It wasn't supposed to be this way. But with about a week left of games, it's looking very likely that both the Dodgers and Angels will miss the playoffs in a season in which one-third of all MLB teams reach the postseason.
Most local baseball "analysts" would have told you this was impossible at one point or another. Both teams had made a "commitment" to winning by spending money. The Angels spent $254 million on Albert Pujols and $77.5 million on CJ Wilson, yet they've struggled with consistency all season long. Ironically, their best player has been Mike Trout, who is making the MLB rookie minimum of $480,000.
The Dodgers meanwhile have been in contention for most of the year. Their ambitious new owners pulled the trigger on expensive trades for big name players like Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford. Yet, it seems like the Dodgers have gotten worse after each deal, and now it will take a miracle for them to win the second wild card.
How could this happen? Don't the teams that spend the most money win all the time? In short, the answer is "no". Any baseball analyst who tells you that payroll equals wins is a complete idiot.
This year, the teams with the second, third, and fourth highest payrolls (Phillies, Red Sox, Angels) all are likely to miss the playoffs. Of the teams that began 2012 with the ten highest payrolls, only four are likely to make the playoffs (Yankees, Rangers, Giants, Cardinals). Teams that are already in the playoffs include the Washington Nationals (No. 20 payroll), the Cincinnati Reds (No. 17 payroll), and the Atlanta Braves (No. 16 payroll). Low payroll teams like the Oakland A's (No. 29) and the Baltimore Orioles (No. 19) would both be in the postseason if it started today.
This not an anomaly unique to 2012. Virtually every year on LAObserved I point to 4-5 mid and low-level teams that make playoffs, and multiple high payroll teams that miss it. This is a trend that's been going on for much of the past decade. If payroll did equal wins, then the Yankees would have 10 World Series titles in the past 10 years. Instead, they have one.
So why can't teams buy wins? Because typically with a high payroll, you're paying for past performance, not future performance.
Sure, Albert Pujols has had 10 terrific years in pro baseball. But will he have 10 more great years? Well, the Angels are paying him $254 million for those years, whether they're good or not. In the meantime, baseball's unique salary structure - which allows teams to pay whatever they want for a player's first three years and then still own him for three more - means the Angels are paying a bargain price many of Mike Trout's best years. The fact is, nearly half of all $100+ million MLB contracts are considered busts by the time they're over.
That doesn't mean spending money is bad. I'm thrilled that the Dodgers have new owners who are aggressive and willing to go after good players. It means that they have a greater margin for error and it gives them an avenue towards improvement that they didn't have under Frank McCourt. But if the Dodgers are going to be successful, then they need to run a smarter organization that does a better job of developing its own players. Baseball history shows that building from within provides a much better opportunity for sustainable success than by bringing players from the outside.
Dodgers CEO Stan Kasten should know this as well as anyone. When he was president of the Atlanta Braves, the organization was the gold standard for player development and won a record 14 consecutive division titles. When he was President of the Nationals, the organization built much of the foundation that has put them in the playoffs this year.
But the Dodgers do have a ways to go in order to build a successful farm system. I outlined much of what they can do earlier this year.
Yet, I'm disappointed when I read a line from a Dylan Hernandez "news" story that says:
Though the Dodgers' farm system has produced several major league players in recent seasons, it is currently short on top-tier talent because spending on amateur players was curbed during Frank McCourt's ownership.
That statement is treated as fact, but it could just as easily say: "The Dodgers farm system is currently short on top-tier talent because they have done a poor job of developing players since DeJon Watson took over as head of player development."
Or it could have said: "The Dodgers farm system is currently short on top-tier talent because the team has had several disappointing drafts under scouting director Logan White."
It's easy to blame Frank McCourt for everything that's gone wrong, and I'm no fan of him either. But the Dodgers were not in an impossible scouting and player development situation under him. They still have plenty of bad misses in the draft and it's easy to question the quality of instruction their prospects are receiving.
Either way, the new MLB collective bargaining agreement restricts every team's ability to spend in the draft, forcing teams to do a better job of scouting and player development. At some point, Ned Colletti and his staff to be held accountable for the organization's sub-par farm system. Despite the fact that Colletti has proven unable to build a quality minor league system on a budget, he was rewarded with a long-term contract earlier this month.
If the Dodgers do want to spend more money on player development, then here's a great idea. Earlier this year, Matt Kemp had to do a rehab assignment with the Single-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. As is tradition for MLBers on rehab stints, Kemp had to pick up the check for dinner in the clubhouse. While there, he said:
"It's tough being in the minor leagues with the money they get. I was eating Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken every day (in the minors), so I'm going to feed them well," Kemp said. "I like to eat, so I'm going to eat good too. I don't want to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at night."
Here's a question... why are the Dodgers minor leaguers eating KFC and Taco Bell? Why wouldn't the Dodgers want to hire a chef in Rancho Cucamonga to give their prospects proper nutrition? If I owned a MLB team, then I would want all of my prospects at all levels eating right, especially considering everything we now know about the link between nutrition and performance.
Spending $100 million on Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford is great. But just as important, if not more so, is spending money on the best scouts, the best minor league instructors, and the most advanced computer systems that can analyze a player's swing or a pitcher's delivery so a prospect can become a legitimate major leaguer. Investing in minor leaguers is investing in the future of an organization. You wouldn't want to feed your children garbage fast food, and you wouldn't want your top prospects eating fast food either.
If I were to characterize Ned Colletti's style as a general manger in one sentence, then I would say he's a man who tenaciously pursues every recognizable name available. With a seemingly unlimited payroll this year, Colletti has done just that, acquiring plenty of recognizable names. But recognizable players don't win championships. Good players do. Recognizable names cost money. Good players don't necessarily.
Colletti went out of his way to acquire Shane Victorino, a recognizable name whose best days are obviously behind him. Colletti gave up a useful relief pitcher in Josh Lindblom and a former first round draft pick in Ethan Martin. He also agreed to pay the remaining millions left on Victorino's contract. It's the rare combination where a team both gives up prospects and takes on money. Normally it's one or the other, but in trades for Victorino, Hanely Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and others, it's been both prospects and money.
Recognizable name Victorino has rewarded the Dodgers by hitting .227 with a pitiful .302 OBP and a .304 slugging percentage while wearing Dodger Blue. In the meantime, the Oakland A's may very well be playoff bound despite receiving over 80 starts from rookie pitchers. That's from unrecognizable names like Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, and A.J. Griffin.
If the Dodgers and Angels want to continue receiving pats on the back from the media, then they can continue their trend of acquiring name brand players and paying them lots of money. It may lead to wins, but there is really no guarantee.
If the Dodgers and Angels want to win championships and build sustainable success, then it will take organizational depth. And that means creating recognizable names, so that they're good when they become recognized. It doesn't necessarily mean getting expensive players whose best accomplishments are all in the past.