When Should The Dodgers Become Buyers?

While it’s hard to remember it now, the Los Angeles Dodgers have a proud history. Only the San Francisco Giants have more Hall of Famers, and only four teams have won more World Series championships. With the team’s hot start and impending sale, which is scheduled to close today, people have begun the process of wading through the fog that befell the team in the last year of Frank McCourt’s ownership to see what all the fuss is about. Few people could have predicted such a scenario before the season started, but now that it has happened, one of the more pertinent questions is — when should the Dodgers become buyers?

The first variable in looking at that is determining how the new ownership group will proceed. Assuming there are no hiccups with the completion of the sale today, Stan Kasten, Magic Johnson and co. will settle into their new digs within the week, if not tomorrow. But that doesn’t mean that change should be imminent. Stan Kasten is a seasoned sports executive, and I would think that his course will be working in conjunction with general manager Ned Colletti before cleaning house, if that is warranted, in the offseason. One reason for that of course is that it will be much harder to receive permission to interview potential replacements for Colletti during the season than it will be in October. Another reason is that Kasten has never served as a general manager in baseball before, and thus is going to need someone to steer the ship for the rest of the season.

But just because the new ownership group may make a lame duck out of Colletti doesn’t mean his hands will necessarily be tied. Colletti doesn’t have a decorated trade resume, but he isn’t the worst GM in history. He will forever have to live with the shame of Carlos Santana for Casey Blake trade, and it would be nice to still have James McDonald around, but the rest of his work isn’t nearly as menacing. Tim Federowicz has started this season on a much better note than has Trayvon Robinson, the Ted Lilly trade has worked out nicely, and once upon a time, Colletti did a nice two-step on Billy Beane in the Andre EthierMilton Bradley deal.

So when will the right opportunity present itself to start wheeling and dealing? Right now, the Dodgers stand atop the National League West at 16-6, four games ahead of the Giants, five games ahead of the Diamondbacks and five and a half in front of the Rockies. Coming off a six-game homestand against the Braves and Nationals in which they finished 4-2, the team now faces a fairly rough upcoming stretch, as they will play 12 of their next 22 games against the Giants, D-backs and Cardinals, with three games in Colorado to boot. As we saw in Dave Cameron’s article this morning, the Dodgers are unlikely to vanish from the playoff picture in three weeks, but heading into Memorial Day weekend, the team should have a better grasp on where they stand. It could end up being the perfect time to upgrade.

And let’s be frank (not McCourt though), the Dodgers have a few places where improvement is going to be needed. First base has once again been a giant vacuum of suck, as has left field on days when Jerry Hairston hasn’t been playing. Tony Gwynn is a good fourth of fifth outfielder, but he shouldn’t be starting the majority of the time. The starting rotation has actually been good — the starter’s xFIP of 3.71 ranks 10th in baseball at the moment — and while Clayton Kershaw, Ted Lilly and Chad Billingsley isn’t going to make anyone forget about the Sandy KoufaxDon DrysdaleClaude Osteen years, you can definitely go to war with them. The bullpen, on the other hand, could use some work. Even if Jamey Wright maintains his 3.02 xFIP all year (PS – he won’t, he’s never had one better than 4.02) the bullpen still has holes. But those don’t necessarily need to be filled via trade — a great bullpen can be built in a number of different ways. And besides, first base and left field are more pressing issues. Since the start of last season, Dodgers’ left fielders have produced a .296 wOBA, good for 27th in baseball. First base has been slightly better, as its .321 wOBA ranks 23rd, but both should be upgraded if possible.

Scanning the list of 2013 free agents over at MLB Trade Rumors, we want to be mindful to not pick out the names of teams that are either on contenders or on teams that have started the season well and don’t have a compelling reason to cut bait at this point. Of course, Josh Hamilton would look good in left field, but let’s be realistic. The other issue is that the farm system is devoid of blue chips at the moment, so the scale is likely to be smaller. Even applying those filters, some names pop out. The first is Carlos Lee. El Caballo’s time in left field looks to be at an end, but even with his power mysteriously missing in 2012, he is still outproducing James Loney and Juan Rivera. With the A’s seemingly committed to Josh Reddick, one or potentially two of the Seth Smith, Jonny Gomes and Coco Crisp trio could be available. A Smith/Gomes platoon would be a significant upgrade from Gwynn/Rivera. Or if the Dodgers couldn’t lure away both of them, they could try to reunite Smith with his former Rockies teammate, Jeff Baker. Baker has the exact same .378 wOBA against left-handed pitching for his career that Gomes does. And while Mariners manager Eric Wedge has deemed Casper Wells not worthy of playing time, he could be a good upside play, and thanks to his marginalization in Seattle, might come cheap.

There are other names that could be more tantalizing, if less likely to happen, at least before June. Could the Mariners be persuaded to part with Ichiro Suzuki for three months? Would the Orioles consider dealing Adam Jones? Could Alfonso Soriano be reinvigorated with a change of scenery, and would it be worth taking on his contract in order to find out?

Fans are beginning to flock back to Dodger Stadium. Over the weekend, they drew nearly 148,000 for their three-game set with the Nationals, and last Tuesday they drew 44,000+ for a Mike MinorAaron Harang matchup (and yes, for a sleeved blanket giveaway as well). The team is hot, the new owners are moving in and the fans are responding. The team will finish a rough stretch of games three weeks from now, at which time the new ownership group will have had a chance to settle in and assess their chances for the 2012 season. If the Dodgers are still at or near the top of the division come Memorial Day weekend, the team should act. Yes, they are a good team, and yes, they are likely to remain in the playoff picture. But they shouldn’t stand pat and allow first base and left field to needlessly drag down the team in June and July when there are potential upgrades out there.

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Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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If the Mets start to fall out of it I could see a young pitching based package for Wright being in the works. Of course the Mets may look to extend him, but if they feel it isn’ t going their way the Dodgers farm does have a lot of interesting arms.