It's the time of the year when most members of the sports media act like they haven't paid any attention to baseball for the past decade. For weeks I've been hearing that the Dodgers need to "make a move" in order to prove that they're contenders.
Usually this entails a sports talk radio host advocating the Dodgers give up "prospects" for the best available starting pitcher and "a bat" without any clarification on what prospects they might be talking about and who that "bat" could be.
The trade deadline has now passed, and Ned Colletti once again made several moves, acquiring Scott Podsednik, Ted Lilly, Ryan Theriot, and Octavio Dotel. Say what you want about the McCourts or the Dodgers, no one can argue that Colletti is not one of the most active GMs at the deadline every year. I'll evaluate these deals later in this post, but before anyone else moans that the Dodgers didn't acquire a Cy Young Award winner consider the last decade's worth of World Series champions and their deadline trade acquisition:
2009- Yankees: Eric Hinske, Jerry Hairston, Jr.
2008- Phillies: Joe Blanton
2007- Red Sox: Eric Gagne
2006- Cardinals: Jeff Weaver
2005- White Sox: Geoff Blum
2004- Red Sox: Orlando Cabrera, Doug Mienktiewecz
2003- Marlins: Ugueth Urbina, Jeff Conine
2002- Angels: No one
2001- Diamondbacks: Albie Lopez
2000- Yankees: David Justice, Jose Vizcaino, Denny Neagle, Glenallen Hill
This list of relatively unimpressive players illustrates that championships are not won in July with a swift move, but rather they're won over time through years of planning. It appears that most title-winning teams add just a useful piece, whether it be a decent starting pitcher (Blanton, Weaver, Lopez) or an extra bench player (Hinske, Blum, Conine). Only David Justice and Denny Neagle were really high-profile players at the time they were traded, but the Yankees have seen other deadline deals for big names like Bob Abreu and Raul Mondesi fail to deliver championships.
Eric Gagne was high profile at the time of his trade, but he pitched so poorly for the Red Sox that he actually hurt their chances more than helped. And the Red Sox 2004 deal for Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mienktiewicz came in exchange for a bigger name in Nomar Garciaparra, and was highly controversial at the time.
My point in showing this is that I don't believe any deadline deal will dramatically alter the Dodgers chances this season. A baseball team still has 25 guys, and the impact of one player at this stage of the year is often marginal.
I still keep hearing media members complain that the Dodgers aren't winning because the McCourts aren't letting them spend money. There's potentially truth to that argument, but when is the media going to wake up and recognize that payroll doesn't equal wins? Of the eight teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, five of them have a lower payroll than the Dodgers. That's right, a LOWER payroll.
While I can understand why fans want to complain about the McCourt's spending (especially in light of the embarrassing divorce related stories), shouldn't the media be asking how the Padres are in first with just a $37 million payroll? Shouldn't the media be trying to figure how the Braves, Reds, Rays, and Rangers are playing so well, all while spending substantially less than the Dodgers? You can groan that the Dodgers should be acting like a major market team, but perhaps a bigger problem is that they aren't being efficient enough with the resources they have.
Just this morning, I heard a clip from ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd claim that Dodger fans were so frustrated because the McCourts weren't willing "to lose $20-30 million" like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies. If anyone reading this post is a business owner, I'd love to know how you'd feel about a radio host going on the air to say your company should just lose $20-30 million because that's what the customers want.
As someone who works in pro sports and understands a team's balance sheet, I'm probably more sensitive to organizational concerns than most. But it's not like all those other teams have a lot to show for their losses. The Dodgers are currently closer to a playoff spot than the Red Sox. They're just two games behind the Phillies. I also heard a sport talk host complain earlier this week that the Detroit Tigers, playing in America's most desperate city, spend more than the Dodgers. But what do the Tigers have to show for their $120 million annual payroll? The Tigers have one World Series appearance in 2006, haven't won a division since 1987, and are currently just two games over .500.
Let's not forget that the Dodgers did actually make baseball's proverbial Final Four the past two seasons, and have been more successful over the past three years than most teams, including the media's darling Angels. While the Dodgers have struggled at times this year, they're hardly a hopeless cause. I honestly believe that any MLB team spending what the Dodgers are in player payroll, should be able to contend for a World Series. So what's wrong with the Dodgers this year?
First off, the team's organizational depth is a major problem. I've been harping on this for a while, but the team has not drafted well in recent years. While some point out that the team's draft spending is the lowest in the majors, I'd note that the Phillies spend almost as little and they seem to have the prospects to trade for anyone. I'd love for the Dodgers to go over-slot on more picks, and I'd like for them to take some more chances internationally, even though those international prospects fail at a glaringly high rate. But at the end of the day, the Dodgers just haven't drafted well, and perhaps Logan White isn't quite the draft day genius we all thought he was. (On a side note, I'm still mystified as to why they'd draft Zack Lee with their first draft pick this year, when everyone knew he wanted to play quarterback at LSU. When you're an organization with little depth, why take a kid who may be impossible to sign, even if he's technically the best player on the board?)
But I'd take it one step further. Perhaps White is drafting good players, but the Dodgers aren't developing them properly. Since De Jon Watson took over as player development director in 2006, the Dodgers have hardly developed any impact players. I've spoken to scouts who believe that many high school and college players coming into the minor leagues are similar, and the real variable that determines their success is development. The Dodgers really need to take a hard look at their minor league coaches, instructors, and their development philosophy and determine what hasn't been working.
If the Dodgers had greater organizational depth, then they would be able to fill in holes on their Major League roster when an injury occurs or a relief pitcher goes to rehab. They would also be able to swing a deal for a top player, and not have to tell the press that the Mariners would only take Chad Billingsley or James Loney for Cliff Lee. Right now, the Dodgers don't have a tradable prospect better than Justin Smoak, or else Lee would be a Dodger today.
