At What Point Do You Abort Operation “Frankenteam”?
The plan from the beginning was simple. Transform a team that had been left for dead by Major League Baseball, knock off the many layers of rust and gunk that had accumulated from more than 20 years of neglect, reenergize a disillusioned fan base capable of packing a stadium to record attendance figures – and get a thin farm system off the mat.
This is the challenge the Guggenheim backed ownership group faced when paying perhaps twice what experts imagined the team would go for a little over a year ago.
It was akin to the Germans fighting wars on two fronts – and those a bit familiar with history and less on what is going on on Instagram know how that turned out.
The Dodgers needed to win now – if only to get people interested in the sadly irrelevant team – and more important, make sure they were in a good position to win for years after.
The most important part of the equation is the latter – winning long-term. The farm, which had been so fertile for so long, after former GM Dan Evans put a plan in place to go back to the Dodgers rich history of developing players the “Dodgers Way”, hiring Logan White and other brilliant scouts, had dried up. The better prospects were rushed to the bigs as a cost-cutting advantage previous owner Frank McCourt demanded.
McCourt’s brilliantly nefarious plan could be looked at sideways as returning the team to its glory and strength – a team built on home grown talent – but in actuality was a way to afford him and his then wife more mansions and expensive haircuts.
The cost though of pushing kids through the system quickly is eventually being left without a chair to sit down in. McCourt used up the precious resources – some ready, some less so – and didn’t stockpile behind them. In the end, without trying to sign top draft picks, mostly opting for cheaper alternatives (“signable” guys), and not supplementing the system with international signings (a staple under Evans’ regime), the cupboards were mostly bare when Guggenheim came in.
So, the most important goal was to get the farm filled again and producing, and at the same time, convincing fans who had seen disappointments, bankruptcy and people being knocked into comas by Raider Nation style thugs (which makes Magic Johnson’s constant tweets of “Dodger Nation” somewhat offensive to anyone with a brain) that better days were ahead – and soon.
So to buy time and create good will, Stan Kasten and company added superstar names that would create a buzz and make fans believe the real Dodgers were back. To do this, they had to create their own shopping season, rather than wait for the sparse winter of 2012 free-agent crop. This was a smart way to go as they set their own market and could pick from high-priced players available via trade by teams looking to dump payroll.
Boston, of course, became a good spot to begin the shopping spree. The Red Sox, through internal problems and injuries, unceremoniously struggled through a challenging 2012 and looked to clean house. They had parts that appealed to the Dodgers, mostly their Mexican-American first baseman, Adrian Gonzalez, who would be a nice cornerstone to the Dodgers’ rebuild.
After years of tepid performances at first by James Loney, Gonzalez’ big bat and appealing personal background seemed like a wonderful addition to the team, adding immediately to the offensive woes in the infield, as well as creating a star appeal the team needed more of.
To get Gonzalez, the Dodgers took on Boston’s other unappealing contracts, such as out of place and injured outfielder Carl Crawford, who never fit in with Boston and found it difficult to stay healthy and get on the field and former ace Josh Beckett, whose skills had declined and also had physical problems.
The deal made history and told MLB fans that the new Dodgers ownership group would go to any length to compete, unlike the previous owner.
The real purpose of all of this, as well as the addition of Zack Greinke and other contracts that followed, was to cobble together a “Frankenteam” of superstars, some past their prime, some injury marred, and give the farm the necessary two or three years to catch up.
Wisely, the team got back into the international signings business, always an effective way to augment a farm system, and signed what may be the crown jewel of international signings in recent years – Cuban defector Yasiel Puig, who in one week plus of big league games is already being compared to the game’s elite players.
But the problem with a Frankenteam is it’s like its mythic namesake, just a jumble of parts, not a whole thing. The Dodgers were always going to face challenges with a group of sometimes unmotivated superstars, not to mention the physical question marks many of them came with.
Fans who understood what was happening were just happy that the new ownership group was trying – a change from the previous rich guy who didn’t give a shit. Other fans, who don’t follow things that closely, just saw superstar names and began chanting taunts to annoying Giants fans and spoke of World Series appearances.
The Dodgers have been mostly mediocre, sometimes pretty good, other times embarrassingly bad, since 1981’s championship season. The 1988 season is one fans remember fondly, but if you recall, before and after that anomaly, the team was nondescript and unimpressive much of the time. I point to the end of the O’Malley era, his focus on bringing an NFL team to Los Angeles, and the casual neglect to the farm, which stopped producing players who knew the “Dodgers Way” and were more just random tools guys, as the start of the downfall.
One just has to look at teams in recent years that spend a lot – most don’t win. The teams that tend to do well are the teams that are hungry and play as teams. Last year’s Oakland A’s, Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays, and so on. The high-cost teams usually disappoint, and most understand that buying a championship isn’t that easy, with occasional exceptions.
