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Springtime Storylines: How long until new ownership puts the magic back in the Los Angeles Dodgers?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Big Question: How long until new ownership brings back the magic?

Sorry. That was kind of hacky, wasn’t it?  Oh well. I coulda gone with “Showtime,” and I didn’t so consider yourself lucky.

But our hackiness can be forgiven, can it not?  These are heady times for the Dodgers. Frank McCourt’s reign of terror is about to end and in comes the most beloved figure in L.A. sports this side of Vin Scully. And what’s more, Magic Johnson is accompanied by serious money in the form of Guggenheim Partners, and real baseball brains in Stan Kasten.  That stuff has led to a zillion headlines this week, but how long until that translates to success on the field?

Maybe sooner than you think. Here was Magic Johnson early Wednesday morning, when asked if the new ownership group was going to approach things like the Yankees do:

“It’s not just the Yankees. The Angels invested a lot of money into Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. You see what the Tigers just did with Prince Fielder. Teams are investing. That’s what you do when you put a winning team on the field. We’re not going to be any different from those teams.”

Cole Hamles is available next year. So is Matt Cain. So is Josh Hamilton. In not too long Joey Votto will hit the market.  There’s no reason to think that the Dodgers aren’t going to be in on that business.  And if they are, they could start winning a lot of baseball games here pretty soon.

What else is going on?

  • None of that is this year, though. For this year it’s their Cy Young pitcher in Clayton Kershaw, their MVP-caliber center fielder Matt Kemp and … a whole lot of blah. Or, as Jonah Keri put it so succinctly: “2012 could bring the Dodgers another Cy Young, an MVP award, and the league lead for crummy, overpaid starters named Juan.”
  • Dee Gordon is about as exciting as it comes. He hit .304 with a .325 on-base percentage and stole 24 bases in only 56 games.  He may be trouble for the Dodgers at the top of the order given how batting average-heavy that OBP is, but when he does get on base, watch out.
  • Otherwise this is a pretty weak lineup. Outside of Kemp there are very few power threats and the one guy who could maybe turn into one one day — Jerry Sands — was just sent down to the minors. For this lineup to be any kind of respectable, the Dodgers need Andre Ethier, James Loney and Juan Rivera all to remember what they were like when they used to be something. That’s a tall order.
  • Kershaw is less of a lone solider in the rotation, as Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly and Aaron Harang all look solid. Not spectacular or anything, but solid.

So how are they gonna do?

Not that great. I really don’t like anyone in this lineup not named Matt Kemp.  The cupboard is basically bare here, as the minor league system atrophied under McCourt and Ned Colletti simply doesn’t appear to know how to assemble useful spare parts.  All of that is a recipe for mediocrity at best.  Even if there is excitement on the horizon.

Bryce Harper reportedly wants a $400 million extension

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 13: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals reacts after hitting a single in the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers during game five of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park on October 13, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports the Nationals are “balking at Bryce Harper’s demands in early talks about a long-term contract extension” and are thus prepared to let him walk when he becomes a free agent following the 2018 season.

What would make the Nationals balk? According to Nightengale’s source it’s a deal that “will exceed 10 years in length and likely pay him in excess of $400 million.”

That might seem crazy given historical norms and given that Harper is coming off a disappointing season, but if Harper returns to anything close to his 2015 form in which he won National League MVP honors while hitting .330/.460/.649 and hit 42 home runs, $400 million is going to seem quite reasonable. That sort of production was not some crazy fluke for a guy with Harper’s talent, after all. And he’ll be 26-years-old when he hits free agency, which is far, far younger than your typical free agent. Indeed, he’ll be entering what have, historically, been the prime years of most superstars’ careers.

The closest comp to star hitting free agency at that age was Alex Rodriguez, who was 25 when he signed his first $250 million deal following the 2000 season. Top big league deals going from $250 million to $400 million in he space of two decades is not really all that crazy when you think about it. Especially when you realize that, between 2001 and 2018, baseball revenues will have increased by a factor of three, assuming current growth holds.

