For the second straight year the Dodgers have been ousted convincingly in a playoff series against a younger, cheaper, more-balanced, homegrown St. Louis Cardinals team. The Cardinals are strikingly similar to the other three remaining teams - the Royal, Orioles, and Giants - who all have mid-level payrolls and young, mostly homegrown rosters.
I've written for years about the Dodgers' lack of organizational depth and the problems resulting from it. The Dodgers don't have an astronomical payroll because they want to win more than other teams, or because they think they can "buy a World Series." They have a ridiculous payroll because they haven't developed many good players internally, so they go out and buy players from other teams. These guys tend to be older, slower, and less reliable than younger and more athletic players that other organizations can afford to keep.
Last year, I offered the Dodgers advice leading into the coming season, and it seemed to be well-received. Here is my advice heading into 2015:
1) Manage the postseason more like the regular season
Say what? Isn't baseball different in the postseason? Don't you have to manage it differently? I think the Dodgers have made panic moves in the playoffs that have hurt their chances. Benching Yasiel Puig is a panic move. So is starting Clayton Kershaw on 3-days rest with marginal notice.
Baseball players are creatures of habit. Asking them to dramatically break from their routines usually doesn't work. Surprising them last-minute with an unusual decision does not inspire confidence. Telling Dan Haren he's starting Game 4, and then putting him in a bullpen when he's never been a relief pitcher isn't good management. Asking Scott Elbert or Pedro Baez to pitch with the game on the line for the first time all season is playing with fire. Last year, Kershaw proved he could only go six innings in a playoff game on three days' rest, so his 7th inning meltdown in Game 4 shouldn't have been a surprise. (I still can't explain Game 1)
If the Dodgers can play more relaxed in the postseason, then I think they'll be more successful. The way to do that might be to stick with the moves that got them there.
2) Keep Don Mattingly
Many Dodgers fans are calling for Don Mattingly's head. I think that's unfair. While I do feel like Mattingly has made panic moves in the postseason for two straight years, I still think he's a very good manager. The most important job of a manager is to communicate with his players. Few are better at managing a clubhouse than Mattingly. He kept $235 million worth of egos in check, and handled some very difficult situations really well - such as the outfield logjam, antagonism towards Puig, the trip to Australia, Dee Gordon's development, uncertainty in the back-end of the rotation, etc. I was also pleased to see that Mattingly understood the best defensive lineup for his team, Hanley Ramirez notwithstanding.
While Mattingly didn't have a great postseason, he also didn't have many great options to work with in the bullpen and the back-end of the rotation. I don't know if another manager can handle the Dodger egos and the LA media. I know that Mattingly can.
3) Sign James Shields
It's pretty embarrassing that the Dodgers don't have a single minor league pitcher that they can promote into their rotation next season. So with Josh Beckett retiring, and Chad Billingsley's career on the rocks, they're going to need to sign a starting pitcher.
A rotation of Kershaw, Greinke, Ryu, Haren, and Shields would probably cost $100 million a season. But it would be the best in baseball and it would hopefully solve the Dodgers perpetual playoff dilemma of having Kershaw pitch on three days rest every year. Shields is a local boy from Hart High School and he's never had an injury issue. Like former Laker James Worthy, Shields has earned the nickname "Big Game James" for a reason. He would offer a huge boost to the Dodgers in the playoffs. While the Kansas City Royals would like to keep him, they can't outbid the Dodgers for him.
4) Hire the best farm director available
I've been extremely critical of Dodgers VP De Jon Watson over the years. He's the man in charge of the farm system that hasn't produced many prospects. Fortunately, Watson just took a new job with the Arizona Diamondbacks, meaning the Dodgers can finally hire someone with a track record of success.
Why is this job so important? In the previous section, I just criticized the Dodgers for not having any internal options for their rotation. After all the Cardinals have done well in the postseason with home grown talents like Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn, and Michael Wacha. Some people criticize Frank McCourt for not spending enough cash in the draft, but he did spend over-slot money on Zach Lee and Garrett Gould. Lee just finished with a 5.38 ERA in Albuquerque and Gould has been a total bust, earning a 7.34 ERA in Chattanooga this year.
