The Season is Over. So Now What?
After a 3-1 loss to the Padres, the Dodgers disastrous 2005 season has mercifully come to an end. To sum up this season in a few words, LAist can basically say that almost nothing went right. The team both failed to play up to its potential, and suffered numerous injuries in the process. So, what's next for the Dodgers? LAist will move forward with what we hope is a reasoned analysis.
The first issue to address is owner Frank McCourt. Like it or not, Frank McCourt is the owner of the Dodgers. His wife Jamie is the Team President. Are the McCourt's good owners? Most people in the mainstream LA media would say "no" without hesitation. But we think the jury is still out. Right off the bat though, we'll say that we don't like the circumstances with which McCourt bought the team. We don't care how much property the guy owns on the Boston waterfront, buying a team almost entirely off of loans is sketchy and raises a million questions about one's ability to properly run a team in a major market.
We also think the McCourts have made some bad mistakes. Their PR operation has failed spectacularly. They have single-handedly turned every member of the mainstream media against the Dodgers, and have every LA Times columnist and sports talk radio host begging baseball fans to jump on the Angels bandwagon. The McCourts have also done everything from botching stadium renovations (the new seats have no rise), to pissing off various long-time season ticket holders (check out some of TJ Simers' columns this year to see what they wrote to him), to raising prices for tickets, concessions, and parking. They also fired Ross Porter.
Yet, despite all of this, the Dodgers drew 3.6 million fans, their highest attendance since 1982 (the year after they won a World Series). The team averaged over 44,000 fans a game, second only to the Yankees in professional baseball. Some people claim this number is inflated, but LAist disagrees. It's true the MLB now announces "tickets sold" as opposed to actual attendance, but MLB has had this policy since 1995. LAist went to a number of games this year, and quite frankly, we don't remember seeing as many large crowds as we saw this season in a while. The Dodgers have a season ticket base of well over 20,000, so most of the spike in attendance was attributable to fans buying walkup tickets.
Why was attendance so great? Aside from the Dodgers coming off a playoff year, and sort of being in the race for most of the season, we can only guess that the McCourts actually do have some marketing savvy. Clearly they have found a way to tap into communities in Southern California to bring people out to the ballpark. And we think that's great. The more people at baseball games, the happier we are. And this attendance spike came in a year when the Angels also averaged over 40,000 fans a game. So there probably isn't a whole lot of crossover between the two groups of fans. In fact, you could argue that SoCal is the best baseball region in the country with those kinds of attendance figures.
McCourt also hired a GM who we think is fantastic in Paul DePodesta. Now, before you hit your back button in disgust, we'd like to you to just read down a bit further, and we'll explain why the Dodgers should absolutely keep DePodesta for next year. McCourt has also shown the temerity to admit mistakes when he has been wrong, and we appreciate that. He fired Lon Rosen when it was apparent to us all that he had no business working for the team. He also pledged to fix the problems with the new seats stemming from the stadium renovations.
We hope McCourt has learned from his mistakes early on, and won't make more in the future, but we can't be so sure. He proposed more stadium renovations this offseason, which are fine for the most part. But we can't figure out why on earth he would ever move the press box higher. Seriously, what is he thinking? McCourt has already pissed off the LA sports media to its height, and now he wants to upset them even more by making it harder for the people who report on his team to see the games?
Moving the press box up might be the dumbest idea that McCourt has come up with yet, only because he should know better by now. And all for what? To build one of two new restaurants? The team already has the Stadium Club and the Dugout Club. Can it even sustain two more restaurants? The new stadium renovations also mean that Los Angeles was unable to host the World Baseball Classic, which instead went to San Diego. We were very disappointed from a civic point of view that LA didn't have the opportunity to host such a prestigious sports event, and become the center of the baseball world for its new world championships, all because they had to do things like move the press box up unnecessarily in order to make way for two new restaurants.
If you listen to LA sports talk radio, which we regrettably do, one of the biggest complaints about McCourt is the team's payroll. McCourt supposedly promised a $100 million payroll, and the Dodgers only have an $83 million payroll. The McCourt's have said on numerous occasions that the money is there if Paul DePodesta wants to spend it, but that he has chosen not to. The LA media refuses to believe that assertion. Instead the team's lower-than-expected payroll caused the LA sports media to call McCourt a liar, and question his commitment to winning. The anti-Dodger rhetoric then concludes that if McCourt isn't investing in this team, then you shouldn't either.
