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August 23, 2002
Touring the Minors: Organizational Overview: Los Angeles Dodgers
"I'm tired of fighting."
In Tracy's short time as a major league manager, he has demonstrated a gift for turning others' garbage into gold. Just as Chavez Ravine (park factor 91) makes Dodger pitchers look better than they are, it conceals just how well Tracy has done with the hitters he has been given.
In his preseason Hot Stove Heater on the Dodgers, Gary Huckabay asked, "Can the Dodger pitching staff carry an offense likely to be among the league's worst?" With a lineup drawing from Cesar Izturis, Dave Roberts, Mark Grudzielanek, Marquis Grissom, and Eric Karros, Tracy has led his team to the fourth-best Equivalent Average in the National League. They're 10th in the league in total runs scored, but first in road runs. He did it last year too, when they were third in road runs. This year they've improved their ranking even after losing Gary Sheffield. The Dodgers don't need to take the wild card for Jim Tracy to win manager of the year.
To enhance their playoff chances, the Dodgers acquired Tyler Houston and Paul Shuey at the trading deadline. In Baseball America's Prospect Handbook 2001, Ben Diggins was rated as the Dodgers' top prospect. In this year's Handbook, Ricardo Rodriguez was #1. Both are gone now, part of the payment for those deadline deals.
Going into this season the Dodgers had little in their minor league system; they now have just about nothing. No Dodger made the Baseball Prospectus Top 40 Prospects this spring. None will make it next year either. The system placed 25th in Baseball America's organizational rankings. If they're higher than 30th next year it will be a mistake.
Rodriguez and Diggins were the best the Dodgers had, and even they were nothing special. Rodriguez had a decent season last year, leading the Florida State League in strikeouts. But he was old for his league, and this year his strikeout rate took a dive, dropping below league average as the season went along. Diggins, a first-round pick, was disappointing in 2001 but had started to come around this year, jacking his strikeout rate from 6.72 per 9 innings to 7.97, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio from 1.6 to 2.5. So the Dodgers jettisoned him--for bench warmer Tyler Houston--just as he started breaking through. But it doesn't look so stupid if we keep in mind that Diggins did this in A-ball at the age of 23. It'll be years before the Brewers make something out of him, if ever, so the deal wasn't as reckless as it sounds at first.
As catastrophic miscalculations go, Dan Evans's deadline trades rank several notches below Stalin's purge of the Red Army, but his willingness to disgorge the organization of its top talent is disturbing. The players Evans used in trade were overrated, but they weren't fungible. You don't use a top prospect to land a retread like Houston; it's the 25th man who's fungible, not the first-round pick.
The scant good news is that Evans played a substantial role in rebuilding the White Sox farm system and he appears to be aware that the Dodgers are bereft of young talent. The bad news is that he appears to be overcorrecting the problem.
Years of poor drafting have eviscerated the Dodgers' minor leagues. It has been well established that high school pitchers are too risky to justify taking them early in the draft--not that many teams have taken notice. High schoolers are being taken in the first round as often as ever, and the Dodgers have begun drafting high school pitchers as if on principle. In 2001, they didn't have a first-round pick. They didn't pick until number 68, when they drafted a high school pitcher. They then spent four of their next five picks on more high school pitchers.
In the off-season, Evans installed a new director of scouting, Logan White, the third man in three years to hold that position. This year the Dodgers had three of the top 51 picks (their own pick plus two as compensation for losing Chan Ho Park). "I'll go after the best possible player with the highest possible ceiling," White said. "Ideally, I'd love to get a college hitter close to the big leagues," echoing BA's observation that the organization's primary goal should be to develop hitters. Given the absence of talent in the high minors, drafting college players would have made sense.
But again the Dodgers used their first pick on a high school pitcher, James Loney. To be fair, he is also a good hitter, and to their credit, the Dodgers are using him as a first baseman. He's rewarded the club with a line of 371/457/624 in 170 AB for Great Falls of the Pioneer League. But the Dodgers' next three picks were spent on high school pitchers, and three of the following six went for more high school pitchers, all of them lefties. By this process, Los Angeles turned Chan Ho Park into two high school pitchers.
The Dodgers' first five picks, and eight of their first 10, went for high schoolers. So much for the plan to get a high-ceiling college hitter close to the big leagues.
The best-laid plans o' mice an' men
The odds are very long against any high school draftee ever making it to the majors. Even if the Dodgers beat the odds and get some of these pitchers to Los Angeles, it's going to take quite a while. Studies show a pitcher's prime runs from age 25 to 30. In a typical case, it will take a team at least seven years to get peak value out of a high school pitcher. And as Paul Covert demonstrated earlier this year, very few of those high school pitchers who become major leaguers will contribute much to their club, much less become stars.
