All things considered, the Dodgers managed to hold their ground fairly well in recent weeks, as the July 31st “Treadline” (thank you, Alanna Rizzo!) drew nearer and nearer for them*. For their part, the front office has done a nice job holding THEIR ground so far, not making any panicky decisions, in spite of this somewhat desperate situation. However, they don’t deserve to be commended, until we see what they DO have planned, especially seeing how they’ve let at least one good opportunity to bolster their depleted starting rotation, in the form of Scott Kazmir, pass them by. By the end of this week, we’ll have a lot more to talk about. But speaking of Scott Kazmir, with the A’s coming to Chavez Ravine and considering the men who currently occupy the Dodgers’ front office, this seems like the perfect opportunity to examine the Moneyball reality- more accurately “Billyball”, but we’ll stick to the more well-known name association- how it relates to the Dodgers.
First because of Moneyball the book, then compounded by Moneyball the movie, Billy Beane has been given latitude by fans and critics that no other GM has gotten. To the hard core SABR crowd, he is a beacon of light against the cranky, condescending Bill Plaschkes of the world. (Never mind such condescending remarks FROM Moneyball about “stupid” General Managers, who went for high school pitchers like Zack Greinke and Matt Cain, while “card counting” Billy Beane gunned for Joe Blanton and Jeff Francis. But I digress.) For that reason, the praise is always louder when things work, while the criticism is always muted or covered in qualifiers when it doesn’t. Never was this more evident than last season, when Beane took an enormous risk with lasting consequences, trading the A’s flashy, cleanup-hitting outfielder, Yoenis Cespedes, for Jon Lester, a rental. (Granted, an OUTSTANDING rental, but a rental nevertheless.) Any other GM who trades their cleanup hitter for a rental player, with anything short of a World Series appearance- let alone losing THE WILDCARD GAME- would have gotten destroyed in the press, not to mention by legions of fans, perhaps even getting fired in the end. But while there were a fair number of grumbles, Beane’s defenders- of which he has many- mostly drowned them out and shrugged, stating that Cespedes was overrated and that Billy had to “go for it”. This, of course, runs counter to EVERYTHING that Billy Beane supposedly stands for, famously stating that the playoffs are a “crapshoot”. And I’ll say this for Beane- he didn’t back down from that after the 2014 late season meltdown, claiming that Jon Lester helped the team win games. This is true, but it’s also true that Cespedes’s presence in the lineup very well could have helped them win more, avoiding a position where the A’s were forced to play in the wildcard game AT ALL. The final insult of this midseason trade occurred AFTER the season, when the A’s didn’t even get a DRAFT PICK after Lester walked, seeing how he was a midseason acquisition.
From there, it got even worse for the A’s. Famous for using the “small market” excuse in good times and bad, Beane still somehow managed find $30 million under the couch cushion to sign Billy Butler, a designated hitter in decline. He then flipped Josh Donaldson, a budding, cost controlled star first acquired by Beane while Donaldson was still in the low minors, for four comparatively low-impact players- the ultimate “quality-for-quantity” exchange. By any measure, the whole sequence of events was a debacle, except for the one used by Beane’s army of apologists, who actually use the Pythagorean Theorem to “prove” the A’s are simply unlucky, claiming that their run differential shows they are a much better team than their record would otherwise indicated. A’s fans who don’t feel enamored with the “genius” of Billy Beane might think otherwise. (For the record, citing a Math theorem, normally taught in 10th grade Math, is more surreal than any caricature that a critic of sabermetrics could ever conjure up.)
If history is any guide, Beane’s fans will counter that the Donaldson deal has not played out yet, that we will have to wait a few years to see how it truly plays out. We could be charitable and grant them this point, especially seeing how Donaldson HIMSELF was one of those low-minor prospects that ended up working out. But that’s also part of the problem- even if someone from the Donaldson trade DOES work out long-term, he won’t be with Oakland long enough for the fans to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Such is life as an Oakland A’s fan, with Billy Beane and his fans/defenders/apologists/whatever-you-want-to-call-them claiming victory, while the team on the field cannot. And therein lies the difference between Beane and Andrew Friedman.
Okay, Let’s Get Back To The Dodgers Now!
Many within baseball’s inner circle(s) regard Andrew Friedman to be just as sharp and effective as Billy Beane himself, if not more so. But outside of those circles, he is regarded as someone who has been handed the keys to MLB’s most expensive kingdom. Many have claimed that if Friedman can take methods first made popular by Beane WITH a real budget to work with, there’s no stopping him. It is far too early to evaluate what he’s done with any certainty, but the early results so far, while certainly not bad, are also a little bit underwhelming.
There is no denying Friedman’s success in Tampa, but that was a place where almost nobody cared about baseball to begin with. Oakland may indeed be a “small market”, but they have a team that has had a fair amount of historical success since the early 1970’s, which has helped paved the way to a dedicated fanbase. Andrew Friedman got his team in Tampa further in the postseason than Billy Beane ever did with his in Oakland. However, Brad Pitt never played Andrew Friedman in the movies, so Friedman’s lasting legacy has yet to be written. It’s fair to assume that a significant part of it will be in the next few days. Since all we can do until July 31st is speculate, how about the job that he’s done so far?
