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Good luck trying to buy a World Series

Dodgers, Blue Jays may learn hard lesson as Marlins, Angels did last year

Phil Rogers

On Baseball

2:52 PM CDT, March 30, 2013

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There are some things that can be bought.

A space flight. The chance to be cryogenically frozen. Or maybe just some of the simpler things, like a 12-cylinder Ferrari Testarossa, beachfront property in Turks and Caicos or one of the socks Curt Schilling bloodied to help win a championship.

But a World Series? Good luck there.

The 2012 Angels and Marlins went down in flames after trying to buy success, as so many others did before them. Remember the Red Sox in Theo Epstein's last year? The Rockies when they spent heavily on Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle? The White Sox in the Albert Belle era?

Having moved on to the Cubs, Epstein now says a team should never have to sign a free agent if it does its job building the Branch Rickey way — signing and developing amateur talent that will be around for the long haul. But teams will always look for the quick fix, just like we buy lottery tickets and take diet pills.

If anything, after pulling off two of the most stunning trades in history, the Dodgers and Blue Jays are taking baseball's version of party crashing to a new level. They are what the Marlins thought they were this time a year ago — instant contenders.

Here's the formula: Buy big-name players (or, in the Marlins' case, rent). Add uniforms and big crowds (another missing ingredient for the 2012 Marlins).

Built significantly with the help of the Red Sox, Marlins and Mets, the Dodgers and Blue Jays have morphed from afterthoughts at this time last year into two of baseball's elite teams at the start of 2013. Now comes the hard part.

"We all know what a baseball season is, how trying it is, how challenging it is,'' Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "Everybody has to go through that, whether your payroll is $200 million or $30 million. … The way I look at it is everybody is going to have expectations. The more talent you have, the better chance you have to fulfill those expectations.''

Winning on the field is not as easy as winning the offseason. Just ask Ozzie Guillen.

The Marlins were on the cover of Sports Illustrated after owner Jeffrey Loria added Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell and Carlos Zambrano to open his new stadium. Their payroll climbed from $37 million in 2009 to $102 million in 2012, with a year-to-year increase of $44 million before last season, but the won-lost needle didn't move. The Marlins were the lowest-scoring team in the majors in spring training and ran into injuries during the season, actually winning three fewer games than they had the year before.

"Payroll doesn't mean winning, and (a lack of) payroll doesn't mean losing,'' Colletti said. "That's what makes baseball so great. It's always about how a team plays the game, not who the team has playing the game.''

Since the end of the Yankees' domination from 1996-2000, when they won the World Series four times in five years, baseball has achieved the level of parity Commissioner Bud Selig sought when he said fans should start the season with "hope and faith'' in their favorite team.

Only three of the last 12 World Series have been won by teams that started the season with one of the top seven payrolls. Even more telling, teams in the top 10 in spending have reached the playoffs only 44 percent of the time in the last decade, buying disappointment more often than a ticket to the postseason.

Colletti and Alex Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays' general manager, understand these realities. Yet like Phil Hellmuth at the final table in the World Series of Poker, they went all in when presented once-in-a-career chances to collect multiple All-Stars in one move.

With Loria pulling the rug out from under the Miamians who had signed off on increased taxes to build Marlins Park, the Blue Jays couldn't say no when they were offered Reyes, Buehrle, Josh Johnson, versatile Emilio Bonifacio and catcher John Buck in a deal consummated Nov. 19. It was such a dramatic salary dump that Miami politicians and others implored Selig to block it, but he was in no position to take action.

Three months earlier, Major League Baseball had given its blessing to the Red Sox's offloading of Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford. The Dodgers, purchased earlier in 2012 for $2 billion by Chicago's Mark Walter and a group including Magic Johnson and Stan Kasten, took on $260 million in contracts in those deals. The Blue Jays-Marlins deal represents an investment of about $160 million for Toronto.

"Trades like the one we made and the (Blue Jays) one, those are things that never happen,'' Colletti said. "They're not something you try to put together. We had talked to Boston about Adrian Gonzalez in April, but we had no idea that was going to start the ball rolling to this. It was a very, very rare opportunity to add multiple impact players in one deal, and our ownership had been very clear about being aggressive.''

The Dodgers turned over one-third of their roster on the fly during the 2012 season, also adding Hanley Ramirez from the Marlins and closer Brandon League from the Mariners. But they could not elbow their way into the playoffs, being eliminated on the next-to-last day of the season.

"We wanted to win last year, but we knew it was going to be tough to get it right with that much turnover,'' Colletti said. "The moves we made were done more for this year and the future than last year.''

Colletti kept adding in the offseason, signing 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke to a six-year, $147 million deal and winning the complicated bidding process for Korean left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, who will open the season behind 2011 NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw in a loaded rotation. The Blue Jays likewise continued spending money after their big splash, acquiring 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets and signing steroid cheat Melky Cabrera, among other free agents.

Anthopoulos says he would not have traded his top prospect, catcher Travis d'Arnaud, in the Dickey deal had the mega-trade with the Marlins not already added to the nucleus of a team that had previously lacked the pitching to support sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. He didn't think Dickey would have made them a contender before the Marlins offered Reyes, Buehrle and Johnson.

The moves have excited fans in Los Angeles and Toronto.

Season ticket sales had been at an all-time low for the Dodgers after the mismanagement of the Frank McCourt era but have already rebounded to an all-time high, according to a Dodgers source. Blue Jays President Paul Beeston says season tickets are "up dramatically,'' with a chance to draw 3 million fans for the first time since 1993, when they successfully defended their '92 World Series championship.

While the aging, battered Yankees seek to get under the tax threshold of $189 million by next season, the Dodgers have raised their payroll to $213 million.

Threshold? What threshold?

There's no threshold on hope and faith, at least not when you can add All-Star players by the bundle.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers