If Paul DePodesta’s executive mettle hasn’t already been sufficiently tested, it’s about to be. His Dodgers are coming off their first division title since 1995 and their first post-season win since 1988. But despite the success of the Dodgers in DePodesta’s first season at the switch, this winter is going to be brutal and vital for him.

Among those players entering free agency are Adrian Beltre, far and away the team’s best hitter, Odalis Perez, far and away the team’s best starting pitcher, Steve Finley, their starting center fielder, Jose Lima, an above-average starter and arguably the club’s most popular player, Brent Mayne, the team’s starting catcher, as well as Hideo Nomo and Wilson Alvarez, who combined for more than 200 innings this past season. Furthermore, manager Jim Tracy, a highly capable and beloved skipper, is now without a contract, and Jose Hernandez, the Dodgers’ most valuable bench player this season, is unsigned as well.

Some of those decisions will be easy. Nomo certainly won’t be back, and re-signing Tracy should pose little challenge. If Mayne returns, it’ll largely be on the Dodgers’ terms, as a catch-and-throw backup. With everyone else, however, the decisions will be hard-won.

The most critical contract negotiation will be the one with Beltre and his agent, Scott Boras. Beltre hit an astounding .334/.388/.629 this season and ranked fifth among all position players in VORP and seventh in the NL in EqA. There are two ways to view his season, which is plainly out of step with the rest of his career. At one end, we have the notion that Beltre is finally manifesting his tremendous potential–that more of the same will come for years. At the other end, we have the notion that his 2004 will stand as an unadulterated fluke. I lean toward the former, though I’m fully open to the idea that he’ll never be this good again.

Here is DePodesta’s quandary. Without Beltre this season, the Dodgers would’ve been roughly 90 runs worse on offense–more than enough to keep them out of the post-season. Still, it’s highly possible he’ll be paying Beltre based on this year’s numbers, but knowing full well he may never see those numbers again.

I’m half-a-continent from L.A., and I’ve only been to Dodger Stadium once in my life. However, hearing the bellows of “MVP! MVP!” from my TV screen during the NLDS, I can only assume that Beltre is now quite beloved in Chavez Ravine and environs. DePodesta’s Oakland-inspired approach of finding unexploited talent and striving for cost-certainty isn’t a popular one with your rank-and-file fan. Now imagine the outcry if Beltre were, say, an Angel next season. This dynamic ties in directly to Lima, as well.

Lima, acutely annoying as he is to opposing fan bases, inspires screams and fist-pumps by the thousands at Dodger Stadium. That he was a spring-training NRI who went on to comfortably outperform expectations already makes him an unlikely candidate for re-signing under a GM like DePodesta. That, after Game Three, he now has “gritty, clutch performer” in his dossier makes it even less likely that the Dodgers will rise to meet the market for Lima. If that’s the case, DePodesta is going to use a great deal of his public-relations capital in dropping the curtain on “Lima Time.” He certainly won’t have enough left to let Beltre walk.

Much like it would’ve made defensible sense from a cold-eyed wins-and-losses perspective to trade Eric Gagne for hitting prior to the 2004 season, it also would’ve been a ruinous decision in terms of keeping the paying customers happy. It’s the same with Beltre. DePodesta would have a difficult time replacing his production (let’s not forget that this is a 25-year-old coming off a 48-homer season), and he certainly have a difficult time mollifying Dodger Nation. That’s why I expect Beltre to return, probably for too many dollars and too many years. There’s really no other choice for DePodesta, and it’ll help the Dodgers in the near term.

He’s also in an unenviable bargaining position with regard to Perez. (Were this a matter of salary arbitration, DePodesta would be able to use the “only seven wins!” line of argument.) Without Perez, the Dodgers could go into next season with a rotation consisting of Jeff Weaver, Kaz Ishii, Edwin Jackson and whatever else they can come up with. Suffice it to say, that doesn’t smack of contention. Brad Penny has merits a-plenty, but the irritated nerve in his arm is stumping experts hither and dither. PECOTA foresees a bit of a drop-off for Perez in 2005, but he’s still poised to be a comfortably above-average starter, again according to PECOTA, through 2008. Given the rotation questions that loom and the way the starters faltered late in the season, Perez needs to be re-signed. I expect he will be.

The Finley situation is less critical. If he could be persuaded to sign, say, a one-year, guaranteed contract, he’s a worthwhile gamble. Otherwise, the Dodgers can make do. It’s too soon to write off Hee Seop Choi, and by starting him at first, that allows an outfield of Jayson Werth, Milton Bradley and Shawn Green. Of course, if the Dodgers decide to join the Carlos Beltran fray this winter, then all the better for them. However, I can’t see owner Frank McCourt approving the outlay needed to re-sign Beltre, Perez and ink the most coveted mercenary of the off-season.

The other concern is getting more production from behind the plate. I defended the blockbuster that sent Paul Lo Duca to the Marlins, and I still think the reasoning behind the trade was sound. However, in the short term, it’s been of dubious value. Penny threw 11.2 innings for the Dodgers and is now in a puzzling state of disrepair. Choi batted an execrable .161/.289/.242 after the trade and logged only one plate appearance in the NLDS. On the flip side, making Juan Encarnacion and his contract go away was praiseworthy, and Lo Duca, as many of us had warned, did indeed fade down the stretch (hitting .189/.227/.300 in September). Still, a hole remains for 2005.

Free-agent catchers who figure to produce at a strong clip in the near-term include Jason Varitek and…that’s about it. If I’m charitable, I’ll include Damian Miller in the sub-Varitek strata. The problem for L.A. is that the Red Sox more than likely will opt to re-sign Varitek. As the farm system goes, Koyie Hill was never really a solution, but now he’s a D-back. He’s all they’ve got until they determine whether Russell Martin is a prospect. Finding a productive catcher is going to be quite a challenge for DePodesta, and it’s not as easy to be resourceful on the right end of the defensive spectrum as it was even a few years ago.

DePodesta, by dint of his work this season and in Oakland, has earned his standing as the wunderkind GM. Now it’s time to keep building that legacy. It won’t be easy.