Feb 09

In search of truth about Frank McCourt and the Dodgers


Frank McCourt has a lot on his mind.

Dodger fans might not believe. But Frank McCourt believes.

It’s not an act.  He’s not just saying the right thing to say the right thing.  Every so often, in fact, he says the wrong thing – something that raises more questions about him than answers – because his belief in his good intentions is so strong that he doesn’t always seem to realize when his words leave him open to second-guessing.

He wants the support of Dodger fans, in part because the support obviously will do him good, but also in part because he believes he’s earned it. He understands that fan dissatisfaction is part of the game any time you’re not celebrating a World Series title. He understands that he’s a target, though he doesn’t seem to accept all the reasons the red dot on his back has grown into the size of the flag of Japan. He even understands, though he’s not one to talk much about them, that he makes mistakes. But he believes he will be vindicated in the end, and he is not planning for that end to be this year, courtroom or not.

That’s my verdict after six years of observing McCourt since he (and, for most of those years, his wife Jamie) took over the Dodgers and, more to the point, after more than 60 minutes of a one-on-one interview with him Jan. 29, coincidentally the sixth anniversary of his news conference to discuss his purchase of the team.

Of course, what McCourt believes about himself ultimately isn’t relevant. What’s relevant is whether the Dodgers organization will thrive going forward. And I’m going to go this far: This team will live or die on its judgment – on the judgment of McCourt and the people he employs – rather than on McCourt’s finances. His bank account, despite what most people have concluded this offseason, is not destroying the team.

If the Dodgers falter, it will be because of insufficient intellect (or insufficient luck), not insufficient dollars.

The anti-arbitration defense
The pivotal moment of the 2009-10 Dodgers offseason was when the team didn’t offer salary arbitration to free agents Randy Wolf and Orlando Hudson. The twin decisions surrendered not only two players who made key contributions to the Dodgers’ 2009 playoff run – the team’s fourth in six years, McCourt would hasten to remind you – but also the potential for top draft picks that would come as compensation if the players signed elsewhere. The moves lit the flame of fan concern, whether you were more concerned with the short-term or long-term future. It seemed an unmistakable retreat.

Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire
The Dodgers are betting that letting Randy Wolf go won’t come back to haunt them.

Wolf is probably headed for a decline after having an unexpected career-best year at age 33, but it’s still hard to say that he wouldn’t have helped the 2010 Dodgers in some way – or that the draft picks that would have come in place of him wouldn’t have helped down the road. So why not offer him arbitration, unless you couldn’t afford to?

“I think that the downside wouldn’t have been horrible,” McCourt said, “because he’s a very good pitcher, and he pitched very well for us and he was a model citizen. From the area, really classy young man and so forth. But the judgment was made, and again, judgments are judgments. They’re not perfect. No one has a crystal ball.

“I, by the way, can see both sides of this debate, very, very clearly. To me this is one really good baseball debate, in terms of ‘Do you or don’t you.’ I think, like I was saying before, what would have happened (if we had offered arbitration), maybe Randy Wolf knows, but I don’t. And I don’t think the downside would have been bad for the organization, because he’s a good pitcher and a good guy, but I think that the judgment was made that we (could) do even better for the club.”

That decision will certainly be tested, as will the one with Hudson. The second baseman’s signing last week of a one-year, $5 million contract with Minnesota might have vindicated the Dodgers’ decision on him, since Hudson could potentially have earned twice that amount in salary arbitration, based on the typical raise awarded to an arbitration-eligible player who earned $8 million the year before.

The roughly $5 million the Dodgers saved can help make up for the lost draft picks had Hudson refused arbitration – after all, the chances of a low first-round pick earning back the team’s investment in him, plus $5 million, aren’t all that high – while the combination of Blake DeWitt, Jamey Carroll and Ronnie Belliard could come close to approximating Hudson’s 2010 value, while saving another $2.5 million or so.

But speaking before Hudson had inked the deal, McCourt argued that too much about the Dodgers’ commitment to their future, whether the 2010 team or the 2013 team, was being inferred from the Hudson decision, no matter what kind of contract he was going to sign.

“I think anybody can pick one or two examples and jump to a conclusion,” McCourt said. “Their opinion is valid – I respect their opinion – but it doesn’t mean that their conclusion is right. There are 101 decisions that get made and judgments that get made every day.”

McCourt would argue that the Dodgers weren’t afraid to offer Hudson arbitration because they didn’t have the money, and it wasn’t that they didn’t care about the draft picks.

“I think it’s really important that the club invest in the long term,” McCourt said. “There’s no question about that.”

But do the actions of the McCourt Dodgers back up his words?

Developments in development
McCourt feels his regime isn’t given enough credit for its investment on the player development front, whether for scouting or for Camelback Ranch, the team’s year-old spring training facility in Arizona. In addition to being a boon for those fans who couldn’t make the journey to venerable Vero Beach (albeit a disappointment to those who could), Camelback has boosted the organization’s development efforts.

Morry Gash/AP
Opening Day at Camelback Ranch, March 1, 2009

“That went from vision to reality in like 15 months,” McCourt said, “literally from a napkin to the reality. It was tumbleweeds, flatland and nothing, and now it’s considered the single-finest spring training facility in all of baseball. We broke the Cactus League record for attendance in our first year. We’re gonna kill it this year because a lot of people didn’t even realize it was there … and we have what is the state-of-the-art development operation there for this organization. So it’s really as much [about] our farm system as it is about spring training.

“So that is an example I think of two things. One is execution on vision and finding a way to do that, but two, it’s also a way of being resourceful – taking a little bit of heat by the way, [because] there’s a lot of people who said ‘Don’t move from Vero,’ and I respected their viewpoint, but it turned out to be the right decision, and the organization is much better off in terms of our development, our ability to meet our goal to have the finest development system in the game by having Camelback Ranch. To me that’s much more tangible evidence of our commitment to [development] than not offering Randy Wolf arbitration.”