UPDATE: My first thought after reading all of this was “I wonder if the Nats leaked the $400 million thing, whether it was an actual demand or not, in order to turn the PR in their favor if they deal Harper?” Question answered:

At least one quarter of the Today’s Committee owed Bud Selig a solid

Bud Selig
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The 16-member committee that voted Bud Selig and John Schuerholz into the Hall of Fame — the “Today’s Game” Committee — consisted of the following members: Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar, Bobby Cox, Andre Dawson, Dennis Eckersley, Pat Gillick, Ozzie Smith, Don Sutton, and Frank Thomas, major league owners/executives Paul Beeston (Blue Jays), Bill DeWitt (Cardinals), David Glass (Royals), Andy MacPhail (Phillies) and Kevin Towers (Reds); and media members/historians Bill Center, Steve Hirdt and Tim Kurkjian.

That’s certainly a venerable list of names. A quarter of that electorate, however, could be characterized as having a pretty notable conflict of interest when it comes to Bud Selig. At least if anyone cared about things like conflict of interest when it comes to baseball.

Whatever the case, two of those 16 guys became owners — and even more wealthier as a result — due to his affirmatively choosing or approving them to join sports’ most exclusive club. Two others were personally chosen by Selig to assist him over the years, raising their profile and importance in the game and giving them resume pieces that will one day be part of their own Hall of Fame cases.

  • Royals owner David Glass: Became the Royals CEO and Chairman in 1993, right after Selig became the acting commissioner. Glass was a key ally for Selig’s efforts to impose a salary cap and take a financial hard line in negotiations with the union, which eventually led to the 1994-95 strike. In 1999-2000 he became the full owner of the Royals after Selig personally stepped in to stop a bid for the club by a competing ownership group and is thus widely refereed to as Selig’s handpicked man. Glass is on the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors, on which Selig served for decades.
  • Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr.: Bought his club in 1995, after Selig had taken over and thus would not be a baseball owner without Selig’s approval. DeWitt was a point man for Selig on a host of his pet projects, including the Wild Card and interleague play. He likewise led the charge for revenue sharing and other potentially divisive financial matters which tended to be in the interest of smaller market clubs, the sort of which Selig himself championed when he was a mere owner. DeWitt chaired the committee to find Selig’s successor, which eventually served to validate Selig’s desire to have his hand-picked choice, Rob Manfred, succeed him.
  • Phillies President Andy MacPhail: Selig’s handpicked choice for the labor negotiating committee in 2002 which, at the time, continued speculation that MacPhail would one day be on the short list to succeed Selig. A few years before that MacPhail was public in saying that Selig would be the right choice to become permanent commissioner at a time when many were concerned that a team owner assuming that role was a conflict of interest.
  • Former President of the Blue Jays, Paul Beeston: In the late 90s, Beeston resigned as president of the Toronto Blue Jays following a successful reign to accepted baseball’s newly created position of president and chief operating officer. The move was widely seen as a means of giving Selig a top lieutenant — a defacto deputy commissioner — which would help him smooth his transition from acting commissioner to permanent commissioner. Many thought at the time that if Beeston was not hired for that gig, Selig may have declined the full-time commissioner’s role. Selig was described in the press at the time as a strong admirer of Beeston’s. In 2014, Beeston reflected glowingly on Selig’s legacy, saying, “I absolutely admire him on this steroid thing.” Beeston is on the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors, on which Selig served.

Is there anything necessarily wrong with that? No. Baseball is a small world and Bud Selig existed in it for a long, long time, so having a relationship with Selig was pretty unavoidable for almost anyone with any sort of profile in the game. No technical rule or historical baseball norm was violated by virtue of this vote or the composition of the committee itself. Indeed, the old Veterans Committee to the Hall of Fame was widely seen as a group of good old boys voting their old friends. Worth noting, perhaps, that that iteration of the Veterans Committee was abolished precisely for that reason, but I suppose we’ll leave that go for now.

I wonder, however, what the vote totals would have been for some of the other candidates if 25% of their electorate consisted of people who owed personal and professional debts to them the way Selig’s electorate owed him. Maybe Barry Bonds’ agent could get a Hall of Fame vote? Roger Clemens’ mechanic? Mark McGwire’s interior designer?

I suppose we’ll never know.