Another little-discussed reason for the Dodgers struggles is defense. The Dodgers currently rank 27th in the majors in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) one of the best metrics used to analyze defensive performance. Who's in the Top-4? The Padres, Rays, Giants, and Reds, all teams that would be in the playoffs today with relatively modest payrolls.
As much as I've defended Matt Kemp over the years, I can't hide that he's last in the majors in UZR for centerfielders. He's taken a step back this year, and it's disappointing. But Andre Ethier also has the worst UZR in the NL for rightfielders and we know Manny Ramirez can't play defense even when he's healthy. With an outfield like that, it's no wonder that fans get frustrated with the occasional struggles of great young pitchers like Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw. With their lack of range, more fly balls drop for hits. If it weren't for Rafael Furcal sporting the best UZR among NL shortstops, then the Dodgers would be in even worse shape.
The third major problem facing the Dodgers is the brand. The McCourts somehow pissed off the local media the day they took over the team. The media never seemed to trust them, partially due to the unconventional way in which Frank purchased the team, leveraging a Boston parking lot for $130 million. In turn, the fans seemed to lose trust in ownership, and every mistake the team made, from customer service to Andruw Jones, was pounced on. I felt like the tide was finally beginning to turn last season, but all that fell apart with the divorce, where we've read one embarrassing story after another.
As a result of the hit to the Dodgers brand, the no-show rate for games is high, resulting in lost revenue at the concession stands and in the parking lots. The brand devaluation and the no-show rate have also taken away sponsorship opportunities. All of what I just wrote is just opinion on my part, but I really believe that a more likable ownership presence would improve the team's public image and in turn, lead to higher revenues, and make it seem like the Dodgers are cutting corners less often (And I do believe the Dodgers are cutting corners with small expenditures more often than they will admit).
I heard Jon Weisman from Dodger Thoughts this morning on the radio say he's disappointed with the lack of leadership shown by Frank McCourt recently. I think that's a fair criticism, but I'd be shocked if the divorce didn't have a significant impact on his ability to be that leader. For once I actually agree with Bill Plaschke, that a sale would benefit the team. But if Frank winds up keeping the team after the divorce, then he will need to be a stronger public leader to restore fans' faith in the organization.
I've jumped around quite a bit here, but I do want to evaluate the three Dodger deadline deals.
With regard to Scott Podsednik, I'll start by saying he's one of my least favorite MLB players. He's known for having a low OBP, no power, and being a mediocre defensive player despite his speed. Supposedly Podsednik can play centerfield, but I think that's debatable. There's no question he's an upgrade over Garrett Anderson and he will help the team marginally while Reed Johnson and Manny Ramirez are both hurt. They also only had to give up a 25-year old AAA catcher in Lucas May to get him. But at a time when outfielders like Ryan Ludwick and Austin Kearns (both of whom I'd rather have) were dealt for relatively little, I can't help but think the Dodgers could have done better.
I have mixed feelings about the Ted Lilly deal. I'll start by saying that I really like Ted Lilly and believe he will have a significant and positive impact on the Dodgers. He's been a very consistent starting pitcher in recent years and is actually worth the $10 million a year he's making. With Hiroki Kuroda coming off the books after the season, the Dodgers have no excuse not to at least offer Lilly arbitration. He'll either be a part of the 2011 rotation or net the Dodgers a much-needed high draft pick. Because of Lilly, I'd argue that the Dodgers ultimately come out ahead in this deal.
I'm not particularly concerned about giving up Brett Wallach, even if he is Tim's son. Kyle Smit will probably be in a Major League bullpen one day, but he was tradable. However, I don't like the Blake DeWitt for Ryan Theriot swap at all. Theriot has a lower OBP than DeWitt, hits for virtually no power, and he's statistically equal to DeWitt for second base defense. Theriot does have a marginally higher batting average, and steals more bases, but he's also older, somewhat more expensive, and has less upside than DeWitt.
When I talk about the Dodgers taking advantage of the resources they have, these are moves I like to highlight. Colletti appears to have a fetish for low-OPS leadoff men with mediocre defensive skills like Theriot, Podsednik, and Juan Pierre. Why the Dodgers needed a third leadoff man (to join Furcal) is beyond me.
Now, I'm not a huge Blake DeWitt fan, and I'm not exactly sad to see him go. But he does have little bit of upside, can hit for some power, and he's been playing out of position because the Dodgers are paying $6 million to an aging Casey Blake at third base. On the open market, DeWitt has more value than Theriot, who most Cubs fans wanted benched.
As for the third deal, acquiring Octavio Dotel does help the Dodgers bullpen. As I'm writing this, I'm watching Jonathan Broxton blow another save, and the Dodgers are in desperate need of more help in the middle and late innings (bullpen is one area where organizational depth makes a big difference). With Dotel, you know what you're going to get - a competent relief pitcher with a high-3 ERA. Giving up James McDonald and Andrew Lambo seems like a bit much though. I know fans have soured on McDonald, but he had some success coming out of the bullpen last year, and could have a future as a reliever. Admittedly, I'm not sure what to make of Lambo, who was once a top prospect. He was suspended for 50 games for testing positive for a banned substance, and I've read that drug was marijuana. But I also know that it takes multiple positive tests for marijuana before the suspension is actually 50 games, so maybe there's a bigger issue at hand.
Overall, it was a busy day for the Dodgers, who are a better team in 2010 as a result of Colletti's deals. But the trade deadline highlighted the organization's lack of depth, something they will need to improve moving forward. Their ability to do so will have a greater impact on the team's success than a spending spree that increases payroll.