As a lifelong Dodgers fan, I was pleased what appeared to be the darkest days were behind us, and happy we just had a chance, especially a few years down the line. I was never fooled by the rhetoric, or P.R. photo ops with a smiling Magic Johnson in a Dodgers cap. Nice gesture for the pedestrian fan, but an old cynic like myself, who had been lied to and abused for a good portion of my life, I wasn’t taken in.
Nonetheless, I was very happy to see some star performers in Dodgers blue and more, a focus on the farm system again. My complaint, and I voiced it many times, was that Kasten and other Guggenheim partners began boasting, spouting off comments of “anything less than a World Series appearance will be a disappointment”.
That’s where I take umbrage. The team wasn’t built for that, and hadn’t won anything. The second half of 2012, in fact, was as horrible as anything that had come before it in recent years. To suggest that the cast of characters that couldn’t score more than a run or two per game the end of 2012, would somehow challenge for a World Series seemed misguided and also foolish. Why boast about anything? Why not be quiet and god forbid – humble?
I think the bragging was to drum up excitement and sell tickets. The Dodgers fans finally hit McCourt where it hurt, by refusing to go to games. The action took a long time to happen, but it finally did. A coma and public outrage will do that occasionally. So, to ensure Dodgers fans that friendly new owners with good intentions were in charge, a few cheesy comments about World Series titles seemed to be needed.
The problem with making remarks like that, people tend to believe you. So, the expectations went from transition team a couple of years away to World Series contender – now.
When I criticize Kasten and the team it’s not me criticizing the uniform, the rich history, the dreams of future championships – it’s I’d like to believe an intelligent reaction to being manipulated in some ways. I don’t think the intention was vicious, but nonetheless, I, like many of you, have been sold a bill of goods for years, decades. I take my Dodgers very seriously – too seriously, some would argue – and as such, I don’t like being jerked around. Kasten and company, perhaps with the best of intentions, jerked us around.
I earlier pointed to spending $220M or so on payroll, making boasts and suggesting the new Dodgers only need to show up – like vintage Mike Tyson – and the other teams would tremble and fall to their knees.
The fact of the matter is a group of highly paid egos do not a team make. This blue Frankenteam – for all of its expense – still had holes, and many of them. When you spend $140M plus, not to mention much more than that, you should not have many – any? – holes.
The Latino fan base fell in love with Luis Cruz due to his nationality and a nice 70 game audition in 2012, but with all that passion, they forgot he was a career minor leaguer who played mostly shortstop and struggled in the big leagues. He isn’t exactly a kid either, and was seen by baseball’s scouts for what he is – a good fielder with versatility, but not a full-time big leaguer, at short, or anywhere – let alone a regular third baseman in the major leagues.
The left side of the infield was a question since the guy best suited for third was insisting on playing short, and the guy who could be a backup at short was playing third. Fans refused, due to a love of the blue and hope things were what ownership said they would be – a championship team in the making, to believe reality.
The biggest issue though was the bullpen, which was thin. Top teams do not have thin bullpens. People argue with me that our pen isn’t thin, just underperforming, but I will say that assuming Brandon League is a championship caliber stopper is not based in reality. At best, the Dodgers – Mattingly, Kasten, whoever is ultimately responsible for these decisions – should have understood Kenley Jansen should close, with League setting up. That may have worked, and still might, as League seems to finally have been booted out of the closer’s role. It took long enough.
Ideally, the Dodgers would have signed Soriano, or dealt for a closer somehow, and perhaps kept League as a setup man along with Jansen. The smart GMs built from the back of their bullpen out, thus shortening games and making the bridge from their starters to their closer as seamless as possible.
It’s mid-June and perhaps the team is getting this, but why it took from March until now to understand is beyond me. All of those losses, solid pitching performances by all of the starters given away by the pen, will definitely come back to haunt this team. A loss in April or May or early June is as meaningful as one in September.
Not that it matters, perhaps. The team is what it is. An expensive collection of parts with holes and an ownership group lying to us because they don’t think we can handle the truth.
Besides the reluctance of ownership and management to address issues based in reality, I more importantly question why Kasten is ignoring what seems obvious to many fans. Some of the kids that are long-term components of the team’s future are pushing the envelope ahead of schedule. Names I’m referring to of course include Puig, Scott Van Slyke, who has reinvented himself, Joc Pederson, Tim Federowicz and a few others.
I completely understand and can appreciate putting an expensive band aid on the team while the farm caught up, but once proven stars were either underperforming and/or injured, and the kids behind them were kicking the door down to be noticed, I think to not accept reality and make necessary adjustments, putting star egos aside, was very foolish. This is where I am most disappointed with Kasten, Mattingly, Ned, and anyone else involved in these decisions.
