With a new manager and center fielder joining some of the best young talent in the game, Dodgers fans have visions of a pennant flying over Chavez Ravine for the first time in 20 years. So does LA general manager Ned Colletti, who is heading into his third year on the job. A native of Chicago who got his start in baseball with the Cubs in 1982, Colletti spent nine years as San Francisco’s assistant GM before coming to Los Angeles. David talked to Colletti about Hall of Fame worthiness, the importance of complementary players, and his philosophy when it comes to promoting prospects to the big leagues.
David Laurila: The Hall of Fame announced its results earlier this week. What are your thoughts on Goose Gossage gaining induction?
Ned Colletti: I’m happy for Goose. He’s a good person and he was an outstanding pitcher who changed the game. And he wasn’t just a ninth inning closer like you typically see today; he went two or three innings. One thing he had was the right personality to handle the role. He pitched in a lot of big games, in some great pennant races, and the success he had in those pressure situations was stunning. He’s very deserving of the honor.
NC: I’d love to see Dawson in the Hall of Fame. I saw him play a lot, and what he went through–all of the injuries–to play at such a high level was impressive. He was one of the most complete players of his era; he had power, he could run, he won Gold Gloves. And he did it for a long time. At one point during his career–it might have been 1983–he was voted as being the best player in the game in a survey of all major league players. That’s telling, because the players know who they’re playing against. Much like Andre Dawson, I think Rice is deserving. Both players are worthy of inclusion.
DL: Ron Santo, who is no longer on the writers’ ballot, is considered to be among the best players not in the Hall of Fame. Do you feel that he belongs in Cooperstown?
NC: Absolutely. I don’t view him as a sure-fire, cinch selection, but he’s still deserving of induction. When you look at the make-up of the Cubs teams be played on, Santo was as big a part of their success as Ernie Banks, Billy Williams or Ferguson Jenkins. He was as responsible for them being a pennant contender as anyone. On top of his playing career, he’s also had a long career as a broadcaster. And while it doesn’t necessarily impact his worthiness, he played despite having diabetes. He never complained about it, or tried to use it as an excuse for anything, but that couldn’t have been easy. There are not many third basemen in the Hall, apparently because of the difficulty in playing the position. Hence, if you are a power hitter hitting in the middle of a good lineup and winning Gold Gloves and going to All-Star Games at that position, the Hall of Fame should be part of your resume.
DL: A number of people were surprised that Tim Raines, who was on the ballot for the first time, received less than 25 percent of the vote.
NC: That is a little surprising. I think it’s really just a case of his true value not being measured accurately.
DL: Statistics–regardless of how they are interpreted–are the primary consideration in assessing Hall of Fame worthiness. With players like Dawson and Santo in mind, to what extent do you feel character and other intangibles should be weighed by the voters?
NC: That’s a great question. I don’t believe every voter has watched every player on the ballot from the same vantage point, and so the views are varied as to someone’s value as a player and their place among the game’s best players. When you watch a player every day–and when you watch from a non-personal view and just the view of how the game is played by that player–I believe you have a truer view of how good the player performed. I don’t know that everyone voting has that opportunity.
DL: From the standpoint of building a winning team, how would you describe your philosophy?
NC: We have some good young players and we’ve tried to filter them in and transition toward being a younger club. We started to see some of that in 2006, we saw more of it in 2007, and in 2008 we should see it even more. Our philosophy is what you hear a lot of people talking about: we want to develop our own players. That philosophy and goal is becoming even more imperative as you watch the free agent markets. The number of players with big contracts is going up, while the number of quality, franchise-changing free agents is going down, and that’s a great lesson in the marketplace–a great lesson in supply and demand. We see the value of the younger players whenever we discuss acquiring an established veteran who might on the verge of free agency or in their later years of arbitration. We are fortunate that we have the beginning of a strong nucleus of younger players and we have a number of good players age 25 and younger. That’s what teams want. If you polled the 30 general managers, most would like to have a roster that included as many solid players as possible 25 years of age and younger.
DL: Given your young talent and the impact-players reportedly on the market, trade rumors are inevitable. With that in mind, do you feel that everyone in the organization is on the same page with the philosophy of building from within?
NC: I believe that we’re all on the same page. We have stayed the course without trading our core of young players. We’ve traded a handful of prospects, but those who we have the most faith in we have held on to. While we wait for them to develop we’ve tried to bridge the gap with some free agent signings, but that’s something you need to do. Baseball isn’t an easy game to play at this level, especially in a major market with high expectations. Our view is that players coming up need to almost dominate at the Triple-A level, and in some cases at the Double-A level, if their maturity and skill set is exceptional. We want to make sure that a given player is ready to compete at the major league level and help us win. Sometimes because of injuries we aren’t allowed that full development time, but whenever possible we like to be as certain as possible that the player is prepared for the expectations of playing at the highest level for a full season.
