Conspiracy Theory Wednesday: Will We Ever Truly Be Rid of Frank McCourt?

It’s every Dodger fan’s worst nightmare, even if they haven’t quite considered the possibility yet: what if Frank McCourt was running a long con in order to attempt to keep the team?

When he finally agreed to sell on November 1, we were ecstatic, understandably. If it didn’t quite add up that a career litigator would so abruptly abandon his fight just weeks before his day in court, after years of insisting he’d never sell, we didn’t notice – we were too busy dreaming about white knights who might be interested in purchasing the team.

Yet despite our joy, it’s becoming hard not to notice the inconsistencies in all this that have been piling up over the last few weeks. Despite agreeing with MLB to sell nearly six weeks ago, the filing didn’t make it to bankruptcy court until December 6. We didn’t get concerned, because surely a transaction involving a billion-dollar team could be complicated, and, hey look over there, is that Ned Colletti handing his secretary a backloaded two-year deal? Then, despite giving up all of his Los Angeles-area homes to ex-wife Jamie in their settlement, Frank claimed he had no intention of leaving Los Angeles and actually attended the annual owner’s meetings in Milwaukee, a move that raised eyebrows considering there had to be more than a few people there disgusted at what he’s put the sport through. Besides, even though he had agreed to sell the team, he still had something of an in – the right to keep the parking lots that surround the stadium, thanks to one of his many shady restructurings of the organization.

At the time, Mike DiGiovanna of the LA Times briefly asked why McCourt was choosing to sell:

But after a bruising two-year battle to keep the Dodgers, why not wait a few more weeks to see if he won in court?

“I had personal reasons to make the decision that I’m not at liberty to share at this time,” McCourt said.

As November continued, the story largely shifted to the legal battle between FOX and the Dodgers, as McCourt attempted to persuade the court to allow him to market the club’s television rights immediately, despite the FOX contract clearly stating those rights were exclusive until the end of the 2012 season. McCourt argued that getting a current valuation of those rights would allow for higher bids of the team than if the prospective buyers were uncertain what their worth would be; playing on the bankruptcy court’s sympathy towards making sure creditors get repaid above all other concerns, the court agreed over FOX’s obvious objections. The ruling seemed dubious at best, since even if McCourt was able to secure a higher bid for future television rights, any new owner would not be obligated to abide by that deal, and could simply re-open the bidding again. This is the part that’s most troubling, because it’s not hard to think that media rights could be worth more a year from now, when the team might have a new owner and a whole hell of a lot more positive press than it does right now.

With the ruling in hand, McCourt can proceed in soliciting rights bids while simultaneously working to sell the team… except with purchase bids due by January 13, buyers have reportedly still not seen the “bid book”, a confidential document outlining the Dodger financial state, despite a December 1 report that said the book would go out “next week”. (i.e., last week.)

This all caught the eye of local legend Ross Newhan, now blogging independently, in a December 2 post I linked to last week:

 ”This has been going on more than a month and no one has seen a book, including the top league officials who, I presume, would have to approve it,” one of the sources said. “It makes you wonder.”

What he and others are wondering would provide Oliver Stone with a conspiracy script that would shock Dodger fans.

The question he and othes are asking is this:

“Does McCourt really intend to sell or is he still seeking a way to retain ownership?”

Though Newhan admits the idea is far-fetched, he lays out the path that McCourt could take if this was his goal, and wouldn’t you know it, the first item is “get permission to sell media rights,” a week before that decision occurred.

Fred Roggin of NBC Los Angeles picked up on the scent yesterday (h/t to Philip for the link), and though his piece was laughably titled “exclusive” (presumably by a headline writer who has never heard of Ross Newhan), he backs up the story that buyers are unsure of where this process is taking them:

I’ve talked with a number of prospective buyers who are all perplexed because they don’t have the book with the Dodger financial information.

