LOS ANGELES -- Dodgers owner Frank McCourt says his pending divorce has not prevented management from improving the roster this winter and won't force a full or partial sale of the franchise. Answering questions at length for the first time since the breakup of his 30-year marriage to wife and former club president Jamie McCourt in October, Frank McCourt assured fans he will retain control of the franchise, that he remains committed to fielding a sustainable championship team, and that he should be judged by what happens on the field, where the Dodgers have reached the League Championship Series in consecutive seasons for the first time in three decades. "To repeat what I said in October, my personal situation and divorce has no bearing on the team whatsoever," McCourt said, responding to fans' concerns that the Dodgers' decision not to make a major offseason acquisition thus far is proof he's financially strapped. "As I've said, I own the team and we're moving forward as we have in the past six years.
"We're committed to developing young players, more so than ever. We've invested heavily in that area. And we're in the trade and free-agent markets to see if we can improve the team. We made decisions last year to put this club in a great position to compete at the highest level last year, and the vast majority of those players are back and there's not a lot we had to do this offseason. That said, we're working hard to address a few areas and I expect announcements on those things in the not-too-distant future." McCourt said the front office realizes that the loss of Randy Wolf to free agency has left the starting rotation short on veterans, that the club would like to add a starting pitcher and that general manager Ned Colletti has the money to make such an acquisition. The Dodgers successfully waited out the market last winter to sign Wolf to a one-year contract in February and seem to be employing the same patient strategy this winter. Among free agents on their radar are Joel Pineiro, Vicente Padilla, Braden Looper and Jon Garland. Skeptics such as agents claim the Dodgers' payroll has been frozen because of the divorce, pointing out that the only major recent move was the trade of veteran Juan Pierre, which shed $8 million off the payroll over the next two years. The Dodgers' payroll, $120 million in 2008, fell to $100 million in 2009 and is projected to drop again in 2010 to around $85 million to $90 million. McCourt, however, defended his strategy of relying increasingly on young and less expensive homegrown talent after several costly free-agent mishaps (Jason Schmidt, Andruw Jones, etc.) earlier on his watch. In a departure from recent years, the club is talking about multiyear contracts with four of its top young players. "We've spent a huge amount of money during my tenure as owner. We're a big-market team and fans deserve a great team on the field," he said. "One of our core promises is to consistently put a championship-caliber team on the field. I wish there was a direct correlation between how much you spend and how many games you win. Unfortunately, there is not. The key is how wisely you spend the money. "So what I say is, judge us on how well we do. When I bought the team, it hadn't won a postseason game in 15 years. We won a postseason game. It hadn't won a playoff series in 20 years. We won a playoff series. It hadn't won back-to-back division titles in 31 years. We won back-to-back titles. ... Those are the facts." McCourt also noted that prior to his ownership of the club, the Los Angeles Dodgers had never made it to the playoffs four times in a six-year period until now. "It's happened in part because of what we spent," he said. "But equally or more, because we have a development system in place and a way to do business to identify big league talent and develop players that can play here for a period of time and give us consistency and who the fans can relate to. What I would say to any fan, I welcome questions and comments, but judge us on how well we do at end of the season." Speaking of judgment, the McCourt divorce has a trial date of May 24. According to court papers, Jamie McCourt is contesting ownership of the club and the validity of a marital property agreement she signed providing full ownership of the franchise to Frank McCourt and ownership of most of the other assets of their marriage to her. Because of that document, Frank McCourt said the Dodgers ownership situation shouldn't be compared to that of the San Diego Padres -- who were sold last year as the result of owner John Moores' divorce. "When you talk about California, a community property state, and a divorce and sports teams, people might come to the conclusion that the team gets split and so forth, and perhaps that's the situation in San Diego," he said. "My situation is different. There were agreements signed and those agreements alter what is normally the case in a community property state. That's my case. I have agreements, they are public record and they show very clearly I own the team, 100 percent of the team, and I have since I arrived. It's a totally different situation. "I own the team, it's not for sale and my hope someday is that my four boys will own the team. When people process this situation, they go down a path that the team is owned 50/50 and one party has to buy out the other. That's when you need a partner and that's not this situation. I own 100 percent. There's nothing to buy." When the team was purchased in 2004, Frank McCourt alone was approved by MLB as the 100 percent owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers have reached the League Championship Series the past two years, accomplishing it in 2009 despite losing Manny Ramirez to a 50-game suspension for violating MLB's drug policy. Ramirez, who signed late and had a truncated Spring Training, returned from the suspension in midseason, but after being hit by a pitch on the wrist was not a feared presence at the plate. McCourt said he expects Ramirez to rebound in 2010, after which he will be a free agent. "I'm very optimistic he'll have a great year," McCourt said. "Last year was a tough year, no question. Getting to Spring Training and being prepared for the season and getting into a rhythm, that's so important for an offensive player like him. I hope the wrist will be fine, he was banged up, and I'm sure it will be. Some of the fun was out of the game for him and I hope it will be back and the results will return as well. Not that he didn't bring it upon himself. He did. But he has to move on and I think he will." McCourt, who developed the Camelback Ranch-Glendale Arizona Spring Training complex in partnership with the Chicago White Sox, said the "Next 50" plan -- his vision of a refurbished Dodger Stadium and development of the surrounding 300 acres into a year-round entertainment destination -- has been slowed by the economic downturn. There will be modest improvements this year with the addition of portable concessions stands, but McCourt said nearly $150 million has already been spent on the site since he bought the club and he's hopeful major construction will resume next winter. McCourt said talks continue with manager Joe Torre on a contract extension that would include a front-office role when he's done managing. He said coach Don Mattingly will "be here a long, long time," but stopped short of saying he is Torre's heir apparent as manager. And he said the club is committed to its philanthropic work through the Dodgers Dream Foundation and ThinkCure. "If anything," he said, "more committed than ever."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.