Friday, July 30, 2010

What does the Lilly talk mean?

I'll start by saying this: I wouldn't be opposed to dropping out of the race and selling. Packing it in for 2010. Punting on Broxton, Martin, Loney, Padilla, whatever. Maybe someone will want Manny in August; he'd surely pass through waivers. The Dodgers are seven games back in the West, and the longer things go on, the less it matters that the Padres really aren't this good. Yes, they're just three-and-a-half games out of the Wild Card lead, but that's sort of illusory--there there are three non-division-leading teams between the Dodgers and that last playoff spot.

Baseball Reference hosts this cool figure conjured up by John Dewan called Summed Games Back, which sort of takes into account both teams' records and how hard it will be to pass them along the way to the top. By that calculation, the Dodgers are effectively 7.5 games out of the Wild Card and 10.5 back in the West. Could the club go on a run? Of course. But, with the farm system ravaged by the trades and non-investment of recent years, I wouldn't be opposed to kick-starting the system by selling off desirable, soon-to-be-expensive big league pieces.

But I don't think the club has quite reached that conclusion. Over the last couple weeks, there have been several articles (like this one and this one) focusing on the same general theme: despite the ownership turmoil and everything else, the Dodgers intend to buy at the deadline. And buy they have, a little bit: they traded a couple minor league pieces for the useful Scott Podsednik. Today, the discussion is centered on adding Ted Lilly, a 34-year old from Lomita whose #1 and #2 career comparables are Randy Wolf and Brad Penny. Lilly, owed several million dollars over the remainder of the season, would shore up the back half of the rotation, slotting in alongside Hiroki Kuroda behind Kershaw and Billingsley.

And maybe the Dodgers make the move. Maybe they toss the Cubs a couple of the few remaining good prospects so that Chicago will cover Lilly's salary. Maybe they take on the money themselves. However it is accomplished, maybe the Dodgers add Lilly, hope for a little bit of luck, and make a September push. It would be a shame, after all, to sacrifice a year of the core's youth in a lost season.

Or maybe it's all just blustering. Over the winter, the Dodgers made it loudly known that they were in on Joel Pineiro. Of course, it's not clear that the sides even exchanged numbers, but see? The Dodgers were in on Joel Pineiro! No money problems here! Then in June, the Dodgers took a highly-regarded Texas high school right-hander named Zach Lee in the draft. See? The Dodgers drafted a premium talent! Only problem: Lee is also premiumly talented at football, and was considered the toughest first rounder to sign even before the penny-pinching Dodgers picked him.

And here we are in late July, with the Dodgers again making loud pursuit of pitching. We're buyers! We're in on Lilly! Like I said, maybe it happens, though I'm sure I'm not alone in praying this doesn't go the same way as Blake/Santana and Sherrill/Bell. The tough part here is that it's still perfectly clear the Dodgers don't understand the time value of player acquisitions; Ted Lilly is not bad, but giving up anything of value for ten of his starts is unwise unless the margin between making and missing the playoffs is a game or two. It's not.

Resources spent on the draft and in amateur free agency go farther than resources spent on major league free agents. And resources spent on major league free agents go farther than resources spent at the deadline, because there are only two months left and the cost is often more than just money. I'm against a Lilly deal on the not-unreasonable assumption that the Dodgers might surrender a prospect or two just to put the We're Trying! veneer on a decaying season.

I hope I'm wrong about everything in that last sentence. I hope a Lilly acquisition would come from the naive-but-well-intentioned place of "we're still in it." I hope we don't surrender a prospect or two. And I certainly hope the season isn't decaying; Billingsley, Kershaw, Kuroda, and a healthy outfield would make the Dodgers a tough out in October. But, for all that short-term hope, I still have the long-term hope that, at some point, the Dodgers will start thinking about the big picture. And that big picture shows a pipeline that has hemorrhaged talent over the last several seasons chasing races more easily salvageable than this one.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Plaschke's open letter to the McCourts: Sell the Dodgers.