Here’s the best part, however. Newhan posted his story on December 2, and Roggin chimed in yesterday, December 13. About a month ago, on November 13, I received an email that I admittedly didn’t think much of at the time. (Yes, it’s largely because half of it was written in caps, and I’m a snob like that.) It’s from a reader who will remain anonymous, in response to Bill Shaikin’s story about McCourt attempting to convince the court to let him sell the media rights, and he may have been the only one to see all of this from the very beginning:

WHAT MCCOURT IS TRYING TO GET AWAY WITH:  He is still trying to sell the tv rights (may the judge save us by refusing to order another corporation, Fox, to give up their negotiated privilege not to do so under duress) so when, according to McCourt’s scheme, the tv deal is negotiated by Blackstone (McCourt) sometime this winter, McCOURT CAN HALT THE SALE OF THE TEAM, WITH THE AGREEMENT IN HAND TO RECEIVE THE FUNDS TO PAY OFF THE CREDITORS, GET THE DODGERS OUT OF BANKRUPTCY AND KEEP THE TEAM.  THAT’S WHAT HE’S TRYING TO PULL HERE, BILL, and no journalist, let alone the braindead octogenarians running MLB, gets that.

What does Fox get out of it? A deal with McCourt, a cheap deal for them, not the blockbuster the next owner would realize from HIS negotiated sale of the rights when the bidding is open to Time-Warner after next November. Fox is currently the only entity ostensibly refusing to go along with McCourt’s request—if they DID agree, it would be OBVIOUS there’s something big in it for them, a MUCH smaller rights fee to pay—so they’re pretending to fight it. When the judge is ready in 2 1/2 weeks to hear their reasons for going against a sale of the tv rights now, all they have to do is show up in court and announce they’re throwing in the towel on the “fight”. Since MLB has already monumentally stupidly agreed to let McCourt have his tv rights sale now, as quid pro quo for agreeing to sell the Dodgers, there will be no one to object to giving McCourt the tv sale now, and the rest of the plan McCourt and Fox have hatched will extend Fox’s telecasts of the Dodgers forever at a bargain rate, and McCourt will keep the Dodgers as a result.

I won’t pretend there’s not a bit of “tin foil hat” going on in there, because clearly this entire conversation is one big conspiracy theory that might be way, way off base. Still, there’s enough smoke there to not dismiss this outright. MLB did agree not to oppose the sale of the broadcast rights, as they otherwise would have, in order to finally get McCourt to agree to sell. And FOX and Time Warner, who have had rights fees wars for years across the country, are, by all indications, gearing up for a massive war over Southern California sports telecasts.

While allowing the two corporate giants to fight over the Dodgers would surely increase the ultimate payoff, if McCourt’s goal is simply to get enough to cover his debts, pay off his ex-wife, and get the team out of bankruptcy, then perhaps he’s less interested in “every last penny” as he would be in “as much as I can get, as soon as I can get” – and not only are the Dodgers and FOX supposedly still negotiating despite the court ruling, McCourt tried something similar in the past, attempting to sell the future rights to FOX for what was considered below market value in order to see an immediate influx. In addition, it’s not like he hasn’t previously been in bed with FOX on prior loans anyway. Besides, if the latest reports are true which indicate that the Dodgers are contractually restricted from creating a new regional network with Time Warner, ESPN, or Comcast are true – i.e., all the big players who aren’t FOX – then that’s just a further incentive to stick with FOX. (That’s a battle which has yet to play out in court, though.)

But it doesn’t have to be FOX. That might be the ultimate goal of getting the court to open up the bidding, to show FOX that even if McCourt would prefer to stick with them, he’s no longer obligated to. Otherwise, FOX would just wait out the ownership transfer and still likely have time to speak exclusively with the new boss before their rights deal expired. Now, they have motivation to strike a deal before the rights get shopped around. So as the theory goes, McCourt could come to an agreement with FOX or someone else on a long-term rights deal, one that would be a step up from what the Dodgers currently get yet still likely below what the results of an all-out bidding war could be, and all of a sudden McCourt could go back to the bankruptcy court and say, “my house is in order, I have the money to pay off my ex-wife, all of my creditors, and operate the team. Throw out the agreement with MLB.”