The Dodgers are in first place, but after a relentless surge by the always streaking Giants- partially thanks to an assist from Beane’s hapless crew- it is just about a virtual tie at this point. Besides, contrary to the conventional wisdom that he inherited a mess, the increasingly maligned and misremembered 2014 Dodgers won 94 games. So it’s not like he was inheriting what’s left of the Philadelphia Phillies. And while the two extremely controversial, franchise-changing winter meeting deals have so far worked out far better than many of us Dodger fans imagined (particularly the Kemp for Grandal & Rollins deal), the lack of starting and relief depth has really taken its toll on the team. Friedman and his defenders have often hinted at bad luck as to the reason for this, but that seems a little too convenient, especially seeing how James Shields is pitching fairly well for the Padres, while Dan Haren does the same for the Marlins, while still on the Dodgers payroll. It’s unfair to claim clairvoyance for Matt Kemp’s regression and Yasmani Grandal improving in every major category, while shrugging off Brandon McCarthy, a sabermetric favorite who was signed for $48 million, claiming Friedman couldn’t be blamed for an injury that was different than many had previously anticipated. (We still don’t know how Brett Anderson, who has pitched well but seems like a potential ticking time bomb, will rebound after HIS latest mishap.)
So we’ll see how it all plays out over the next three days. The one thing that we DO know is that Fahran Zaidi, Friedman’s top lieutenant and official general manager of the Dodgers, did not successfully use his Oakland connection to bring Scott Kazmir to Los Angeles, if he even tried. Should this be commended, or criticized? We’ll probably know by the end of the week.
So Who Do The Dodgers Get, And Who Do They Trade?
Well, we know who the Dodgers SHOULD get, above all others- a #3 starter worthy of a championship-aspiring team, and an 8th inning guy. Tyler Clippard, ANOTHER guy who played for Oakland, is heading to New York now. Is Jonathan Papelbon REALLY that bad of a guy that the Dodgers can’t show a LITTLE bit of interest in him? And please hold off on the, “Too much remaining on the contract” stuff- not with the way THIS ownership and front office have spent money. Maybe he just refuses to be an 8th inning guy. Who knows?
As for starters, we DO know that it will probably come down to Cole Hamels and David Price, seeing how we can scratch Johnny Cueto and Kazmir off the list. But what will it take to get one of them to call Dodger Stadium home, and will it be worth it? Corey Seager and Julio Urias appear to be off limits. Generally speaking, “Prospects are suspects until proven otherwise”, as radio talk show host Ben Maller likes to say, but these two are not ordinary prospects. Corey Seager is the number one prospect in baseball, even if his recent hitting in AAA hasn’t reflected that. (He did move very quickly through the minor league system.) Julio Urias is fairly close behind, a fact that’s all the impressive given that he’s still a teenager. Sure, these guys might not pan out, but then again, neither may Cole Hamels! Ultimately, it would probably be best if the Dodgers would trade a couple of top prospects BESIDES those guys, throw in an established Major Leaguer and pay for the bulk of his salary (hey, what’s one more to the Guggenheim group?), and call it a day.
Of course, no trade talks would be complete this year without discussing Yasiel Puig. Forget his attitude- if things continue the way they have been going over the past few weeks, it may start to look like the Dodgers would have been better off keeping Matt Kemp! (For the record, I’m not actually saying this. It’s just striking how a mere three weeks ago, it was a foregone conclusion that the Dodgers dodged a bullet by trading Kemp, while his numbers are now within striking distance of Puig’s.) Nevertheless, the Dodger experience without Kemp, Dee Gordon, and Hanley Ramirez has lost some personality. I’m all for professionalism, but this year’s team, quiet honestly, has been a little bit dull at times. I’m not arguing to keep Puig based on THIS, but sports is, ultimately, entertainment. There’s still too much there to give up on the guy so (presumably) early in his career. Having said that, the Dodgers would be ill-advised to NOT trade him for the right price. But what IS the right price? In my mind, it’s not anyone over 30, not even Cole Hamels. This front office already gave up too early on one potential young star in Gordon. If they’re going to trade another one with such a high ceiling, this time, they’d better get one back with a similar profile. (On a sidenote, how crazy would it actually be for the Dodgers to trade Yasiel Puig on his bobblehead night?)
Meanwhile, On The Field…
The Dodgers finally return home, clinging to their lead by a thread, facing the same hapless A’s we’ve already spent so much time discussing in this post. Unfortunately, the first game is anything but favorable, with ace Sonny Gray taking the hill. Wednesday is looking a little bit better, with Clayton Kershaw on the mound, facing…somebody. I’m not sure who it is, and I’m not interested enough to check. The only thing I know is that it’s not Scott Kazmir.
*I started writing this post at the beginning of the weekend, and I’m not letting what happened the past few days change that first sentence!