The concept, as these things go, makes sense. But buried within is a sentiment I hear now and then, and would like to discuss for a moment:

C'mon, McCourts, stop glaring at each other long enough to look together at the reality. This is your way back to community respect. This is your way back to a lasting legacy. After spending the last 10 months trapped in a storm of boos and jeers and jokes, this is your way out.
Don't wait until a judge decides who owns the team, a decision that could be destructive to both of you. Sell it first and you both win.
Announce that, for the good of the city, you have each agreed to give up your fight for sole ownership and decided to work together to sell the team to a qualified owner.

You all know how I feel about this: it could work, in theory. It would have to be a joint decision, but I absolutely believe the best outcome for the McCourts involves them working together to resolve the situation. To let the team still be at issue when this heads to trial would be a strong indication that this is more about winning the divorce, rather than on the field. But we've been over that. Here's where I move away from Plaschke a bit:
If you keep fighting over the franchise, McCourts, you will destroy everything you built here, leaving the team as vacant and rudderless as that parting gift from Fox.
Besides, Frank, what if you win that fight? You know you can't afford to keep the team as a sole owner, so it will only mean several more years of flailing. And Jamie, what if you win? The team will have to be divided anyway because it will become community property, so a sale would probably happen anyway, only in a long and messy manner.
Sell now, together, cleanly, and there will be buyers lining up to celebrate and continue your success. Sell now, nobly, and there will be fans lining up to applaud you on your way back to Boston.

Each of these paragraphs presents a problem. As to the first: the divorce won't necessarily destroy everything the McCourts have built in Los Angeles, at least as far as is meaningful. For one, other than a couple playoff runs at the expense of future talent and a distressed fanbase displeased with ownership, just what have the McCourts built that would be so terrible to lose? If anything, they should want to stay and win. That's the only way to recovering credibility.

To the second paragraph...why are we sure Frank doesn't have the resources to run the team on his own? Yes, he's plead poverty throughout the divorce, and yes, he's planned to keep payroll relatively low while increasing revenues. But the first point is necessary legal posturing, and the second indicative more of what Frank wants out of the the Dodgers than what he is able to provide. The McCourts have taken nearly $400 million out of the club over the last several years. What indication is there that Frank couldn't have the money?

As for the third paragraph...would buyers really be lining up? The Dodgers are hard to value right now, because of the TV rights which will soon be coming back in-house. And, as has been discussed, there are just fewer people out there right now capable of buying something as expensive as the Dodgers. And finally, any sale on these sorts of terms wouldn't happen overnight. There's little reason to believe Frank and Jamie's teams could work well enough together during a long sale process.

It's not that I'm opposed to a sale. Ok, maybe I'm a little bit opposed. I guess, at the end of the day, a sale looks to me like taking the quick way out, and it poses as many problems as it resolves. It's entirely possible this all ends with the Dodgers hitting free agency of their own, as it were. I'm just not ready to believe it can happen on friendly terms at this point.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Q's and A's

Today, I answered some questions about the divorce over at's Los Angeles site. Many of you have asked very insightful and relevant questions lately about both the likelihood of settlement and how the divorce's end-game plays out. I hope I was able to address those topics to your satisfaction, but, as I'm sure you've noticed, I don't like to draw hard conclusions without a ton of information.

Thanks to all of you who wrote in with great questions, and welcome to new readers who might be getting to know the site for the first time. It's a friendly little corner of the internet, and we're happy to have you.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

State of the Dodgers: July 21, 2010

This one's sort of personal.

My uncle Mike, aptly nicknamed the Trailboss, is pretty much why I'm a Dodgers fan. Heck, even a baseball fan. When I was little, he'd stick me on his shoulders and play nice with the ticket-takers so they'd let me in for free. When I was not so little, he'd give me a call at about 4:30 any afternoon he had tickets he couldn't use, and I'd go with buddies after high school baseball practice. 