It’s too difficult to say whether McCourt is right about this, because it’s too difficult to measure the importance of what he’s extolling. Will Camelback Ranch turn borderline major-leaguers into legitimate ones? If it’s true, then the McCourt Dodgers have hit a home run in development, no matter how many Dodgers fans realize it.

But how would anyone know? After all, this is a team that already has a 17th-round draft pick from hockey country, Russell Martin, and a sixth-round pick who specialized in basketball, Matt Kemp, who have each won a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove in the same year. Both were drafted before the McCourts bought the team and developed long before Camelback was even imagined. Cinderella stories are part of the game. Teams have always depended on those.

So even if the Dodgers have made a step forward in development, the pressure remains to have the best possible draft scenario and to retain the right prospects to sustain the team over the long haul.

McCourt certainly claims to believe in this.

“Just thinking back over the last six years,” he said, “I think that the pressure on the organization has probably been greatest in terms of moving young talent for the quick short-term fix, and I think for the most part we’ve resisted doing that, and it’s paid off in a huge way. The consistency, the success we have on the field is I think directly related to committing to finding and cultivating that young talent, and being patient with that.”

Santana Mas
If there was a moment that really seemed to call into question the Dodgers’ ability to commit to prospects, it was when the team traded Carlos Santana and Jonathan Meloan in mid-2008 for a three-month test run of Casey Blake. (Blake re-signed with the Dodgers as a free agent after the 2008 season.) It was widely reported, to the point that almost no doubt remained, that the Dodgers included Santana, a catcher who was having an explosive year in A ball, so that they wouldn’t have to pay approximately $2 million in Blake’s remaining ’08 salary.

McCourt said in the interview that he had “no idea” about that aspect of the trade, that this was general manager Ned Colletti’s territory. This is an example of the plausible deniability McCourt periodically exercises that seems not quite so plausible, given the level of detail with which he’ll talk about other aspects of the Dodgers. Subsequent to the interview, neither Colletti nor anyone else with the Dodgers would comment about this on the record.

However, a source within the Dodgers organization insisted that the following was true: The Indians were not going to trade Blake to the Dodgers unless they got Santana in the deal. His inclusion had nothing to do with money.

If you know my policy on anonymous sources, you know that I always say you should take them with a grain of salt. So please do. But also realize that the original report was never confirmed on the record, either.

In any case, there’s still a baseball debate to be had on the trade, even if Santana was the centerpiece for the Indians rather than a money-saving throw-in. Was Blake worth the price of a red-hot catching prospect? Blake had immediate value but was aging. Santana had all the promise in the world, though he was a 22-year-old in A ball who might end up moving out from behind the plate defensively.

Even if the original reports about the trade were true and the Dodgers did it to save $2 million, it’s not like they haven’t spent that $2 million and more elsewhere since then, and rather recklessly at times to boot (Guillermo Mota fits this bill rather perfectly).  On the other hand, if my source is correct and the Dodgers simply believed Santana and Meloan for Blake was a smart move, was the team right to do it?  It was debatable then, is debatable now even after Blake’s presence on two division-winning Dodger teams, and will continue to be debatable for some time to come.

Focusing on the $2 million distracts from the real issue, which is how well the Dodgers evaluate players and needs, whether it’s Santana for Blake, Andy LaRoche for Manny Ramirez, Tony Abreu for Jon Garland, and so on.

“The Santana trade is an example of … the pressure to trade players in course of season,” McCourt said. “You give up real value for that. Sometimes you’re able to — sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes what you give up is less than what you thought it was, sometimes it’s more than what you thought it was. There’s always pulls and tugs on this.”

That war-o’-tug also applies to what the Dodgers are willing to pay players, whether they’re drafted as amateurs or signed as free agents.

Playing the slots
Just six months ago, at a time when we now know the McCourts’ marital strife was putting them and the organization on a path toward its current courtroom turmoil, the Dodgers did something very unusual for them. They exceeded major-league baseball’s guidelines on what they should offer second-round draft choice Garrett Gould, giving him more than $300,000 more than someone in his draft slot was supposed to get.

It was ammunition for both sides of the McCourt debate – for those who point out that he’ll sign the check when necessary, as well as those who wonder why such a gesture is so rare for the Dodgers. For his part, McCourt says he doesn’t plan to make a habit of going over slot.

“My personal opinion is that in the amateur draft, we do extremely well at living within the system that’s in place,” McCourt said. “We’re one of 30 teams. And even though we’re a big-market team, and we could step out and go on our own way and blow through the sort of recommended slotting for each of these, and just go ahead and turn our back on the other 29 clubs and go ahead and pay anything for anybody, I think it’s the wrong thing to do philosophically. We’re one of 30 clubs. We should play by an overall understanding that the draft is designed for a reason. It was designed to give teams that didn’t do as well the opportunity to sign the best players, if they were smart enough to identify those players, for a certain amount of money.

“You talk to baseball, they think the Dodgers are fantastic. We sign our players, and we generally sign our players within the recommended amount. Now nobody can make us not pay more, but I do believe in the fact that we’re part of a league, that the league designed the draft to achieve a certain objective, and I don’t believe the Dodgers should be the team that turns that whole system upside down.”

The Dodgers do sign most of their most coveted draft picks; they got their top 10 in 2009 and their top nine in 2008. But in each of the four years prior to that, the Dodgers drafted but failed to sign a pitcher who was coveted at the time: David Price (4.17 ERA/108 ERA+ through age 24 with Tampa Bay), Luke Hochevar (5.88 ERA/75ERA+ through age 26 with Kansas City), Alex White (first-round pick by Cleveland in 2009 after passing up the Dodgers and going to North Carolina, 21 years old) and Kyle Blair (now entering his junior year at the University of San Diego, after posting a 3.13 ERA in an injury-shortened sophomore season).

