With the Dodgers series-ending loss to the St. Louis Cardinals last night, it's easy to look ahead to next season. Here's some of my advice for the team going forward:
1) Don't Overreact
2013 was a terrific season for the Dodgers. Yes, it's disappointing to lose in the NLCS, but the playoffs are a bit of a crapshoot. The first two games on the NLCS could have gone either way, and it's plausible that the Dodgers would have won this series had 2-3 plays gone differently.
The Dodgers have a really good team and they don't need to make a dramatic overhaul. The organization should be thrilled with the enormous strides it made this year, after emerging from the dark days of the McCourt era, and get excited about next year.
2) Learn from St. Louis
The Dodgers payroll in 2013 was nearly $220 million, the highest in baseball. The Cardinals spent just over half as much at $115 million, good enough for the 11th highest payroll in MLB.
While I won't say that the deep-pocketed Dodgers should be cheap, they should be more efficient.
Of the 25 players on St. Louis' winning NLCS roster, 18 of them were drafted by the Cardinals, and 21 of them effectively came up through their minor league system. That's an astonishing number. Comparatively, the Dodgers drafted just five of their 25-man NLCS roster, and only seven spent at least a year in their farm system.
As a result, the Cardinals boast the second-youngest roster in the National League. Now in their second World Series in three years, it seems like St. Louis should issue postseason tickets through 2020. The continuity in the Cardinals system has helped the team play with a level of cohesion that few organizations can match. Additionally, they have a deep bench that can pick up the slack in case of injuries, and also provide them with options to create more favorable matchups.
Conversely, the Dodgers had the oldest roster in the National League this season. When they weren't all healthy, they struggled, as they lacked the organizational depth to adequately fill in holes. Their injuries were partially the result of bad luck, but also the result of age.
Fortunately, Dodgers president Stan Kasten gets this. That's why the Dodgers are investing enormous resources in scouting and player development. In five years, the Dodgers roster may look a lot like the Cardinals. For now though, the Dodgers will have to figure out how to get younger and deeper through under-the-radar trades and international signings, as we wait for Kasten's changes to take full effect.
3) Keep Don Mattingly
Reportedly, Mattingly has already been informed that he'll be offered an extension. That's a good thing. I was really surprised by just how much Mattingly's NLCS strategic decisions were nit-picked. While I didn't agree with everything he did, there was a sound reasoned argument for basically all of his moves. But that's not necessarily the reason to keep him.
Sabermetric studies of managerial decisions show that by and large, most managers make the same decisions. So what separates a good manager from a bad manager? I believe that it's a manager's ability to communicate with his players, to control a clubhouse over the course of a long season, and to properly assess his personnel.
On those three points, I think Mattingly did an excellent job this year. After years of working alongside Joe Torre, Mattingly has learned how to manage a clubhouse through the ups and downs of a season. When the Dodgers struggled early in the year, and Mattingly knew his job was in jeopardy, he managed to keep his team focused and they eventually improved.
Dodger players continue to rave about Mattingly, and they praise his open and honest approach. I also think that Mattingly made good personnel decisions throughout the season. I questioned his calls to have Andre Ethier play centerfield and Hanley Ramirez to play shortstop (instead of third base), but both worked out.
I do think he may regret starting Clayton Kershaw on short rest in the playoffs though, as I'm convinced that took him off his game for the rest of the postseason.
4) Be Patient with Puig
I'm really surprised by level of vitriol that some people have for Yasiel Puig. There are some critics who love to point out every minor mistake he makes, and zealously claim he needs to learn to play the "right way." It's as if they resent the excitement Puig has generated for both the fan base and the organization.
But let's put Puig in perspective for a minute. He's only 22 years old. He spent nearly 21 of his 22 years in a communist dictatorship, lacking basic freedoms that many of us take for granted. Now he finds himself living in Los Angeles, playing for a storied franchise like the Dodgers, and making $42 million. While he enjoys a freedom of choice that he never had before, in an unusual paradox he is also somewhat trapped by the confines of his own celebrity. It's a unique situation, and it's hard for anyone to put themselves in his shoes.
Yes, it's true the Puig makes some dumb mistakes on the field. If you ever watch minor league baseball, you'll see young players make similar mistakes though. Most major leaguers play a solid four years in the minors, so that when they're called up, they'll hit a cutoff man or won't make the third out at third base.
