Colletti Goes to Work in a Big Hurry

Times Staff Writer

Moments after the Dodgers ducked into their clubhouse for the last time, the New York Mets celebrating on the field and a sellout crowd filing out of Dodger Stadium, General Manager Ned Colletti patted rookie catcher Russell Martin on the shoulder and whispered in his ear.

“He wasn’t consoling me, he was pumping me for next year, and the year after that,” Martin said.

It’s the way Colletti operates. While most Dodgers followers were trying to shake the post-playoff blues Sunday, he met for nearly five hours with the coaching staff, trainers and his front-office lieutenants, already formulating a plan to improve the roster so the Dodgers can move from glad-to-be-here to happy-only-with-a-ring.

Options from A to Z — Alfonso Soriano to Barry Zito — will be considered on the free-agent market. Colletti wants to bring in a creditable power hitter to bolster a lineup last in the National League in home runs. He wants to add a front-of-the-rotation starter while also re-signing Greg Maddux. And he wants to bolster a bullpen that despite season-long additions and adjustments ultimately cost the Dodgers dearly against the Mets.

“Ned is thinking about the club 24/7,” Manager Grady Little said. “I’m sure he will come up with ways to make it stronger.”

Unlike a year ago, the activity will occur on a bedrock of stability. Colletti said that Little and the entire coaching staff will return, and he also will retain front-office officials Kim Ng, Roy Smith, Logan White and Bill Lajoie.

All had a voice in Sunday’s marathon meeting.

“Getting together that soon is a step toward being aggressive,” Colletti said. “We need to be diligent and thoughtful at every level. So we thought it would behoove us today to get as much information as possible from our staff and trainers so we can process it and take the best approach.”

Colletti made marked improvements last off-season even though he wasn’t on the job until mid-November. The six weeks leading to his hire had been a model of Dodgers dysfunction, with Manager Jim Tracy being fired by General Manager Paul DePodesta, who then was fired by owner Frank McCourt while in the final stages of hiring Terry Collins as manager.

McCourt’s search for a general manager was fraught with missteps. Remember the plan to bring in Pat Gillick, Bobby Valentine and Orel Hershiser? Only Hershiser wanted any part of it, and after he had a clandestine dinner with McCourt and Tom Lasorda, was not contacted again.

Then there was the prolonged effort to get another candidate, John Hart, off the golf course long enough to return a phone call and a bit of toe-dancing with Theo Epstein that led nowhere. Eventually, a new plan surfaced: Colletti was pried away from the San Francisco Giants.

It turned out to be McCourt’s finest hour. He followed it with another decision lauded by Dodgers followers, loosening the purse strings on the payroll.

So spend Colletti did, beginning with a three-year, $39-million deal that landed shortstop Rafael Furcal and sent a message throughout baseball: The Dodgers were serious about winning.

McCourt said after the Dodgers were eliminated Saturday that his payroll philosophy wouldn’t change. His actions seem to indicate that he realizes getting to a World Series isn’t often done on the cheap.

A payroll that crept over $100 million by the end of the season is at about $73 million today because the contracts of Nomar Garciaparra, Eric Gagne, Kenny Lofton, Maddux, Julio Lugo and a handful of inexpensive players ended with the season.

In addition to wanting to bring back Maddux and perhaps Lofton, Colletti hasn’t ruled out re-signing fan favorites Garciaparra and Gagne.

“I don’t know what those players will ultimately want to do,” he said. “I know fans have a great affection for those two and a lot of other players. I sense there would be disappointment, but if the ’07 Dodgers play hard and win games, they’ll find someone else to fall in love with. That said, we’ll try to bring them back.”

Although Colletti has yet to discuss the budget with McCourt, he plans to vigorously pursue top free agents.

“The market could be limited, but we are prepared to give it a whirl and see how it goes,” he said.

Gauging how many of the Dodgers young players will be able to plug into full-time roles is tricky.

Colletti is reluctant to hand a rookie or second-year player a starting job, meaning James Loney still has something to prove at first base and Matt Kemp has something to prove in the outfield.

“The strides they all made were remarkable,” he said. “They didn’t just soak it in, they dove in and their contributions were huge. Evaluating what each of them can do is part of the process as we go forward.”

One rookie has made it clear he wants more than the typical pay scale for a second-year player. Because that rookie is 36-year-old closer Takashi Saito, who had a long career in Japan, Colletti can see where the player’s desires “are warranted.”

“It’s a unique situation,” Colletti said of Saito’s position. “I can understand to some degree the perspective he brings.”

The next few weeks will be slow going. But by the winter meetings, expect Colletti to be wheeling and dealing the way he did at the trading deadline.

“We have a front office that has proven it will do what it takes to improve the team,” second baseman Jeff Kent said. “Nobody is satisfied with making the playoffs. I have confidence we’ll be a better team when spring training comes around.”