Greetings Lasorda’s Lair Nation, what is up? I’ve had a couple of days to absorb everything that went down during my recent trip to Dodgers Spring Training, and while there are many highlights from the trip such as meeting and interviewing pitcher Ross Sripling. My son getting Yasiel Puig‘s autograph, then having a riot break out because Puig was signing and “Psycho Autograph Guy/Guys” who sell everything they get signed started pushing little kids out of the way to try to get to Puig’s autograph forcing security to step in. (Sadly Puig only signed like 10 autographs because of (Psycho Autograph Dude) Walking off the practice field with Matt Kemp and asking him “Dude does it get old having all of these people screaming at you for autographs” and then having an extended conversation with Kemp who doesn’t speak to the media much. Meeting Sandy Koufax, the great Dodgers PR Staff who took such good care of me, the smell of the grass, the sound of the ball jumping off Puig’s bat during BP the same BP where he cleared a 40 ft. screen 400 ft away from home plate, watching Clayton Kershaw throw live BP, the “Yard House” and more specifically their Gluten Free menu which allowed me to eat real food for a change. Talking baseball poolside with Nashville Sounds (Brewers AAA) pitching coach Fred Dabney who introduced me to former Dodger “T-Bone” John Shelby and seeing his 1988 World Series Ring and so much more.
But the highlight had to be the hour I spent driving around the CBR complex riding shotgun in Ned Colletti’s golf cart, which culminated in us sitting behind the cage on Major League field #2 and watching the squad practice. I had to keep pinching myself to decide if this was indeed really happening, as the whole experience was quite surreal and extremely humbling. You see not only are we media members not allowed on the field at Spring Training, but Ned doesn’t do many 1 on 1 interviews, let alone give a full hour of his day to a no name blogger from Utah like me during camp, the same day he was finalizing the Erisbel Arruebarrena deal. I even had to ask him at one point why it was he’s been so gracious with his time to me and he said “I guess you just got lucky and caught me on a good day when we first met.”
Let me give you some background to explain how it is I met Ned and wound up with his cell # in my contacts. I began writing for Lasorda’s Lair in February of 2011. Back then I was the only writer on the site and a good day for us was having 75 people read one of my articles, most of whom were my family and friends. We were not an approved media outlet, meaning we didn’t have access to media credentials and people kept asking me, “How is someone from Utah going to cover the Dodgers?” So I set out for Camelback Ranch where I met Joe Reaves the Dodgers Director of Minor League Relations, as my goal at the time was to try and give our readers an ‘insider’ view of the Ogden Raptors, the clubs Rookie League squad who plays their home games 50 miles from my home. Joe spent an afternoon showing me around the complex and opened the door for the site to become an approved media outlet by putting me in contact with the PR Department. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that driving 100 miles daily to cover the Raptors wasn’t going to be possible because I couldn’t afford the gas money, let alone try to raise a 10 year old and keep my wife happy.
So I focused on growing our site, and fortunately our current Editors Scott and Stacie took over the reigns of Lasorda’s Lair late in 2011. They have done an amazing job and have taken the site to the next level, allowing me to take a lesser role as I was literally burned out from having posted nearly 500 articles in 12 months. In January 2013 the Dodgers held their annual Prospect Development Camp at CBR due to the renovations taking place at Dodger Stadium. I attended the camp and had the good fortune of interviewing Ned and Don Mattingly for over an hour with only Dylan Hernandez of the LA Times, Ken Gurnick of MLB.com and myself in the room. Ned and Donnie know Dylan and Ken well cause they do an amazing job of covering the team on a daily basis, but shortly into the interview after I asked Ned a question he responded by asking me “Now who are you again?” I explained and he said “You came all the way from Utah for this?” We had a great interview, but I won’t bore you with the details aside that it culminated with Ned giving me his cell # and granting me several subsequent interviews, and personally responding to text messages I sent him over the course of the year. I say this not so come across as “Look how cool I am I know Ned Colletti,” but to illustrate what a great guy he is and how down to earth he is.
So this Spring Training I decided to push my luck and ask him for a “few minutes of his time to talk,” while I was visiting camp. He went above and beyond my expectations by giving me nearly an hour of his time as I mentioned earlier. The challenge for me is how do I best give you as readers a taste of what we talked about when most of it is “off the record.” Early into our discussion he asked me “Do you mind shutting that thing off (my voice recorder) so we can just talk baseball,” and I was more than happy to comply. So rather than just quote him word for word it’s time to put on my ‘reporter hat’ and actually do some research and analysis which hopefully gives you some insight into how passionate he is about our beloved Dodgers, while not violating his trust and keeping his comments truly “off the record.”
