CHICAGO – Some will say that of course the Los Angeles Dodgers are dominating this year, since they spent well in excess of $200 million again (they are actually down from past years, at around $250 million). But the reality is that they have built this juggernaut that’s on the precipice of their first World Series in 29 years on mostly great decisions. These great decisions go over two regimes, and reflect superior ability to draft and to develop, and to trade for and sign the right guys.
They have spent more in the front office than anyone (the Cubs are getting close), as well as on their roster, but it all seems like money well spent now, just like their player acquisitions. While it appeared like the club-owning Guggenheim Partners might just throw money at things – that trade with the Red Sox that cost a quarter billion still seems pricey but helped establish a tone and set up a TV deal – the reality is that their moves look consistently – even stunningly — prudent over the past half decade, leading to where they are today.
Of course, these Dodgers also benefited greatly from the eye of the previous regime, which employed scouting director Logan White (probably the biggest home run hitter in recent amateur scouting times – Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, etc. ) — who also had the resolve to do what he thought was right even when it was unpopular in the organization at the time.
But the way this new Dodgers hierarchy has refined things has been something to watch, too. They started with a strong core of terrific talents, who originally came at bargain prices – beyond the draftees, Justin Turner was a $1 million find of ex-GM Ned Colletti – but seemingly made all the right calls about who to keep and who to bring in. Current baseball president Andrew Friedman, GM Farhan Zaidi and Co. hit their own home runs – Chris Taylor is the superstar version of Ben Zobrist, a player Friedman had in Tampa Bay – but they rounded out the team beautifully, as well. Friedman’s specialty was building cost-efficient teams in Tampa with a bullpen on a shoestring – well, no surprise, he can build an even better one given the funds.
The overlap resulted is a team that was the best in the regular season (albeit with one inexplicably bad month) and looks like the best in the postseason, as well. Here is how they all did it — the 16 most key acquisitions for baseball’s best team.
1. Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers were picking as high as No. 7 overall for a rare top-of-the-draft chance. But Dodgers scouting director Logan White thought going in that he’d have a below-market deal with right-handed pitcher Brian Morris. White forewarned Morris that he’d be taking him unless a certain lefty from Highland Park High in Dallas was still there when they picked at seven.
The Dodgers had Long Beach State third baseman Evan Longoria first on their board, and that lefty – a fellow by the name of Clayton Kershaw – was No. 2. But there were whispers Kershaw could fall to them, so White felt compelled to warn Morris that it was possible they’d go in another direction.
As it turned out, Kershaw was there, and the Dodgers jumped.
“If you have a chance to take quality, you take quality,” White said by phone.
As it turned out, Morris was still there at No. 26, so they got them both, and he had a few decent years on the mound in the bigs, though obviously is no Kershaw, one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. But there were a couple tense moments early – just a couple. Tim Lincecum, out of the University if Washington, made a quicker MLB impact (he is three years older), and with Kershaw still in the minors, one Dodgers person was once overheard to say, “I can’t believe we took this f-ing high school pitcher instead of f-ing Lincecum.”
And worse, after a rough early start by Kershaw, another said to White, “Get me more John Elys.”
Then-GM Ned Colletti did well to extend Kershaw with a $215-million, 7-year deal (though it contains an opt out after 2018).
2. Kenley Jansen. Farm director DeJon Watson and White had a few early conversations about whether to try to move Jansen from behind the plate to the mound since he was struggling with the bat. And Watson started planting the seed a year ahead of time because he figured it wouldn’t be an easy sell with Jansen.
Then the next year, after Jansen again had trouble with the bat at Triple-A, Watson went to White and said they needed to try Jansen on the mound. As a catcher, he always had a great arm (no surprise there). But of course, it is no easy change. Watson flew to Albuquerque to break the news. And predictably, at first Jansen resisted.
“I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t want to do it in the beginning,” Jansen said here the other day. Watson, knowing it was Jansen’s best hope, pressed on.
“He was a switch hitter and had some power, but his swing was long and uphill,” Watson recalled.
Finally, and reluctantly, Jansen agreed. He threw a bullpen session at San Bernardino, and he blew them away. He was so good, Dodgers pitching guru Charlie Hough summoned Watson to come watch the next one. Jansen was so good right away, Watson recalled, that “his whole demeanor changed.”
