There are three things you need for lasting contention in the bigs, and the Dodgers have two of them: a talent-laden farm system and money to spend. The one thing they lacked last year is the most crucial, which is established young building blocks at the major-league level. The signing of Rafael Furcal goes a long way towards addressing that. He's young, he runs, he flashes the leather, and he fills a position of need. Cesar Izturis and his career .295 OBP might not be shown the door in the most elegant way possible, but Furcal is a huge improvement. He might not be worth $13 million a year -- he's no Miguel Tejada -- but the Dodgers had an ugly year in 2005 and they can afford to overpay.
The organization's biggest problem is twitchy, meddling ownership that overreacted violently to a freaky run of bad luck last season. Sometimes teams have bad years. Firing a general manager after two years, one division title and one fourth place finish (second place, if you go by the adjusted standings) is bad business. The Los Angeles franchise is the most structurally sound, top to bottom, in the NL West, and the only thing that can ruin it is continued chaos in the front office. Ned Colletti is certainly qualified to run a major league baseball franchise, but so was Paul DePodesta. Some of Colletti's early moves have reeked of ownership mandates. Perhaps Milton Bradley had to go. But was it entirely necessary to send off the eminently useful Antonio Perez with him to grease the wheels? It's true that the Dodgers have blue-chip pitching prospects coming out of their ears, and Edwin Jackson's star had much faded in the past two seasons. But if Jackson was deemed expendable, couldn't more reward be squeezed out of him than an overrated "proven closer" and a replacement-level relief-pitching warm body? And why on earth was Chuck Tiffany thrown in to the Baez-Carter deal? The younger, cheaper pair of arms could probably pitch just as well in relief for the Dodgers this year as Danys Baez and Lance Carter will, only they're starters and therefore will produce vastly more value on the cheap for the Devil Rays.
Not that all of the pressure on Colletti to make Dodgertown 2006 a brave new world has been a bad thing. Los Angeles was really bad at third base last year. Bill Mueller is a reasonable veteran solution at an affordable price. (But let's all take a second to mourn the passing of Clint Nakamura. It's pretty rare to see a guy in the major leagues who just flat-out can't play. It happens all the time in the NBA, which is yet another reason to trumpet baseball's superiority. But Clint...wow. He will be missed.) For a team in a major market, in a bad division, with a few bucks to spend, signing Nomar Garciaparra for one year, six million is an acceptable risk. The Dodgers' efforts to prop themselves up with short-term veteran solutions for the next year or two have it all over the similar attempts of Colletti's former employers in San Francisco. The difference is Los Angeles is signing younger guys to shorter deals. Either Colletti did a better job reading the market than his old boss Brian Sabean or the sunnier weather in Southern California was irresistible to Garciaparra, Mueller, Brett Tomko, and Kenny Lofton.
The team's lineup isn't going to blow anyone away. Jeff Kent has aged remarkably gracefully. If he ends up having to move to first, that could cause all sorts of problems for the Dodgers but with Izturis out for the beginning of the season Kent will start at his accustomed position. Grady Little isn't likely to do any favors for the leftovers from the previous Moneyball-influenced regime, meaning Hee Seop Choi and Olmedo Saenz will soon be looking for work elsewhere. The outfield after the inevitable J.D. Drew injury will look pretty bleak, although they have cut down dramatically on guys named "Jason." I'm fairly bullish on the front three guys in their rotation, Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, and Odalis Perez. They're none of them aces but I could see this team successfully following the mold of the '04 Cardinals, simply having five really solid starters. Worse things could happen to Los Angeles than Tomko and Jae Seo not panning out as the four and five guys. They've got crazy options on the farm, although no real urgency to rush the Broxtons and Billingsleys. As for the bullpen, I have three words for you: healthy Eric Gagne.
The Diamondbacks have strangely blocked almost every one of their dynamite position prospects. The Padres have utterly failed to improve upon their paltry '05 offense. The Giants are a house of cards all resting upon 41-year-old knees as a foundation. The Rockies...well, I love them to death, but they're still just Todd Helton and a bunch of guys. Los Angeles is an extremely safe pick for 2006 NL West champs, although their lack of a dominant starter probably dooms them to a short postseason shelf life. If anything, Colletti's moves have been a net push -- maybe I'll begrudge him a couple of extra wins for the Furcal signing. Best case scenario, Eric Gagne and J.D. Drew are in robust good health for the balance of the year and the Dodgers win between 85 and 89 games...and the division, comfortably.