DL: You’ve received some criticism for not being aggressive enough in giving your younger players an opportunity. Following up on what you were just saying, is that fair?
NC: Hindsight is never a fair judge. If we believe that a player is completely prepared to take over a big league position full-time, for a full season, we’ll do that. Those off-season decisions are really based on what was witnessed during the last full season by our staff, the player development staff and our scouts. If we have some doubt, we like to have a veteran in that position–especially in a big market–until we are more certain that the young player is ready. If you provide a young player with the position prematurely and the speed of the game and the pressures of the big leagues exceed where that player is at, at that point in his career, then we have done an injustice to the team and to the young player. And finding out that we’ve overestimated a young player 50 games into the season is a very difficult point of the season to make an adjustment.
DL: Andruw Jones, who Joe Sheehan has called the Dodgers’ “best signing in a very long time,” is coming off a down year offensively. Why do you feel he is likely to bounce back to his normal production?
NC: Even if his numbers are somewhere between last year and what he did two years ago, it’s going to be a pretty good season. If we were looking at a player in his late 30s there would be more questions, but he’s going to be 31 this season. Because of his age, you have to be just as cautious not to write him off. And everything is relative in baseball. Last year wasn’t his best season, but that’s only relative to what he’s done in the past. As a whole, it really wasn’t all that bad. I talk to our scouts all the time, and his bat speed is still the same. He also has a lot to prove, so we’re expecting him to do a lot for our offense. He changes our lineup. His presence is going to help two or three other hitters, because they’re going to get better pitches to hit with him in the order. He’s also going to help us on defense. If his range has slipped a little, it’s still relative. He was won 10 Gold Gloves as a center fielder, including one last year. You have to be a special player to be able to do that.
DL: Does being in the National League have an impact on the player acquisitions you make? For instance, Juan Pierre would be viewed by most people as a National League-style player.
NC: Perhaps. I think Juan Pierre is a great complementary player. On a team with power and solid run-producers, speed is a great component to have. Unfortunately, we didn’t consistently have that power production last year. And good power is getting tougher to find. For a long time there was a lot of it in the game, but it’s taken a step back lately–it’s not hard to recognize why. But looking at next season, I feel we have a chance to have a club with both power and complementary speed. That combination isn’t overly common and I think the speed adds an important dimension in close games. Because of the DH in the American League, I think there is more emphasis put on power and run scoring.
NC: Stats tell a lot of the story, but not all of it. Sometimes you become enamored with players, and it can be for different reasons. Some might not put up big numbers, but they grind and they figure it out. At the end of the day, the most important statistic is whether or not you won. You might have a player who went 0-for-4, but twice he moved a runner to third base and both times the runner scored on a sacrifice fly and the team wins the game 2-1. You don’t see it in the box score, but he helped you to win that game. You need players who can do that. The overachiever always has something to prove.
DL: You have a new manager and a new coaching staff in place. In which ways will that impact the Los Angeles Dodgers?
NC: Joe Torre is on his way to the Hall of Fame as a manager. What he did with the Yankees is of historic proportion. He has a calming influence and the combination of his resume and his personality brings a blanket of respect throughout the clubhouse and organization. He has managed and won World Championships. He has helped young players take their talents and mesh them into being better players and becoming championship players. I believe the coaching staff will take his lead and will continue to develop the young players while bringing out the best in the veterans as well.
DL: By most accounts, being a big league general manager is a 24-7 job. Do you ever feel a need to take a step back in order to make sure that you’re seeing the big picture?
NC: I try to do that all the time. It’s one of the checks-and-balances that I assign to myself, because you need a view from 30,000 feet–not just from ground level. Back in July, I could have traded four or five prospects for a good veteran player, but I had to look at what the move would have meant in the long term. It’s also important to recognize that one player can’t change your fortunes by himself; you need a team. Those are the views from 30,000 feet. It goes beyond just trying to win in 2007; you’re also trying to win in 2008, 2009, 2010. The short view is important, but I believe all of us are also entrusted with the overall strength of the baseball operation and its staying power. A one-year flash doesn’t offer much staying power or strength of the operation if the franchise struggles for the next five or six years, or longer. I think we all take a step back all the time to measure where the club is today and where it might be tomorrow and also what moves we are making today that will affect the franchise–negatively or positively–in the next few years. It is part of the juggling we all do.