And that’s what the big, big sticking point in all this is. McCourt has that agreement with Major League Baseball, and another with his ex-wife. By April 30, he has to both sell the team and pay Jamie about $130 million. Even if there’s a hint of truth to any of this, MLB still has the right to approve the new television contract, and it goes without saying that they would never, ever allow McCourt to sign such a deal and collect even a penny of the new earnings. This would set up yet another massive court fight, one bigger than any we’ve seen thus far, and while it may seem unlikely that McCourt and his legal team could convince the court to throw out the agreement with MLB, no one thought he’d be able to convince them to open up the television rights either – the last few legal arguments have all gone Frank’s way.

If this whole idea wasn’t so deliciously evil – and I’m talking head-thrown-back, maniacal-cackling, lighting-a-cigar-with-a-game-worn-Jackie-Robinson-uniform evil – it’d be brilliant. Now, as I’ve been reminded of by a reader lately (and quite correctly so), I am not a lawyer. I’m far more comfortable discussing wOBAs than CPAs, and when I started this blog over four years ago I never dreamed this would be the sort of thing we’d be spending our time on, so it’s eminently possible that I’m not reading the tea leaves correctly on all this.

So maybe this is much ado about nothing. Maybe I spent my Wednesday morning linking to a dozen Bill Shaikin articles simply because of a crazy, alien-abduction-sounding theory, because I have to admit, this whole thing sounds ludicrous enough that part of me is reluctant to even hit ‘publish’ on the post.

But maybe, just maybe, Frank McCourt is a slimy, court-manipulating evil genius who’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants and attempt to rebuild his name. I just don’t want to say we never saw it coming, and there’s been enough oddities since the deal was announced to wonder just what’s really going on.

Dodgers Invite 15 to Spring Training

While we wait for the Dodgers to inevitably sign the real Mike MacDougal, probably for far more than the $1.75m the Diamondbacks just gave to Takashi Saito – and let me say, the fact that they’re actually negotiating with him is terrifying in itself – they’ve supplied us with a list of 15 non-roster invites to spring training, a group from which the next MacDougal is likely to come. We already knew about a few of these guys, but here’s the full list…

RHP Angel Guzman
RHP Fernando Nieve
RHP Jose Ascanio
RHP Ryan Tucker
RHP Shane Lindsay
RHP Will Savage
LHP Alberto Castillo
LHP Matt Chico
LHP Scott Rice
LHP Wil Ledezma
C Josh Bard
INF Jeff Baisley
INF Lance Zawadzki
INF Luis Cruz
OF Cory Sullivan

With the exception of Savage and Rice, each of whom pitched in the Dodger minors last season, everyone on the list has at least some big-league time. (Rice sounds like an interesting story, however – he was a first-round pick of Baltimore way back in 1999, seven picks after the Dodgers selected Jason Repko, yet has just 88 innings above Double-A.)

If it’s an absolute certainty that we’ll never hear about some of these guys again – don’t forget, other NRIs of recent years have included immortals like John Koronka and Timo Perez – then it’s also a certainty that at least one or two of them is going to see some action in Dodger blue in 2012, because it happens every year – regardless of how full the roster seems at the moment. Dana Eveland, Aaron Miles & MacDougal last year, the Ortizii the year before; every team, every year, has to patch and fill with players like this. While I was hardly the biggest proponent of the production Miles & MacDougal brought, it’s hard to argue with having filler like that on hand for absolutely zero cost or risk.

Of the names above, the ones that stand out to me the most are Guzman, Lindsay, and Sullivan. We’ve already talked about Lindsay, who probably will never develop enough control to succeed in the bigs, but has a big enough arm to make him intriguing. Guzman was once a nice prospect in the Cubs system, ranking as high as #26 on Baseball America‘s rankings back in 2004, but hasn’t seen the majors since he got into 55 games in a solid 2009 for Chicago as shoulder injuries have derailed his career. After missing all of 2010, he got into 21 games in the low minors for the Cubs in 2011, striking out 5.6 for every walk, which is encouraging. Sullivan came up through the Colorado system, playing as their everyday center fielder in 2006, and in over 1200 big-league at-bats for the Rockies, Astros, and Mets has a not-altogether-awful line of .271/.327/.381. No stars here, as could be expected, but perhaps some interesting pieces.