At least one is likely to make the Dodgers feel regret (though Price publicly emphasized that he wanted to go to Vanderbilt), while another is more like a bullet dodged (the failure to sign the disappointing Hochevar created a domino effect that enabled the Dodgers to draft — and sign — Clayton Kershaw). There are times the Dodgers should go over slot, and there are times they shouldn’t. If you grant that the Gould example shows the Dodgers are capable of doing so under McCourt, it’s again easier to believe that their success in finding and developing amateur talent will be driven by their baseball acumen, not their bank account – not completely, anyway.

And even McCourt admits that there has been places of weakness in amateur signings under the current ownership.

“We have to do better in the international arena,” he said. “That’s to me as much of a function of our ability to actually identify the talent that we want to sign.  I think we need to spend more money singing international players and young talent from around the world that we can bring here. Find me the talent, and we’ll sign it. But you’ve got to find the talent. We need to do a better job, and Ned is doing that now. He is now focused on expanding our scouting and the quality of our scouting and the quality of our identifying these types of players.”

Still, one might still wonder about McCourt’s altruistic posture regarding going over slot in the draft. For all that 30 Musketeers talk, baseball is a cutthroat sport – and certainly, no one’s laying their overcoat over a mud puddle in the major-league free agent market. So why hold back?

“Because we’re one of 30 teams,” McCourt reiterated, “and just like everything else in life, you can’t take the amateur draft and pull it out of the context of all the other discussions that you have with the other owners about what’s good for the game. The Dodgers can’t say, ‘Oh yeah, we want your support on this issue, whatever it is, to the other owners, that we think this would be good for the game if we could all agree on Issue X.’ And then on Issue Y, they say, ‘What we think would be good for the game would be for the big market teams to sort of live up to the spirit – and the letter, by the way – of what was agreed upon in terms of the draft and what the purpose of the draft is,’ and the Dodgers say, ‘On that, we don’t want to agree.’ You can’t just agree on what’s good for you and not agree on what’s not, if you expect any type of collaboration in the sport.

“We certainly have the flexibility of making exceptions, and I want to keep that flexibility, but I think as a rule, I want to be credible in the eyes of everybody. It’s obviously about winning and the fans – that’s Job No. 1 – but I also want to be credible overall, because there are things that the Dodgers need and want from time to time, that are good for the Dodgers and our competitive situation, that I want people’s support on. And you know how it works in life.  It’s hard to get support if you haven’t been supportive when it matters to other people.”

That last quote raises larger questions. What do the Dodgers want “support” on? In response to a follow-up, McCourt said he had nothing specific in mind, though one surmises it could mean things like the share of revenue a big-market team like the Dodgers gets from MLB.com, or what percentage the Dodgers give up in revenue sharing. (For an example of this kind of rationale from up north, consider San Jose Mercury News writer Andrew Baggarly’s recent blog post theorizing a connection between the Giants’ negotiations with Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum and the team’s effort to keep the Oakland A’s from encroaching on their territory in nearby San Jose.)

If the Dodgers were to preserve an extra 1% in revenue in some major area, that might have a lot more positive impact on the franchise’s long-term health than David Price could. I can’t tell you how real this is, but I will say it’s something I hadn’t considered.

Budget barriers
Of course, some fans reading the articles over the past six months about the McCourts’ personal spending would just say that the extra 1% would just be going to fund someone’s first-class vacation. The issue of whether the Dodgers are spending enough of their revenue on the current major-league payroll is a thorny one.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
The McCourt ownership committed major millions to Manny Ramirez less than one year ago.

We know that spending the most doesn’t guarantee a World Series championship – even the Yankees just went nine years between World Series titles, and just look at the Mets and Cubs. But assuming you’re not just throwing money away, spending can increase your odds for a title. And so it’s legitimate to wonder whether the Dodgers are doing all they can.

“Generally speaking, we do spend at that level just below the Yankees and the Red Sox,” McCourt said. “I think our focus has to be on generating additional revenues so that we can spend and compete regularly. I’m not saying we’re going to get to the Yankees’ level, but I’d certainly like to close the gap.”

Contrary to popular perception, the Dodger payroll is not really down compared to a year ago, though it has been higher in the past. The Dodgers’ 2010 major-league payroll appears to rest just below $100 million at this moment, a figure not only far below the Yankees but also one that would barely have placed the team in the top 10 in baseball in 2009 (source: Cot’s Baseball Contracts). It’s almost exactly where it was at the start of the 2009 season. The big drop is in comparison to 2008, when it was approximately $118 million, but it is already about $15 million higher than it was in 2005. So there has been some reduction from the peak, but it hasn’t bottomed out. And the Dodgers’ payroll will increase later this year, if not from a midseason acquisition, then at least from paying out incentives they have already offered some current players (though the same could be said of many franchises).

Nevertheless, for some fans, the calculation is simple: A team in the No. 2 U.S. market that leads the National League in attendance should lead the NL in money spent. McCourt believes, not incorrectly, that this is an oversimplification, because revenue depends on many factors: not just attendance but ticket price, plus such other elements as the size of your local TV revenue (an area that the Dodgers, under their current contract, lag teams like the Mets).

“The Dodgers have had and continue to have very modest ticket prices,” McCourt said, “and if you look at where we stand in our ticket prices vs. where we stand in terms of our payroll, you’ll see there’s a pretty good symmetry there.”

With a typical Dodgers bleacher seat costing more today than a box seat in the O’Malley era, one could be excused for taking exception to the idea that Dodgers ticket prices today remain “modest.” Inflation is natural, and the cost of the cheapest Dodgers tickets can still be lower than the cost of a movie, but that doesn’t mean the Dodgers aren’t raking in some big bucks from admissions, and certainly parking and concession rates are anything but affable. While the Dodgers’ average ticket price (not including premium seats) was lower than that of the Cubs, Mets, Phillies and even Nationals in 2009, according to Team Marketing Report (pointed out to me by Maury Brown of The Biz of Baseball), the capacity of Dodger Stadium was more than 10,000 seats higher than any of their ballparks.

