USA TODAY US Edition
Dodgers banking on the future
Passing on big-money moves, L.A. well-positioned for long-term success
In the 132-year history of the Dodgers franchise, the last 57 of them in Los Angeles, they had never reached the postseason in three consecutive years until winning the last three National League West crowns.
The amount of credit they receive for that achievement could fit into the button on top of their caps.
When you shatter payroll records and overtake the New York Yankees as baseball’s biggest spendthrift, winning one of four playoff series doesn’t gain you many admirers.
“I feel like I have to constantly remind people what we’ve accomplished these last three years,” said catcher A.J. Ellis, who has been with the club since 2008. “But when you enter each season with maybe an outside perspective of ‘World Series or
bust,’ those postseason defeats seem like huge disappointments.”
And the Dodgers’ 27-year championship drought becomes even more glaring.
That’s why the club’s strategy of building for sustainable success instead of focusing strictly on the present has riled up so many Dodgers fans, many of whom are already touchy about not being able to watch the team’s games on TV because of a 21⁄ 2- year-long dispute between rights-holder Time Warner Cable and satellite and cable providers.
Rather than give up the prospects it would take to acquire starting pitchers David Price or Cole Hamels at the trade deadline last year, the Dodgers settled on picking up Mat Latos and Alex Wood at a lower cost. Rather than offer a sixth year to keep ace right-hander Zack Greinke or pay the steep price for free agents Johnny Cueto or Price in the offseason, the L.A. brass went for less-accomplished and cheaper starters Scott Kazmir and Kenta Maeda, accumulating pitching depth instead of star power.
Those moves have puzzled many, who got used to watching the Dodgers spare no expense in trying to improve the team since Mark Walter’s Guggenheim Baseball group took ownership in 2012. But that approach was meant as a short-term fix to prop up a franchise that had fallen in disrepair under previous owner Frank McCourt.
The current model, implemented by president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman once he came on board in October 2014, calls for balancing the payroll with a steady pipeline of talent from the farm system.
Thanks in part to Greinke’s departure, the Dodgers will have four picks between Nos. 20 and 65 in June’s draft, which will help that cause.
Such arcane positives don’t always sell well in a city where stars and glitz rule the day.
“I certainly get that. I was a fan at one point,” Friedman told USA TODAY Sports. “That passion is one of the things I enjoy most about what I do. It doesn’t mean it’s always positive and flowery. We have to do as good a job as we can to not let emotions dictate decisions and do something to win a headline if we don’t feel it’s in the best interests of our shortterm and long-term success.”
Friedman resisted offers for top prospects such as shortstop Corey Seager and pitchers Julio Urias and Jose De Leon, and he has supervised a recent focus on international signings, particularly Cuban players, at a cost of more than $150 million in bonuses and taxes in 2015 alone.
The haul included since-traded infielder Hector Olivera ($62.5 million), right-hander Yadier Alvarez ($16 million) and fellow 19-year-old Yusniel Diaz ($15.5 million), an outfielder. Last week, the Dodgers announced the signing of Cuban right-hander Yaisel Sierra, 24, who got a $30 million deal. Even before that addition, Baseball America had rated the Dodgers farm system as the game’s best, a rare distinction for a big-market contender and one that portends a juggernaut organization for years to come.
“It’s certainly the most challenging thing for a large-revenue team,” Friedman said, “to maintain a consistent elite level of performance year to year while creating the type of system that’s critical to give you as good a chance as possible of sustaining it over a long period of time.”
The strategy stems from lessons learned during Friedman’s acclaimed 10-year stint as general manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, whose shoestring budget was consistently dwarfed by those of the Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
Once those two American League East powerhouses started adopting some of the small-market disciplines employed by the Rays, they became even more imposing. The move to L.A. allowed Friedman to combine those same efficiencies with huge financial clout, much like the Yankees and Red Sox have.
He hasn’t been shy about making moves, even if it meant paying players to go away. In one threeteam trade July 30, the Dodgers picked up seven major leaguers, two of whom remain with the club.
Of the 25 players projected to start the season on the Dodgers active roster, 12 have been with the organization for one season or less. By contrast, the division-favorite San Francisco Giants went into spring training with 27 homegrown players on their 40-man roster.
The frequent turnover — of players and most recently coaches — and the continued presence of talented but disruptive outfielder Yasiel Puig have raised questions about the Dodgers’ ability to develop team chemistry.
Pitching staff leader Clayton Kershaw acknowledges people typically get more comfortable with each other the longer they’re together but added, “As far as the chemistry aspect of it, I’m not sure if I really believe in that. I think your team creates the atmosphere and winning creates the environment. Winning is expected here, and what the Dodgers do well is you don’t have to mold to a certain way of being. Everybody can be themselves.”
Nonetheless, after the Dodgers and manager Don Mattingly part- ed ways in October, he was replaced by a man whose main mission has been to bring everybody together pulling in the same direction.
Rookie manager Dave Roberts not only reached out to all of his players during the offseason, but he also has arranged for daily conversations with them — called “Coffee with Doc,” his nickname — to get to know them better during spring training. He also asked closer Kenley Jansen to exert more of a leadership role in the bullpen.
Roberts has gotten high marks from the players for his sincerity and communication skills, and he disputes the notion the club lacks continuity, given the presence of veterans such as Kershaw, Adrian Gonzalez, Justin Turner, Andre Ethier and Ellis.
“Cohesiveness absolutely matters. But if you look at the nucleus of this team, it’s still the same group of guys,” Roberts said. “And if you look at some of the starting pitching we brought in, these are some guys who have been around different ballclubs and understand transition and assimilating. (Some of ) the guys in the ’ pen have been a part of the Dodgers throughout their professional careers. There’s still a lot of continuity.”
For several of those players who have been Dodgers over the last three years, the early playoff exits represented not only a failure to end the long drought but also wasted opportunities that might not come around again to earn a championship ring.
Gonzalez, Ethier, Ellis and Carl Crawford are 33 or older. As much as they might accept the club’s desire to assemble a sustainable winner, their focus is on the present.
“You understand the window is starting to close each and every year for this particular group,” Ellis said. “I know individually — hopefully collectively, for that core group — the sense of urgency might intensify a little bit to help create maybe that added edge we need to push it over the top.”