After two straight losses to Milwaukee, the Dodgers are now 11-16 and only the Astros have a worse record in the National League. People have blamed the team's poor start on everything from the pitching staff to Frank and Jamie McCourt's divorce. But you have to look deeper to find the real problems affecting the Dodgers.
While it's true that both the starting rotation and bullpen have struggled, the Dodgers' defense in the field has been atrocious. The Dodgers rank dead last in MLB in UZR and UZR/150, two of the more advanced metrics used for analyzing fielding. Conversely the surprising Padres and the Giants (the two teams atop the NL West) rank 1-2 respectively in those categories in the National League. It doesn't help that the Dodgers are 2nd in the NL in errors committed and first in unearned runs allowed. An improvement in defense would surely help lower the team's 5.05 ERA.
How did the Dodgers defense get so bad? While new fielding metrics have made teams place a greater emphasis on defense, the Dodgers appear to have fallen behind the curve. Blake DeWitt is out of position at second base, and is a downgrade defensively from Orlando Hudson, who won a Gold Glove last year yet was not offered arbitration. DeWitt's natural position is third base, which is currently occupied by 36-year old Casey Blake, whose range continues to decline.
Rafael Furcal is one of the better defensive shortstops in baseball, but we all know about his health issues. While he's been on the DL, 36-year old Jamey Carroll has been at shortstop, a position he has no business playing. Signing him to be a backup for injury-prone Furcal was one Colletti's worst offseason decisions, especially when a guy like Felipe Lopez went for less money. Even using Chin-lung Hu would be better right now.
We all know about Manny Ramirez's fielding issues, but few realize that Andre Ethier's defensive skills have been rapidly declining. As good as Ethier is with his bat, he's actually one of the lowest-rated defensive right fielders in the game. Moving forward, the Dodgers are going to need to find a way to work around Ethier's problems, and that could mean a position change to left field (when Ramirez leaves next year) or even first base.
That being said, James Loney is a pretty good defensive first baseman, and Matt Kemp is coming off of a Gold Glove year.
Another major problem facing the Dodgers is depth. Teams can't be successful with just a few good players. They can't even be successful a strong 25-man roster or even a good 40-man roster. Organizational depth is absolutely critical in baseball, and the Dodgers just don't have it. Even the Yankees have no-name minor leaguers starting games for them occasionally, and the Dodgers have scarcely anyone of quality that they can call up in a pinch.
The lack of organizational depth isn't because of payroll, but rather the Dodgers don't appear to be making the investments in their scouting and player development that they should. Four years ago, the Dodgers had the No. 1 rated farm system in MLB according to Baseball America. Today, they've fallen to 24th. The team has spent less in draft bonuses than any other in MLB, and despite boasting a powerful global brand, they're viewed as a non-factor in international scouting.
Dodgers Assistant GM in charge of scouting, Logan White, talked about the challenges of working on a limited budget in an interview with Bill Shaikin of the LA Times last Sunday. White strongly refuted the idea that lack of spending in the draft and internationally has hampered the team. He's right that there are significant inefficiencies in the system when it comes to signing amateur players. But White shouldn't have to be put in a position to defend the current practices.
Spending lavishly in scouting can actually lead to significant savings in MLB payroll. Teams control players for six years once they reach the majors, and can pay players practically whatever they want in their first three years. Extra expenditures on star youth players are far lower than spending millions on veterans to cover up weakness in the batting order.
But scouting isn't just about paying a lot of money to drafted players or international discoveries. Organizations also need to invest in hiring the best scouts, in using the best computer and analytical tools to find the best talent, and in giving their scouting operations the best available resources. I don't know what the Dodgers are spending in scouting overall, but in a well-publicized Bill Plaschke story, it was revealed that 87-year old scout George Genovese had his salary cut from $18,000 a year to $8,000. And he had his expense account slashed from $5,000 to $2,000, making it difficult for him to even pay for gas while scouting kids on the road.
