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February 4, 2004

Prospectus Today

Evaluating Evans

by Joe Sheehan

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Under new owner Frank McCourt--who has about as much of his own cash invested in the team as you do--the Dodgers have embarked on a search for a general manager. Current GM Dan Evans, who has held the job since October of 2001, hasn't been fired, and has been told he is welcome to interview for his job, which is awfully nice of McCourt.

I can't even begin to describe how angry this whole thing makes me. It shouldn't; I have no emotional attachment to the Dodgers or Evans. However, the idea that Evans, who inherited a nearly impossible situation and has put the franchise on much more solid ground than it was when he arrived, could somehow find his job in danger just as his work could begin to bear fruit strikes me as patently unfair.

The Dodgers have been contenders in both seasons under Evans, and their two-year record of 177-147 is fifth in the NL in that time. The Dodgers have achieved that mark despite the crushing weight of former GM Kevin Malone's worst mistakes. In both seasons, the Dodgers got next to nothing for more than $20 million of their money. Darren Dreifort took home nearly $22 million over two years, and threw a grand total of 60 2/3 innings, all in '03. In '02, Kevin Brown made $15.7 million while throwing just 63 2/3 frames (to the tune of a 4.81 ERA). This past year, Andy Ashby closed out his three-year deal by providing 78 innings of 5.18 ERA ball, while cashing in for $8.5 million.

That's a fifth of the payroll in each season going to pitchers who were mostly unavailable. To be fair to Malone, Brown was a defensible signing who was healthy and effective for 3 1/2 of his five years in L.A. It was Dreifort and Ashby who looked like poor investments on the day they signed their contracts, and who proved to be just that.

In addition to the money wasted on the pitching staff, Evans inherited investments in mediocrities such as Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek, as well as a huge commitment to Shawn Green. With so much money committed before he took over, Evans wasn't able to be a player in the free-agent market. His signings were mostly second- and third-tier players for one-year deals, with only Japanese import Kazuhisa Ishii getting a longer commitment. He split his two major domestic signings: Hideo Nomo worked out, Fred McGriff didn't. Of his minor ones, Mike Kinkade and Jesse Orosco played small positive roles in 2002, while Wilson Alvarez was dominant in '03.

Cut off from major free-agent talent, Evans also could not hope to fill holes from within the Dodger farm system. In the past two seasons, the Dodgers have gotten not just no contributions, but virtually no playing time from players who were in their minors at the end of 2001. Joe Thurston, who was the top prospect in the system two years ago, has 23 major-league at-bats in two years. Others such as Chin-Feng Chen, Bubba Crosby and Victor Alvarez have stagnated or washed out of the organization.

Dave Ross has a pretty good quarter-season in '03 as a #2 catcher, and Edwin Jackson, a sixth-round pick in Malone's last draft, was impressive in four starts late in '03. That's it; no one else in the system that Evans inherited has done anything for the major-league team.

With the free-agent market inaccessible to him, and the Dodger farm system in need of a complete overhaul, Evans was forced to take to the trade market to improve the Dodgers. It's here that he's made his greatest contributions, as well as his biggest mistake. Evans has made a series of trades that were little more than agate fodder at the time, but which turned out to bring in major contributors in exchange for nothing:

That's a ridiculous imbalance. Of the players he traded, only Herges and Rodriguez had or may yet have value. One is a decent middle reliever and the other underwent hip surgery in the middle of '03. For that, the Dodgers got two up-the-middle starters in Roberts and Izturis, a good swingman season from Daal, three good-to-great relievers in Quantrill, Mota and Shuey, and a decent bench player in Cabrera.

The Dodgers' pitching and defense was the entire reason they were able to win 177 games in two years. The quality of that pitching and defense can be traced in large part to Dan Evans' ability to get so much performance for so little in talent.

The two deals that haven't worked out for Evans are the two which involved the most major-league talent, and the two in which his hand was at least partially forced. In January of '02, Evans dealt Gary Sheffield to the Braves for Brian Jordan, Odalis Perez and prospect Andy Brown. Jordan was a disappointment for two years, and Perez had one excellent season and one average one.

Although Evans was getting plaudits for the deal 18 months ago, as Perez mowed down the National League, the fact is Sheffield was exactly what the Dodgers needed the past two years, a .400 OBP hitter with power in left field. They missed him, and they couldn't replace him.

The trade was motivated in part by a desire to get out from under Sheffield's contract, considered even more odious than Jordan's, as well as the ongoing sour relationship between player and team. Regardless, it's the low point in Evans' tenure, albeit not nearly enough to damage an evaluation of his performance.

Evans made one other money-motivated trade, that of Karros and Grudzielanek to the Cubs for Todd Hundley and Chad Hermansen. This wasn't sold as anything but a money swap, with the Dodgers effectively spreading out their contract obligations over two seasons rather than one, while creating space in the lineup for Alex Cora and avoiding an awkward situation with Karros, who had a vesting option for '04 that may have become a distraction in '03. Hundley and Hermansen had nothing to offer, while the two players Evans let go contributed to a division-winning Cubs team. As with the Sheffield trade, this deal wasn't as much about baseball as money. Evans lost it, but he could hardly have been expected to win it.

The Dodgers' farm system has also improved under Evans. While the team's top prospect, Jackson, was selected in '01, products of Evans' two drafts are having success throughout the system, highlighted by '02 #1 James Loney and '02 supplemental #1 Greg Miller. 2003 draftees Travis Denker and Chad Billingsley had good pro debuts, and the team was able to sign Adam LaRoche away from a scholarship to Rice, getting early-round talent for a 39th-round pick.

It's fair to say that Evans has had less impact on this area than on the major-league roster; the Dodgers are still very high-school pitcher oriented, and evaluate by tools as much as any organization in the game. How this plays out with these two draft classes--do Miller and Billngsley get through the injury nexus? Does the selection of Paul mean anything in terms of getting away from taking football and track stars?--is not yet known.

In two years, Evans presided over two competitive seasons despite having an effective payroll less than 80% of his actual payroll. He was restricted to second-tier free agents, and managed to sign some good ones. He probably has the best trade record of any GM during his tenure, and has improved the Dodger farm system from poor to average, while resisting the temptation to trade the fruits of that system for short-term gain.

Exactly who does Frank McCourt think he's going to get that's going to do a better job? The only people with better performance records as GMs are all employed, which means that unless McCourt finds a way to hire Billy Beane or Brian Cashman--neither of whom have permission to interview--he's going to be downgrading the spot. Anyone who would choose, say, Pat Gillick over Evans isn't using an evaluation system recognizable to me.

Hang on, Dodger fans. Things might actually be getting worse.

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

Related Content:  Eric Karros,  A's,  The Who,  Dan Evans,  Trade To Dodgers

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