Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi, left, and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman at presser last week. Screen grab: MLB.com
When people are angry, they want to blame someone. After 27 years of futility, the Dodger media is extremely angry. And rather than blame the people who screwed up for 26 years, first-year Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman has been the recent target of absurd criticism. The venom was spewed even before the Dodgers parted ways with Don Mattingly on Thursday.
On Wednesday, I was listening to Wes Clements on The Beast 980 AM radio going on a tirade against Friedman. Unfortunately, I was driving and couldn't write down every incorrect thing he said. But when I finally parked my car, he spouted:
"No team that focuses on sabermetrics ... can win in the postseason against good arms."
Never mind that the Mets - led by Moneyball godfather Sandy Alderson and one of his disciples Paul DePodesta - are a team that uses sabermetrics. Never mind that they beat two pretty good arms in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Clements just wanted to angrily spout random points without checking to see if they were correct or logical.
The day after the Dodgers lost Game 5 of its Division Series matchup with the Mets, LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke essentially blamed Friedman for Daniel Murphy's game-changing steal of third base. Murphy advanced because the Dodgers were in a defensive shift and failed to cover third base. Plaschke wrote:
Mattingly blamed the naked base caper on rookie Corey Seager, but, in a broader sense, the blame will be felt by new Dodgers baseball boss Andrew Friedman. This was a case of old-fashioned hustle beating the sort of new-age baseball shift that has been implemented here by the Friedman regime. It is a shift that has sometimes succeeded but still requires more work, especially on a team with a rookie shortstop.
The other loser Thursday was Friedman himself, as the series loss cemented the questions that many fans have had about the philosophy that he and General Manager Farhan Zaidi have put into place.
A few points that should be noted here. First, while Plaschke may consider the shift a "new-age baseball" strategy, I can assure you that there's no computer in the world that says "don't cover third base with a man on second." Sometimes people screw up. Whether it was Seager who messed up by not covering third, or Zack Greinke who should have covered it, or Don Mattingly's coaching staff that failed to communicate this assignment to his players, it wasn't the shift's fault. Someone screwed up, and I guarantee you it wasn't Friedman.
But this quote from Plaschke is yet another example of his hypocrisy. Back in 2005, no one was more critical of former Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta's "new-age baseball" methods than Plaschke. The straw that broke the camel's back came when DePodesta tried to hire Terry Collins to manage the Dodgers. Plaschke bashed the decision, and Frank McCourt kowtowed to public pressure, firing DePodesta and then hiring Ned Colletti and Grady Little.
Yet today, a Mets team led by Alderson, DePodesta, and Collins is suddenly the group that displays "old-fashioned hustle." Oh, and in case Plaschke didn't watch the series closely enough, he might have noticed that the Mets also employ the shift. Collins was actually one of the first managers to ever use the shift, when innovative bench coach Joe Maddon served under him in Anaheim. Today, almost every team uses defensive shifts. Why? Because it works. It's worked so well that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has openly discussed banning it in an attempt bring more offense to the game. But it only works when Corey Seager remembers to cover third.
In the meantime, LA Times writer Steve Dilbeck penned an "analysis" piece, headlined: "Dodgers' Andrew Friedman needs to adjust to big-market demands." He writes:
Those are some lofty standards, but they're also reality. Expectations are huge here to win now. And when Friedman and General Manager Farhan Zaidi made modest moves at the trading deadline, they weren't convincing anyone they truly understood the urgency.
Friedman has never signed a free agent to a $100-million contract. He is, understandably, not fond of signing 30-year-old starting pitchers to expensive, multiple-year deals. As Dodgers Chairman Mark Walter once famously said, "pitchers break."
But the time to be flexible is at hand. One way or another, if Friedman is going to advance this team, he'll have to sign a pitcher on the wrong side of 30 to a long-term deal well in excess of $100 million.
Now, I recently advocated that the Dodgers re-sign Zack Greinke. But not for the same reason that Dilbeck thinks they should. Dilbeck admits that Friedman "understandably" wouldn't want to sign an older to pitcher to a bad multi-year contract, but then he says the Dodgers have to in order to "advance." That doesn't make much sense.
It might help for Dilbeck to look at teams that actually do advance. The Mets and Royals are both in the World Series, and neither team has an aging expensive pitcher on a big deal. In fact the Mets face similar "big-market demands," but they're in the World Series, in part because they resisted pressure from the New York equivalents of Steve Dilbeck.