Tony Gwynn Gets Two Years

So much for wondering if Tony Gwynn was going to get tendered:

Tony Gwynn Jr.’s deal with the #Dodgers is for $2 million over two years. He will earn $850,000 next season and $1.15 million in 2013.

I’m kind of at a loss on this one, but I’m trying to do it with the right reasoning. Unlike, say, Adam Kennedy, Gwynn has value and deserves a spot on a major-league roster. Unlike, say, Juan Rivera, the yearly cost is not jaw-dropping and is in fact a pretty good rate for his services. So at face value, fine.

Yet it’s the second guaranteed year that’s really galling here, and I’m not just talking about the obvious jokes regarding Ned Colletti handing out two years to every warm body he can find. (Speaking of which, Rivera must be wondering what’s wrong with his agent right now, right?) Unlike free agents like Mark Ellis, Chris Capuano, or Aaron Harang, players who had to be lured off the open market with the promise of a multiyear deal, Gwynn was under team control. They merely needed to tender him a contract, and he’d have been theirs for 2012. Would he have made more than $850k? Probably, but not by a whole lot; it almost seems that in order to save a lousy $200k right now, Colletti felt it was worth it to hand out a second guaranteed year.

Of course, we all hope Colletti won’t be around to see that second year, and maybe he knows as such and just doesn’t care. Gwynn will be around, though, just like all the other mediocre veterans signed this winter. Don’t like the 2012 club? That’s unfortunate, because 2013 looks like it’ll be more of the same, just another year older and probably without Andre Ethier.

Gwynn’s a decent piece to have around, and the money is small, so it’s not worth getting too upset about this. It’s just another two-year commitment to an easily replaceable player that didn’t need to happen.

Non-Tender Monday

Tonight at 12am ET / 9pm PT represents the deadline for the Dodgers to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players, and while there’s not quite the “will they or won’t they?” drama that accompanied the Russell Martin decision last year, there’s still some choices to be made. Entering the off-season, the Dodgers had seven eligible players to decide upon…

… but obviously, Kemp’s new mega-deal and Eveland’s trade to Baltimore takes them out of the mix. Let’s look at the other five.

Kershaw. Uh, yeah. Pretty sure the reigning NL Cy Young is going to get tendered, and assuming he doesn’t sign a long-term deal, he’s in line for something like $7-$8m in his first year of arbitration. Yes, of course.

Gwynn. Though this is his second year of eligibility, Gwynn hasn’t actually gone through the arbitration process, since San Diego non-tendered him last December. After signing with the Dodgers for $675,000, he provided the expected mixture of mediocre offense and outstanding defense, in addition to being a useful piece on the bases. Though I think you could probably do a little better with the roster spot, he’s an acceptable backup outfielder, and so the question of whether he gets an offer comes down to numbers, both in terms of money and personnel. Gwynn could get over $1m in arbitration, perhaps more than the Dodgers want to spend, and the addition of Jerry Hairston means that they now have someone who can in theory spell Matt Kemp now and then in center field. In addition, if the Dodgers do plan on adding that additional bat we keep hearing about, there just might not be room for Gwynn on the roster, particularly if the addition is left-handed. Still, the outfield defense is subpar and Hairston isn’t really ideal in center, so Gwynn is valuable enough for his glove alone; I think it’s slightly more likely than not that he is tendered, though this is clearly the toughest call of any today. Probably.

