Dodgers set up for future success
Young talent in place, but free-agent decisions loom for LA
The Los Angeles Dodgers may or may not advance to the World Series, but one thing seems certain: This is a team that will have a legitimate shot at postseason play for a number of years to come.
The primary reason is a core group of young players that has talent and now has added the experience of playing and winning in the postseason.
The Dodgers are blessed with four position players who have their fans thinking about the days of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey, those magical names of another time in the team's history.
The Dodgers have real hope for future success with the foundation of catcher Russell Martin, first baseman James Loney and outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier.
All four players are in their mid-20s, and they have the type of talent that gets better with age. You could make the case that second baseman Blake DeWitt belongs in this same class, but he hasn't quite elevated himself to that status yet.
There is a balance to the Dodgers' future hopes, and that rests primarily on the wonderful arms of starting pitchers Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw and reliever Jonathan Broxton.
At this time last year, it appeared the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies had moved far ahead of the Dodgers when it came to young talent in the National League West. Both teams advanced to postseason play with young players, and the Rockies made it to the World Series.
The 2008 season has changed everything for the Dodgers. The team's young players have performed extremely well in pressure situations and now have the feel of what winning is all about.
There has been a lot of attention on the Dodgers as to how the team will deal with high-profile left fielder Manny Ramirez, who will be a free agent after the season. There also are questions about the future of another trio of soon-to-be free agents -- shortstop Rafael Furcal, third baseman Casey Blake and pitching ace Derek Lowe.
The intriguing and complicated puzzle the Dodgers face is that they do have a number of important free-agent players. The team doesn't have any of its young players under long-term contracts -- thus facing the always difficult task of possible arbitration cases. And the team, unfortunately, has the wrong players under contract for the future.
It is the last item that truly muddies the water for the Dodgers when it comes time to critical decisions for the future. The Dodgers have $40.1 million tied up in salaries for 2009 in three players who are non-factors at this time -- outfielder Andruw Jones ($18.1 million), pitcher Jason Schmidt ($12 million) and outfielder Juan Pierre ($10 million).
In fairness to Pierre, he is on the postseason roster and has been a good team player, but Jones and Schmidt are drawing their salaries while on the disabled list.
The Dodgers' foursome of free agents -- Ramirez, Furcal, Blake and Lowe -- couldn't be headed for the open market on a stronger note. Ramirez has shown the Dodgers that winning can be fun; Furcal has finally emerged from a bad back to take his spot at the top of the lineup; Blake has proved to be as steady and clutch as a veteran player can be; and Lowe has never looked better than when pitching in important games.
These four players have combined with the advancement of the Dodgers youngsters to give the team its strongest makeup of the season.
The unfortunate part for the Dodgers is that Ramirez, Furcal, Blake and Lowe will be at the top of the free-agent list at their respective positions as other teams look at ways to improve in 2009.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers will have to deal in the offseason with Martin, Ethier and Broxton as first-time arbitration-eligible players, and Loney, Kemp and Billingsley are only a year away from having the added leverage in salary negotiations.
Right now, of course, there are matters more important to the Dodgers than player decisions and salaries.
There is an NL Championship Series to be played. And a Dodgers team that wasn't expected to be around this time of the year is very much in the spotlight.
For those young Dodgers players, life couldn't be any better. For those old Dodgers fans, well, they probably feel a little younger themselves these days.
Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as executive vice president and general manager. His book -- "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue" -- was published by SportsPublishingLLC. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.