The next year the ball began cutting. Watson initially predicted to Jansen he’d be a big leaguer within two years if he pitched, and he made it in one. To this day, Jansen credits Watson and Charlie Hough (“he made pitching fun,”) for a career turnaround that is nothing short of historic. Jansen could have made the majors as a catcher, White and Watson believe, but he would have been relegated to the role of a strong-armed backup. Instead, he became a historically great closer.
3. Dave Roberts. Dodgers executive Josh Byrnes, who seems to have a managerial knack (he was Theo Epstein’s right-hand man when they narrowed the field to Terry Francona and Joe Maddon, and went with Francona, and he handpicked A.J. Hinch for the Diamondbacks) suggested Roberts, whom he knew from the Indians, Red Sox and Padres, be added to a list of around 20 candidates.
But initially, Roberts was seen as a long shot.
“I don’t think we necessarily viewed Doc as a favorite heading into the process, but we went in with an open mind, and his energy, enthusiasm and preparedness shone through right away, so within five or 10 minutes ,he went way up the list,” GM Farhan Zaidi said.
The favorite, or at least a favorite, had been Gabe Kapler, the farm director. But like Zaidi said, they were open-minded. They also interviewed people throughout the organization, from top to bottom, and ownership and players wanted Roberts (Kershaw, Adrian Gonzalez and others are said to have favored Roberts).
The call ultimately was Friedman’s, and while some figured his close relationship with the other finalist Kapler (Darin Erstad, who also had been extremely impressive, decided he didn’t want to do the travel for family reasons) could carry the day. But Friedman weighed all the factors, heeded the recommendations of others, and made the call for Roberts.
Kapler was about to be named first base coach (an inter-office email went out to say so), but in the end, he announced he didn’t want to do the travel for that job. To this day, Friedman and Zaidi believe Kapler would make an excellent manager and call teams to recommend him; the Mets received such a call, but decided not to interview him. In any case, Roberts turned out to be a home run.
4. Justin Turner. The heroics continue to pile up for Turner, author of one of the more improbable stories in recent baseball lore. But the Dodgers originally got him on a one-year, minor-league deal for the relative pittance of $1 million.
Turner had just been released by the Mets, had just undergone a knee operation and his options were limited (he had similar offers from the Twins and Red Sox). And while the Dodgers were especially concerned at the time about the knee, Colletti told him if he stayed healthy he’d make the team, and that he should in effect “bet on himself.”
Turner weighed the three choices, and preferring the National League anyway, noticed how much then-manager Don Mattingly used his bench, and made the call to go home to the Dodgers. His choice to return was even easier. Though the third-base market was almost vacant anyway, Turner never wanted to leave.
“It just made sense, growing up in L.A. and wanting to bring a championship back there,” said Turner, who has the third-highest postseason OPS all-time, behind Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
5. Cody Bellinger. Nobody saw slugging stardom in Bellinger’s future after he hit one home run as a senior at Chandler (Ariz.) Hamilton High. But White liked him the best, better than anyone in his own organization – or anywhere else either.
Even White is amazed that the kid who was a singles hitter in high school broke the NL rookie home run record by popping 39, at age 21 no less.
“His swing is pretty much the same, but he’s probably got a little more loft,” White said. “He’s gotten a lot bigger. He’s more matured.”
White, his No. 1 fan, foresaw more like 25 homers (with a .290 batting average) when he tabbed him in the fourth round and gave him $700,000. White admits he wanted to take him in Round 2, but his area scout Dustin Yount (son of Robin) said “nobody was on him,” and so he wanted two more rounds. Even then, he got guff in his own organization. Some couldn’t believe they were using a fourth-rounder on a player who appeared to be a banjo hitter, at least by the stats. But White knew Bellinger since he was a kid hitting in his home batting cage with his own son Logan Jr. So he had the home-court advantage.
Bellinger, who thought he was better than his rep but probably surprised himself a bit, recalled it this way: “(White) over-ruled the front office.”
