Now that Manny Ramirez can stop worrying about filing for unemployment, the Los Angeles Dodgers have to be considered one of the teams to beat in the National League this year. Looking at the Dodgers' roster and some of the moves they made in this winter, I have to admit that Los Angeles is one of the franchises that I'm very jealous of right now.
The Dodgers made a point of upgrading their team this off-season, even though there were already "incumbents" at the position. But by adding Manny and second baseman Orlando Hudson, even though the Dodgers already had major-league options at both positions, LA sent its the message that it will not simply sit back and accept the status quo.
Contrast that with the Mets, who will run Luis Castillo back out at second base again in 2009 and hope for better things, even though there's little reason to believe he will ever be the player he was in his mid-20s. New York has already handed the left-field job to Daniel Murphy on the basis of a two-month hot streak last summer, even though they desperately need a right-handed power bat to balance out their left-leaning lineup.
Instead of trying to improve the everyday lineup, they did nothing, and the Dodgers signed two short-term deals with players that would've been perfect fits in New York.
It's not like the Dodgers didn't have internal options as well. They could have passed on Manny and given the job in left field back to Juan Pierre instead. Dodger fans would've howled, but the front office had a built-in excuse in place - a veteran signed to a long-term deal. (Does that sound familiar to you?)
Pierre is coming off perhaps the worst season of his wildly over-rated career, but is signed for another three seasons at big money and would be very tough to trade away. The Dodgers could've simply put Pierre back in his familiar leadoff spot and claimed that they were going to win with speed and defense, even though a knowledgable fan would've seen right through that charade
Instead, the Dodgers found the money for Manny and essentially told the rest of the league that there is now a speedy fourth outfielder for sale at bargain-basement prices. Pierre will be actively shopped throughout Spring Training, and I'm confident that someone will take a chance on him before too long, as long as the Dodgers are willing to pay three-fourths of his remaining salary. Otherwise, they'll be spending $10 million for a player who ideally would be no more than a pinch-runner and a defensive replacement.
Dodgers GM Ned Colletti made a big mistake signing Pierre - he took steps toward fixing it by signing Manny Ramirez. I only wish the Mets had a general manager who could also admit his mistakes and try to move forward from them.
In some ways, passing on Hudson is an even more egregious error in judgment than not offering a contract to Ramirez. Yes, Manny can be a headache, and the more conservative elements of the fan base will consider it a point of pride that the Mets did not sign a player with Ramirez's "baggage." It is a foolish and short-sighted way of thinking, of course; 35 home runs and a .300 batting average have a way of making a player with even the most checkered past look like a model citizen.
Hudson, meanwhile, is one of the best defensive second basemen in the league and his bat has finally caught up with his glove over the last three years. Hudson is also a switch-hitter who would do very well batting behind Jose Reyes in the Mets' lineup. Reyes and Hudson would've combined to provide terrific defense up the middle, which I believe is a key element to building a successful team. When you have two middle infielders who not only play their position well but can also contribute at the plate, you have a team that can be very successful.
But the Mets passed on Hudson as well, mostly because they've guaranteed $18 million over the next three years to Castillo. The Dodgers had $28.5 million committed to Pierre over the same time frame; it didn't stop them from committing $25 million to Manny this season to play left field.
So Hudson finally signed with the Dodgers for a $3.4 million base salary, with playing time incentives that could increase the value to nearly $8 million. The Dodgers already had options at second base as well; Mark Loretta signed a one-year deal with LA in the off-season and Blake Dewitt turned some heads during his rookie year. Now, Loretta and Dewitt will become two versatile utility men who between them can back at up at all four infield positions.
The end result for the Dodgers is a potentially devastating lineup and a strong, versatile bench, along with veteran trade bait that can be used to try filling other needs. The end result for the Mets is a series of hopes and dreams - maybe Castillo will have a bounceback season, maybe Murphy is ready for the major leagues, maybe having left-handed batters fifth through eighth in the lineup won't make the Mets incredibly vulnerable against left-handed relievers.
Which team would you bet on right now?