His seats had been in the family since the opening of Dodger Stadium, and I sort of figured they always would be. But then, as the costs kept going up and up and the denizens of the section became more and more corporate, they became an unjustifiable expense. The tickets were gone, though the seats themselves remain at his duck club in Southern California--a reminder that, even though we might hunt in Angels territory, this space belongs to a Dodgers family:

So, anyway, after exchanging a few e-mails discussing trips we have planned together, my uncle Mike--consummate Dodgers fan and true Trailboss--turned the conversation to the state of the club. Trailboss:

The Dodger game last night was the worst ever. 
1.  Xavier Paul drops a fly ball in the 8th with 2 men on base and one out.  2 runs score in the inning. 
2.  Kershaw hits leadoff batter in the 7th.  Gets kicked out of game with Torre also since the team had been warned after Lincecum hit Kemp in the 4 or 5th inning. 
3.  Mattingly visits the mound twice (he turned around and went back to the mound to answer a question just after he stepped off the mound) in 9th inning with bases loaded and Broxton pitching thus forcing Broxton out of the game. 
4.  Sherrill comes in and gives up a 2 run double in the 9th with bases loaded and one out giving the Giants the lead. 
5.  Earlier Kemp gets thrown out trying to get to 3rd on a single to right.  He beats the throw but does his classic head first slide into and over and past 3rd base to get tagged out.  I have seen him do this slide 3 times this year, mostly on steals where he is safe...then tagged out as his body's momentum carries him into the outfield. 
6.  Papers announce the Dodgers are looking into a who-cares but he is cheap 5th starter type pitcher whose name I can't remember. 
7.  Manny on the DL again. 
8.  Billingsley looking like 2009 post all-star game. 
9.  Broxton looking like a maybe-sometimes closer, walking leadoff batters in the 9th, then giving up a hit just to make things interesting. 
10.  And the owner focused on his divorce. 
11.  Jerry Buss:  Please buy the Dodgers.
Now, it really ought to be noted that the Dodgers are not a bad baseball team. They score more runs than they allow (always helpful), and there are some players we can expect will be better in the season's second half. But being a not bad baseball team just isn't, well, good enough.

Not when there are three teams ahead of you in the standings. Not when there isn't a whole lot to get excited about in the farm system. Not when the window is closing because your owner doesn't want to spend and your young talent isn't, well, young. And especially not when the team's 2010 obituary will talk about everything but wins and losses.

The divorce sideshow overshadows everything that's happening on the field. And, while I'm in no position to complain about that, I think I'm allowed to be disappointed that this site even exists. I'm even more disappointed that it looks increasingly likely that one of the most promising cores in the organization's rich history will not even make a World Series, much less win one.

The story of the 2010 season has several chapters yet to be written. Matty Kemp could kick it into high gear. Bills could find himself. Colletti could find a reliable fourth starter. This can still work. But, at least for now, it seems that the 2010 season will be historic for all the wrong reasons. And I think the Trailboss' 11-point missive captures it all pretty neatly.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A sale would be the last resort.

The McCourts rambled about the news again yesterday, this time as the squabbling over cash led Commissioner Gordon to fire a shot across their joint bow. The Times' Bill Shaikin who, contrary to rumor, does not sleep at the courthouse, reports:

With each of the McCourts claiming to be low on cash, and with bills piling up, Los Angeles Superior Court CommissionerScott Gordon threatened to resolve both issues at once by putting the Dodgers on the block.

"The parties are unintentionally pushing the court toward an interesting position — selling the asset which is being fought over," Gordon said in a court hearing.

This led commentators near and far to speculate on the effect of a sale, especially in light of the Texas Rangers' situation. Thankfully, everyone--from Shaikin to most of the bloggers--took Gordon's message for exactly what it was: a stern criticism of the litigation's timbre and admonition to both Frank and Jamie that they need to tone down the hyperbole. 