6. Corey Seager. Dodgers scout Paul Fryer saw Seager, and called to tell White, “I just saw the best hitter in the country. I don’t know if he can play shortstop …”
Fryer was in mid-sentence when White hopped on a plane. Seager hit more home runs than Bellinger in high school but he wasn’t exactly a big power hitter, and he was an opposite-field specialist. Between a question of power and position, other teams weren’t nearly as high on Seager. But when White saw him, he thought even more of him. He thought he could stay at shortstop, too. The Dodgers liked Seager so much, he was No. 1 on their board – ahead of even Carlos Correa, who wound up going No. 1 to the Astros.
Seager, amazingly, lasted until No. 18. There were a few moments early, like when Michael Wacha – chosen a few picks later – helped eliminate the Dodgers one postseason. One Dodgers person reminded White, “We f-ing passed on him.” But while Wacha is a solid starting pitcher and a worthy pick, Seager was once again the right call.
7. Chris Taylor. They believed Taylor had some untapped potential, what with his athleticism and versatility, and they needed a backup infielder. Zaidi also recalled how much they liked him coming out of the University of Virginia. Zaidi, remembering that Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto liked Zach Lee a little bit from when Dipoto was with the Angels, and knowing the Mariners badly needed pitching depth, suggested a straight-up swap.
No one saw this coming. Amazingly, it looks almost like a repeat of Turner, only with added versatility. He went to work on his swing, then picked up the outfield like it was nothing. Today he’s another star.
“He’s just a guy who has talent and worked his butt off,” Zaidi said.
8. Yu Darvish. This one came together quickly, right at the deadline (two minutes to go, before the July 31 deadline, unlike Justin Verlander, which was two seconds to go).
The Dodgers had let the Rangers know they weren’t going to trade Alex Verdugo, Yadier Alvarez or certainly their favorite Walker Buehler for a rental, even a great rental like Darvish. And the Rangers, while deciding a few days earlier that they weren’t going to make it this year, were holding their cards close to the vest.
“Jon (Rangers GM Daniels) is a poker player,” as one Dodgers person put it.
But while Daniels is a very good card player, the Dodgers were content with their assortment of starters, at least to the point where they wouldn’t give up the top three guys. Anyway, it all came together in the final 30 minutes. After Daniels had determined other interest in Darvish was limited, he came back with Willie Calhoun as a centerpiece.
Dodgers people loved Calhoun as a hitter – “there are very few guys with that sort of power and contact rate” – but they are pretty booked in left field, and understood Calhoun might be better off with an AL club anyway (word is, Calhoun was upset to have been dealt from the Dodgers, perhaps leading to his change in agent).
Many figured the Dodgers had won the deal. But they didn’t necessarily view it that way.
“We think Willie is going to be a tremendous player for them,” Zaidi said.
But the reality is, Texas is probably a better spot for him anyway. They liked how he handled left field after a late call-up for them, and he seems on his way in his major-league career.
As for Darvish, after a few rough outings followed his boffo debut for the Dodgers in New York, Dodgers people seemed to convince him to streamline his extraordinarily varied repertoire, and he has been brilliant as they and he have dominated again. He has a 1.05 ERA over his last five starts, leading him to have to send a lengthy message to the Dallas Morning News to recommend that everyone curtail rips of the Rangers coaches Doug Brocail and Brad Holman, who he called “great coaches” and “great people.” (It is too late for Holman as he’s already been let go.) Darvish’s rather long and involved email defended those two very enthusiastically, though he did ultimately conclude that Dodgers coaches benefited by “letting me be me.”
9. Rich Hill. Some thought the A’s overpaid giving Hill $6 million off a good month in Boston, but not the Dodgers, who were willing to go there, and even more. Hill ultimately made what even Dodgers people admit was the correct call to take a full-time rotation spot in Oakland rather than potentially be a better-paid swingman with the Dodgers.
“Thirty-two starts,” Hill said to explain why he made that call, and he didn’t regret it as he really enjoyed his brief stopover in Oakland. “Great place to play,” he said.
In any case, off his excellent start (though with some blister issues), the Dodgers determined they ought to try again, sending three good prospects (for those who say the Dodgers won’t trade prospects, here’s one time they did) for Hill and Josh Reddick, who disappointed offensively as a Dodger but is thriving with the Astros after signing a $52 million free-agent deal there.
