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McCourt divorce overshadows Dodgers

I have no way of looking this up, but I don't think Walter O'Malley ever stepped away from his seat during a spring training game to defend his image and remind everyone that he was, in fact, running the Dodgers.

But there was Frank McCourt on a sunny Saturday afternoon, collar open on his light pink shirt, saying the words that some Angelenos are loath to hear: "I own the team."

He spoke with reporters during the middle innings of the Dodgers' 8-4 loss to the White Sox, an ironic but accurate snapshot of where the franchise stands today. Even as the two-time division champs prepare for the season, their public face is a split-screen view of baseball and "Divorce Court."

The fascination with Frank and his estranged wife Jamie won't go away, not as long as the future of a great sports brand is contingent on legal football. And the fact that she's asking him for almost $1 million in monthly support? Well, yes, that adds to the intrigue just a little.

For at least the foreseeable future, following the Dodgers will mean reading about property rights, a postnuptial agreement and other scintillating subjects. It's sad, really.

We are free to debate whether either of the McCourts are fit to govern at Chávez Ravine. But as long as there's enough cash left in the ol' building and loan to pay Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Clayton Kershaw, Jonathan Broxton and friends, the Dodgers will have a great chance at reaching the postseason for a third straight year.

In fact, I will be shocked if Joe Torre's team isn't contending deep into September.

The Dodgers have drafted good players and developed them well. Such practices are sound insurance against precisely the sort of ownership turmoil currently visiting this franchise.

It would take a heinous level of incompetence to ruin this year's roster. Neither of the McCourts could do that, even if they tried really, really hard.

This team is coming off consecutive National League Championship Series berths, something the franchise hadn't achieved since winning back-to-back pennants in 1977 and 1978. A quiet offseason followed, partially because the Dodgers had to spend a lot of money on raises for their own players, partially because the divorce limited how creative the front office could be.

The most significant offseason departures were left-hander Randy Wolf, who didn't win either of his postseason starts; right-hander Jon Garland, who didn't make the NLCS roster; and second baseman Orlando Hudson, who wasn't in the starting lineup once the playoffs arrived.

Make no mistake: The Dodgers would be better if they still had Wolf, Garland and Hudson. But the core of an outstanding team is there.

Kemp, still only 25, has upped his home run and RBI totals each season since debuting in 2006, finishing last year with 26 and 101, respectively. He won a Gold Glove in center field last season. He should be an All-Star this year.

Ethier, who turns 28 shortly after Opening Day, is also a candidate for superstardom, with all the walk-off stylings last year. Like Kemp, his power numbers have improved steadily since '06. He was the team leader in homers (31) and RBI (106).

Manny Ramirez? He's in a contract year. There's a good chance that he will hit.

But Torre will need to rely on his pitching, as has been the case for Dodgers managers since Ebbets Field. That's not necessarily a bad thing. You may not remember this, but the Dodgers had the best ERA in the majors last year (3.41).

Yes, Wolf and Garland contributed to that number. But the Dodgers will be just fine if Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda and Vicente Padilla pitch to their career norms. Kershaw should be able to improve upon last year's 171-inning workload.

The Dodgers don't know who their No. 5 starter will be, but let's face it: A lot of teams don't know who their No. 5 starter will be.

The bullpen should be a strength, too. Dodgers players seem confident that Broxton will recover from his Jimmy Rollins Moment last October.

"What we lack is the high-profile winner," general manager Ned Colletti said, when asked about his rotation. "Sometimes, the sum of the parts is better than having one high-profile winner and nothing else to go along with it."

Of course, the Dodgers aren't a lock to make the playoffs. They could fall prey to the same injuries that wreck pennant hopes annually. Only two games into the spring, Torre acknowledged that he's "concerned" about the sore groin that forced catcher Russell Martin to undergo tests Saturday.

If needs arise, Colletti has proved that he's clever with duct-tape-and-bubble-gum fixes in July and August. McCourt gave his assurances Saturday that he will allow Colletti to upgrade the club at the trade deadline if improvements are merited. But it's hard to imagine the payroll going up very much during the season, if at all. McCourt wasn't a fan of that, even in happier times. Colletti had to surrender better prospects in lieu of taking on salary. Why would that change, in the midst of an expensive divorce?

If his finances were stable, perhaps he would have already kicked in the $5 million or so that it might take to sign Jarrod Washburn and remove the uncertainty hovering over the back end of the rotation.

But that would be a neat-and-tidy solution for an organization that is, at the moment, anything but.

The Dodgers' 2010 season isn't going to be perfectly pleasant. We know that. Yet, once the games begin, Frank McCourt won't have much to do with whether the Dodgers can beat the Giants. And that's fine. Kemp, Kershaw & Company don't need any help from him. Just pay the bills and stay out of the way.