As the offseason is primed to begin in just a few short days, many have begun to analyze some of the Dodgers potential moves during the winter. We’ve looked at reworking the the team through trade and free agency, how the Dodgers could replace Kenley Jansen and whether the front office should re-investigate the Puig-for-Braun trade.
With so many questions in the offseason after another stall in the playoffs, many Dodger fans are questioning this front office strategy and whether or not is the right one going forward.
Often mischaracterized as a “moneyball” franchise, the Dodgers front office leans heavily toward the analytical side of baseball. Moneyball, in its original strategic state, involves finding potential assets that are undervalued on the market and acquiring them because finances are limited. The Dodgers, however, are not generally referred to as a team with financial limitations. If one is to suggest that “moneyball” has now become synonymous with “analytically driven,” then fine, though it should be noted that 28 other baseball teams invest heavily in analytics and the team that doesn’t (Diamondbacks) has just poached a heavily analytics-driven General Manager from the Boston Red Sox.
An often assumed position is that the Dodgers do not value traditional scouting and traditional performance statistics, but that couldn’t be further from the case. In addition to employing many analytically-driven individuals, the Dodgers also employ many within the organization that come from the more traditional scouting based side or are former players.
The Dodgers scouting director is Billy Gasparino, a former baseball player and national cross-checker for the Blue Jays and Padres. Director of Player Development Gabe Kapler is often known as a forward thinker and has grown to embrace analytics, but he was a player before he was an analyzer. Josh Byrnes cut his teeth in baseball under Dan O’Dowd, a known traditionalist. The key to success in baseball is taking as much information as possible and making sense out of it. Advanced analytics shouldn’t be the end all of every decision, and with such a diverse front office group, the Dodgers are able to make informed decisions viewed from multiple angles.
The Dodgers have made some very “moneyball” type moves, but they’ve also failed to land any of the big tickets they had become known for under the previous front office group. This is a valid criticism and a reason the team gets to referred to as “moneyball,” but it has to remain in context. Players don’t always go to the highest bidder in free agency. Andrew Miller, famously a free agent in 2014 and the desire of fan bases the world over, spurned his highest offer, accepting less money to go the Yankees, as reported by Bob Nightengale.
Brian Cashman confirms that Miller had a four-year, $40 million offer on the table, forcing him to raise their offer from $32 to $36 mill.
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) December 5, 2014
And of course, the same player was available via the trade market this year and the Dodgers were still unable to acquire him. It’s important to note, though, that this isn’t MLB “The Show.” The Dodgers can’t turn on force trades. Since those outside the front office aren’t privy to the conversations that went on, any speculation that the Dodgers weren’t in on Andrew Miller is just that. Even if an offer were made, the Yankees could have preferred what the Indians were willing to offer, even if the Dodgers had offered better prospects. Trading and free agency are a two-way street.
This isn’t to say that everything this front office has done has been good. The reality is far from that. They have made ill-advised long-term signings to players with extensive injury history (Brandon McCarthy), failed to sign a first round draft pick (Kyle Funkhouser) and signed or acquired some players who performed below expectations. But that happens to every team during every year. Remember, 6 teams opted to not choose Clayton Kershaw in the 2006 draft, and Mike Trout wasn’t drafted until the 25th pick in the 2009 draft. And if the Brandon McCarthy signings are bad, what does that make the Ryan Howard signing or the Prince Fielder contract?
The difference for the Dodgers front office is they have the capital to withstand gambles and mistakes. Perhaps they have attempted to use “moneyball” tactics to justify signing undervalued players on the market as opposed to big ticket items, and some of the those dealers haven’t paid off. However, deals like Joe Blanton, who was signed during the offseason and was easily one of the biggest bargains of the offseason, have worked out great. Brett Anderson version-1 was great, almost making up for the atrociousness that was Brett Anderson version-2.
They’ve also succeeded by way of trade. Grant Dayton served as an excellent setup man and he was acquired for basically nothing. Adam Liberatore has been worth 1.0 Win Above Replacement and the person he was traded for, Jose Dominguez, hasn’t been positive at all. After Andrew Heaney’s arm blew up and Dee Gordon tested positive for PEDs, the Howie Kendrick trade that also brought Kiké Hernandez, Austin Barnes and Chris Hatcher has also begun to swing the Dodgers way. Hatcher has mixed some flashes of talent in with a strong amount of putrid performances, and Hernandez had a rough second year with the Dodgers, but in a smaller sample size during 2015, he outperformed Dee Gordon on offense while playing multiple defensive positions.
Granted, Kendrick re-signed with the team in the offseason, but one could very easily argue that the compensation pick attached to him as a free agent hurt his leverage on the open market. And this is yet to even give Austin Barnes a proper chance to prove he’s worth something, which should come during the 2017 season. Though the trade often gets remember for Jim “Dumpster Fire” Johnson and Mat Latos, Alex Wood and Luis Avilan have been the catch of a trade that that would challenge even the strongest Dodger fans to name all players involved. There have also been trades that could have the potential to spiral into bad, depending on what happens with the prospects traded for Rich Hill and Josh Reddick. But both players were strong contributors in the Dodgers playoff run, so they did their part to accomplish the goal for which they were acquired.
The biggest point to reiterate is a front office shouldn’t be judged over a 2-year sample size. Unlike the other 3 major sports, baseball franchises are not immediately redefined by a single draft pick. Baseball players rarely make the majors the same year they are drafted, let alone the year after. The Dodgers have made the playoffs each of the 2 years while under Friedman control, though it should be noted they were helped by the decisions of the previous front office. However, the farm system still rates in the top 5 by most publications even after graduating Julio Urias and Corey Seager.
The Dodgers spent over 45 million dollars on international free agents during the 2015 signing period, though many of these players will be unable to contribute for up to 4 or 5 years. However, internationally it hasn’t all been good. The Dodgers blew more money on Hector Olivera than on Brandon McCarthy, and other players like Pablo Fernandez and Yaisel Sierra have proven to be just about worthless. Baseball is all about the long game, more than any other sport. Even the World Series Cubs had to rebuild by losing 100 games sandwiched by two seasons of more than 90 losses. That wouldn’t fly in Los Angeles.
Another oft-repeated point of view is that the Dodgers front office has a desire to strip payroll. The problem with this complaint is two-fold. The first problem is that front office doesn’t generally dictate what a team’s payroll will be, as that lies on ownership. Ownership never planned to spend 300 million a year on payroll, as their strategy was to begin to drive and develop players internally, which leads us into our second problem. As rookies replace veterans, their cost lowers exponentially. The drop from Jimmy Rollins salary (11 million) to Corey Seager’s league minimum (550k) dropped the payroll, but upgraded the roster. Moving from Kemp to Pederson accomplished the same goal. As a team brings up younger players who perform at or better than aging vets, they tend to play those vets out. This inherently brings payroll down. There shouldn’t be a Dodger fan alive that would prefer to have Rollins for 11 million over Seager at 550k.
Overall, this front office has been far from perfect. They’ve missed a lot in free agency, and their strategy of assembling talented players with injury concerns during 2016 almost buried the team. But they’ve continued the franchise-high division winning streak, maintained a top 5 farm system while graduating talent including the likely rookie of the year and have a future team outlook that industry-consensus feels should be strongly competitive for at least the next 5 years. The division title isn’t the goal, but the World Series can’t be won without first making the playoffs, and the front office has yet to accomplish this ultimate goal. They’ve made some moves that are easy to disagree with, but it’s very hard to argue at this point in their tenure that their strategy hasn’t been, at the very least, effective.