This winter, the Dodgers made their priority bringing back the three key free agents – Turner, Jansen and Hill – and with the starting pitching market hot early, as it is wont to be, they inked Hill first, giving him what some believed to be a rather high $45 million, three-year deal.
“From the outset we felt we needed to bring back our three key guys, and anything else was gravy,” Zaidi said. Hill also had the Yankees and Astros interested. He only wanted to go to a team with a chance to win, and didn’t at all mind the idea of a big market. The goal is to win a championship, he said, and “as you get older, your realize that the time is limited.”
The Dodgers didn’t look at it as an overpay. With their stash of starters, they were emphasizing “quality over quantity,” Faido explained. And Hill certainly gives them that.
10. Yasmani Grandal. The Dodgers loved his pitch-framing skills and his two-way ability. Byrnes traded for him when he was Padres GM, and the others agreed he had to be the centerpiece in any Matt Kemp deal with the Padres (by this time, White was in the Padres front office, and Kemp was another of his home runs while drafting for the Dodgers). A two-way catcher has big value, and this turned out to be a great trade for the Dodgers.
11. Yasiel Puig. The Dodgers were at one time the biggest players in the Latin countries, but terrible owner Frank McCourt dropped their budget to zero, taking them out of the game. So when the Guggenheim Partners came in and opened the coffers, scouting director White was all over it.
White was anxious to see Puig after he defected, making arrangements to fly to Mexico City before plans were altered (he changed agents) and he had to re-route to Cancun. By the time he got there, Mexico City was back on (Puig went back to his first agent, Jaime Torres, though he has since changed again, this time to Adam Katz).
He missed the first workout day but was blown away in the second. He liked what he saw so much he summoned Dodgers scouts Mike Brito and Paul Fryer for second and third opinions. After they affirmed, White tried to figure out a price. It wasn’t easy. One of his colleagues asked him if he was out of his “frigging mind” at $42 million. But White figured that was the “going rate.”
One Dodgers boss was guarding against overpaying while Dodgers president Stan Kasten advised him in so many words not to come home without the player. With Yoenis Cespedes and Jorge Soler having recently signed recently for $27 million and $36 million respectively, White settled on $42 million for seven years. Some thought it was high. But he didn’t want to disappoint. And he loved the player. Even better, the Dodgers were back in the game.
“It was a turning-point moment not only for the player but a defining moment for the rebirth in L.A.,” Colletti said.
12. Brandon Morrow. Zaidi thought the one-time high first-round choice might be worth a flyer due to his arm, his “pedigree” and price. For $1.2 million, they got their main set-up man and one of two relievers in what has become the NL’s best bullpen.
“Here was guy with a great arm who was willing to embrace the role of reliever,” Zaidi said.
13. Austin Barnes. The Dodgers were losing Hanley Ramirez and others off their roster, and sought roster depth in the deal for Dee Gordon from the Marlins. Two very versatile players – Enrique Hernandez and Barnes – were part of just about all the packages discussed, and in the end they got pitcher Andrew Heaney (who was flipped for Howie Kendrick) and Chris Hatcher, too. Barnes gives them consistently good at-bats, and as a pitch farmer, he is basically on par with Grandal.
14. Kenta Maeda, reliever. The decision to put him in the pen looks brilliant now. He’s been solid as a starter, but Dodgers decision-makers noticed how good he was out of the pen when they tried him out there for a cameo early in the year. Roberts said he thought Maeda could be a “weapon.” And he’s not kidding. He’s been nothing short of brilliant.
15 and 16. Tony Cingrani and Tony Watson. Zach Britton seemed to be the top relief target. But they “never got traction” with the Orioles and ultimately weren’t convinced Baltimore wanted to trade him (ultimately, they did not, canceling a deal with the Astros after agreeing to it, due to medical reasons or perhaps cold feet by their sale-resistant owner Peter Angelos).
They had been talking to the Pirates and Reds, respectively, about two other bullpen lefties, and they wound up finding deals for both. It seemed like they felt like they could do either Britton or these two, and with Britton’s nagging issues in the second half, they may be better off having added these two.