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June 19, 2012

Painting the Black

Evaluating Colletti

by R.J. Anderson

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The most telling aspect of the Ryan Dempster-to-Los Angeles rumors is not that the Dodgers, second in the majors in rotation earned run average, are looking for even more starting pitching. Nor is it that the Cubs are open for business. The most telling aspect about these rumors is that nobody trusts Ned Colletti. Take these carefully selected comments from True Blue LA as evidence:

I guess I’m not real confident of putting Ned and [Theo Epstein] in a room and hoping we come out on top.
by BFDC on Jun 15, 2012 12:19 PM EDT 

Ned tends to overpay at deadline deals. Top 100 prospects at the time are used to acquire rentals.
by Tripon on Jun 17, 2012 12:26 PM EDT 

The origins of the Colletti distrust date back to his first deal. About a month into Colletti’s tenure, he hooked up with Billy Beane and consummated a deal, sending mercurial outfielder Milton Bradley and forgettable utility man Antonio Perez to the A’s for Andre Ethier. In 2007, Nate Silver graded Colletti across various job requirements. In that piece he wrote, “This move was widely criticized at the time,” citing Ethier’s modest reviews as a prospect. In other words, people doubting Colletti is nothing new.

There are five levels of response to any given transaction based on the general manager involved:

Backlash to the Reverence

Reverence

Indifference

Backlash

Backlash to the Backlash

In the middle is indifference. To the left is reverence, which is flanked by backlash to the reverence. This is the sweet spot for a general manager: when you’ve done such a good job that people actively mock you because of it. To the right of indifference is backlash; further to the right still is backlash to the backlash. Colletti seems to live on the right side of the scale, in part because of his willingness to trade young for old.

Colletti has traded 36 young players since taking over as GM. “Young,” in this case, includes players either in the minor leagues or at the beginning stages of their big-league career at the time of the trade. It’s a subjective measure, but that’s a given. Of those 36 players, 17 have never appeared in the majors. Fourteen of the remaining 19 have recorded one Win Above Replacement Player or fewer (with three finishing at less than -1 WARP). That means that, essentially, five players have had productive big-league careers since being traded by Colletti. Those players are Edwin Jackson, Dioner Navarro, Cody Ross, Carlos Santana, and James McDonald.

In the spirit of Silver’s piece, let’s go case-by-case and award a pass or fail to each trade:

Traded Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany to the Devil Rays for Danys Baez and Lance Carter
Trading two starting pitching prospects for relievers is a questionable use of resources. It doesn’t help matters that Carter made only 10 appearances for the Dodgers; Baez would make just 36 more. Tiffany became a non-factor after blowing out his labrum. Jackson, on the other hand, toiled with the Devil Rays before blossoming later on as a decent starting pitcher. The only defense here is to imply that Jackson would not have developed with a competitive team because no contender would give him the necessary innings. Nevertheless, it looked bad then and it looks bad now. Grade: Fail.

Traded Dioner Navarro, Jae-Weong Seo, and Justin Ruggiano to the Devil Rays for Mark Hendrickson and Toby Hall
Another former top prospect, Navarro became unnecessary with Russell Martin’s development. Navarro would make the 2008 All-Star team but had an otherwise poor career with the Rays. Hall, Seo, and Ruggiano offered little value to their clubs. Hendrickson, however, gave the Dodgers decent innings in 2006 before falling apart in 2007. It’s hard to find a clear winner here, so call it a draw. Grade: Pass.

Traded Cody Ross to the Reds for a player to be named later (Ben Kozlowski)
There is a good case to be made that this trade should not count against Colletti. A month after acquiring Ross, the Reds sold him to the Marlins. The Dodgers were Ross’ second organization, so Los Angeles was neither the first nor the last club to send him packing. Grade: Pass.

Traded Jon Meloan and Carlos Santana to the Indians for Casey Blake
Add in context and this trade goes from being the worst deal ever to being an ill-fated but not downright ridiculous swap. For Blake’s part, he came to a club in the midst of a playoff push that needed better production than what Andy LaRoche could offer. Blake was up to the task and played well during his tenure with Los Angeles. The Dodgers had moved Santana behind the plate in 2007, and while his offensive numbers in High-A Inland Empire are gaudy, it’s possible they weren’t sold on his defensive potential. Besides, Colletti knew he had Martin at the big-league level anyhow. Grade: Fail.

Traded James McDonald and Andrew Lambo to the Pirates for Octavio Dotel
Unlike the Santana-Blake trade, context does not make Colletti’s decision to trade for Dotel any less opaque. The Dodgers needed more than a late-innings reliever to turn around their ship. Ostensibly, Lambo and his baggage were not enough to net Dotel, so the Dodgers would concede and include McDonald, a swingman on the Dodgers with the potential to be a number-three or -four starter. Truthfully, McDonald’s hot start to 2012 magnifies how bad this deal looked at the time, but the coup de grâce was Colletti then trading Dotel six weeks later to the Rockies without receiving the same value. Grade: Fail.

Colletti’s evaluation mistakes cost the Dodgers two middle-of-the-rotation starters, an All-Star catcher, and a good fourth outfielder at most. But what about the flip side? What about when Colletti correctly evaluated his own prospects? Silver wrote, “One of [Colletti's] strengths seems to be knowing when to bail on his own players.” In the time since, Colletti has reaffirmed that notion. Some of Colletti’s better trades have come when correctly identifying the lemons in his own bunch. He traded Bryan Morris and LaRoche to acquire Manny Ramirez (easily the best deal of his career), used the intrigue of Joel Guzman to land Julio Lugo (whom, for whatever reason, fell to pieces, mitigating an otherwise clever deal), grabbed Jon Garland for Tony Abreu, got Jim Thome for nothing, and added Ted Lilly and Ryan Theriot for Blake DeWitt and two prospects who were unable to make the Cubs’ top-20 list this preseason.

Tagging Colletti as a good or bad general manager adds no value. What can add value is breaking general managers down to tools and skills. Colletti seems to understand that future value is worth less than present value, particularly when his team has the ability to compete now and the resources to compete later. Proper evaluation is the engine in Colletti’s machine. That means the Dodgers have to continue to land potentially useful players and continue to evaluate and harvest the potentially overvalued prospects. Every once and a while, Colletti is going to miss on a player. It happens; even John Schuerholz, the master of farm system self-evaluation, lost a few times.

This isn’t to say that Dodgers fans should have blind faith in Colletti, just that cowering in fear seems to be equally as unreasonable.

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

Related Content:  Dodgers,  Ryan Dempster,  Ned Colletti

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