Quite frankly, we're baffled by such rhetoric. In fact, we're extremely disappointed that LA sports journalists such as Bill Plaschke, TJ Simers, JA Adande, Steve Hartman, Vic "The Brick" Jacobs, Dave Smith, Matt "Money" Smith, Joe McDonnell, Lee Klein, and numerous others (and we have an enormous amount of respect and admiration for some of these guys) have been, quite frankly, so negligent and irresponsible in their reporting. Haven't we learned by now that a high payroll doesn't necessarily guarantee wins? Haven't we learned by now that teams that foolishly try to raise payroll in an effort to "send a message to fans" that it cares about winning, wind up both disappointed and hamstrung?
There are three teams with $100 million payrolls or larger in Major League Baseball: the Yankees, Red Sox, and Mets. The Mets finished barely over .500, and are wasting resources on grossly overpaid players like Tom Glavine, Kaz Matsui, Kris Benson, Steve Trachsel, Cliff Floyd, Mike Cameron, Victor Zambrano, and Doug Mientkiewicz. (We won't include Mike Piazza on this list, simply because he was good for most of his contract, nor do we necessarily fault the Carlos Beltran signing, despite his subpar year). Most of those guys could replaced with much cheaper options and not cost the Mets a single game in the loss column. The Yankees barely made the playoffs this year with a $200 million payroll, and only did so after expensive free agents like Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano went down, forcing cheap replacement-level pitchers like Shawn Chacon, Aaron Small, and Chien Ming-Wang to save the day. Similarly, the Red Sox almost missed the playoffs as well, in spite of their $120 million payroll, but most of their expensive players actually helped their team.
The Dodgers had the 11th highest payroll in baseball this past season. Of the ten teams higher, five made the playoffs (Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Cardinals, and Braves), and five missed the playoffs (Mets, Phillies, Giants, Mariners, and Cubs). Three teams that made the playoffs had lower payrolls than the Dodgers (Astros, White Sox, and Padres), and there were several other teams with significantly lower payrolls that were in the playoff hunt until the very end of the season (Indians- $41 million, A's- $55 million, Marlins- $60 million). For all intents and purposes, the Dodgers had a competitive payroll, and didn't need to raise it just to raise it.
The point though is that it's not always smart to have a large payroll. It's important to have flexibility. The Dodgers may give DePodesta access to $100 million in payroll a season, but why should he spend it if he doesn't need to? Why should he get a free agent for the sake of getting a free agent, when there are players of equal value available for less money? All that will wind up happening if a team signs a free agent just to make a statement, is that the players' contract will be a drag on the payroll and provide less room to sign actual valuable free agents in the future.
Have these members of the media learned nothing from the recent success of the A's? Have they not noticed that the most successful teams are not necessarily those with the highest payrolls, but those that exercised efficient uses of its limited resources? This isn't a philosophy the requires a computer to understand. It basically requires one to realize that teams shouldn't waste money when they don't have to. It simply requires noticing that there are scores of overpaid major leaguers, who are eating fat contracts, and not producing. Teams like the Yankees are winning in spite of paying some of them, but teams like the Mets or Mariners are actually not winning because they are paying too many of them. In truth, there are only so many ballplayers worth big contracts, so not every team will have one of these special guys.
Regardless, the Dodgers did spend quite a bit of money on free agents in the offseason anyways. The team went out and gave $11 million to JD Drew, $9 million to Derek Lowe, $8.5 million to Jeff Kent, $8 million to Odalis Perez, and $3.5 million to Jose Valentin. They also didn't go to arbitration on Eric Gagne, instead giving him almost $10 million a year in a contract extension that satisfied Scott Boras. Shortly after the season started, once they saw Brad Penny was healthy, the signed him to a three-year contract extension worth around $8 million a year. Even if you don't like those signings, there is no way to deny that it's a lot of money to invest. That's a large enough expenditure to signal a commitment and a desire to winning.
