Are The Dodgers Screwed?

Last night, the commissioner’s office released a statement noting that the league would “appoint a representative to oversee all aspects of the business and the day-to-day operations of the (Los Angeles Dodgers) Club.” Essentially, Bud Selig was seizing control of the Dodgers “because of my deep concerns regarding the finances and operations of the Dodgers and to protect the best interests of the Club.”

As Jonah wrote last night, the last time Major League Baseball owned a franchise, it was an utter disaster. The way the Expos were ran during the time that the league had stewardship over them was an embarrassment, and highlights the problems that can arise in this kind of natural conflict-of-interest situation. With the other owners incentivized to not lose games to a property they had an ownership stake in, the Expos were essentially turned into baseball’s version of the Washington Generals.

But I have to believe that Selig learned some lessons from just how poorly that situation was handled, and he knows that he can’t make those same mistakes again. Additionally, Los Angeles is not Montreal, and with all respect to Jonah’s memories, the Dodgers are not the Expos. This is a storied franchise in the largest media market on the west coast – the problem won’t be finding a new owner, but rather picking from among the horde of people who will be interested in purchasing the team.

There will certainly be legal hurdles to clear as the league attempts to essentially foreclose on Frank McCourt, but given the size of their respective war chests, I can’t see any way that McCourt can win a legal battle with the league and convince a judge to overturn Selig’s decision. McCourt needed a loan from Fox in order to pay his bills – how much of a serious legal challenge can he really mount?

I think the only safe assumption here is that the league will win any tug-of-war that ensues, and probably in short order. They’re not going to want to drag this out any longer than they have to, and McCourt doesn’t have the resources to sustain a long fight anyway. My amateur speculation suggests that the most likely outcome is some sort of deal where McCourt agrees to go along with Selig’s plan in exchange for some sort of payout when the team is sold to another owner.

During the interim, however, the Dodgers still have a franchise to run, and they’ll now essentially be owned by their competitors. I can’t imagine the Giants voting to extend funds to help the Dodgers add a bat at the trade deadline if it comes to that, but thankfully for the league, the Dodgers already have a fairly sizable payroll and a full baseball operations staff in place. The league doesn’t have to fight the owners on what the Dodgers 2011 budget should be – that’s already in place, and they simply have to honor the contracts that have already been agreed to.

If Selig does the right thing and gives his appointee legitimate independence to make decisions on baseball matters that don’t affect the team’s expenditures, then the Dodgers can still operate in a somewhat normal fashion. The team has been notorious for making deals in July that bring them talent while the other team continues to pick up the remaining salary – they did this with Manny Ramirez and (fatefully) Casey Blake, giving up a little bit more in exchange for not having to take on increased financial obligations.

These kinds of deals have become somewhat common around the league, and if the Dodgers steward had the autonomy to make deals of that sort without the commissioner’s approval, then we probably wouldn’t be able to discern much of a difference between how the Dodgers were run this year versus in previous years.┬áIt isn’t the ideal way to run a franchise, of course, but it would essentially maintain the status quo, and not require much of a change in plans for Ned Colletti and his staff.

Assuming the league wins a fairly quick legal battle and is able to place the team for sale at some point this summer, it should not take too long for a new owner to be found. As we saw last summer, MLB was able to help facilitate a rather rapid transfer of the Rangers even though they didn’t actually own that franchise. While I’m still speculating, I’d guess that it is not out of the question for the Dodgers to have a new ownership group in place by the end of the year.

If that timeline holds, MLB will be able to avoid the problem of having to set a budget or retain staff – the two major problems that plagued the league during the Expos debacle. If the entirety of their involvement in owning the Dodgers can be contained in the calendar year 2011, this actually has the chance to not have much of an impact on how the team is operated.

It could, of course, go badly. We’ve seen just how the league can screw this up. But I don’t know that we should see that as the inevitable conclusion of this move. If the league can win a quick legal battle and a qualified candidate steps forward to buy the team at a good price, the transfer of power could take place fairly quickly, and that’s the result that is in everyone’s best interests.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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