Loney. It’s amazing to think that this is even a consideration after how certain we were for much of 2011 that he was absolutely going to get non-tendered, but Loney’s stellar finish seems to have earned him another chance, at least based on Ned Colletti’s comments of late. Loney’s recent (and increasingly bizarre) run-in with the law on a Los Angeles freeway last month aren’t helping his case, though it doesn’t appear to have hurt his standing with the club, and assuming the Dodgers have no prayer at landing Prince Fielder, there’s few other first base alternatives left anyway. Yes.

Kuo. The inverse of Loney, where a year ago it was difficult to imagine that a non-tender was even a possibility. If an awful 2011 was the only issue, you could perhaps see the club taking a chance, but yet another arm surgery torpedoed any shot that they’d risk the ~$3m he’d get in arbitration. That doesn’t mean we’ve definitely seen the last of him, however, because it’s unlikely any other club gives him a serious offer, and if he returns to baseball, he might not feel comfortable trusting his fragile health to a training staff who doesn’t know him nearly as well as the Dodgers do. No.

Ethier. Despite worrying before the season that he’d be non-tendered if he didn’t perform well and then going out and having an injury-plagued, sub-par season, Ethier’s a lock to receive a tender. He’ll likely receive about $12m in his final season of arbitration, and while that’s a bit pricey for me, I’m relatively optimistic he’ll have a productive season – and if the Dodgers are out of it in July, they can trade him and save about $4m of that. Yes.

On Ryan Braun and Public Opinion

I didn’t really want to write about this, but the Ryan Braun situation has inflamed enough Dodger fans to demand that Matt Kemp retroactively receive the MVP that I figure it’s worth opening up a Sunday discussion topic on it. Some have assumed that I’d be leading the charge to demonize Braun and elevate Kemp, and to them I say no – absolutely not.

The fact is, we simply don’t know the facts yet. We’re hearing all sorts of conflicting reports about how Braun’s failed test isn’t actually for a PED, but for something else, and Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is reporting that ESPN’s original source was wrong and that “there has “never” been a result like this in the history of the MLB testing program”. In the rush to judgement, absolutely no one comes out of this looking good – not MLB, who should be horrified at the leak before the process was complete, not Braun, who will have his reputation ruined forever no matter how this plays out, and certainly not the fans who are rushing to gather the pitchforks to crucify Braun without actually knowing what they’re talking about. Even if Braun did take a PED, which again, we don’t know he did, there’s no concrete evidence that it actually even helped his production, otherwise every previous offender like Guillermo Mota and J.C. Romero would be instant all-stars.

Besides, when it comes to the MVP, 24 hours ago we would have all sworn up and down that Braun was clean, based on the years of testing and his history of production. Now we know he might not be. Who are we to say that Kemp isn’t doing the same thing and just hasn’t been caught? (Just to be 1000% clear for anyone too dense to understand, I am not suggesting that I believe Kemp is cheating.)

If anything, the biggest story here to me is the part that is getting the least amount of attention, and that’s that this story was leaked before the appeal process was complete. Let’s say that Braun has a real, viable medical reason for why his testosterone levels apparently tested above normal levels. You really think the common fan in the left field bleachers of every park Braun visits for the rest of his career is going to remember or care? Of course not; they’ll treat him just like everyone treated Barry Bonds. For anyone to take this process seriously, there has to be an expectation of confidentiality – otherwise we end up in situations like this where sanctimonious reporters pretending they have some high moral authority salivate over their keyboards without having all the facts. (To be honest, I’m surprised that Bill Plaschke hasn’t hit the bricks on this one yet, but if there’s anything more predictable than him simply refiling his Manny Ramirez piece with the name changed, I’ve yet to see it.)

So no, Braun shouldn’t lose the MVP. If Bonds and others like him didn’t get their awards taken away, if the cocaine-fueled Pirates of the 70s didn’t lose their championships, and if the entire NFL can pretend they don’t have an enhancing problem, then Braun shouldn’t be subjected to such criticism either, even if it would be favorable to our viewpoint as Dodger fans.

I hope it turns out that Braun wasn’t juicing, just for baseball’s sake. But mostly, I’d hope that everyone – fans and media alike – just step back and take a deep breath before condemning him before the facts are out.