Not being a baseball insider, perhaps the reason for this indifference is based on years of proven scouting expertise. Maybe they felt that guys like Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Cruz, Sellers, Ramon Hernandez, Ted Lilly, Chad Billingsley, etc., in any condition or state, were better than the kids who to a lay man would appear to be a better option.
I don’t know; I’m not a scout. I do have a good intuition however and have watched the game for decades and know that with the PED scandals and occasional testing, it seems quite coincidental to me that once a superstar is paid, he stops performing. You can look around the league and see cases where this is the case. It’s possible it’s a coincidence, but seems unlikely to me.
Coupled with this, the changing game has focused to younger players, many with very little seasoning. Perhaps they’re just better than the older, proven superstars, or maybe they’re juiced, hoping for that big payday the stars already received and perhaps have given up life threatening drugs in favor of fat bank accounts and a lifetime of health.
I have no clue why the kids around the league are more often the superstars nowadays than the guys we all watched on SportsCenter just a year or two ago, but it is fact. And given that our experienced stars were struggling, physical ailments or no, and our kids ramming through the door, perhaps at some point Kasten and company should have acknowledged that perhaps the two to three year plan was happily being expedited.
As we know, finally some of the kids I mentioned did force the issue, mostly due to injuries to the stars, and have gotten a chance. It took a long time, much like the closer change, and no doubt cost us wins. The wins in a West that is devoid of a runaway team, unless you count the Diamondbacks, who appear poised to do just that, could mean what might have been a competitive 2013 to what may be one of the worst seasons in memory. The team’s winning percentage is as low as any in nearly 80 years.
What’s the answer when you have so much money invested in players, and more, do not want to hurt any of these precious darlings’ egos? It seems outside of not knowing how to motivate a group of millionaires, and perhaps not sure how to put together a lineup card (why did it take about two months for Mattingly to understand Kemp and Ethier should not be batting back to back in the 4-5 slots?), he (or Kasten) also don’t realize to play the best players any given day, even if the best players are lesser paid and younger than the guys ahead of them.
While it’s very possible an outfield of Van Slyke, Pederson and Puig would be eaten alive by big league pitchers, it’s more probable they would do more than what was being trotted out there for a good eight weeks.
I think it’s time to admit aspects of a Frankenteam aren’t always perfect, and seldom are, and to put egos aside and play the best players any given day, in a lineup that makes the most sense and maximizes ability. Also worth admitting, Logan White and company are pretty damn brilliant and to their credit – not Kasten’s – some of these talented kids are ready to play earlier than imagined.
The season has a lot of time left, and realistically I don’t see a World Series appearance in our immediate future. I don’t think the team, as it currently is, will finish above third. I think the bullpen is a nightmare and needs to be addressed if any chance of winning is entertained. Without a strong bullpen, no team is going to win. The 2013 Dodgers are not going to win without tweaks and additions to the current pen.
I think Kasten has to figure out what the rest of this season is about. Is it challenging in the West? If so, make the changes, add a closer or solid late innings guy and blow out pieces of crap like Bellisario, who should be arrested for arson for his “performance” this year.
If the idea is to continue to buy time for guys like Corey Seager and the recent June draft picks to make their way up, then trade some of the veterans to contenders now and add more kids to the farm. We have holes at third base and within the pitching ranks, starting and relieving, and eventually even second and short. Stop lying to us; sell parts if you truly believe this edition of the Dodgers can’t win.
If Kasten does that, and comes back with a third baseman like Mike Olt or Nick Castellanos, I will be happy. I’ll cheer the exploits of the kids we have in the fold now and root for those learning on the job, or ripening on the farm. I get it. I never expected a Frankenteam to win it all. Few have; most fail.
I think its high time ownership treats us like knowledgeable fans and vocalize what is going on and what the plan is. Lay out that it’s not a long rebuilding process, that some of the pieces have already made it to the Ravine. We see them – Puig, Van Slyke, Federowicz, Chris Withrow, Stephen Fife, etc. More are coming, lots more.
Or, stay the course they chose and address the porous bullpen. Add a third baseman, cut ties with underperformers like Cruz and Bellisario. Do not be afraid to make adjustments when adjustments are called for. Being passive and fearful is no way to run a baseball team. Winners aren’t afraid to act. Perhaps the plan is to stay the course, in which case, maybe more than player personnel changes are needed. Perhaps the coaching staff and manager have issues.
Do what it takes. Whatever it takes. We can handle it. We’ve been kicked around and shit on for decades in some form or other. We understand things are better and the people in charge do actually have our best interests in mind. No one is mistaking the Guggenheim gang for the McCourts. Just get it right. Give us a reason to cheer and to feel proud to wear a blue hat in public.
Dodgers fans are a resilient bunch; we have to be. We are not “Dodger Nation”, we are not idiots. It’s up to ownership, not us, to make the final three and a half months something to be excited about.