In a recent New York Times article, Mets GM Alderson said that acquiring "marquee players who've performed well in the past is always a temptation and a potential solution to whatever problems a team may have." But, he said, "history tells us that it doesn't always work out."
"In fact," he added, "it works out rarely."
The demand for any team, big-market or small-market, is to win. And the way to win isn't by loading up on big contracts and aging veterans. Today's formula for baseball success is to develop great young players and win when they're in their prime production years. That's what Andrew Friedman did so effectively in Tampa Bay, even when he had no money to keep his own stars or pay for a few free agents to fill holes.
In today's Los Angeles Times, Bill Shaikin points out that the Mets have five excellent starting pitchers in their 20s. In the meantime, the Dodgers have only had two homegrown pitchers start as many as 20 games in the last decade - Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley. Since taking Kershaw, Shaikin notes that the Dodgers have taken ten pitchers in the first round of the MLB Draft, and none of them have done much in the majors. Only Chris Withrow and Zach Lee have even made the big leagues.
This is exactly what Andrew Friedman was brought in to correct. Under his watch, David Price, James Shields, Chris Archer, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Wade Davis, Jake Odorizzi, and Jeremy Hellickson all developed into pretty good major leaguers. The Rays also had fantastic bullpens during his tenure.
In the meantime, the Dodgers farm system was so mismanaged under Ned Colletti, that the team has literally no one from triple-A that they can count on to start in next year's rotation. That's why I think the Dodgers should re-sign Greinke. Because there's literally no one else out there. That is, unless they want to overpay for Price, Jordan Zimmerman, or Johnny Cueto. They may as well overpay for Greinke, who is a player that they know well, and he has the Greg Maddux-like cerebral abilities to adjust his approach as he ages.
The Dodgers poor farm system is another reason why they weren't able to acquire a big name starting pitcher at the trade deadline. They didn't want to deal away the few great prospects they already had. Trading Corey Seager for David Price, Cole Hamels, or Johnny Cueto would have been madness. Seager has already shown that he could be a great Dodgers shortstop for over a decade. Price has a career postseason ERA of 5.12, and struggled for the Blue Jays in this year's playoffs. In the last year of his contract, he would have guaranteed nothing. Cueto has a 7.88 ERA in this year's postseason. Hamels did pitch better in the playoffs for Texas, but he wasn't lights out, and he's owed at least $76.5 million for the next three seasons.
But calling Friedman's trade deadline move as "modest" is quite unfair. A 13-player trade isn't modest. While Mat Latos and Jim Johnson were big disappointments, the Dodgers still made a terrific deal.
At 24, Alex Wood is exactly the type of promising young pitcher that the Dodgers desperately need. Luis Avilan is a good young lefty reliever that every team could use. And 21-year old Jose Peraza might be the Dodgers everyday second baseman in the near-future.
Friedman has made other great moves to get the Dodgers younger and better-positioned like all the other good teams that win. Yasmani Grandal is 26 and he made the All-Star Game, proving that he can be the Dodgers catcher for the next several years. While some fans didn't like giving up Dee Gordon in the Howie Kendrick trade, the Dodgers wound up with 23-year old Kike Hernandez, who can be an everyday starter next season. They also got Chris Hatcher, who has already become the setup man that the Dodgers desperately needed. And the same deal brought them catcher Austin Barnes, who impressed in Oklahoma City this year, and he could be a valuable piece down the road.
None of this will satisfy Dodger fans who are hungry to win their first World Series championship since 1988. But the Dodgers haven't had a cohesive front office plan since that time either.
Having Andrew Friedman as a GM isn't like bringing LeBron James to a basketball team. It's not even like hiring Bill Belichick to run your football team. With so many smart GMs in baseball today, it's increasingly difficult to break through. But Friedman gives the Dodgers the best chance at building a winning team for many years to come. Judging Friedman after just one year of inheriting Ned Colletti's roster, and then complaining when his team does no better than Colletti's is short-sighted. The best time to evaluate Friedman will come several years from now, when we can see if his efforts to make the Dodgers younger and better turn them into baseball's premiere franchise.
In the meantime, the Dodgers do need a new manager to replace Don Mattingly. I really like Gabe Kapler, Tim Wallach, Ron Roenicke, and Dave Martinez, who are rumored to be on the short-list. Other good candidates could include Royals bench coach Don Wakamatsu and Giants bench coach Ron Wotus. But whomever the Dodgers hire will be on the same page philosophically with Friedman, just like his first managerial hire Joe Maddon. That will be a good thing for an organization that is looking to advance further in the postseason.