But it’s true that the Dodgers probably aren’t leading the league in ticket revenue, that other major-market teams also charge through the roof for food and souvenirs (TMR had the Dodgers’ sixth in their overall Fan Cost Index, with a dollar value unchanged from the year before), and that the Dodgers definitely aren’t tops in TV income. And so one might be able to prove that the Dodgers should be spending more for what they’re bringing in, but not necessarily very much more – especially if one factors in the amount of money deferred to future years to help pay for the team’s commitments to its 2010 roster. (Basically, payroll is higher than appears in your rear-view mirror.)

McCourt acknowledged even if his claims are correct, he can’t win a debate with the fans about whether the Dodgers are spending enough, and so his focus remains on further increasing the team’s revenue.

“It’s just what it is,” he said. “We have do to a better job of creating those connections (between revenue and spending) for our fans, so that they understand that investment in the team and where the money goes, or if there’s resistance there, do a better job of finding other streams of revenue to be able to supplement that.

“We’re very committed to Dodger Stadium. We’re committed to actually doing more at Dodger Stadium, (but) there’s no help out here whatsoever in terms of investment in a stadium. It’s all done by the owner’s checkbook. And it’s not like getting the city of New York or the state of New York to build a new stadium, or one of these other cities or whatever. So it all factors in and it’s just what it is. These are just facts. It’s not like we can’t figure out ways to be resourceful and be very successful with the facts as they are. And I think we have been. And that’s why I think we’ve laid the foundation to achieve the goals I set out when I came here, the first of which is sustainable excellence — a team worthy of the fans’ support that can compete in October on an annual basis – and that’s our goal, to be able to play every October. And then once we do that, we’ll be able to start winning in October our fair share of the time, or maybe more than our fair share.

“We can generate the revenue to be able to compete on an annual basis, and to do it without having a dysfunctional business. We’re not really doing it to make money. You don’t do it for that reason. If you do that, you’d be in a different business.”

On the precipice
In seemingly every interview he gives, McCourt points out the Dodgers’ triumphs since his name was put on the team: the four playoff appearances in six years, plus the first two NLCS appearances for the Dodgers in two decades. McCourt hasn’t reconciled himself to the fact that those accomplishments mean little to fans who believe a turning point in the franchise’s future came when divorce papers were filed. The past is not enough for everyone to keep the faith.

As I’ve pointed out before, there’s a very good chance that he’ll be a victim of his own success (however much of that success is his). Though McCourt would be the first to say that the Dodgers still need to achieve the ultimate goal of a World Series title, the reality is that they’ve much more room to descend than ascend, and that particularly this year, he’ll be a lightning rod for any downturn.

However much one buys what McCourt is selling, the Dodgers haven’t faced any real adversity in 2010 – yet.  What will he do if things go wrong? Will the Dodgers be toast? Would he sacrifice a year of contention to rebuild the team, or would he spend to get the team back on the beam?

“First of all, I’m never going to be thrilled about overpaying for a free agent,” McCourt said. “I think it’s not a smart thing to do organizationally, and we haven’t made 100% great decisions on some of those signings. It wasn’t like we didn’t have good intentions, and it wasn’t like we didn’t think when we signed the player (that) they were going to help the team.

“Having said that, I’ve been as clear as I’m capable of being that … we’re the Los Angeles Dodgers; we don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘OK, we’re not going to win this year — we’re going to wait until next year.’ We’ve made a statement to our fans that our goal is to compete each and every year. So that means that there might be times, in order to fulfill that promise to the fans, that we step away from our philosophy and our core, and we do it not because we’re ignoring or turning our back on our core philosophy, but we’re fulfilling our promise to the fans and we’re improvising. And under that hypothetical, if you have to improvise to continue to win, you improvise.

“To me, what I wouldn’t do is do something that was rash and short-term and give up a bunch of young talent which would have impact for years to come, in order to do something in the short term. But the one thing about signing a free agent that is beneficial is, it’s just money. It’s just money. And if you’ve signed the right player, that can help you then and there, and you can keep your prospects intact, it can be a very, very smart thing to do.”

Perhaps the most fascinating thing to me about McCourt is his insistence that fans understand the big picture of what he’s trying to do, because wherever I go — inside the world of Dodger Thoughts or outside it – I see little else but concern over the impact that the divorce between McCourt and his wife, Jamie, will have on the team.

“People know we care about them,” McCourt said. “I agree, we have to do better, but where I would respectfully disagree is that on the whole, fans I think do see the trajectory, do see the direction.

“And I know during the last quarter of last year, maybe, people were filling in the blanks, because I purposely wasn’t talking. And I felt No. 1 … and I’m steadfast in all this, that it was inappropriate to talk about my personal situation. It was a private family matter, and I’m not going to talk about it.

“As far as the team however, which I started to talk about after the holidays, I just felt that a period of time had to go by. I needed it myself. I just felt it would have been very inappropriate to act like nothing had changed in my life – because something had fundamentally changed in my life. And I think I just needed to take a step back and reflect on that. I wanted to respect my kids; I wanted everyone to know that I’m not without feelings. It’s a very sad, difficult thing.

“And I tried to add the only issue that I feel is relevant, and that’s the issue of ownership and the fact that I have a binding agreement that is crystal clear on that point – unfortunately a matter of public record now, never intended to be — but anybody can go read it. And so it’s business as usual. We’re just going to go ahead and try to win a world championship. …

“We can disagree whether people are excited. … That’s fair game. And the good part is, we’re going to see how we do this year. We’re going to see how fans respond. But I think from my perspective, I need to be focused more on trajectory. I can’t be focused on the daily “What does this mean? What does this mean?” We have a longer-term plan and longer-term direction, and we’ve got to stay the course and be relentless in putting it into place.

“I personally think Ned’s just hitting  his stride. I think he’s got solid talent; I think he has a real sense of where we’re going and where we want to go. And we do have to be clear on the next five years, in terms how we’re going to close some of these gaps, how we’re going to grow.”