On the other hand, Puig only played 63 minor league games before he got called up - a move that was necessitated by injuries. His raw talent and athleticism proved to be so spectacular that it was impossible to send him down. And make no mistake, the Dodgers would not have made the playoffs without him. Puig's energy and passion played a major role in igniting both the franchise and fanbase. For every bone-headed fielding error, it seemed like he had three spectacular run-saving outfield plays. For every undisciplined strikeout, he seemed to counter with a big hit later on.
Puig has already learned a great deal throughout this season, and it won't be long before he figures out all the intricacies of the American game. Yes, we should point out his mistakes. But at the same time, we shouldn't get so upset when he makes them. For now, let's be patient with Puig and enjoy watching his talent on the field.
5) Keep All Four Outfielders
Throughout the season, people debated which Dodger outfielder should go, as the Dodgers surely couldn't keep four of them. But since the Dodgers apparently have unlimited cash, they're probably best off keeping Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and Carl Crawford to play alongside Yasiel Puig.
After two injury-riddled seasons, I'm not sure if Kemp will ever be consistently healthy and effective again. Relying on him to play a full season in centerfield is an extremely risky proposition. I have similar concerns about Ethier, whose body broke down by the end of the year.
The Dodgers should just keep both Kemp and Ethier, and see how they look come spring training. They should also keep top prospect Joc Pederson, in case both guys can't stay healthy. And I would like to see the Dodgers quit jerking around Scott Van Slyke, as he's proven to be a legitimate major leaguer.
The only major change the Dodgers should make in the outfield is on who plays centerfield. Ethier did an admirable job in center this year, but he's better off in a corner position where he's less likely to get shin splints. While Kemp is a terrific athlete, it's time to admit that he's a bad defensive centerfielder. His UZR numbers in center are terrible, as he struggles tracking fly balls. The Dodgers would be well advised to preserve his body anyways and move him to a corner spot as well.
Fortunately, the Dodgers have two speedy outfielders in Crawford and Puig. Crawford has always resisted playing centerfield in the past, and coming off his injuries, it made sense to keep him in left this season. But he has the skillset to play center, and with a full offseason of practice, there's no reason why he couldn't move over there in 2014.
Another option could be Puig, who has the speed, but would obviously need a lot of offseason work at the position.
6) Get youth and speed on the bench
I'd argue that depth was the Dodgers biggest weakness in 2013. It showed in the playoffs as Ned Colletti's roster construction forced the team to rely on aging veterans in important spots.
When Ethier went down, an underwhelming Skip Schumaker filled in. When Hanley Ramirez got injured, they only had Nick Punto to turn to at shortstop. The Dodgers were basically forced to put failed prospect Dee Gordon on the postseason roster, because no one else on their team could run. This, despite the fact that no one trusts Gordon in the field anymore.
I've written about this before, but Ned Colletti has a seemingly unhealthy obsession with recognizable names. Sometimes it does pay off, as admittedly, Schumaker and Punto had valuable contributions during the season. So did players like Brian Wilson and Ricky Nolasco.
But plenty of Colletti's bench bolstering moves are unnecessary, and they only make the team older and slower. Earlier this season, I criticized Colletti for trading for an aging and ineffective Ramon Hernandez, pointing out that it just hindered Tim Federowicz's development. Later in the year, he needlessly acquired Edinson Volquez when Stephen Fife had been pitching pretty well. Michael Young sounded like a flashy acquisition, but he had no experience as a pinch hitter, and it showed as he went 0-for-6 in the playoffs. Van Slyke could have handled some of those postseason at-bats.
The Dodgers are never going to develop their young players - and have a Cardinals-like bench - if they keep signing people like Jerry Hairston who prevent young guys from playing. If they claim that their young players aren't good enough, then they need to reevaluate their player development system.
The Dodgers should ask themselves why Dee Gordon has become a failed prospect, when he seemingly has all the tools to succeed. Is it Gordon's fault for not working hard enough, or is it the Dodgers fault for not teaching him properly? How many other prospects have failed to develop because of inadequate instruction?
More so than ever, baseball has become a young man's game. Succeeding with a roster of 30-plus year-olds is just not sustainable. While they can win in the short-term with their current crop of older starters, they will need to develop younger reinforcements soon to back them up.
In the meantime, the quickest way to get younger on the bench is to scout other teams' organizational rosters, and try to find value in an under-the-radar trade.