, among others, over the last three seasons while getting money back in the deals.
Which is why the Padres’ Bell, sitting in front of his locker in the cramped visitors’ clubhouse at Dodger Stadium last week, advised Dodgers fans to be both patient and optimistic.
“You’re just going to have to wait and see. It’s out of the fans’ hands,” he said. “Fans have to realize that it’s a transitional period. Everything will be fine in the end, [but] it’s going to take a little bit of time.
“The worst might be over by the end of spring training and everything will calm down.”