Maybe it will turn out that the money really is the issue for the McCourt ownership, whether it’s because Frank was dead wrong about what his resources are or dead wrong about the strength of his post-nuptial agreement with Jamie.

But the evidence is more compelling that the Dodgers largely spend when they want to, that their relatively quiet offseason mostly reflected a lack of exciting options in the free-agent market, that their bargain-hunting is a strategy to avoid wasting money rather than a recourse to avoid spending money they don’t have. That’s why the fate of the Dodgers isn’t tied up in the possibility of McCourt going broke, but rather in the management’s ability to make solid baseball decisions.

One hundred million dollars is enough to buy a World Series title, if you know what you’re doing. The question is the same as it ever was: Do the Dodgers know what they’re doing? Frank McCourt believes they do. We’ll see if he’s right.

Feb 07

Super Bowl XLIV, Mattel football, Elroy Face and Jose Gonzalez chat

Please feel free to chat about the Super Bowl in this all-purpose thread. In honor of the occasion, my first and probably last game review:

LED Football for iPhone

A replica of the greatest game ever, Mattel Handheld Electronic Football.

Cons: Lack of true button sensibility, defense didn’t behave exactly as I remembered, one-quarter instead of four-quarter capability, team always takes over on its own 20 rather than where the other team left the ball.

Pros: It’s a replica of the greatest game ever, Mattel Handheld Electronic Football.

* * *

Pete Townshend is performing at halftime with Roger Daltrey, and it’s time to face the Face. Elroy Face, that other minor-leaguer the Dodgers let go the Pirates in the 1950s, was interviewed by David Laurila of Baseball Prospectus.  It’s a good read.

On the other hand, Dodger fans of my vintage will probably be disappointed by this documentary: The Extraordinary Ordinary Life of Jose Gonzalez.

Feb 07

Dodgers invite Brian Giles for some Camelback tea

Brian Giles was one of those guys the Dodgers always seemed interested in but never got until it was too late. Giles just received a minor-league contract and Camelback Ranch invitation, according to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.

Giles’ .854 OPS in 2008 for San Diego slid to .548 last season.

* * *

Andrew T. Fisher of Purple Row reviews the starting pitching in the National League West from 2009. It’s almost like he knew the Rockies would fare well before he began the assignment …

* * *

Vin Scully, Chick Magnet. The Left Field Pavilion comes through with some Scully pictures I had never seen before.

Feb 06

Time to stop believin’ in ‘Don’t Stop Believin” at Dodger Stadium

The betting here is that the playing of “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the middle of the eighth inning at Dodger Stadium will disappear, now that former Dodger exec Dr. Charles Steinberg is no longer around to champion it. Maybe it would have disappeared even if Steinberg had stayed. It wasn’t getting any fresher over time. (Sorry, Eric.)

If the Dodgers decide to replace the Journey anthem with another song, what would you like it to be?

My default answer on questions like these is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to (Score a Game-Winning) Run” or Sam Cooke’s “Shake,” but I don’t think too hard about such things.  I’m really quite satisfied with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the seventh.  But I am interested in your ideas …

* * *

Great find by the Sons of Steve Garvey: It’s their dad in the make-you-squirm early’-80s television series, Masquerade.

* * *

James McDonald wants to be in the Dodger starting rotation – for real, writes Ken Gurnick at MLB.com.

“I want to be a starter,” McDonald said. “Last year, I didn’t even know. This year I’m coming in with a different mindset, and starting is all I’m thinking about.” …

McDonald said he grew up as a pitcher with a stint this winter in the Dominican Republic.

“It was a great learning process,” he said. “You’re facing a lot of older Latin guys down there and they know how to hit so you have to learn how to pitch. I came out of it a way better pitcher.” …

* * *

Dan Evans gets due praise from at Dodgers Blog from Steve Dilbeck, who chats with him.

Evans was hired as the Dodgers’ general manager in 2001 at a time the team seemed mired in mediocrity and the farm system had lost its way.

Most publications ranked the team’s minor league system near the absolute bottom in baseball, but in three short years it was ranked in the top 10.

Evans rebuilt the front office and brought in good people like Kim Ng, vice president and assistant general manager, and Logan White, assistant general manager of scouting. And then they went to work.

They drafted Matt Kemp, James Loney, Russell Martin, Chad Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton, players the team is now built around, as well as Jason Repko and James McDonald.

“I’m really proud of the fact that these guys panned out,” Evans said. “I was really lucky. I had a terrific staff. I feel good about what we did there.”

* * *

Phillies Nation took a look at the Dodgers using Wins Above Replacement.


Feb 05

Red flags on Dodger starting pitching health

Each year, Baseball Prospectus’ Will Carroll takes a look at the health of each team heading into the season. It’s not his personal opinion, but rather the results of a computerized system that, in a nutshell, is fed data and then comes to conclusions based on historical comparisons.

“The system I use (PIPP) uses an actuarial baseline,” Carroll says, “taking into account the actual injury risk of a player of a given age group (i.e., 24-26, 27-29, etc) and position. It then adds or subtracts based on several other factors, such as team injury history, player injury history, PECOTA attrition and several others. It then categorizes that risk into one of three bands, signified by a color – red, yellow, or green, like a stoplight.”

As a prelude to those Team Health Reports, the site is releasing a spreadsheet today that shows how the key players for each team fare: a green light, a yellow light and a red light. Here’s a snapshot of the Dodgers:

Green: Russell Martin, James Loney, Rafael Belliard, Andre Ethier, Jonathan Broxton, George Sherrill

Yellow: Casey Blake, Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp

Red: Rafael Furcal, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, Vicente Padilla, James McDonald

Carroll offered to talk about the rationale behind the Dodger results. His answers are in italics:

1) Well, let’s take it from the top.  Five Dodger starting pitchers, five bright red flares. Not even a yellow to spare? What are the reasons for each?  (And yes, perhaps we should bring the elephant in the room that is your history with Chad Billingsley out in the open.)

