For the two clubs on each coast, there are ownership issues at play. There is the divorce trial between Frank and Jamie McCourt, who are disputing ownership of the Dodgers, and the Mets, headed by Fred Wilpon, are trying to sell a stake in the team to offset a lawsuit stemming from the Bernard Madoff scam, and no one knows what either will mean for the long-term direction of those franchises.
But we do know that these three clubs share a common bond in that they can all become forces in the National League if they find a way to get more bang for their bucks.
Cubs have hope and holes
The Cubs believe the seeds of that potential return were planted last summer. They played better baseball after Mike Quade stepped in as the interim skipper when Lou Piniella left, and the players lobbied for Quade to become the full-time leader in the dugout.
Furthermore, early playoff elimination allowed general manager Jim Hendry to ship off Ted Lilly, Derrek Lee and Ryan Theriot to save a few bucks and start planning for the future.
Hendry parlayed some of that money saved into some measured choices when he brought in reinforcements this winter. Matt Garza came aboard in a trade with the Rays and is under contractual control for the next three seasons, Carlos Pena was added in a one-year, $10 million deal that could be a steal if his comeback bid is successful, and Kerry Wood took an adopted-hometown discount to return to the North Side and set up closer Carlos Marmol.
Garza is the biggest key to the long-term outlook of the franchise, especially considering the sheer number of prospects -- five -- the Cubs sent to Tampa Bay to land him.
"It isn't often that you can acquire a 27-year-old top of the rotation type of guy who has three years left before he's a free agent in any kind of a trade," Hendry said.
But Hendry's work, it seems, is only beginning. A look at the Cubs' roster reveals quite a few financial leaps of faith gone bad, but it also reveals the potential for financial relief and flexibility at season's end.
The Cubs are stuck with Alfonso Soriano, whose career has been in decline almost from the moment he signed with the Cubs before the '07 season. As Soriano's defense and plate discipline continue to erode, the Cubs still owe him another $72 million over the next four years. He's not going anywhere.
But this is the final year the Cubs are glued to Aramis Ramirez, who is coming off a dreadful 2010. The Cubs owe him $16.6 million (counting the $2 million buyout of his 2012 club option) this year.
Counting his $2 million buyout at year's end, disappointing starter Carlos Silva is owed $8 million this year (the Mariners are on the hook for $5.5 million of his $11.5 million contract), and inconsistent outfielder Kosuke Fukudome is making $13.5 million. They both can be free agents at year's end. And if Pena's a bust, he'll be one-and-done at Wrigley.
For the Cubs to contend in 2011, they'll need all of the above to live up to their contracts. But if the season is compromised by a stock of underperforming players and a vastly improved NL Central from the ones the Cubs claimed in 2007 and '08, some of the pain will be offset by the fact that the Cubs have significant salary relief on the horizon.
What could that mean in 2012? Well, consider the possibility of Albert Pujols in a Cubs uniform.
It's not inconceivable, considering the rival Cardinals appear to have mere days to sign Pujols before he reports for Spring Training. If they don't get a deal done, Pujols says he will test the free-agent waters, and the Cubs, it would appear, should have the kind of financial flexibility necessary to steal him away.
That would certainly be one way for this sleeping giant to wake up the neighborhood.
Mets a mystery
The Mets also have enormous salary relief coming their way, but there's a catch or two to consider.
For one, closer Francisco Rodriguez, whose personal and injury issues in 2010 are well-documented, has a $17.5 million option for 2012 that vests if he finishes 55 games this year and is declared healthy by team doctors at season's end. If the Mets can avoid letting that option vest, then they'll have nearly $60 million in salary commitments (Rodriguez at $11.5 million, Carlos Beltran at $18.5 million, Oliver Perez at $12 million, Jose Reyes at $11 million and Luis Castillo at $6 million) cleared from the slate.
Of course, there's a catch. It remains to be seen what the Wilpons' current plight might mean for newly installed general manager Sandy Alderson's attempts to rebuild and repair.
For now, Alderson says the ownership issue has no bearing on the baseball operations.
"I want to emphasize that the plan that we have pursued the last couple of months was limited by only one fact, and that was the level of the existing payroll," Alderson said recently. "Our payroll going into the season will be somewhere between $140 million and $150 million. I think that is significantly higher than we'd like to be on an annual basis -- a product of adding some additional players that we felt the roster needed as well as some existing [obligations]."