The team's not going to be sold to cover interim divorce expenses. I know it, you know it, Frank and Jamie know it, and the court knows it. We've already seen exactly what the court might do if liquidity really is a dire problem. Remember when the couple's Cabo property was ordered sold? That's certainly the sort of action the court might take again should cash become necessary.

I take Gordon's remark as, more than anything else, a reflection on how acrimonious--and, really, tedious--this entire proceeding has become. While I get the strategic value of having six more weeks before this thing hits trial, I get the sense that most everyone connected to this saga is ready for the endgame to at least, you know, begin.

We'll see if it even happens to get that far. I think a settlement is increasingly likely, though I wouldn't expect one until the days approaching trial. There's so much at stake, both in dollars and pride, that my guess is whatever agreement might be reached will be negotiated down to the last practically available moment. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Forensic staple analysis and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The unsinkable Molly Knight has been out-Dodger Divorce-ing Dodger Divorce of late. She has this gargantuan piece rolling out in the July 26 issue of ESPN The Magazine, and it's really everything such a write-up could be. I think her only real mistake with it was not just turning it into a book. But that's neither here nor there. One of my favorite gems she uncovered is this particular point of contention between Frank and Jamie's legal teams:

[Jamie's attorney, David Boies,] has four reasons to believe the MPA will be overturned. Susman has an answer for each.
"First off, I don't even believe it exists," Boies says of the MPA. "Or at least not the piece of paper they claim to have saying Jamie signed away the Dodgers." Boies contends Frank pulled a switcheroo on his wife, that the document he had her sign just before the couple decamped for Los Angeles didn't mention the Dodgers.
According to Boies, the two schedules (listing his take and her take) tacked to the end of agreement (following the signature page) were switched after she signed. [Frank's attorney, Stephen Susman,] says: nonsense. He's getting a forensics expert to verify that the original staples are still in place on the original document.
Surely running on fumes, Knight managed to update us today on the status of this skirmish:
Two forensic scientists -- one from each side -- determined that a document at the crux of the battle over Frank and Jamie McCourt's estimated billion-dollar fortune has not been tampered with, according to Stephen Susman, Frank McCourt's chief legal counsel.
The agreement was extracted from a vault at the Boston law firm of Bingham McCutchen and examined by scientists from each team in Los Angeles on Tuesday.
Jamie McCourt's lawyers contend that there are six different copies of the document, and tests show that three of them -- signed at a different time than the other three, the lawyers said -- did not include Schedule A when Jamie McCourt signed them. Schedule A lists the assets Frank McCourt claims he is entitled to -- including the Dodgers.
Susman said the scientists found the document contained the original staple from 2004. In addition, an imprint of Jamie McCourt's signature was determined to exist on the page that names Frank as sole owner -- a potentially devastating blow to Jamie's chances of being given half the team in the divorce settlement.
"We've got the same staple and her signature on something she claims she never signed," says Susman. "Which proves all along she was not telling the truth."
Good grief. Nearly ten months and tens of thousands of words after we started down this path, we're fighting about staples. This melodrama has either taken a turn for the even-more-absurd or I have been seriously mislead about the gravity of forensic science by CSI and Dexter

I shouldn't dismiss this controversy so lightly. If Frank (or his lawyers) really did slip the Asset Schedule by Jamie during the post-nup's conception, that would be a big, big problem. But--even before considering modern science's contribution to the McCourt divorce--I think there's a major hole in that theory: if it was anywhere close to the truth, Jamie would have been screaming about it long ago.

You might remember that, in those heady days of the Summer of 2008, when Casey Blake was worth Carlos Santana and Manny Ramirez was some sort of cyborg sent to Earth to dominate National League pitching, Jamie started to make noise about revoking the post-nup. The couple's estate planning attorney's notes from a meeting from the then-married McCourts read in part:

SP stands for Separate Property and Exhibit A, unfortunately for Jamie, refers to the Asset Schedule she now claims was slipped by her in some sort of clandestine legal kung-fu. And it's here I see the biggest problem in her attack: if she had really been tricked, she would have known well before the divorce went down. Her legal team wouldn't have sat on what would have been its strongest weapon in the fight against the post-nup.