I know. I checked and double checked, but yes, all of them are in the red. Some more than others. I doubt anyone will quibble with Kuroda or Kershaw as risks. Kuroda’s a litle inflated in that he was out for something that’s unpredictable and then going out again makes it look worse than I think it really was. Kershaw is young, threw a lot of innings (not outrageous, but an increase) and is expected to have another increase this year. Risky, yes. Red, yes, but my god, the upside. McDonald is a case where if he’s the five starter on Day 1 and stays there all year, his innings increase will be insane. I doubt the Dodgers would ignore this, but I can’t project that forward.

As for Billingsley – who I don’t hate – he wore down in the latter stages of the season. He was pretty solid, but if I tell you that Dan Haren has a similar pattern, would it bother you? Risk is not reality, but the fact is that every single one of the Dodgers starters as we speak now is a demonstrable risk. All goes well, no worries and the Dodgers run away with the division. One thing goes bad? Meh, most teams can survive. Two or three … not so much, especially if they have to start rushing some of their good young arms.

2) Rafael Furcal’s a pretty easy red for a layman to understand, though he did look better at season’s end.  Is he just in a position where his back could flare up at any time?

That’s it. It’s an injury that sits there like one of those old WWII bombs they dig up now and again. Probably won’t go off, but it might. It’s a known injury and the Dodgers did very well with maintaining him last year.

3) Why does Matt Kemp not get a clean bill?

It’s goofy. It sees a big slugger and then a stat line that looks like a speed guy. The system sees Juan Pierre muscling up or a slugger who’s overrunning and comes up with risk. It’s mostly that it doesn’t know what to do with a guy like this. It’s not a huge risk, but add in that he’s been being a star all winter while Andre Ethier has been working out all winter in Arizona and that’s a concern.

4) Jonathan Broxton had some toe issues last year, and he’s obviously a big guy. Tell us why we shouldn’t be too worried.

Credit the medical staff and the pitching staff. They never let the toe affect his shoulder. If his mechanics change, that guy throws so hard that all sorts of bad things could happen in there. They shut him down, so the velocity measures and some other objective measures of consistent mechanics give some clarity on that. The toe should be healed now and those don’t tend to recur.

5) Any insight into how much Manny Ramirez needs to be rested?

No, not really. An intriguing thought is that this off-season is different in that he wasn’t juicing like we have to assume he was last year. (Well, at least I hope he wasn’t!) I have no idea how that will affect him or how he handled his off-season. Manny was another guy who was often at API, but I don’t know what he did this year. He’s not a young guy, he’s not a particularly mobile guy, and there’s no DH slot to use, so I’d say once a week, maybe make use of some schedule quirks to buy him an extra day here or there. His bat will tell Torre when he needs to rest.

Feb 05

More diverging views on Orlando Hudson

There seems to be little escaping the fact that Orlando Hudson, of all people, has become a polarizing player. Hudson is headed to Minnesota on a one-year contract worth a reported $5 million, and as Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com notes, observers are of two minds about him.

… Hudson remains an asset in the opinions of most scouts and executives.

(Joe) Torre obviously felt differently in September, and some evaluators believe that Hudson no longer is the hitter or defender that he was before undergoing surgery on his left wrist in August 2008.

That, however, might be too simple a view.

Opponents adjusted to Hudson last season by pounding him inside. Perhaps Hudson, a switch-hitter, was unable to counter because of lingering soreness in his wrist. But one rival executive notes that Hudson was vulnerable on the inner third even before his injury.

Defensively, Hudson remains outstanding on popups and above average to his glove side. He is weaker to his backhand, but again his wrist might not be the only explanation. A second executive says that even before Hudson suffered his injury, his defense was in decline.

“He used to be a difference-maker,” the exec says. “Now he’s a tick above average.”

Still, from the Twins’ perspective, the package looks pretty good. …

Joel Sherman of the New York Post writes the following:

… No doubt Hudson is a better player than (Luis) Castillo and, thus, would have helped the Mets more. But Dodgers officials were actually disappointed in Hudson’s overall game and, remember, Joe Torre benched Hudson in favor of Ronnie Belliard late in the year. They were quickly surprised that Hudson was not faster with a few inside the organization derisively turning his nickname from O-Dog to Slow-Dog. They also came to believe that his defensive reputation was overinflated; that he was fantastic on pop-ups, but very ordinary on grounders. …

Meanwhile, ESPN.com researcher Mark Simon offers this:

The Twins will like Hudson’s baserunning instincts. A couple of examples in combing through the numbers on Baseball-Reference.com – Hudson has scored from first base on a double 16 times in 24 opportunities over the last three seasons (the other eight times, he held at third). That’s a 67 percent success rate, significantly better than the MLB rate, which typically hovers from 40-44 percent.

- In that same span, he’s gone first to third on a single 37 times in 84 attempts (he’s stopped at second on all but one of the other occasions). The 44 percent success rate is better than the MLB rate, which ranges from 30 to 33 percent

- He’s scored from second on singles 33 times in 49 chances since 2007 (stopping at third on all but one of the other occasions). That’s 67 percent- slightly better than the MLB average, which is around 60-64 percent, depending on the year.

- Hudson is 20-for-21 in stolen base attempts of second base over the last three seasons.

There’s got to be a middle ground in there with Hudson somewhere. Given the doubts about him and the price for which he signed, which was about $3-5 million less than what he might have won in a salary arbitration case with the Dodgers, maybe there’s more justification for the team not offering him salary arbitration than I originally allowed for. Thoughts are still in flux.

Feb 04

New Dodger annual headed to print

I’m pleased to announce that the first Maple Street Press Dodgers Annual, edited by yours truly and featuring many writers familiar to Dodger Thoughts readers, will be shipping this month and is available for pre-order.