Another major issue the Mets must consider is the situation with Reyes, whose extreme talent has been countered by his lengthy injury history. The Mets want to see Reyes prove his ability to stay on the field before they make a contract offer to him. If Reyes does stay healthy and returns to form, then his worth increases exponentially. If the Mets lower their payroll next year, as Alderson suggested, then a Reyes extension might not jibe with their financial planning.
"We've never been this high [in terms of payroll] before," Alderson said. "So given that fact, it probably wouldn't be surprising that we might settle at a different number in the future. But that's a function of a lot of different things -- who we're able to sign and not sign. But we're always going to have a very high payroll, whether it's $150 million next year or $130 million. That's a function of a lot of different things."
All this serves as a long-winded way of saying that the Mets are a mystery. Look at their current roster (and consider the increasing difficulty of their division), and you see an alarming number of question marks for new manager Terry Collins to deal with in 2011. Johan Santana (shoulder surgery) might be back in June but isn't throwing yet. Jason Bay's first season in Queens was cut short by a concussion, and his power was all but sapped beforehand. Mike Pelfrey and Jon Niese front a shaky rotation that desperately needs prospect Jenrry Mejia to shine. The farm system, which did a nice job of churning out Niese, Ike Davis and Josh Thole, is now regarded as fairly barren, though infielder Wilmer Flores is a name to watch.
With all this considered, it will be difficult for the Mets to make much noise in the NL East this year. And it is just as difficult to predict what's in store for this club in 2012 and beyond, because there are a lot of moving pieces at play.
Dodgers not defined
Ownership uncertainty is old hat for the Dodgers. The McCourt divorce and how it might shape the direction of the franchise has been a source of curiosity for Dodgers fans for more than a year.
What it has meant for general manager Ned Colletti is a more limited budget for retooling a club coming off a highly disappointing season.
Budgetary issues have hampered the Dodgers for some time. Case in point is the July 2008 trade to acquire veteran Casey Blake, who had about $2 million remaining on his contract with the Indians. Rather than taking on that salary, the Dodgers parted with elite prospect Carlos Santana, who would have been the perfect in-house candidate to replace Russell Martin instead of newly signed free agents Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro.
The continued financial limitations prevented the Dodgers from being a major player with the big names on the open market this winter. Still, Colletti managed to make enough moves to keep the Dodgers in the contention conversation in the NL West. After watching the Giants' dramatic run to glory, he wisely targeted pitching this winter, bringing back starters Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda and Vicente Padilla and signing starter Jon Garland and relievers Matt Guerrier and Blake Hawksworth.
Exhausting most of his resources on pitching left Colletti with little money to spend on the lineup, which ranked in the lower half in just about every important offensive category last year. The only major acquisition on this front was shortstop Juan Uribe, who came over from the Giants on a surprising three-year, $21 million contract.
The Dodgers don't have an obvious glut of bloated contracts like the Mets and Cubs do, but keep in mind they are still on the hook for paying Manny Ramirez, Andruw Jones and Juan Pierre -- all playing for other teams -- more than $10 million combined this year. That, too, has affected Colletti's leeway in the 2011 club construction.
Contention hopes this season might ultimately hinge on whether first baseman James Loney, center fielder Matt Kemp and reliever Jonathan Broxton can rebound from their disappointing year and if right fielder Andre Ethier can bounce back from injury.
Regarding the long-term outlook for the Dodgers, the club's handling of some upcoming financial issues will be telling.
As the divorce proceedings have played out, the club has made few long-term financial commitments. Only $32 million is currently committed to the 2012 payroll and $36 million in 2013. At the end of this season, the Dodgers will have to make decisions on Broxton, Kuroda and shortstop Rafael Furcal, all of whom can be free agents, and No. 1 starter Clayton Kershaw, who will attain arbitration rights. One year later, Loney, Ethier, Kemp and starter Chad Billingsley will be eligible to test the free-agent waters.
So while the Dodgers, who will have an Opening Day payroll around $111 million this year, have looming financial flexibility, they also have looming in-house issues they'll have to address.
But the biggest issue of all that's hanging over the collective head of this organization is the McCourt divorce. Once resolved, the Dodgers could once again become major players in the open market and sleeping giants no more.