I've said all along I think Frank's in pretty good shape provided he didn't somehow deceive Jamie in the creation of the post-nup. I feel comfortable saying the same thing today. And now with the help of a team of crack scientists and a quick look into the post-nup's past, I'm still not convinced this was anything more than a bad bet on Jamie's part. 

Friday, July 9, 2010

Just another day...

As you've likely seen, we've got another controversial line item within Dodgers finances. This time, it's Howard Sunkin at issue. Sunkin, one of the Dodgers' highest-ranking executives, nominally works for The McCourt Group, a holding/management company of sorts with its claws in nearly all aspects of the organization. According to a report in the New York Times, however, The McCourt Group hasn't been Sunkin's only source of income. Katie Thomas and Michael Schmidt write that Sunkin was paid...
...more than $400,000 from the team’s charity [the Dodgers Dream Foundation] in 2007, which accounted for one-quarter of the foundation’s nearly $1.6 million budget that year. 
At the same time Sunkin was paid by the foundation, he performed other responsibilities for the team, including acting as a key adviser to the owner Frank McCourt and being the Dodgers’ chief negotiator with politicians and businesses. The Dodgers said they paid Sunkin an additional salary for his work outside the foundation but declined to say how much.
Revelations of the size and source of Sunkin’s compensation come as significant questions are being raised about how Frank McCourt and his wife, Jamie, who are fighting over ownership of the Dodgers in their divorce, used the team’s funds and whether they skirted tax laws.
I reached out to the Dodgers for comment on this story, and Josh Rawitch, the Dodgers' vice president for communications, forwarded me a statement. Here is a brief excerpt; feel free to e-mail me if you'd like to see the whole thing.
Howard expanded the scope of DDF to go beyond Dreamfields. DDF established and designed an award winning school curriculum for hundreds of thousands of Los Angeles students over the last 5 years.  DDF developed a college scholarship program in conjunction with the Jackie Robinson Foundation and 42 scholarships are annually to students of color and need.
Over the 2005-2007 time frame, the payment for Howard's services was shared by the LA Dodgers and  the DDF.  In 2007, the majority of his compensation was paid by the DDF because of the extra ordinary time commitment to the Foundation which was required of him.  That compensation in 2007 included a bonus for achieving over a three-year period the objectives that were given to him.  He spent more time on DDF than anything else that year.  With the building blocks in place, Howard turned his attention back to Dodger and McCourt responsibilities.  He continues to play a role in the DDF at no cost to the Foundation.
Bottom line:  Howard was the only DDF staff person for years.  His efforts have achieved significant results for DDF and the LA community, especially when considering what was inherited at DDF when McCourt purchased the team in 2004.  DDF’s scope is extensive, and thanks to Howard, the building blocks were put in place for long-term success.  
Howard’s compensation was and is commensurate with his portfolio of responsibilities.
Thompson and Schmidt, in the New York Times piece, go out of their way to characterize Sunkin's income from the DDF as extraordinary for the head of an organization its size. The Dodgers' statement, naturally, focuses on why Sunkin's compensation shouldn't be evaluated so superficially. Really, when it comes down to it, the Times wants blood, and the Dodgers are trying to stop the bleeding.

As for me, I guess I see things a little differently. I doubt the sources of Sunkin's compensation were ever supposed to be perfectly proportional to his work. It was likely about accounting as much as anything else, and when you have a web of interconnected organizations as complicated as the Dodgers Enterprise, some things just won't make perfect sense.

That's not to say this wasn't intentional. I don't think the sources of Sunkin's income were accidental; it would be extraordinarily foolish to fudge numbers in this situation. As has been pointed out by a friend, to the extent the Dodgers' charity was paying Sunkin's salary, the taxpayers were subsidizing his paycheck. That fact shouldn't be lost on us, and I'm confident it wasn't on the Dodgers.