The annual, which will also be available on local newsstands at the start of March, offers 128 ad-free pages devoted to the Dodgers, including a review of the 2009 season, a thorough series of player profiles and articles previewing the coming year, a 25-page section on the farm system and another 25 pages of historical features.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Amid Turmoil, Hope (2010 season preview), by Chad Moriyama of Memories of Kevin Malone
  • So Close, Again (2009 season in review), by Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A.
  • Manny Be Good? (What to expect from Ramirez in 2010), by Jay Jaffe of Baseball Prospectus
  • Disorder In McCourt (an analysis of the impact of the McCourts’ divorce) by Joshua Fisher of Dodger Divorce
  • State Of The Stadium, by Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A.
  • One Out Away (Jonathan Broxton looks to recover from another disappointing finish), by Mike Petriello of Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness
  • Critical Campaigns (James Loney and Russell Martin), by Mike Petriello of Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness
  • The Collected Colletti (a Q&A), by Josh Suchon of KABC AM 790
  • Aces Are Wild Cards (The last word on No. 1 starters), by Eric Enders, baseball historian
  • Prospect Park (Top 20 prospects in the Dodger farm system), by Dodger prospect expert Richard Bostan
  • Individually Packaged (how the Dodgers develop young arms), by Josh Suchon of KABC AM 790
  • No Minor Hopes (life in AAA), by Albuquerque Isotopes play-by-play announcer Robert Portnoy
  • One In A Trillion (a Vin Scully retrospective), by Dodger team historian Mark Langill
  • Unsung Heroes (key contributions from unexpected sources), by Bob Timmermann of The Griddle and One Through Forty-Two or Forty-Three
  • Sweep And Low (the end of the 1980 season), by Dodger Thoughts commenter BHSportsGuy
  • The Great Dividers (the 20 most controversial Dodgers of the 2000s), by Jon Weisman
Petriello also wrote the bulk of the player profiles, along with BHSportsGuy and another Dodger Thoughts commenter, CraigUnderdog.
If you enjoy this site (and maybe even if you don’t), you won’t want to be without this annual.
* * *
A great wrapup of the Dodgers’ caravan stop at my go-to fried chicken place, Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, can be found at Vin Scully Is My Homeboy.
Feb 04

El Camino Real alum gets minor-league shot with Dodgers

Three quick notes:

  • Will Savage, a 25-year-old El Camino Real High grad who had a 2.94 ERA in 125 1/3 innings (but only 3.5 strikeouts per nine innings) last season for Wichita in the independent American Association, signed a contract with the Dodgers and will get an opportunity to pitch in the minors for the organization, according to Our Sports Central. Savage, who was in the Phillies’ organization through 2008 after going to College of the Canyons and Oklahoma, pitched a no-hitter in June.
  • Jamie McCourt got $1.4 million in temporary spousal support, reports Bill Shaikin of The Times. Joshua Fisher discusses it at Dodger Divorce.
  • Steve Dilbeck of Dodgers Blog passes along a great Jackie Robinson story.
Feb 04

What Justin Verlander’s new contract could mean for Chad Billingsley and the Dodgers

Justin Verlander signed a contract extension with the Tigers on Wednesday that amounts to $80 million over five years.

Verlander is 17 months older than Chad Billingsley and made his major-league debut 49 weeks before the Dodger righty (though Verlander pitched only 11 1/3 innings that year). A comparison of the two since they became full-fledged major-leaguers:

Verlander Billingsley
Year IP K/9 ERA+ IP K/9 ERA+
2006 186 6.0 126 90 5.9 118
2007 201 2/3 8.2 125 147 8.6 134
2008 201 7.3 93 200 2/3 9 133
2009 240 10.1 133 196 1/3 8.2 98

Verlander had an off year in 2008, but came back with his best season ever. His off year was arguably worse or at least little better than Billingsley’s off year in 2009. Billingsley outperformed Verlander two years running in adjusted ERA, though he didn’t pitch as many innings. The best season either pitcher had before last year was Billingsley’s 2008. And again, Billingsley is more than a year younger.

Before the 2009 season, it’s hard to see how anyone would have valued Verlander much more than Billingsley. It’s not as if Verlander had any postseason success to make up for his 2008 problems.

Billingsley obviously needs to show this year that he can bounce back from his disappointing second half (interestingly, both he and Verlander had first-half ERAs of 3.38 last season, though Verlander’s 3.38 was worth a little more because of league and park adjustments). But it’s hardly far-fetched that Billingsley will. And if he does, he will set himself up for a mighty nice deal – if not before he becomes a free agent in November 2012, then certainly after.

For more on the Verlander signing, check out Rob Neyer of ESPN.com and Matthew Carruth of Fangraphs.

* * *

The Dodgers’ policy to compel players to donate money when they signed a new contract – which they were apparently not alone in implementing – has been reduced, but only somewhat. There was an immediate objection from the players’ union, and now a settlement has been reached, reports Bill Shaikin of the Times.

The union filed a grievance soon thereafter, alleging the Dodgers, Angels and 20 other teams had improperly mandated donations to club charities in the contracts of at least 109 players.

Under the settlement agreement, which resolves the grievance, clubs can demand such donations from players signing as free agents or signing long-term contracts that buy out one or more years of free agency, according to a management official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the agreement has not been officially announced.

Those players have the option to sign elsewhere. Players not yet eligible for free agency cannot be compelled to donate, the management official said.

* * *

  • Fox is offering two Saturday night regular-season telecasts this season – their first since 2004 – and the Dodgers are featured both nights, on May 22 against the Tigers and June 26 against the Yankees. Both games are in Los Angeles.
  • Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A. talked about the Dodgers with the guys at HotStove.com Wednesday.
  • Via Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods, I found this story of a ball hit by Joe Wallis that went up but never came down.
  • Ticketmaster makes the bargain tickets for the Dodgertown Classic college baseball doubleheader a lot less of a bargain, writes Tom Hoffarth of the Daily News.
Feb 03

Case study of a 5-year-old athlete

When I last wrote about my oldest son, he was a 4-year-old with barely enough interest to keep him upright on a T-ball team that I was coaching.