"Projectability" is a scout's word. Projecting how an established major league pitcher will perform from year to year is very difficult. Projecting any minor league pitcher is so risky that we often say there is no such thing as a pitching prospect. Projecting how well a high school pitcher will perform if he ever makes the majors is nearly impossible, a science less reliable than phrenology. Too many things can go wrong on the path from high school to the majors. 18-year olds have immature bodies, so their injury risk is terribly high. That risk increases exponentially if they come out of high school with poor mechanics. They could be drafted into an organization that doesn't know how to coach or that rushes its talent, increasing injury risk while simultaneously decreasing skills development.
Projectability isn't just about velocity and mechanics. There's a mental component as well. Even if high school draftees stay healthy they could develop any number of mental hindrances, from Steve Blass disease to a drug addiction to a simple loss of confidence.
A lot of high school draftees are stars in more than one sport, so there's also a risk that the kid will become frustrated with the pace of his development and switch to some other sport. Teams like the Devil Rays that focus on multi-sport athletes are making things comically hard on themselves.
By drafting college pitchers you minimize these risks by gaining four years of development. They're lower risk, but the perception is that they're also lower reward. There aren't many college pitchers with a 100 MPH fastball. High schoolers typically throw harder than college pitchers. That's why they don't have to prove themselves by going to college. In spite of the risks, and in spite of numerous studies demonstrating how dumb it is, teams can't help themselves from dreaming about that upside.
Given all that can go wrong, if a high school pitcher makes it to the majors, he has beaten long odds. If he becomes a star, he's a fluke. A draft strategy focused on high school pitchers is like a retirement plan based on winning the lottery.
Which is not to say teams should never draft high school pitchers. Branch Rickey said that out of quantity comes quality. Draft enough flame-throwing high schoolers, and maybe you eventually get a superstar. That would make some sense, especially if you took these risks later in the draft, and especially if the team has a decent supply of mature talent in the high minors. This is what the Cardinals are tying to do to revive their minors. But with their highest picks the Dodgers, who have no decent pitching prospects at AA or AAA, have focused on high schoolers without the 100 MPH fastballs--they have bet their future on low-yield, high-risk kids.
Of the Dodgers' six high school pitchers taken high in this year's draft, one is a "one-pitch closer candidate," one did not pitch for his high school team, one is "lacking an overpowering fastball," and two are described by White as "not throwing as hard." The last of these six has the physique of David Wells and an 87 MPH fastball. The Dodgers have taken the nearly impossible task of projecting high school pitchers and made it even harder. None of these kids is likely ever to have an impact in the majors, and if any one of them does, he probably won't belong to the Dodgers by then.
If the high schoolers survive injuries and mental problems, there isn't much standing in their way. The Dodgers' two legitimate pitching prospects are in A-ball pitching at Dodgertown. Their best is Joel Hanrahan. If the Dodgers had their way, they wouldn't have him either. They were tying to trade him, too, but couldn't close a deal by the deadline. He has a low-90s fastball, complemented by a curve, slider, and changeup--a legitimate four-pitch arsenal in development. Taken out of high school in the 2000 draft, his skills developed quickly, but the Dodgers are advancing him one level per year. Hanrahan's teammate Andy Brown came over from Atlanta in the Sheffield trade, and he's now the organization's #2 pitching prospect. He has been a surprise; he didn't make John Sickels's Minor League Scouting Notebook or Baseball America's list of the top 30 Braves' prospects. These guys aren't dominant, but they're as good as it gets in this organization. For the year, here are their unadjusted lines:
Whether finding Brown was serendipity or skill, domestically, the Dodgers' scouting operation has been a disaster. It'll take years before the Dodgers see any return on the 2001 and 2002 drafts. Diggins was the hope of the 2000 draft. The 1997 and 1998 drafts were a bust. So far, the 1999 draft has yielded two mildly interesting players. Second baseman Joe Thurston has hacked his way to a .332 batting average in spite of drawing only 22 walks in 577 plate appearances, leaving him with a .369 on-base percentage. His batting average will come down when he leaves the PCL for the majors, cozy Cashman Field (park factor 105) for Chavez Ravine. His translation won't be nearly as impressive as his raw numbers, but he could grow up to be a cheap substitute for Grudzielanek. They have the same skill set, and right now Thurston's major league EqA of .248 is very close to Grudzielanek's .252. This option depends on Thurston's ability to keep handling the strike zone in spite of an ugly batting eye.
