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Signings of baseball's best leave Dodgers just another middling franchise

December 15, 2010 | 10:14 am

Brown_300 He was one of baseball’s best pitchers and signed with a major-market team for over $100 million.

With the Dodgers. Twelve years ago.

And here we are today, a lot of games and years since L.A. stunned baseball with the first $100-million contract.

The Dodgers were major players a dozen years ago on the free-agent market. They shook up baseball when they gave Kevin Brown $105 million in 1998. News Corp., the team’s new owner, wanted to make a statement and paid for it.

Now it’s the Philadelphia Phillies, signing Cliff Lee for well over $100 million.

Two pitchers from the South, both former Texas Rangers, both in their 30s, both suddenly set for life.

Only the Dodgers were never in the game this time. Never a player in pursuing Lee. Up front, he was simply considered financially out of their reach.

Twelve years after dropping $100 million on Brown, that’s the mindset. Second-biggest market in the country and they won’t enter the free-agent game when the stakes rise to the highest level.

Now, the Brown signing hardly worked out. News Corp. spent plenty of money unwisely during its ownership run. And the Dodgers have acquired a formidable rotation this off-season, though quite a step behind the Phillies and Giants.

But the point is that the Dodgers simply are no longer in the same financial league with baseball’s big boys. They don’t even pretend to be.

After signing Brown in 1998, the Dodgers had baseball’s highest payroll at $85 million. Which isn’t much different from what it was throughout most of last season.

When the big free-agent names come up now, the Dodgers are sideline players. They watch a lot. They don’t even consider getting in the game.

Carl Crawford got a ridiculous amount of money ($147 million) to sign with the Red Sox. But Crawford plays left field, currently the black hole in the Dodgers lineup. And the Dodgers never knocked on his door.

There was a time they would have. If you own the Los Angeles Dodgers, you should. Only now when it’s written that a free agent is going to demand top dollar, it’s just understood Frank McCourt won’t be involved.

The premier players go elsewhere now. They sign with the big boys. Like the Dodgers were a dozen years ago.

-- Steve Dilbeck

Photo: Kevin Brown in 2003. Credit: Los Angeles Times