The Least Popular Man in LA

Paul DePodesta first gained national prominence when Michael Lewis portrayed him as Billy Beane‘s number-crunching assistant in Moneyball. When DePodesta’s name first surfaced as a candidate for the Dodgers’ General Manager job this past off-season, that was the only image most LA sportswriters had of him: a Harvard kid who trusts his computer more than his scouts.

Given that beat writers and columnists tend to be friendly with scouts (and suspicious of sabermetrics), their negative reaction to his hiring shouldn’t have been surprising (I’d link to Bill Plaschke‘s embarrassingly unprofessional and inaccurate hack job, but the LA Times has moved it to their paid archives; instead, you can read Aaron Gleeman’s rebuttal).

Despite the inevitable scrutiny from the press, DePodesta hasn’t shied away from making controversial moves. Just before the start of the season, he traded for troubled outfielder Milton Bradley. Bradley’s talent and potential were undeniable, but given Depodesta’s reputation, the shower of criticism for ignoring “chemistry” and “intangibles” was predictable.

The public scorn after that deal still didn’t compel DePodesta to play it safe. With his team in first place at the July trading deadline, DePodesta undertook a dramatic overhaul of his roster. It’s not uncommon for a contending team to deal a prospect or two for a short-term upgrade; but not only did DePodesta do that, he traded three regular players in a major lineup makeover.

The Dodgers dealt longtime catcher Paul Lo Duca, regular rightfielder Juan Encarnacion and superb middle reliever Guillermo Mota to the Marlins for two players relatively unfamiliar to the casual Dodger fan (pitcher Brad Penny and first baseman Hee Seop Choi) and a pitching prospect (Bill Murphy). They then dealt Murphy and prospects Koyie Hill and Reggie Abercrombie to Arizona for veterans Steve Finley and Brent Mayne.

Rarely does a contending team (let alone a first-place team in a tight race) give up established players for younger, cheaper players. The press has castigated DePodesta for the Florida trade. In addition to their focus on chemistry and their inability to recognize the value of the players received, the mainstream writers have sounded a common refrain: “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

DePodesta explained to Ken Gurnick of mlb.com, “I inherited 60 players in the spring and it’s logical that this year there would be more activity than any other to bring in more of my players.”

Rather than dive into the details of this weekend’s trading frenzy (we’ll leave that to Aaron), let’s look at the bigger picture: what has DePodesta done with the talent in the organization since taking over? He said he wanted to bring in his players — who are they? How does the Dodgers’ lineup stack up now compared to when he took over — and how will it look down the road?

Let’s look at the core of the Dodger team DePodesta inherited this spring, and what he’s molded it into now:

POS February August
C Paul Lo Duca Dave Ross/Brent Mayne
1B Robin Ventura Hee Seop Choi/Jayson Werth
2B Alex Cora Alex Cora
3B Adrian Beltre Adrian Beltre
SS Cesar Izturis Cesar Izturis
LF Shawn Green Shawn Green
CF Dave Roberts Steve Finley
RF Juan Encarnacion Milton Bradley
SP Hideo Nomo Brad Penny
SP Odalis Perez Odalis Perez
SP Edwin Jackson/Wilson Alvarez Jose Lima
SP Kaz Ishii Kaz Ishii
SP Jeff Weaver Jeff Weaver
RP Eric Gagne Eric Gagne
RP Guillermo Mota Darren Dreifort
RP Darren Dreifort Yhency Brazoban
RP Tom Martin Wilson Alvarez

I list Choi and Jayson Werth as a platoon at first base, but manager Jim Tracy is planning to take advantage of his players’ flexibility and use a more interesting platoon for the remainder of the season. Werth will play left field against lefties, with Bradley in right field and Green at first base. Against right-handed pitchers, Green will move to the outfield, Choi will man first base and Werth will sit on the bench.

The drop-off at catcher is undeniable; DePodesta attempted to acquire Charles Johnson to fill that hole, but Johnson refused to waive his no-trade clause, so the Dodgers will cast their lot with a decent young backup (David Ross) and a washed-up old backup (Mayne). However, the upgrades at first base and in the outfield are dramatic. Robin Ventura, once a fine player who deserves more Hall of Fame consideration than he will receive, would likely be the worst offensive first baseman in the league. Meanwhile a Choi/Werth platoon would be quite productive (Choi is quietly hitting .270/.388/.495 this year, while Werth is at .279/.355/.525).

Encarnacion, overrated due to his decent HR, RBI and SB totals, doesn’t hit enough to man a corner outfield spot (.266/.311/.442 career); Bradley is already a much better all-around player (both offensively and defensively), while younger and cheaper. While Roberts is a superb base-stealer, he isn’t that great a leadoff hitter, thanks to his unremarkable on-base percentage (.335 career, .340 this year). Finley is only a two-month rental, but he does represent a clear upgrade for this season (though advanced defensive statistics such as Ultimate Zone Rating suggest that he’s no longer the fielder he is reputed to be).

After two seasons as a top-of-the-rotation anchor, Hideo Nomo has been a huge disappointment. His collapse left the Dodgers with only one starter (Odalis Perez) pitching well enough to inspire confidence during the playoffs. Enter Brad Penny. Long considered a potential stud, Penny appears to be putting things together this season, with a 3.15 ERA and peripherals that back that up (105:39 K:BB ratio, 10 HR allowed in 131.1 IP). Jose Lima is no ace, but he’s a decent back-of-the-rotation guy whose presence allows the Dodgers to use Wilson Alvarez in the bullpen and be patient with the struggling and injured Edwin Jackson (5.29 ERA at AAA Las Vegas after a 2003 season so dominating Aaron ranked him the #11 prospect in all of baseball).