The first thing we discussed was the off-season and how the organization has done such a great job of retaining key assets such as Mattingly, Clayton Kershaw, Brian Wilson, JP Howell etc…while also signing guys like Chris Perez, Alexander Guerrero and Jamey Wright about who Colletti said “I am really happy to have him back. He did a great job for us in 2012 and I probably said to myself 10 or 15 times during the season last year ‘I wish we wouldn’t have let Jamey Wright get away.’” He went on to explain, “I can’t put together a bullpen and have it consist of 7 or 8 guys, because we really need 13.” So those of us who have wondered how Chris Withrow and Paco Rodriguez could possibly not be a part of the opening day roster, me included, should instead be focused on how good it is that should injuries occur the club has depth and can turn to Chris Withrow and Paco or Jose Dominguez or any other of a number of great young arms the Dodgers bullpen now consists of. Colletti reinforced this by adding “Go look at our division and I can guarantee you that there are more games are within 1,2 or 3 runs from the 6th inning on,” which is why having the depth the Dodgers have will benefit them in the long run. Remember last spring when the Dodgers had too many starting pitchers? How did that work out? So don’t worry about the 4 outfielders getting playing time or what happens if Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley and Paul Maholm are all healthy, those are actually good problems to have.
Next I asked him just how valuable the experience the players gained during last years playoff run was and if guys still have a ‘bitter taste’ having gotten so close to the World Series and if that is something that will motivate them throughout the season. He talked about the culture of the club and how guys like Dan Haren wanted to be a Dodger because they want to win a championship. He also added that you can’t simulate what the pressure of the post-season is like and that the guys on the roster “want to compete at the highest level.” So while it may not be something that necessarily motivates them throughout the season, the players that got a taste of baseball at its highest level being so close to playing in a World Series and Colletti reiterated this when he said they “definitely want to get back there.”
Next I asked him about Stan Kasten and what it’s like working with him. He described Stan as a “Walking encyclopedia of baseball” and someone who has had success everywhere he’s been and at the highest level. This is just my opinion but I would think that some GM’s may feel threatened by having the organization sign someone with his experience as it would take away their ability to be the ultimate decision maker, as most GM’s answer directly to the owner. However, Ned praised ownership for having the vision to bring in as many great baseball minds as possible and how all that does is strengthen the organization and how fortunate he is to work with one of the best in the history of baseball in Stan Kasten. This reinforced my opinion that Colletti is all about establishing a winning culture. His individual success takes a back seat to the success of the organization and he was quick to deflect the praise I was throwing his way instead focusing the clubs success on the organization as a whole, not him individually.
Success is something Ned Colletti is familiar with. I found a bio of him on MLB.com which had some information that I honeslty found shocking. Remember he became the 5th Dodgers GM in an 8 year span when he was hired in November of 2005, giving the organization much needed stability at the GM position. He inherited a club that went 71-91 and since then the Dodgers join the Cardinals and Phillies as the only clubs to make the playoffs at least 4 times. Since 1997, as an Assistant GM or GM only twice has his club finished below .500. During the last 3 years the Dodgers minor league affiliates have the 2nd best winning percentage in all of MLB. Since he joined the club the Dodgers have more wins than any team in the NL West, 34 ahead of 2nd place San Francisco.
So you can see he’s a guy who is used to winning and the Dodgers have an MLB roster and farm system that should continue that trend for years to come. The next item we discussed was how much the new ownership group has invested not just in Major League salaries, but also in the fan experience and player development by completely revamping the scouting department. He said “go look at our season ticket numbers,” so I did and the organization has more than doubled the number of season ticket holders this year, compared to the amount they had during the final year of the previous ownership group. He also recommended that I look into the value of their new TV deal, and while many in the national media have labeled the Dodgers as the “West-Coast Yankees,” I disagree. Yes they have the highest payroll in baseball, but look at how that number compares to the amount of revenue they bring in each year via their TV deal. ESPN estimates the Dodgers payroll at just over $220 million for 2014, but the club’s TV deal is worth $8 billion or $320 million per season.
Also the Dodgers couldn’t be more different from the Yankees in terms of how they view scouting and player development. The Dodgers have one of if not the largest scouting departments in all of baseball, and the new ownership group has invested heavily in this area. Over the past 12 months the club has signed nearly 50 international free agents who Colletti called “the most talented group of international players we have ever had.” This model bodes well for the franchise as most of the international players they signed are 16-18 years old. The Dodgers have a core group of MLB players under contract for the next 5 years. This gives the organization time to properly let the youngsters develop, without having to rush them through the system, which should give the franchise an influx of young talent as the major league talent ages. The Dodgers payroll could look very different years from now when this young talent arrivies at Chavez Ravine.
