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Bankruptcy doesn’t mean Dodgers can’t offer big contracts

The playoffs will go on without the Dodgers again this fall. The time has come for winter dreams, for fans to hope the Dodgers can sign Matt Kemp to a long-term contract and pair him with Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols in what would be the most dynamic duo in any National League lineup.

Fantasy league? Not necessarily.

The Dodgers’ status as a bankrupt company should not prevent owner Frank McCourt from offering big contracts this winter, according to parties involved in the federal bankruptcy proceedings.

“Whatever happens with the club, it’s in everyone’s interest for the team to be competitive and not compromised in trying to operate,” said Michael Weiner, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Assn., which, as co-chair of the bankruptcy creditors’ committee, represents the interests of every party to whom the Dodgers owe money.

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“They’ll be permitted to make whatever decisions they have to make.”

The critical decisions include whether the Dodgers can persuade All-Star center fielder Kemp to forego free agency and whether General Manager Ned Colletti can implement his plan to upgrade the offense in “the most dramatic way we can.”

Kemp, a leading contender for the National League’s Most Valuable Player award, would be eligible for free agency after next season. Dave Stewart, his agent, said the Dodgers have not opened talks on a long-term contract but that Kemp would be receptive to such an offer, even amid the prolonged ownership uncertainty.

“I don’t think he’s so much worried that the team isn’t going to be able to contend,” Stewart said. “He’s been very supportive of today’s ownership — Frank McCourt — and sympathetic to the situation.”

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Stewart said he was not apprehensive about a long-term commitment to a team that could be sold next year.

“Because this is Los Angeles, and because of the great tradition the Dodgers have, I don’t think we’re so concerned about the direction of the ballclub,” Stewart said. “In this market, you have to go out there and win. We’re not so worried about that. We’re pretty confident about that.”

Fielder and Pujols might not be so confident.

Dan Lozano, the agent for Pujols, declined to comment. Scott Boras, the agent for Fielder, would not discuss the Milwaukee Brewers’ slugger in particular but said some players would be comfortable making a long-term commitment to a team with ownership uncertainty and some players would not.

“It’s the Los Angeles Dodgers,” Boras said. “It’s a storied franchise. Because of that, it will right itself in time. The question is, how much time?”

Boras clients have signed with a high bidder even if that team did not appear poised for immediate success, including Alex Rodriguez with the Texas Rangers and Jayson Werth with the Washington Nationals.

Fielder, however, told The Times at the All-Star game that he would evaluate teams first and foremost on their ability to win.

“That’s the obvious part, especially for you to be somewhere in the long term,” Fielder said.

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Similarly, Pujols plans to evaluate every interested team beyond its contract offer, including the quality of its minor league system and the desire of ownership to afford a team that can get to the World Series, and get back, according to a person who has spoken with him.

Although the Dodgers accepted a $150-million loan from MLB to fund the team through the bankruptcy case, the league does not have a say in player acquisition under the terms of the loan, said Bruce Bennett, the Dodgers’ lead bankruptcy attorney.

“The bankruptcy case imposes no limitations on the ability of the Dodgers to operate their business in the ordinary course,” Bennett said, “which includes managing the roster in any way the Dodgers see fit.”

The league had the right to approve any increase in the Texas Rangers’ payroll last year, when MLB provided that team a bankruptcy loan. Rob Manfred, the MLB executive vice president for labor relations, acknowledged the league had no such sway over McCourt.

“He is free to sign players to long-term contracts,” Manfred said. “The only possible caveat is if they get to a value that some people might think it requires court approval.

“When it gets up into the $100-million range, there could be issues. A player might be interested in having approval before he takes himself off the market.”

Manfred did not say whether MLB might challenge a nine-figure contract, or whether he believed any of the Dodgers’ creditors might do so. However, the players’ union is on the creditors’ committee, and both MLB and the Dodgers have said creditors would be paid in full no matter who emerges as owner.

Weiner, the union chief, suggested that a nine-figure player contract should not be viewed in the same light as a nine-figure loan. “If the Dodgers decide to sign a player to a long-term contract, from a bankruptcy perspective, there is a corresponding asset to go along with the liability,” he said. “You get the player’s services.”

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Dodgers revenue is projected to decline at least $27 million this season, primarily because of a league-high 17% drop in attendance, according to a person familiar with the team’s finances but not authorized to discuss them. In a court filing last week, the Dodgers acknowledged that attendance would be “slow to recover to levels enjoyed in previous years.”

Generally, taking on a significant financial obligation amid declining revenue could risk diminishing the value of a team, which would raise concerns among creditors. Also, in six previous off-seasons under McCourt and Colletti, the Dodgers never have committed more than $47 million in a contract.

In this case, big-ticket signings arguably could help rebuild the fan base in the short term. And even a contract for $200 million — which would be a record for any player not named Rodriguez — would represent, at most, 10% to 15% of a new Dodgers television rights deal, according to parties involved in the bankruptcy case.

The league guarantees all player contracts, so free agents need not be concerned that the Dodgers’ bankruptcy could jeopardize even one dollar of a long-term deal, said a prominent agent who does not represent Fielder or Pujols but declined to be identified beyond that.

The agent said he would not discourage any of his clients from signing a multiyear deal with the Dodgers, with the upside of the Los Angeles market and an end in sight to the team’s bankruptcy and long-running ownership saga.

“I don’t consider the Dodgers to be insolvent,” the agent said. “I consider the Dodgers to be mismanaged and in turmoil.

“I’d rather sign with the Dodgers than with a lot of other teams.”

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

twitter.com/billshaikin


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