The loss of Mota hurts, but in some respects, he resembles Lo Duca and Encarnacion, the two men he was traded along with: he’s not as young as people seem to think (he turned 31 last week), his peripheral stats don’t really back up his more often-cited ones (2.14 ERA, but a 3.59 Fielding-Independent ERA), and his paycheck projects to be quite a bit heftier next season. The Dodgers also have the depth to replace him, as Darren Dreifort is a capable setup man, and flame-throwing phenom Yhency Brazoban (acquired from the Yankees in the Kevin Brown-Jeff Weaver deal) could be a relief stud right away (in 63.1 minor-league innings this season, he’s struck out 78, walked 23, allowed only 5 HR and has a 2.56 ERA).

The combination of moves leaves the August Dodgers a better team than they were in January, and a better team than they were in July. And if they take the money they were planning to spend on Randy Johnson and instead put it towards on-base machine Jason Kendall (the Pirates would likely give him away, even paying part of his contract, without demanding much talent in return), they would be a vastly improved team.

Beyond just looking at the roster as a team full of players, it’s worth considering each player as an “asset” and the roster as a “portfolio.” I know that that idea is distasteful for most sports fans, but it’s instructive to do that when looking at things through DePodesta’s eyes. It’s vital to keep in mind how long a player will be under contract, how much salary he’ll likely earn, and how much he’ll be undervalued.

And when you do that, it’s clear that the Florida deal was a long-term win for the Dodgers. All three players traded to Florida were in line for raises next year. Encarnacion is guaranteed $4.35 million, thanks to a two-year deal he inked this past winter, and he isn’t worth nearly that much. Lo Duca and Mota would likely secure arbitration deals commensurate with their market values; in other words, they could likely be replaced on the free agent market during the off-season (especially with the pool of non-tendered young players increasing each year).

DePodesta parlayed these three into two players who are just entering their primes and should be among the better players at their positions for years to come, while still earning less than open market value. Choi won’t be eligible for arbitration, meaning he should hit around .280/.400/.500 for near the league minimum; following that, he’ll have four arbitration years before free agency. Given that his value will be hidden in walks and by Dodger Stadium, he’ll likely be a bargain for that entire time. Penny is already eligible for arbitration, but will not be a free agent until after the 2006 season; if he improves steadily, he should also remain a bargain under arbitration.

The deal might make them worse in the short term by opening a hole at catcher and possibly weakening the bullpen. But when you project the Dodgers’ roster and salary commitments forward the next few years, it’s apparent that the Florida trade is a very favorable gamble. To this point, I haven’t dwelled on the minor-league talent the Dodgers have given up for Bradley and Finley.

The Dodgers dealt Franklin Gutierrez and Andrew Brown for Bradley. Gutierrez is a 21-year-old who smacked 24 HR last year (20 of them for Vero Beach in the Florida State League, a notorious pitchers league), ranking 41st on Aaron’s prospect list. Gutierrez has continued to hit this year (.309/.377/.478 at AA Akron); though he has hit only six long balls, he racked up 32 extra-base hits, which is more telling, especially for a player so young. The 72 strikeouts are foreboding, but his walk rate and OBP are decent, and he is quite young for his league. Brown, a big (6’6″, 230) righty, has continued to strike batters out at a prodigious rate (109 in 88.2 IP at AA). While Bradley is an impressive talent, the Dodgers parted with a fair price to acquire him.

Getting back to the Finley deal, Reggie Abercrombie is a toolsy athlete who can’t hit, and isn’t much of a loss. But Hill is a solid catching prospect (hitting .286/.339/.471 with 69:28 K:BB at AAA Las Vegas before the trade), and that position now looks like a notable hole for the Dodgers. While that may seem excessive for a two-month rental, it’s worth remembering that LA will likely reap two high draft picks as compensation if Finley walks.

Looking at all this, it appears that DePodesta hasn’t exactly mortgaged the long-term future while adding value for 2004-2006. He has also been impressive acquiring second-tier talent to round out the roster; players like Werth and Jason Grabowski were acquired cheaply and have contributed to the major-league roster this year. Minor trades of obsolete parts have netted some interesting minor-league depth (Henri Stanley, Brian Myrow, Trey Dyson, Glenn Bott).

DePodesta has been methodically building this team up, and his M.O. has become clear:

  • Target players entering their primes and thus likely to improve.
  • Target players who are undervalued by their current teams (Bradley was seen as a “malcontent”, Choi a “platoon player who struggles in the clutch” and Penny a “fifth starter”).
  • Sell high on players who are less likely to maintain a high level of performance.
  • Favor players who are likely to be cheap for years to come, rather than those who will be fully-valued (or are already signed to expensive contracts)

It sounds straightforward and logical, but the impressive part has been DePodesta’s willingness to stay the course even in the thick of a pennant race. He has positioned his team so it has more talent and depth and a favorable salary outlook (though he is still saddled with some big contracts signed by the previous administration). Given the Dodgers’ massive revenue base, this team could really take advantage of that salary flexibility; a superstar signing is not out of the question (indeed, given their pursuit of Randy Johnson, owner Frank McCourt has shown he is willing to open the purse-strings when justified), and could quickly make the Dodgers one of the elite teams in the National League. Paul DePodesta may not currently be the most popular man in LA, but given time, that will change. DePodesta is building a monster.

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