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June 22, 2011

The BP Wayback Machine

Bi-Coastal Silliness

by Joe Sheehan

While looking toward the future with our comprehensive slate of current content, we'd also like to recognize our rich past by drawing upon our extensive (and mostly free) online archive of work dating back to 1997. In an effort to highlight the best of what's gone before, we'll be bringing you a weekly blast from BP's past, introducing or re-introducing you to some of the most informative and entertaining authors who have passed through our virtual halls. If you have fond recollections of a BP piece that you'd like to nominate for re-exposure to a wider audience, send us your suggestion.

"...the long-term prospects for this organization are terrible, and it's McCourt's fault." Those words could have been written yesterday, but Joe wrote them right here in a "Prospectus Today" column on November 3, 2005.

Usually, the immediate aftermath of a World Series--especially a short one that leaves an open weekend--is a good time to take a little break. As a fan, I was disappointed by the four-game World Series, but as a guy who had to fly to New York for the weekend, I was a tad relieved to be done with the postseason, able to concentrate on three days of fun in the Big Apple. (Recommended: "Wicked" and Havana Central on 46th.)

So it was a bit of a surprise to have the offseason get off to a rip-roaring start even as the White Sox were basking in the glow of their sweep. In a three-day span, two of the youngest general managers in the game, each with performance-analysis credentials and varying degrees of success during their tenures, were no longer employed. The Dodgers' Paul DePodesta was fired last week, and the Red Sox' Theo Epstein declined to re-sign with his team on Monday, despite nearly reaching agreement on a three-year contract extension.

Together, the two GMs helmed four playoff teams, 1½ division champions and one poorly-publicized World Series title in their five seasons in charge. Considering that the baseball industry tolerates extended runs of failure or mediocrity in many quarters, this kind of turnover in the face of success is stunning.

Epstein's decision to leave the Red Sox organization was the greater shock. While his negotiations with the Sox had been drawn-out and at times tense, they seemed to be coming to a successful solution. Hours before news of his decision broke, another story had indicated that a three-year deal had been reached.

As Epstein indicated in yesterday's news conference, there was no one reason for his decision to leave the Sox, but an accumulation of reasons that left him unable to do the job the way he wanted to do it. I think it's fair to lay a significant part of the blame at the feet of Larry Lucchino, who had a complicated relationship with his one-time protégé and whose tactics, which apparently included hashing out issues in the Boston media, had to be a big factor in Epstein's departure. To Epstein's credit, he didn't add fuel to that fire yesterday.

Epstein's success in Boston means that he can write his ticket within the game once he decides he wants to take that path. More importantly, he can also write his ticket outside the game. He's going to be a success no matter what section of the newspaper covers his career from this point forward. Realistically, I don't think he'll be out of a GM slot for very long, but he's 31 years old and has been working in baseball for his entire adult life. He can take some time off to pursue other interests and still be a highly-desirable property once he's ready to return.

The Red Sox, however, are worse today than they were a few days ago, and they head into a critical offseason with a certain downgrade in the GM spot, no matter who ends up with the job. The least generous appraisal of Epstein's talents comfortably places him among the top seven or eight GMs in the game, and none of his peers on that list are likely available for hire right now.

Across the country, the firing of Paul DePodesta was an even uglier scene. It's been nearly a week, and I'm still having a problem with it.

Set aside all the specific issues involved here and just consider one thing: the Dodgers have won one division title in 10 seasons, and in the 20 months that he's owned the team, Frank McCourt has fired the three off-field personnel who were most responsible for that success.

Looked at solely through that lens, it's clear that Frank McCourt has been a failure as the Dodgers' owner. He's been completely unable to set a tone for the franchise, one of commitment to a plan. He was so eager to make his mark that he fired the key architect of the '04 team, Dan Evans, for absolutely no reason other than the guys before him had hired him. Then, after stumbling into a great decision by hiring DePodesta, who lowered the payroll and helped guide a largely Evans roster into the playoffs, he overreacted to a bad year by dumping his GM.

What's worse is that the factors contributing to the decision appear to have nothing to do with baseball. McCourt, who has been a pinata for the vicious, vacuous, vindictive Los Angeles media from the day he arrived, has let that media influence his evaluation of DePodesta, who by any rational standard doesn't deserve dismissal. His moves have been a mixed bag to date, but remember that he had one offseason in which to work, and that his decisions in that offseason are reviled by people who care more about drawing attention to themselves than baseball.

McCourt has no baseball reason to fire DePodesta. He's making this decision--and I readily admit to coming at this as an informed outsider--in what appears to be an attempt to get the cool kids to like him. He isn't putting the Dodgers' 71-91 record in context, taking into account the massive injury problems that contributed to that mark. He isn't evaluating DePodesta's transaction record with care, instead falling into the "chemistry" myth that has been a daily staple of dead-tree media in the city for more than a year.

No, McCourt is throwing DePodesta under the bus to curry favor with a cadre of Dodgers insiders and violently wrong columnists who haven't themselves taken the time to evaluate the GM, the team or the last 20 months.

