Dodgers writing their own script for success
Hefty payroll draws attention, but club's chemistry integral to NLCS berth
LOS ANGELES -- Somebody used the phrase "West Coast Yankees" in the presence of Ned Colletti, and from the look on the Dodgers general manager's face, you would have thought somebody had insulted his mother or, at the least, swiped the last cannoli from out of his grasp.
"We're the West Coast Dodgers, pal," Colletti replied sharply, in that awesome Chicago-tough accent of his.
It was a funny and telling moment late Monday night amid the craziness of the Dodgers' clubhouse celebration of their Juan Uribe-led comeback clincher over the Braves in the National League Division Series. Indeed, Yankees comparisons are problematic at this point, because, last we checked, the Yanks have not ascended to the level these Dodgers have in 2013.
Still, there's no denying that the Yankees invented the $200 million model on which the Dodgers now operate. Maybe it would be a stretch to say this organization's turnaround is stunning, because when you infuse sleeping giants with energy and intellect and considerable financial backbone, results are only a matter of time.
But time is the central stunner here, because the reborn, refocused and rejuvenated Dodgers, to their credit, wasted none of it in ascending back into the ranks of the NL's elite. And they did so in a game in which, by virtue of revenue sharing and more natural aging curves and thinning free-agent markets, it has proven to be increasingly difficult to simply buy your way to a title.
"You've still got to play the game," controlling partner Mark Walter said. "That's what's great about baseball. Anything can happen."
So, yeah, the transformation that's taken place here, both in terms of the Dodger Stadium experience ($100 million was infused into the beautiful old ballpark) and the product on the field, is a little surprising, from that standpoint.
For Colletti and Co., very little has gone wrong in the realm of player acquisition. Suffice to say, it doesn't always work out that way in the business of ball.
"Everybody makes a big deal about the payroll, and there's no doubt the payroll is in a very lofty spot," Colletti said. "But we were at $90 million a season ago, and to me that's as interesting as being at $200 million plus. There are a lot of teams that have spent $300 million over the last two years, in terms of total spent."
True, but the infusion of cash since May 1, 2012, when the Guggenheim Baseball Management group officially seized control from Frank McCourt -- a vile name in this neck of the woods -- has been outrageous, as has the impact.
The onus was obvious.
"We needed to reinvigorate the club, reinvigorate the city," Colletti said. "We had to get a little bit of our reputation back. And we had to act quickly and do some things. Fortunately, that's how [the members of the ownership group] think, and we were fortunate to have the opportunity."
Opportunities are ultimately only what you make of them. Rather than wait for the free-agent possibilities to present themselves, the Dodgers dove right into their new cash considerations by essentially buying Hanley Ramirez from the Marlins, who were fed up with his act and his salary. Los Angeles forked over Nathan Eovaldi to Miami and committed to paying about $40 million for Ramirez, a player who had only scratched the surface of his talent level and sometimes caused controversy with his effort level. It was a gamble, but one the Guggenheim group was able to afford, and Colletti said at the time that it felt "liberating" to finally be freed from the spending shackles and be able to make a worthwhile baseball trade.
They don't hand out Most Valuable Player Awards for the NLDS, but Hanley, obviously, would have won that hardware had it existed. The Dodgers believe Hanley would have been a bona fide NL MVP Award candidate had health not intervened in an otherwise stellar season. Though Yasiel Puig's arrival created more headlines, it was Ramirez's return to the lineup that truly sparked the Dodgers' June awakening. Nevertheless, don't lose sight of the superb scouting (Mike Brito's Midas touch came through once again) and, yes, the incredible investment (seven years, $42 million) that went into landing Puig.
Hanley. Puig. Zack Greinke (six years, $147 million). Hyun-Jin Ryu (six years, $36 million). And of course, the biggest, boldest blockbuster in baseball history -- the $220 million bailout of the Red Sox that has proven, even with Josh Beckett sidelined, to be an entirely worthwhile baseball endeavor for both parties.
"Every time you make a move with a player, there's a risk," Colletti said. "We believe in our scouts, and we believe in the people that are in our decision-making process and my own due diligence in how to go about it. Not everything's going to work. We're talking about human beings."
The Dodgers are a group of human beings who tend to do things in bold fashion, so the Uribe homer (and there's a three-year, $21 million deal that took a while to work out but worked out, all the same) was a fitting final touch to the NLDS clincher.
Heck, even in their choice of a starting pitcher for Game 4, the Dodgers added a flair for the dramatic that is fitting for a club situated so close to Hollywood. If Clayton Kershaw was the starter with a 2-1 series lead, then he most assuredly would have been the starter had Los Angeles faced a 2-1 deficit. But the NL West champs didn't make that knowledge public until mere hours before first pitch.
Kershaw, by the way, is about to become the Dodgers' next profound purchase.
It's easy to look at all of this and get a little cynical. The Dodgers' NL Championship Series opponent will either be a St. Louis Cardinals club that is the envy of every other organization in terms of its seemingly endless homegrown stash of talent. Or the Pittsburgh Pirates -- a club that built a winner from the ground up by taking advantage of its once-regular high position in the First-Year Player Draft and several low-profile, big-impact acquisitions from the outside.
The Dodgers, by comparison, look like a bunch of hired hands. But to read things that way is to ignore the galvanizing moments that turned an assemblage of talent into a cohesive club. Hey, do you think it was an absolute given that a club with such extreme personalities and such a collection of cultures was so certain to mesh?
To Colletti, the most galvanizing moment of all was June 12, when Puig was hit by a 92-mph Ian Kennedy fastball to the nose, sparking a series of retaliatory pitches and a lengthy scrum near the Arizona on-deck circle.
"We had a meeting with the Diamondbacks on the field for about 15 minutes," Colletti joked. "That night, this room was emotional. And that night, guys who would be passing acquaintances in the room started to bond together. And the next day, they were tighter. And the next day, they were tighter. All those things add up."
They add up to this NLCS entry, which is the creation of a lot of cash. That it was well-spent is the most pivotal point.
"I've been here like eight years and I've seen a lot of different things," Colletti said. "It's always been interesting. I've learned a lot through it all. When Guggenheim came in on May 1, 2012, their goal was to make us as good as they can, as fast as they can for as long as they can."
Maybe, like the Yankees, the repercussions of some of these investments will reveal themselves in the coming years. But right now, the West Coast Dodgers, with a postseason pulse in an electric atmosphere, are unconcerned with the comparison and quite content with their own identity, thank you very much.