April 1, 2016
Winter Is Leaving
Los Angeles Dodgers
If you bought a baseball team, would you prefer to stock it with luxurious big-league talent or stuff it to the gills with all of the prospect depth to build a winner from scratch? What if you could do both of those things at once? And what if you could also transform the team into a model media empire, a beacon of analytic thought and modern baseball philosophy, and an economic juggernaut?
In 2011, the final season of the McCourt Era, Dodger Stadium attendance dipped below three million fans for the first time in over a decade, costing the franchise some $27 million in lost year-to-year revenue. And this, despite the arrival of new manager Don Mattingly and the emergence of Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp as two of the most electrifying players in the game! The team’s on-field performance wasn’t really a thing for most Angelenos, though. The bitter reality show of tabloid divorce, now, that was a thing. Bryan Stow got attacked on Opening Night, and the first winds from a nor’easter of terrible extracurriculars blew through Chavez Ravine. And when the storm passed, the franchise was mercifully put up for sale through a court-supervised process in November.
Lights, camera, and then action: a monster long-term deal for Matt Kemp followed by two-and-a-half weeks the announcement that McCourt would sell the team, and then Andre Ethier pocketed a five-year extension after the transaction finalized. The club made a statement signing on the international front, inking Yasiel Puig to a humongous big-league deal that bucked scouting consensus. And then, one day, they just up and traded for Nick Punto and some other guys! It cost a ton of money, but damn. That was an interesting move! Winter came, they signed Zack Greinke to a big free-agent deal, they scraped up another pile of nearly $50 million for nearly 500 pounds of Chad Billingsley and Aaron Harang, and they opened up another international market with the signing of Hyun-Jin Ryu. When all was done and said the new crew had more than doubled its big-league payroll obligations by the dawn of 2013.
While it’s easy to cast off the initial bailout phase of Guggenheim’s ownership as the lubricated whims of a poet on pay day, it was the strategic choice an investment firm’s management would make: stabilize the asset’s foundations to avoid catastrophic collapse. They made the big-league roster exciting to lots of people again, on the fly, very quickly. That bought time, and time has bought an awful lot since.
The international machine has been the seat of power from which the Dodger farm empire has come to govern the game. I covered this in greater depth the other day in our organizational rankings, where we named Los Angeles the top system in baseball, but the punchline is that lots of money and smart people handling it tends to be a good recipe for success. In addition to the high-profile signings up front, management invested heavily in building an international infrastructure that had sagged mightily under the weight of the McCourt soap opera. The team spent just $177,000 on international talent in 2011, easily scraping the bottom of the league’s barrel. They hired longtime Seattle international scouting department mavens Bob Engle and Patrick Guerrero as part of a massive assemblage of talent and infrastructure that extended through 2013, a process which in hindsight appears to have been a short game within the long. This past July’s unprecedented binge on foreign players came as the culmination of a two-year building process, and after shattering the club’s bonus pool allotment—thereby guaranteeing much calmer international waters over the next two years—management donned a sleeveless hoodie in August and severed ties with Engle, Guerrero, and five others instrumental in orchestrating the club’s international overhaul.
The scouting revolution was not limited to the farthest corners of the baseball world, either. Ownership moved to swell the ranks of its already-well-regarded amateur scouting division with additional resources, and stalwart amateur scout and AGM Logan White emerged as the department’s draft shepherd just in time to find Jose De Leon grazing in the 24th round of the 2013 draft. The very real core of the next half-dozen years will begin to coalesce on the East Side as soon as this year, while the very theoretical core for the half-dozen after that will suit up on complex fields all summer.
The loss of White to the rival Padres (and De Jon Watson to the rival Diamondbacks) in the fall of 2014 coincided neatly with the next phase of managerial overhaul: the front office. With the first-wave hirings of Andrew Friedman, Farhan Zaidi, Josh Byrnes, Gabe Kapler, and Billy Gasparino (among many, many others subsequently), management signaled an all-in wager on information and consensus as ruler of the day. And not in an either-or way, where the traditional is eschewed entirely in favor of the modern; the franchise has collected some of the best and brightest data minds in baseball, as well as some of the best talent evaluators, many replete with top-of-the-mountain operational experience to boot. They have the technology, and they have the experienced brain power. It is now a first-world player development department of the highest order, capable of advancing next-generation analytics, modeling, strategy, and scouting as well as any team in professional sport.
The lone remaining area that had yet to be addressed by the new regime got its day in the sun this winter. Ownership had kept manager Don Mattingly on board after taking over amid some initial speculation, eventually extending him for thee additional years following the 2013 NLCS run. By most accounts Donnie Baseball was a solid clubhouse manager, and while not lauded as a master tactician or a pioneer of advanced metrics, he probably plunked down on that round part of the managerial bell curve where skippers don’t actively cost their teams enough wins to justify the wrath they receive on sports radio. But he wasn’t their guy, he was the last guy’s guy. And now he’s gone, like pretty much every other vestige of the McCourt-era Dodgers.
Enter Dave Roberts, a rookie with no prior big-league managerial experience but a record of solid coaching and meritocratic promotion in San Diego that comes on the back of a distinguished playing career. His three-year contract (with a fourth-year option) provides a level of job security and investment that the inherited Mattingly never quite seemed to enjoy during his tenure, suggesting a comfort level that he is the guy to implement the overhauled front office’s vision.
None of this structural transformation likely comes about, of course, without the massive television contract baked into the new ownership group’s acquisition plans. With money comes flexibility to budget and adjust as one sees fit, and all of this—the Punto trade, the lavish free agent signings to bolster competitiveness up front, the scouting investments to extend that competitive window ad infinitum, buying all of the front office brain power to produce the show… maybe one or two of those paths are available to an average big-league franchise. But the buying power guaranteed by the second-largest media market in America affords one the option to diversify and do it all.
It’s all about baseball now. The proverbial ducks are all square-shouldered and single file, the machine is whirring along, and The Plan has been fully instituted off the field. Now the game’s the thing, and despite early injuries and perpetual questions about their bullpen and lineup depth, the Dodgers remain well positioned to win a lot of them in 2016. PECOTA likes the Azul to win 94, precisely—on par with the Cubs and more than any other team in baseball. That projection, it is worth noting, requires some bullish assumptions, including Yasiel Puig and Joc Pederson combining for 61 VORP, continued elite-by-a-lot defensive performance by Yasmani Grandal (to say nothing of season-long health), and nearly six combined WARP from Ryu, Kenta Maeda, and Scott Kazmir. All of those things are certainly feasible in 2016, though you’d be hard-pressed to find a wool-dyed Dodger fan comfortable with the prospect of relying on all of them coming to pass. But regardless of results this year, this offseason has been about smoothing out the final blurred operational lines for the franchise’s future; we know how they’re going to try and do it, now they just have to go and do it.