New Dodgers owner needs to rebuild the farm

The January 23rd deadline to bid for the Dodgers is fast approaching and there's far more bidders than I think anyone expected. Mark Lacter notes the high number here. I agree with Lacter's explanations as to why there are so many (i.e. Bud Selig's lack of control over the process and the expected high TV rights.) I would also add that any Dodgers owner will have 1/30th stake in MLB Advanced Media, a company that some have valued as high as $5 billion. And anyone who buys the Dodgers and follows Frank McCourt will be viewed as a hero in Los Angeles, so ego may play into this too.

The prospective bidders for the Dodgers range from people I like (Magic Johnson, Peter O'Malley, Rick Caruso) to people I don't know much about (Tom Barrack, Steve Cohen, Jason Reese.) There are people who have close ties to Selig (Dennis Gilbert, Joe Torre, Stan Kasten), and potential groups that have enormous financial resources (Time Warner, Fox, the Chinese government.)

I would be fine with pretty much anyone not named McCourt owning the Dodgers, with a few exceptions. I'd rather not see Steve Garvey buy the team, because the last thing the Dodgers need is an owner with more financial problems than Frank McCourt. And after Fox's ill-fated ownership, I'd rather not see Fox or Time Warner own a percentage of the team. The Dodgers don't deserve to be a chess piece again in a local TV cable sports channel war. And they shouldn't be put in a situation where their TV rights would be sold for a discount.

The best owner for the Dodgers would have ties to Los Angeles, or at least appoint a team president from the area. The best owner would also be well-capitalized, not just to sustain a high payroll (which I've said many times is overrated), but also to finance much-needed improvements to Dodger Stadium. Regardless, whoever buys the Dodgers is going to need to rebuild the farm.

When Ned Colletti became GM of the Dodgers before the 2006 season, the organization had one of the best farm systems in the game. Since then, the farm system has floundered. With a severe lack of low-cost in-house prospects who are capable of playing well at the Major League level, Colletti has been forced to turn to the free agent market to fill out his roster. The results haven't always been pretty.

Over the years, Colletti has shown a penchant for signing aging middle infielders to large contracts. Jeff Kent got $22 million at age 38. Casey Blake received a three-year contract at age 35. Rafael Furcal got $30 million guaranteed when he had already proven to be injury prone. Other old middle infielders to receive millions from Colletti include Jamey Carroll, Nomar Garciaparra, Juan Uribe (whose performance was never good), and Mark Ellis just signed a two-year deal worth almost $10 million at age 35. Adam Kennedy and Jerry Hairston, Jr. also signed this offseason, both 35 or older.

Colletti's strong preference for veterans has also been seen in areas where the Dodgers do have good young players. After shrewdly trading for Andre Ethier (Colletti's best move) and watching Matt Kemp show flashes of stardom, Colletti did everything possible to keep one or both off the field. Before the 2007 season, he signed Luis Gonzalez, who instead of being a "veteran leader" complained about losing playing time to Kemp and Ethier. Colletti also signed Juan Pierre to an ill-fated five-year deal, and then the following off-season he added Andruw Jones in a move that turned disastrous. Historically, baseball players peak in performance between the ages of 27 and 32 (the "steroid era" notwithstanding), so giving millions to aging veterans is an extremely risky proposition.

Since DeJon Watson was put in charge of player development in 2007, the Dodgers have stopped developing players. Not a single position player drafted in the Colletti era has become a regular Major League player. That could change this year as both Dee Gordon and A.J. Ellis project as Opening Day starters. I have some hopes for Gordon, even though he probably only got a chance because of the team's severe payroll constraints. Colletti is doing everything possible to keep Ellis off the field by signing veteran mediocrities Matt Treanor and Josh Bard, and trading for underwhelming prospect Tim Federowicz. What's most troubling though is that there are no other position player prospects in the team's high levels of the minors that project as Major League starters.

To their credit, the Dodgers have seen a little more success with pitching prospects with Clayton Kershaw (who I'd argue was a can't-miss kid when he was drafted), reliever Kenley Jansen (a failed catching prospect turned miracle reliever overnight), and closer Javy Guerra. But the overall failings of the minor league system in the last five years have been costly for the Dodgers. Not only have they attempted to mask their deficiencies by making questionable signings, but they've also lacked the prospects to package in a trade for a top player. The team didn't trade for Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay because they didn't have a more highly-valued prospect than, say, Justin Smoak.

Whoever buys the Dodgers will need to ensure that the player development system is one of the strongest in baseball. Prospects need consistent and quality instruction across all levels of the minor leagues. Having great facilities in places like Chattanooga, Tennessee and Midland, Michigan is important. So is having a strong support system for players who often aren't old enough to drink alcohol.

The Dodgers have lagged behind other organizations internationally, selling half their Dominican complex and not opening up academies in Venezuela and other nations that could produce talent. Other than Hiroki Kuroda, McCourt never signed a significant overseas player.

Some have claimed the Dodgers lack of success with prospects is due to McCourt's refusal to pay over-slot money for draft picks (Zach Lee being one of the rare exceptions.) But the new MLB collective bargaining agreement severely limits spending on draft picks, so the new Dodgers owner will need to make sure that a good scouting team is in place.

Most Dodger fans are hoping that a new owner will be able to sign big name free agents to bring the team back into contention. But historically, the most successful baseball teams are those that build from within and then use their resources to keep their core in tact. The Dodgers current baseball operations department has not proven itself when it comes to drafting and developing talent. A new owner would be advised to bring in a front office that can.

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