Why have both Lee and Gould failed to pan out? Is it because Logan White made poor draft evaluations? Is it because they're not tough enough kids? Or is it because of the instruction they've received in the minor leagues. It could be any of those reasons. But I once talked with a senior MLB scouting executive who told me that most 18-year old kids who throw 90-plus MPH are relatively similar. The executive told me that what separates the success stories from the busts is often the quality of instruction they receive in the minor leagues.
The Dodgers need to start offering better instruction in the minor leagues so they're not stuck with only three prospects that they absolutely cannot move at the trade deadline. That starts with hiring a really good farm director. I'd rather they spend $200,000 more on a great executive in this job than have them spend $10 million on a failed closer.
5) Sign middle relievers, not failed closers. And don't overuse them.
The Dodger bullpen has become the scapegoat for their disappointing postseason. This is partially because Ned Colletti stocked the bullpen with failed closers rather than actual middle relievers. Guys like Brandon League, Chris Perez, Brian Wilson all lost their closer jobs for a reason. In the case of League and Perez, it was because of wild inconsistencies. In Wilson's case, it was due to a severe injury. As a result, it should not have been a surprise that League and Perez continued their inconsistencies. Nor should the Dodgers have been surprised that Wilson's injury caught up to him.
Since the Dodgers have scarcely any internal options for the bullpen, they're going to have to sign players whose experience is primarily as a middle reliever. That worked with JP Howell, who was the Dodgers best bullpen arm not named Kenley Jansen. But in the case of Howell this year, and Paco Rodriguez last year, they were overused so much during the regular season that they broke down by the end of the year. The Dodgers need to have more quality middle relievers, so that they're all in good shape come October.
6) Make Puig grow up
I've stood up for Yasiel Puig since he came up to the big leagues. His youth, the cultural shock of moving from Cuba, and his lack of minor league experience were all viable excuses for his immature actions. But now Puig will be entering his third year. That means it's time to grow up.
Puig really struggled in the past two months of the season. Some speculate that Puig was playing hurt. If that's true, then Puig shouldn't cover up an injury, since his presence in the lineup would be hurting the team. But it's also been reported that Puig spends hardly any time studying film. He spends much less time on his craft than most of teammates. Puig needs to understand that if his natural talent is coupled with a halfway decent work ethic, then he could be the best player in baseball.
If the Dodgers don't think Puig will grow up, then they should consider trading him to Miami for Giancarlo Stanton. Believe it or not, Stanton is only one year older than Puig, and the Marlins may not be able to afford him. Stanton a local product out of Notre Dame High School, and while Puig is a better defensive outfielder, I don't know if Puig will hit better than Stanton already has.
7) Trade Ethier
Andre Ethier's $85 million contract was done entirely for PR reasons. In 2012, the Guggenheim group needed to show it was willing to spend money. Wanting to avoid Ethier contract questions all season, they quickly locked him after taking over the franchise.
Today that contract is a joke. At $18 million a year, Ethier is far too expensive to be a sixth outfielder. The Dodgers need to trade Ethier, knowing they'll have to eat a large portion of his salary. But depending on how much salary they're willing to cover, they could get some needed middle relief help, or even find an answer at shortstop or catcher.
8) Let Hanley go
Hanley Ramirez is a very old 30 years old. He just completed MLB's worst defensive season at shortstop by a mile. Ramirez should never be allowed to play shortstop again.
He can still hit, and he does have some value, so the Dodgers should submit to Ramirez a one-year $15-million qualifying offer. If he declines, then the Dodgers will pick up a much-needed draft pick (especially since they might lose one for signing Shields). If he thinks about accepting, then the Dodgers should tell Ramirez he'll have to split time at third base with Juan Uribe.
So who should play shortstop next year? First, the Dodgers should assess whether Dee Gordon can handle the position. If he can, then $28-million man Alexander Guerrero could be moved to second base. If not, then there really isn't a good option available in free agency. They can try to get someone for Ethier. Or they can just go with a strong defensive option like Miguel Rojas or $25 million man Erisbel Arruebarrena. I would argue it's better to have a .200 hitting shortstop who fields like a gold glover than a .300 hitting shortstop who is the worst fielding player at the positing.