Finally we spent a the majority of our time discussing Colletti’s philosophy as a GM and it’s all about depth, depth and more depth. “Think of it this way,” he told me, “depth is very important to me, if we don’t have it we will be paying $1.50 for every $1 we spend.” People wondered why we signed Juan Uribe but tell me who was he blocking when we signed him and who is he blocking now?” I feel that Uribe was one of the most important signings this off-season. Not only did they resign a gold glove caliber defender who is a great clubhouse guy, Ned called him “the most beloved player I have ever been associated with,” but if they don’t sign Uribe what direction do they go? My reply to Ned was ”imagine what you would have had to give up in terms of young assets to trade for someone to replace Uribe, and what’s scary to me isn’t who is Uribe blocking, but who steps in if he goes down for an extended period of time.” He smiled and said “exactly, now you are starting to think like a GM.”
The Dodgers biggest weakness is their lack of position player prospects who are MLB ready, particularly at middle infield which Colletti called “The toughest positions to fill in the MLB draft.” He urged me to go back and look at the Dodgers MLB drafts since he took over in 2006, so I did, and it wasn’t pretty. They have 1 player from the entire 2006 draft who has played in the majors and that’s Clayton Kershaw. 2007 yielded Chris Withrow, 4 players from the 2008 draft are in the majors Ethan Martin, Josh Lindblom, Nate Eovaldi and the ONLY position player Dee Gordon. 2009 has zero players and the guy with the best chance of reaching the majors is Stephen Piscotty who went unsigned and was eventually drafted by the Cardinals.
The questions I asked Ned is “do you blame the lack of success of those drafts to a lack of commitment from the previous owner to invest in the draft” and he said “absolutely not, we gave Zach Lee a $5.5 million signing bonus.” The 2010 draft includes the next position player likely to make an impact at the major league level, Joc Pederson, along with Lee. 2011′s class has not produced many MLB caliber prospects but Chris Reed is in MLB camp, as is Catcher Chris O’brien and 3B Alex Santana. However, the Dodgers last 2 drafts appear to be much stronger in terms of prospects that look to be MLB regulars, such as Corey Seager, Ross Stripling, Chris Anderson, as well as Paco Rodriguez who made it to the majors the same year he was drafted.
You can already see the impact of the investment ownership has made in the scouting department starting to pay dividends. The more scouts you have the more likely you are to make good draft picks. The Dodgers drafted just 1 position player since 2006 who has played in 100 MLB games or more, Dee Gordon. It’s understandable that the organization would be down a bit during that timeframe as many position players drafted from 2002-2003 have had successful MLB careers including Russell martin, AJ Ellis, James Loney, Matt Kemp. However if you look at the pattern you see that the club had draft success prior to 2004 and then again in 2012-2013. What changed in that timeframe? Is it just coincidence those were the same years the former owner purchased and then sold the franchise? I’ll leave that for you to judge.
However, in the last year they added Yasiel Puig and it’s likely that Alexander Guerrero and Arruenbarnena contribute this year and they have had better success drafting and signing pitchers recently than position players. But the point to all of this and how it relates to Ned Colletti is when your minor league system isn’t producing talent on a yearly basis you have to go other routes to acquire talent for the MLB roster. From his first trade, moving Milton Bradley for Andre Ethier, to acquiring Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Hanley Ramirez the Dodgers have improved their club dramatically via trades and free agency under Colletti. Yes he also signed Jason Schmidt, Andruw Jones and traded Carlos Santana, but look at the prospects as a whole that he has dealt and the scales are weighed decidedly in his favor. And it wasn’t until he mentioned it that I went back and looked at “Who was he (Uribe, Hanley, Adrian etc…) blocking when we got him and who is he blocking now?” Answering that question will help you understand why the Dodgers acquire whom they do.
I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to spend the time I did talking Dodgers baseball with Ned Colletti. I hope this has given you a glimpse into who he is and what his philosophy is and how that has translated into success for the Dodgers. He loves his cowboy boots and I regularly saw him interacting with any young kids who happened to be in the facility. In fact one of the first things he asked me is “I thought your son was here with you, I was looking forward to meeting him.” And it wasn’t him saying something to try to make me feel good, in fact later in the day my son and I were standing near the cart path and even though he was with a guest he stopped his cart and graciously stopped to talk with my 10 year old for a couple of minutes. He didn’t need to do that but he did because that’s just who he is. He’s a down to earth, extremely smart, passionate baseball mind who has won at every organization he’s been with, even the Cubs. I know I’m better off for having the opportunity to spend time with him and based on the success the Dodgers have had and the talent they have assembled, Dodger nation as a whole is fortunate to have Ned Colletti running the show.