Now, it's well-known here that I'm not a fan of Plaschke, and there could be a crucial piece of information missing in that article. But cutting scouting salaries and scouting budgets is not a good way to win over people in the industry, and it's not going to lead to better results.
The Dodgers have a significant branding problem, because these across-the-board spending cuts are coming at a time when every juicy detail of the McCourt family's personal lives is being revealed in divorce court. At a time when Frank McCourt is crying poor, he's spending $30,000 a month to live in the Montage Beverly Hills. At a time when an 87-year scout has his salary cut 56%, Jamie McCourt is demanding that the team pay for her hair and makeup (which they were apparently doing before she got fired by her husband.) While the team has spent frugally in the draft, two McCourt sons have been kept on the organization's payroll at a combined $600,000, despite the fact that neither actually works for the Dodgers anymore (one works for Goldman Sachs and the other is at Stanford Business School).
It's fairly sick how the McCourts have used the team as their personal ATM over the years, and even more disappointing that they've done so at the expense of improving their organization. I've worked in sports, and I know how several teams operate financially, but I've never heard of another ownership group behaving like the McCourts.
But going back to baseball, the Dodgers organizational depth problems aren't attributable to scouting alone. Since DeJon Watson took over from Terry Collins as Director of Player Development, the Dodgers haven't developed very many major leaguers. Most fans don't realize how important the farm director is to a MLB front office, but it's crucial. It's one thing for Logan White to draft great young players, but it's even more vital to develop them properly in the minor leagues. That includes creating a strong support system, having a consistent coaching philosophy, promoting and demoting kids at the right time, and also having the right systems in place (computer or otherwise) to properly analyze a swing or a throwing motion.
Most of the Dodgers good young major leaguers arrived in Los Angeles while Terry Collins was the farm director. After he left to manage in Japan, Clayton Kershaw has been the only real standout player to develop under Watson's watch. It's also under Watson that the Dodgers have seen their farm system ranking plummet.
Now, I don't know if Watson isn't being given the resources to do his job effectively. But I do know that the Dodgers farm system has struggled since he took over, so minor league operations are an area the organization needs to review. On the bright side, the Dodgers did open a Venezuelan academy last year, and those types of ventures are crucial. Dodger fans can only hope the team is investing in player development to the level they should.
The importance of developing quality prospects goes beyond their potential on-field performance. Organizational depth is also necessary for contending teams that need trade chips to supplement their roster. In 2008, the Dodgers gave Carlos Santana to the Cleveland Indians instead of just paying Casey Blake the $2 million he was owed for the rest of the year. They subsequently decided to give the aging Blake a 3-year $17 million extension, adding to their payroll, and blocking the development of Blake DeWitt at his natural position.
A year later, the Dodgers failed to acquire pitcher Cliff Lee from the Indians because the Phillies could offer a better package of prospects. Ironically, the Dodgers could potentially have traded for Lee if they still had Santana. (The Phillies wound up using an even better package of prospects to upgrade and get Roy Halladay.) It's these types of short-sighted financial decisions which are hurting the Dodgers in the long-term.
The Dodgers publicly claim that the economy has had a greater impact on the team's finances than the McCourt divorce. But I'm not so sure if that's the case. The Dodgers led the majors in attendance last year, they have a good TV deal, and being in the nation's No. 2 media market should provide them better access to sponsorship revenue, than say, the Phillies. I worked for an organization that reached the World Series with a $44 million payroll, so I'd be one of the first to say that payroll does not equal wins. But the Dodgers don't appear to be making the investments across the organization -- from player development to scouting to overall salaries -- that can give them the best opportunity to be successful on the field. And that should be incredibly frustrating to any Dodger fan who also reads in the paper that Jamie McCourt is using a $20 million house in Malibu for laundry.
In the meantime, Dodgers GM Ned Colletti is already playing the blame game. Last week he called out Matt Kemp, bashing the centerfielder for a defensive and baserunner blunder. Then he insinuated that Kemp's 2-year $10.95 million extension could have been cause for those mistakes. The irony is that Matt Kemp is probably the Dodgers best player. He's the first true five-tool player the Dodgers have developed since Raul Mondesi, but in reality he might be the best homegrown outfielder in over 30 years. Not only does Matt Kemp have 30-30 capability, but he's already won both a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger Award.
