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12/02/08 10:00 AM EST

Dodgers head to Meetings with caution

Club is wary of overspending, committed to youth movement

LOS ANGELES -- You know this youth movement the Dodgers have been in the past few years? Well, it looks like they really mean it.

They aren't the Yankees or Mets and won't pretend to be. They won't sign players to six-year, nine-figure contracts. They've been there, done that, didn't work. They don't have a regional television network or shiny new ballpark underwritten by a bailed-out bank to generate enormous revenues.

They are committed to developing from within and, when no internal replacement is ready, filling an occasional hole with a short-term proven solution. Connect the dots and determine for yourself where the most expensive names of the current free-agent market -- Manny Ramirez, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira -- fit into that master plan.

Subtract from that the potential impact on baseball from the worldwide economic collapse and expect the Dodgers to proceed with caution during the upcoming Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, generally watching from the sidelines if other clubs get carried away in any bidding war for players they're on.

"The economy will affect everybody and everything," Dodgers general manager Ned Colleti said. "I don't know anybody that hasn't been affected. There's a lot of uncertainty. Nobody can predict where we're going or the impact this will have and how long we're going to be there. The predictability of certain facets of our operation are unclear. It doesn't affect just the Dodgers or Major League Baseball, it affects everybody.

"Companies don't know where their economics are going. It's worldwide. We're taking it step by step. We'll learn more. Things will become clearer, although they may not be better, as the days go on."

Colletti said he isn't sure if the economy is responsible for the slow pace of free-agent signings. Rafael Furcal, for example, still hasn't signed. For all the Manny Ramirez frenzy among fans, the internal priority from Colletti to manager Joe Torre has been the re-signing of the shortstop. His agent said he has a four-year deal. That he hasn't signed it yet is reason for skepticism, particularly in this market. You can be sure that if he has a four-year offer, it's not from the Dodgers. They gave him a three-year contract when he was healthy. They're not giving him a four-year deal now that he has a surgically repaired back. More likely, they're looking for shared risk -- an incentive-filled two-year deal.

The Dodgers have Furcal and 13 other free agents to replace. They'll learn on Sunday, the eve of the Winter Meetings, if Ramirez, Derek Lowe or Casey Blake have accepted arbitration and settled for a lucrative one-year return to the club.

Otherwise, holes that can't be filled internally will probably be shored up with modest-salaried outsiders. In part to reign in overall costs, in part because many of those departing players weren't justifying their salaries and there's no guarantee that the most expensive free agents are necessarily the most productive replacements.

This could be a pivotal offseason for Colletti, who is entering the final year of a four-year contract. His club this year reached MLB's final four, but now he must retool dramatically so the Dodgers can take the next step. After the 2009 season, $35 million in salaries for Jason Schmidt and Andruw Jones are cleared from the payroll.

While Ramirez has been the focal point for fans, Colletti's first priority has been the infield. Colletti remains optimistic that Furcal will return. If he doesn't, the Dodgers might replace him from within and re-sign Blake to play third base with Blake DeWitt taking second base from Jeff Kent, or DeWitt could move back to third and the Dodgers could get a second baseman. Or they could sign a shortstop. Sure are a lot of moving pieces.

After the infield is clarified, there's the starting rotation for Colletti to repair. Derek Lowe and Brad Penny are gone, and there's the added uncertainty of Chad Billingsley, healing from surgery after breaking his leg two weeks ago in a freak slip-and-fall at home. Of course, the Dodgers are interested in Sabathia, but are unlikely to approach the Yankees' reported offer of six years, $140 million.

Short-term names like Randy Johnson and Andy Pettitte have been floated around, although the level of the Dodgers' interest is unclear.

If Takashi Saito and his fragile right elbow don't close games next year, Jonathan Broxton will. But with Saito at 39, Scott Proctor coming off arm surgery and the losses of Joe Beimel and Chan Ho Park, journeyman relievers are on the shopping list in case prospects James McDonald and Scott Elbert aren't ready.

While the Hot Stove is focused on free agents, Colletti has indicated he might do better on the trade market. He doesn't seem to have a lot of surplus chips to toss around if, as he's implied, he's keeping his core of Russell Martin, James Loney, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Clayton Kershaw and Broxton. To trade one of them, he'd need to fill multiple holes with players in return.

A less likely, but ideal scenario would be for Colletti to trade one of his expensive contracts (Juan Pierre or Jones) for somebody else's expensive contract at a position that's a better fit.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.