Let's get a little Dodger history lesson for a minute. Remember that in the Peter O'Malley and Fred Claire-led Dodgers refused to sign Mike Piazza to a 5-year $45 million contract in 1997, and then Fox refused to give Piazza the $13 million a year contract he later craved. This led Fox executives to go behind Fred Claire's back and trade Piazza and Todd Zeile for Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson, and Jim Eisenreich. At the time, Claire said the deal was good for the short-term, and bad for the long-term. Claire was right about one thing: it was bad for the long-term. It was also really bad in the short-term too.
This set the Dodgers on payroll frenzy that they are only getting out of now. After this mistake, the Dodgers tried to compensate, only by making other expensive mistakes. Tommy Lasorda became interim GM, and traded the promising young Paul Konerko for the expensive Jeff Shaw. He also acquired Mark Grudzielanek and Carlos Perez, who were both later signed to expensive long-term deals. Neither was worth the money, especially Carlos Perez.
Kevin Malone came in and gave Kevin Brown an absurdly large $105 million contract, that was sort of worth it in the short term, but in the long-run the Dodgers are paying for it now in the form of $9 million to Jeff Weaver. No one thought Brown would be valuable over the full length of the contract, a lesson the Yankees are learning now. After about his third year in LA, Brown became a major drag on the team's payroll.
Malone also threw money away right and left at guys like Devon White, Todd Hundley, Darren Dreifort, Alan Mills, Tom Goodwin, Marquis Grissom, Andy Ashby, and gave extensions to the aforementioned Mark Gruzielanek and Carlos Perez, as well as Eric Karros just as he had passed his prime. Somewhere in there, the Dodgers gave Raul Mondesi a $9 million a year contract extension, which proved a bust. He was traded for Shawn Green, who signed a $14 million a year deal, and predictably was sort of worth the money at first, but couldn't possibly keep it up for the full six-year duration of his contract.
By the time Dan Evans took over in mid-2001, he was suddenly stuck with a paradox. He inherited a roster with a bloated $110 million payroll. But at the same time, Fox was ordering Evans not to raise it. As a result, Evans signed virtually no meaningful free agents. He was only able to show off his skills in the trade realm, where he was forced to take on high-salaried players in exchange for giving them up. Gary Sheffield made it clear he didn't want to be in LA, so Evans swapped him for high-priced Brian Jordan and an untapped jewel in Odalis Perez. He sent Luke Prokopec and Chad Ricketts to Toronto for Paul Quantrill and Cesar Izturis, in a deal that looks downright brilliant today. Later on, he cut salary by sending Brown to New York for the still expensive Jeff Weaver and another steal in Yhencey Brazoban.
Evans made Eric Gagne the team's closer. He found cheap fill-ins with players like Dave Roberts and Wilson Alvarez. The only "big" free agents he ever really signed were Hideo Nomo and Fred McGriff. Yet throughout it all, the Dodgers had a $110 million payroll.
Where were the critics back in 2002 and 2003 when Fox refused to raise payroll? The reality was that the team had little flexibility, and was stuck trying to find cheap options, while it paid down enormous albatross contracts in Brown, Dreifort, Green, and others. The $110 million payroll may have been symbolic of a commitment to winning, but LAist would argue that Frank McCourt wants this team a lot more than Rupert Murdoch ever did. To News Corp, the Dodgers were just one little chip in Murdoch's empire, but to the McCourts, the Dodgers are their livelihood.
All of this leads us to today. Now that the season is over, the last Kevin Malone contract has expired in Darren Dreifort. Jeff Weaver's contract expiration also means that we are free of the Kevin Brown deal. And Shawn Green won't be getting any money from the Dodgers in 2006, for the first time in six years. So theoretically, if the McCourts are telling the truth about their commitment to a $100 million payroll, the Dodgers could have almost $40 million to play with in the offseason. That offers a number of opportunities to get better.
But we must ask now if Paul DePodesta is the right guy to be in charge of this project. And we believe the answer is "yes". As the LA Times has been known to report, DePodesta uses a computer. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using a computer. In fact, if the Dodgers GM didn't use a computer, we'd have serious questions about his competency. LAist thinks DePodesta should be praised for using the best tools at his disposal to improve the team. We're thrilled that he's taking advantage of new technologies and innovations in an attempt to find ways for this team to win. Unlike many other GMs, we love that he tries to take advantage of market inefficiencies.