Other than Hanrahan, the only other promising remnant from the 2000 draft is third baseman Victor Diaz, a draft-and-follow taken in the 37th round, who put up a .351 average in A-ball this year before being called up to AA, where he tanked. He has good power and speed, but with Adrian Beltre locked in a third, Diaz isn't on a fast track.
In the last Organizational Overview I covered the St. Louis Cardinals. Just like the Cardinals, the Dodgers don't have much hitting talent in the farm system. It's too early to be excited about Thurston or Diaz, but Chin-Feng Chen has been on the top prospect watch for three years. He's a hitter. He's not as uni-dimensional as Jack Cust, but speed and defense aren't part of his game. His hitting has been good and bad, but his aggregate .294/.382/.492 over 392 minor league games is what had analysts excited going into the season. He had a down year in 2000, due to an injury, and then he reestablished himself last year with a .313/.422/.629 season at AA, which translated to a .282 EqA.
This year he's in AAA and though he's not killing the ball he's doing well enough to keep people interested in him: .280/.348/.511, with 25 doubles and 25 homers in 521 plate appearances. The PCL and his park have inflated his production, so those stats won't be all that special once they get translated. He has always struck out a lot, about 27% of his at bats going into this year. He's at 28% this year, having already whiffed 146 times. In the past, Chen offset some of this by drawing a decent share of walks, and this year he has kept his walk rate at better than 10% of his plate appearances. Given the Dodgers' investment in him ($600,000 per year), Chen will eventually make it to Los Angeles. He hasn't conquered AAA yet, and until he does he should be kept at Las Vegas.
Overall, Chen's been a flaky hitter. When he has been good, his game has been all about power, but Chavez Ravine will deaden his bat. He has no speed and can't play defense. Even so, he still gets mentioned as a hot prospect, and a lot of people expect him to be a star, so he has value. That value is only going to diminish once people see him play in the majors. This is the guy they should be floating as trade bait, especially given the size of his contract. They won't miss him.
Their other decent hitter is outfielder Luke Allen, a Triple-A All-Star this year. After a decent season in 2001, this year he has hit .328/.393/.455, with 25 doubles and nine homers. His development had stalled out a bit going into 2002, and his strike zone judgment had been weak, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio has improved substantially, from 111/42 to 71/49. And like Chen, Allen has a walk rate of about 10% of his plate appearances. But unlike Chen, he can run and play defense. In a meritocracy, Allen would beat Chen to Los Angeles.
Kaz Ishii is the latest in a line of international signings that have paid off for the organization. From Hideo Nomo to Adrian Beltre to Ishii, even to top prospects like Chen and Rodriguez, the Dodgers' international scouting efforts have been successful. If they hadn't been, the scouting department would have had no recent successes at all. As international talent becomes subject to the amateur draft, the Dodgers' advantage in overseas acquisitions will be jeopardized.
The key to their revival will be improvement in domestic scouting. Cornering the market on finesse lefty high school pitchers is not a path to success. But the Dodgers do have time. The Cardinals have time because their major league roster is heavy with young talent; for the Dodgers the reverse is true. Once Jim Tracy burns out and takes his magic act elsewhere, it'll be alarmingly clear that the Dodgers are nowhere near ready to overtake the Diamondbacks, Braves, or Cardinals, much less the Yankees.
As it did with the 1998 Cubs, the promise of the wild card has distracted the Dodgers from comprehending just how far they are from being a championship organization. But unlike the Cubs the Dodgers have a history of success to draw lessons from. There was a time when they knew exactly what they were doing. From 1979 to 1982 and again from 1992 through 1996, the Los Angeles Dodgers took the Rookie of the Year award. In the 1968 draft, Los Angeles took Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, Bill Buckner, Joe Ferguson, Tom Paciorek, and Doyle Alexander. That draft supplied the core of a team that won four pennants from 1974 to 1981. But the Dodgers' current 40-man roster has only seven players drafted by the organization: Dave Hansen, Alex Cora, Eric Karros, David Ross, Paul Lo Duca, Steve Colyer, and Joe Thurston (eight, if you give them Darren Dreifort).
When Dan Evans was with the White Sox, they balanced their draft picks among high schoolers, JuCo players, and kids from four-year college programs. He helped get the system all the way to #2 in Baseball America's rankings before he left for Los Angeles. He'll have to work greater feats of magic with the Dodgers. If he succeeds using his recent draft strategy, it'll be an act worthy of Houdini himself. But the smart money says Evans and Tracy will get tired of fighting the odds before any of those picks makes the majors.
Keith Scherer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.