Examining DePodesta's record is virtually irrelevant in the context of this decision. In his time as GM, DePodesta made a series of controversial decisions that, as a whole, made the Dodgers better. The 2005 season was a disaster, and one he played a part in. He is not the sole or even the primary reason for what happened, and using the year to dismiss him, without giving him a second offseason or a chance to see what a healthy roster might produce, is the kind of management that made the Yankees a laughingstock from 1982-1993.

DePodesta's big decisions almost all worked out well. The controversial trade-deadline deals in 2004 netted two months of Steve Finley and saved a fair amount of money. Any rational look at the players DePodesta let go of or traded after the season (Adrian Beltre, Alex Cora, Finley, Shawn Green and Jose Lima all found their names in the L.A. sports pages a lot this year) and the ones he obtained in their stead (J.D. Drew, Jeff Kent, Derek Lowe, Jose Valentin, Dioner Navarro), has to conclude that the changes were for the better. DePodesta made short-term mistakes at third base and at catcher, and as much as I liked the decisions, may have been a bit thin in the bullpen after Gagne, a weakness that was eventually exploited. He also declined to mortgage the Dodgers' future at the trade deadline, despite a strong farm system and a winnable division. That's the kind of decision-making that should be rewarded, not punished.

The local media, and perhaps now McCourt, think that the Dodgers' poor 2005 season and its attendant controversies happened because all the right guys were gone. In truth, the Dodgers' roster was much better than it would have been had those guys been retained, and the chemistry problems that garnered so much attention were, as they so often are, caused by the losing, rather than a cause of the losing. To be pithy, if Eric Gagne doesn't blow out his elbow, Kent and Milton Bradley get along a lot better.

The Dodgers' disastrous 2005 season was caused by a historic run of injuries, and there's simply no rational way to fire DePodesta based on the team's performance last year.

There's a thread running through this matter that bothers me greatly, because I think it is indicative of the uphill battle that younger GMs, ones with performance-analysis credentials, will continue to face. Among the criticisms of DePodesta is that he was a poor communicator who didn't make an effort to get along with the more wrinkled elements of the Dodgers organization. The premise is the problem. It's one I hear a lot, both in the context of people working in the game and people presenting ideas from outside of it, this notion that the young guys who didn't ride buses carry the burden for the tone of the relationship.

Why isn't it the other way around, or at least mutual? Why do we never hear or read that the old men who have been doing it one way for 25 years have to learn to communicate with the new generation? When there is a conflict, why is the presumption that it’s the young guy, the new guy, the guy with a college degree, the guy who doesn't chew tobacco…that it's his fault? I think that mindset has taken hold, and we see a lot of references to the arrogance of this new generation of executives and analysts, without any reference to the arrogance of an entrenched society of, to be blunt, Luddites who think that experience is not only the best teacher, but the sole one.

What's interesting is the that in what was expected to be the area of greatest conflict, DePodesta apparently showed a willingness to adapt. As Rany Jazayerli said to me in an e-mail:

[W]hen DePo was hired, it was widely assumed in the press that he could not possibly co-exist with Logan White, the highly-regarded scouting director, and would force White to draft college players and turn his back on years of successfully drafting high school players. Instead, in his first draft in 2004, the Dodgers took Scott Elbert and Blake DeWitt--both high school players out of Missouri--with their first two picks, then a college player in the supplemental first round, another high schooler in the second, a juco player in the third, and another high school player in the fourth.

This year, they took Luke Hochevar--a top-10 pick in quality who fell because of bonus demands--with their first pick, then two high school players, a college outfielder, and another high school player.

And as far as I know, the showdown between White and DePodesta never happened. Perception trumps reality once again.

Bringing up White's name is important, because in the same way that the 2004 Dodgers were a Dan Evans creation managed by DePodesta, the 2006-2008 Dodgers may end up as a Logan White team that some lucky guy is going to get too much credit for being the GM of. I expect the 2006 team, with much better health and some contributions from White's farm system, to win the NL West. The story will be that the Dodgers got away from stats and improved their chemistry under an experienced GM who understood the importance of…come on, Plaschke has six of these written already…when the truth is that it will be more or less the 2005 team, but with $20 million pulled off the DL and onto the field.

Finally, the handling of DePodesta by the Los Angeles media should forever end the notion that mainstream sports journalism is to be taken seriously. DePodesta was subjected to personal attacks from the day he took the job to the day he was fired, and those attacks had nothing to do with baseball. They were simply the work of hacks who wanted to make a name for themselves with cheap jokes about an outsider. The episode, start to finish, is an embarrassment to everyone in the local media, both the no-talent "writers" who led the charge and the many others who refused to actually write about what DePodesta was doing, good and bad.

I can't say for sure where McCourt is taking his counsel these days, but I have no doubt that he's getting bad advice. As good as 2006 may be on the field, the long-term prospects for this organization are terrible, and it's McCourt's fault.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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