Instead of criticizing Kemp, the Dodgers should be promoting him. LA is a superstar town, and Kemp has the ability to make more people care about the Dodgers. Not only does he have the talent, but he plays the game with an upbeat personality that makes him fun to watch. Now he's dating Rihanna, and recently got a spread in GQ. Yet, curiously I don't see the Dodgers promoting Kemp as much as they promoted, say, Eric Karros back in the 1990s.
It almost seems like the Dodgers have been doing everything they can to put Kemp down. I think there must have been something about his happy-go-lucky attitude that rubbed people in the organization the wrong way, because they whispered their complaints repeatedly to Bill Plaschke, even as the kid kept on hitting. They wound up acquiring Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones to give Kemp less playing time, but that didn't work. Even as recently as last year, they were batting Kemp 8th in some games. Every player makes mistakes, but no player's errors make more news than Kemp's, and I still don't quite understand why.
Now, Kemp has a 2-year contract extension, but if the Dodgers were smart, they would have tried to extend him for much longer. Since Kemp will probably be making superstar dollars after his arbitration clock expires in 3 years, the Dodgers could actually save money by signing him to an extension past 2013, potentially adding in team options as well. Such a move would be particularly helpful to an organization that has obviously been concerned about payroll, as it would provide greater cost certainty in the long-term. I'm not sure if the Dodgers tried to do that, but given their recent trend of thinking short-term, it seems unlikely.
Regardless, Kemp and his agent Dave Stewart were so incensed by Colletti's comments, that Stewart noted his client could explore free agency in three years. Stewart also represents Chad Billingsley, who has struggled, but remains an important part of the team's future.
Stewart also said that Colletti should "look in the mirror," and he's right. I'm convinced that the Dodgers success over the past few seasons has come, in part, because of the team's payroll constraints. Colletti has shown a love affair with over-the-hill veterans throughout his tenure, but keeping the team's payroll in check actually forced the GM to rely on their good young players. The few veterans he has acquired have proven to be expensive wastes, guys like Jason Schmidt, Andruw Jones, and Juan Pierre.
Another wasteful signing was Rafael Furcal last year to a 3-year $30 million extension that could wind up going for more. Ironically, Colletti convinced Furcal to sign a short-term contract before 2006, knowing full well that the shortstop would then get another expensive over-valued deal when he was a free agent again. Well, Furcal proved he was injury prone, yet Colletti signed him to that expensive deal anyways. For a team that acts as payroll conscious as the Dodgers, making those types of mistakes can be crushing. Another problem is that Furcal's deal includes deferred money, so the Dodgers will be paying him for several years into the future. People complain about the Dodgers $85 million payroll, but that doesn't include the deferred money they're currently giving to Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones, Jason Schmidt, Orlando Hudson, and Nomar Garciaparra (yes, they're still paying Nomar $1.25 million).
Adding more to Dodgers fans frustrations was their inexplicable decision not to offer Randy Wolf arbitration. Had Wolf declined arbitration (which most think he would have), then the Dodgers would have received draft picks. While those picks would have cost money, they would have helped replenish some of the organizational depth. Had Wolf accepted, he might have earned in the neighborhood of $10 million, but he's pitched well early this season for the Brewers, and he certainly would fill a need for the team now.
I've actually been a Frank McCourt defender over the years, and I still believe that the current group of Dodgers has the talent to turn their season around and even win the division. I also think that having Joe Torre as manager really helps the club as they go through the ups and downs of the season. But if the Dodgers want to sustain a winning organization, then they need to fundamentally change the way they're doing business now. And that means they must move past this divorce and make the appropriate investments in scouting and player development. They need to start thinking about a long-term approach to running their baseball operations and recognize the ultimate cost advantages associated with that. And they need to start getting players who can field.