Still, we're left with yet another situation implicating the fuzzy intersection of right and wrong. Is it right that the Dodgers Dream Foundation was spending such a large portion of its budget on Sunkin? Is it wrong that two adult McCourt sons are on the organization's payroll? How much do we care that the McCourts used the Dodgers to fund a lifestyle that is out of nearly everyone else's reach?

I think the entire divorce fiasco ought to teach the rich, famous, and powerful a strong lesson. Public Relations doesn't start at the press release and end when the cameras shut off. Public Relations is a 24/7 process comprising every single element of an organization. When operating an organization as notable as a professional sports team, it must be ingrained in each member that every little thing you do faces the public. There is no such thing as "no one will ever notice." 

As the Rangers and Dodgers are both learning, the line between public and private information can vanish in a heartbeat. The Dodgers can't unring the bell on Sunkin, or Shpunt, or the John McCourt Company, or Project Jamie, or $0 in personal taxes, or any of the other dozen or so stories that have chipped away at McCourt popularity since October. It's all out there, and it can't be taken back.

Some of it is noise, some is real, and the distinction between the two is awfully hard to draw from the outside. I'm not upset that the Dodgers Dream Foundation paid Howard Sunkin. Not one bit. It's tough to dispute how much the DDF has accomplished under his leadership, and I give a wide berth to business decisions. I'm disappointed, though, that the Dodgers seemed to have run a great deal of their business with no regard for what might happen if the curtains were pulled back. And pulled back they most certainly are.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Ok, so I lied.

Not going to have the Rangers thing up today. One, the most important thing I've seen is the news from the post below: MLB's constitution is under attack. Secondly, I've got to get out of the office and to the airport to pick up an old friend from LA, and I don't think he'll take "I was blogging" as an excuse. Have a safe and happy holiday weekend, and I'll be back next week!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Is MLB approval of potential owners on the chopping block?

I meant to will have something more tonight or tomorrow on what the Texas Rangers' bankruptcy and surrounding information means for our situation, but Craig Calcaterra, as he's done before, sort of beat me to at least one punch. Discussing the possibility that the bankruptcy court might force the Rangers to be sold at auction, damn MLB's concerns, Craig writes:
At which point it would be interesting to see what, if anything, Major League Baseball does about it. Because remember: MLB likes to pretend that its federally-created antitrust exemption allows it to accept or reject would-be team owners with impunity.  I assume that they're not going to try and pull rank over a bankruptcy judge on this point -- this sale is complicated enough already -- but if they don't, does it not put an end to the fiction that they can pick and choose new owners?
From my vantage point, this has major implications for the Dodgers' situation. If a federal judge directs the Rangers to be sold at auction, Major League Baseball will surely fight to uphold its own constitution, which mandates approval of new owners by the affirmative vote of at least 75 percent of current owners. Bankruptcy courts are a little different than other federal courts, in that they can be a little more...well, cavalier. Better put, a bankruptcy judge is less likely to worry about a decision's impact on outside parties than a standard federal district court judge might.

But the precedent has largely the same effect. If the Rangers are sold at auction, with disregard for MLB's rules, we might find out just how serious Jamie is about owning the team. If she wins on the post-nup, she can rely on the Rangers sale in her own pursuit of the Dodgers (presumably with the help of additional investors). If a judge in a bankruptcy court can determine the buyer in a judicially-directed sale, she will argue, doesn't that mean Commissioner Gordon can do largely the same thing? 

I continue to believe Frank is in a good position on the post-nup, though another close watcher of the situation has privately expressed the opposite opinion of late. In any case, I've always felt Jamie's gambit had a dead end of sorts: there's no way she gets 75% of baseball's owners to approve a potential bid. Not at this point. However, the possible court-ordered auction sale of the Rangers might give her new hope. You can bet her attorneys will be watching closely. We will be.