So why must the press continue to call DePodesta a nerd and bash him? Are they against new ideas? Do they sleep through every Oakland A's game? Are they oblivious to the revolution that is taking hold in Major League Baseball? Do they not realize that many of these new technologies improve team's ability to scout, by digitally archiving information based on everything from pitch sequence to game situations? It's quite remarkable, and any team that invests in such technologies, as the Dodgers have, will get a leg-up on the competition.
Furthermore, we also like that DePodesta has an open mind. There are some GMs who would not learn any lessons from an awful season like the one the Dodgers just endured. There are some who would stubbornly stick to their old methods and keep plugging away. Those teams have been in the cellar for years. On the other hand, as someone who embraces new ideas, DePodesta acknowledges he made mistakes this season, and he will be better this offseason because of it. We appreciate that he takes responsibility for the team's lack of success of this year. It is exactly the type of accountability that we expect from him.
LAist also read Moneyball, and we've been big proponents of sites like Baseball Prospectus for years. Paul DePodesta is highly regarded in these circles. If he continues to fail in LA, we will say that it's time to move on to a different GM. Some in the mainstream media believe that time is now. But it is unfair to judge a GM on one bad season, particularly one that was riddled with injuries. We believe his plan will begin paying dividends sooner, rather than later.
DePodesta's moves with the Dodgers, when viewed individually, actually look good. He let Adrian Beltre, Steve Finley, Jose Lima, and Alex Cora all go, and all had awful seasons. Shawn Green had an above-average season, but certainly didn't have a $16 million season, which is what the Dodgers would have owed him. In exchange Green, they acquired Dioner Navarro, who showed a tremendous amount of promise, and could be the Dodgers catcher for a long time.
The Jeff Kent signing turned out great, even if he did read motorcross magazines all day. We do believe the Derek Lowe contract was excessive, but he did have a decent year. Brad Penny also has turned out to be a very good acquisition. Paul Lo Duca continues to struggle in the second half of seasons. Guillermo Mota did not have a great season either, so the controversial trade from last year doesn't look bad at all. We still don't think Hee Seop Choi ever got a legitimate enough shot from Jim Tracy in order to properly analyze the deal. Other quality DePodesta moves included trading Jason Romano for Antonio Perez, trading Jason Frasor for Jayson Werth, bringing in Oscar Robles, Jose Cruz Jr., Olmedo Saenz, and even the Kaz Ishii for Jason Phillips trade was a net gain.
Unfortunately, the Milton Bradley acquisition turned out to be more trouble than it was worth, Odalis Perez took a surprising step back this year. While Moneyball doesn't believe a whole lot in chemistry, there is no denying that it was an issue with this year's team. And injuries to JD Drew, Eric Gagne, Perez, Bradley, Izturis, and numerous others decimated the ball club.
So what should the Dodgers do this offseason? LAist offers its suggestion, position by position:
Manager- We wrote a thorough analysis of the Jim Tracy situation not too long ago. Since that post, Tracy has reportedly demanded an extension, and criticized DePodesta for his roster decisions. Our only addendum is that Tracy has done nothing this season to earn himself an extension. And he was out of line in criticizing DePodesta. That was probably the last thing he should have done if he actually wanted an extension.
Our take on Tracy basically comes down to philosophy. If Tracy cannot agree philosophically with DePodesta, or at least fulfill his role within the organization's framework, then he should not manage the team anymore. We still like Tracy, but it appears it is time for him to go. The same situation occurred in Boston, where Grady Little couldn't buy into Theo Epstein's philosophy. Epstein used Little's management of Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the ALCS as a scapegoat, but that wasn't the real reason he was let go. Epstein hired Terry Francona, who could work on the team's terms, and the Red Sox won its first World Series since 1918.
If Tracy goes, we're not quite sure whom the Dodgers should hire. It doesn't have to be someone high profile. It would be nice if the person had some ties to the Dodger organization. Some people have thrown the name Kirk Gibson out. Heck, maybe Orel Hershiser could be considered. We kind of wonder what former Twins Manager Tom Kelly is up to.
Catcher- Dioner Navarro proved that he's ready for the job. We don't want to see Jason Phillips behind the plate ever again due to his inability to throw out a baserunner. Maybe Russell Martin is ready to come up from Jacksonville and back up Navarro. Expect the Dodgers to use Paul Bako or some veteran to backup Navarro, with Martin getting called up from Las Vegas midseason, and asserting some kind of role.