He was more interested in playing with the dirt in the infield than the ball running along it past him. He was sold on the idea that he’d get to have fun with his friends, but because you can’t have nine shortstops, he was constantly told to move away from his friends. He found fun where he could, but he never really seemed to grasp the overall purpose of his being out there.

For this, I faulted him not at all, but rather questioned the decision my wife and I made to have him be on the team at that age. There was reason enough to fear that the experience might kill any interest he had in sports. And I wasn’t at all sure that my being his coach was a positive thing. I didn’t doubt that on some level he loved having me there, but I also wondered if my presence was stunting his development.

By the end of the season, I sort of came around to the idea that the good outweighed the bad. He did have some fun, though it had nothing to do with fundamentals. He improved slightly, although even as late as the final game, we still weren’t sure if he should bat righty or lefty. His attention still wandered off, but not quite as long. On some level, I think he felt some sense of pride from being on the team. So even if this wasn’t his thing, the experience was probably a good one. I still wouldn’t say it was necessary for someone his age, but I don’t think it was harmful.

* * *

Summer came, along with his fifth birthday. He had another round of day camp and swimming lessons, and man, he loves being in the pool. All the ambivalence you saw in T-ball was a faint memory when you saw how eagerly and joyously he went into the water. He would go every day if he could.

Fall came. My wife took me by surprise one day by suggesting we take the training wheels off his bike. Amid my skepticism, I started limbering up. Teaching my daughter (now 7) to ride on two wheels had been fairly backbreaking, as I was constantly hunched over, running alongside her with a hand on the handlebars until she was ready for me to let go … then bending over to pick her up after she teetered over. After a few weeks, I got a tip from another dad at the park to lower her seat way down. This made an immediate difference. Still, I had no illusion two-wheeling would be easy for child No. 2.

But within just a few seconds of his starting to pedal, my son called out, “Let go, Daddy! Let go!” And he was off. The kid who needs a court order before he’ll play catch with you was an utter natural on that racing-striped bike. After a quick reminder that he get a foot down when he wanted to stop, the instruction was all over. It was amazing.

Winter came. Thanks to the generosity of my parents, we made it to the snow, where daughter got her third week of ski lessons and eldest son got his second. Learning to ski involves a lot of moving parts. Getting the rhythm and mechanics of it can be a painstaking quest, and that’s when the weather’s nice. But my kids didn’t mind. They get it. They like it. They look forward to it. And they can now making their way down green runs with considerable ease and also have done several intermediate slopes.

And my son is fast. He’s got that little-kid, no-fear gene activated on the slopes. It’s a little scary, but it’s also pretty dang cool.

* * *

Immediately after coming home, we began my son’s first basketball season, which I greeted with much the same misgivings I had for T-ball, minus two: I wasn’t coaching, and I thought the pace of the game would engage my son’s interest more. And I have to say, he is always smiling. But many of those smiles have absolutely nothing to do with the game going on around him … or 30 feet away from him, given his intermittent reactions to what’s happening.

The game itself has no purpose for him. He knows the rules – get the ball and try to score – but he just doesn’t see a point in it. Whenever possible, he and one of his best buddies goof around. And then … snacks.

One time I told him (calmly, I promise) that it was great he was having fun but that he did have a responsibility to make his best effort out on the court. Otherwise, I’ve mostly let all this go. If a 5-year-old boy doesn’t see a purpose in the back and forth of basketball, well, is he wrong?

Meanwhile, his sister just had her first rock-climbing class (indoors, but otherwise the real deal) – for which the minimum age is 6. And I already know, exactly six months from today, my oldest son will be ready for his.

* * *

T-ball season is coming. Signups are this month, practices starting next month. I know that my son will survive, and heck, maybe he’ll even thrive.  It’ll be interesting to see how he does as a proven T-ball veteran as opposed to a mere T-ball prospect.

But here I have a boy who’s interested in at least four sports – swimming, biking, skiing and rock climbing – that he can do for the rest of his life. Who takes piano lessons and loves to read. Who concocts wild adventures for his stuffed animals. Who likes going to school and, in a 180-degree switch from his father, actually likes going to religious school. And so I do ask myself, “Why T-ball?”

I’m not worried that he’s overscheduled, not yet, because all this stuff is relatively spread out throughout the week, throughout the year. I’m still of a mind that playing T-ball will do him good, not harm – though I have very modest expectations about that good. I’m of a mind that even though baseball and basketball and soccer (the first one he tried) didn’t do it for him, team sports might still click for him at some point. Or, they won’t.

Right now, the value for him in playing baseball is twofold: the team camaraderie, and the possibility that the experience now will help him down the road, should he ever fall in like or love with the sport. There’s the possibility he’d someday regret him not playing T-ball. Whether those are reasons enough to have him out there, I’m not entirely sure. It might be just as possible that baseball will click for him when he’s not playing it.

I love baseball, but I don’t need my son to love it. He might even be better off not loving it.  A boy who loves swimming, biking and climbing is, as far as I’m concerned, just fine.

Feb 03

Sneak peek at the pitching staff

Tony Jackson has his Dodger pitching preview up, leading off with the question of whether Vicente Padilla will be that much of a dropoff from Randy Wolf. The danger is to place too much stock in Padilla’s short 2009 stint with the Dodgers.

I think Padilla might compare well to 2010 Wolf, but not quite so well to 2009 Wolf. Basically, both pitchers did better in a Dodger uniform last year than fans had a right to expect.

Feb 02

Rust never sleeps: Dodgers make late-night run for Ramon Ortiz

There will be two we can rebuild him Ortizes at Camelback Ranch this year. The Dodgers have signed former Angel Ramon Ortiz, who last pitched in the majors in 2007, to a minor-league contract, writes Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.

Ramon Ortiz, not to be confused with Russ Ortiz, pitched for the Giants’ AAA team last year, putting up decent numbers (3.05 ERA, 114 strikeouts against 158 baserunners in 129 2/3 innings) but never getting a callup.

Update: Tony Jackson has more on the signing of Ortiz and Alfredo Amezaga.