First Base- The Dodgers must answer the Hee Seop Choi question now. We don't think he's useful as a pinch hitter. Olmedo Saenz is better suited for that role. If the Dodgers can't commit to Hee Seop Choi everyday, then they should trade him. They probably won't get much in return, but there's no sense in letting his talents waste away. The best free agent first baseman available is Paul Konerko, who would be kind of an ironic signing. A more viable option might be to move Jeff Kent to first base, and hide his declining defense while still keeping his potent bat.
Second Base- Jeff Kent has made it clear he wants out if the Dodgers are not going to contend next season. But we expect the Dodgers to sign enough free agents in the offseason to make Kent believe the team is serious about winning. That said, we're not sure if Kent should be relied on to play second base anymore. He is below average defensively, and Antonio Perez is ready to play everyday. Unfortunately, Perez only has the ability to play second base, and admittedly, his defense is awful. In fact, it probably cost the Dodgers a couple of games this year, and Paul DePodesta should recognize that. The Dodgers have two choices with Perez: 1.) Hit him one million grounders in the offseason and teach him to field in order to have him start or 2.) Trade him. If Perez isn't going to play regularly, it makes no sense to waste a young bat like his. Perez could probably command some decent value in return in the trade market. We prefer option one though. He's got to be able to learn to field, right?
Shortstop- Oscar Robles was one of the bright spots for the Dodgers this year. We're still not sold on him, but he should be an adequate fill-in at this position until Cesar Izturis returns.
Third Base- A major hole. It wouldn't be problematic if Antonio Perez had learned to play it, or if DePodesta had realized that Jose Valentin was terrible. Regardless, here we are. Some may suggest promoting Willy Aybar to play the hot corner. He looked good in September, and did hit .337. But the sample size was small, and there's nothing to suggest he can keep that up. Instead, this is one position where the Dodgers are going to have to turn to the free agent market. We wonder if Nomar Garciaparra isn't just the perfect signing here. Nomar still has game, would love to come home to LA, and has a lot to prove right now. He could be a great fit, even if he might be a liability from a chemistry standpoint. The fans would love him. Bill Mueller and Joe Randa are also free agents.
Outfield- There's no question that the Dodgers need another outfielder. Especially since it looks like Milton Bradley is gone. JD Drew can handle centerfield. In fact it's probably best that he play center, since it will reduce the injury risk to his knees. Some claim that DePodesta should have expected Drew to get hurt. But what people forget is that Drew's knee was the concern, and that he missed most of the season due to a broken wrist from a hit-by-pitch. His knee was more or less fine. The wrist was a fluke. Assuming the Dodgers thoroughly evaluated Drew's knee before signing him, he should be good to go. If he isn't, the Dodgers can get out of their contract with Drew after 2006.
Jose Cruz, Jr was a pleasant surprise in August and September, but the Dodgers would be foolish to come back next year with an outfield of Drew, Werth, and Cruz. They need at least one more power bat in the outfield. Maybe this will come through free agency, but we think that this is where DePodesta might try to be creative and trade some prospects in order to get a Major Leaguer who is good and ready.
Starting Pitching- Penny, Lowe, and Perez are three good pitchers to have around. Jeff Weaver is a free agent, but we're not his biggest fans. We expect the Dodgers to use their free agent money here and get another top-line starting pitcher. Maybe they can snag AJ Burnett. Maybe not. But it is vital that the Dodgers get someone at least as good as Weaver, and preferably better. For the fifth spot in the rotation, we think DJ Houlton will continue to improve, and he should continue to start. Edwin Jackson is also an option. Maybe he can start the season in the bullpen and be used in long relief and for spot starts. The Dodgers should also consider bringing back Elmer Dessens, or else look into another long reliever/spot starter kind of guy.
Bullpen- Eric Gagne should come back healthy, and that will obviously be huge. Duaner Sanchez should continue to be solid. Yhencey Brazoban should get better. We also like Jonathan Broxton and Steve Schmoll. We think Giovanni Carrara is probably done, but Kelly Wunsch will hopefully come back healthy. DePodesta should probably find some cheap relievers on the market, and figure out which ones will have a good year. Easier said than done, but Logan White and his scouting team have a good track record of doing that sort of thing.
So that's our view of how the Dodgers shape up this offseason. We'd love to read your thoughts as well.