Dodger Blue-Print: The Phillies Should Mimic the Dodgers Approach to Return to Contention

facebooktwitterreddit

Aug 16, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr prior to playing the Los Angeles Dodgers at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

As far as out-of-division opponents go in terms of Philadelphia sports team opponents, the Los Angeles Dodgers are near the top of teams I cannot stand. Due more to the fact that my upbringing was littered with my father and uncles telling me why to hate them than the Dodgers actually achieving any sort of success, I’ve always found them to be insufferable. During the Phillies back-to-back runs to the World Series, I’d argue that both the NLCS wins over the Dodgers were just as satisfying as any win in the championship round. In fact, when the Phillies were toward the peak of their success in the last five seasons, Los Angeles seemed a much more appropriate rival than any of the struggling division opponents. I have cheered against them as long as I can remember and, will probably do so for the majority of the rest of my life as a sports fan.

That being said, as a baseball fan who still enjoys the competition of the postseason, even when the Phillies are not involved, the Dodgers have provided an intrigue that any Phillies fan should pay attention to. For the better part of the 2013 season, the Dodgers have been the story of Major League Baseball. They’re flashy, brash, aggressive (sometimes reckless), but more than anything talented. After finishing the month of May seven games under .500, Los Angeles went on a multiple-month tear through the league and won the National League West crown with an 89-73 record. While many point to the arrival of Cuban uber-phenom Yasiel Puig as the spark that got the Dodgers engine rolling, all one has to do is look at the depth of talent on the roster to realize that they were going to start playing winning baseball sooner or later.

With the rest of the baseball world fawning over the St. Louis Cardinals being a gift from above to the game of baseball, the Dodgers enter the same National League Championship series as a determined club playing as well as any team remaining. Even with injuries to notable names such as Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, they boast a lineup with very few ‘easy outs’ among the nine spots (including a few of their pitchers). They have a no-nonsense manager in Don Mattingly that, even after being on the hot seat early on in the season, has been able to reel in a roster with several inflated egos, all without a contract extension. They have extremely feared hitters in the middle of the lineup, as the combination of Puig, a rejuvenated Hanley Ramirez, and veteran Adrian Gonzalez continue to drive in runs at a blistering rate. Finally, highlighted by Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw (who might just be the best player in baseball), the Dodgers are able to roll out top-notch pitching throughout the rotation.

Oct 3, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers owner Magic Johnson signs autographs for fans prior to game one of the National League divisional series playoff baseball game Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It is true that the Dodgers could not be doing this without an ownership group willing to shell out money the likes of which this league has never seen before. After the group, headlined by former Los Angeles Laker and NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, purchased the team for a record price tag of $2 billion, they wasted no time turning a stale roster into a cattle call of MLB stars. Along with their contracts, the team acquired Gonzalez and Carl Crawford (along with Josh Beckett and Nick Punto) from the Red Sox. During the offseason, the team continued taking on huge salaries when they inked Zack Greinke to a six-year/$147 million deal to complete a lefty-righty, one-two punch at the top of their rotation. In the middle of all of this, during the 2012 season, the Dodgers made their biggest ripple when they gave Yasiel Puig a seven-year/$42 million contract. At the time, Puig was considered a marginal prospect without the ceiling that he has displayed in game action in the United States.

In the early stages of the season, it looked as if the Dodgers, much like their American League counterpart Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, had made a mistake. However, upon the arrival of Puig and aided by the dominance of Kershaw and Greinke, the Dodgers found their footing and became one of the prohibitive favorites to win the World Series.

Part of me would cringe at the site of the Dodgers winning a world series. They have been an incredibly fun team to watch, but the Los Angeles fan base is as insufferable as any outside of the east coast. Hearing the collective sports world fawn over Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully like they’ve been listening to him next to their bedside for the last 50 years is almost as obnoxious as the praising of Mariano Rivera by fans of teams who have spent the last two decades being dominated by him. However, even if the Dodgers do not win the World Series, their sustained success in the last two-thirds of the 2013 season should give some insight on how to improve as a team despite a high payroll.

October 7, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) pitches in the first inning against the Atlanta Braves in game four of the National League divisional series playoff baseball game at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers are not a home-grown power. With the exception of Kershaw and some members of their bullpen, the Dodgers have largely built their team through trades and free agency. With a staggering income as a result of their television contract and their extremely wealthy ownership group, the Dodgers were able to take on massive contracts that other teams were being bogged down by and they were able to outbid, sometimes to a ridiculous extent, any competition when it came to signing free agents. It is true that some bashed the franchise’s free-wheeling spending, but as a large-market team with fans expecting a winner, upper management had a plan in mind.

As great as it sounds to be able to constantly replenish a roster with home-grown talent on a yearly basis, that concept does not apply to every team in the league. There are the fanbases and sports markets who have the patience, or lack of interest, to watch their team constantly ship away their MLB-caliber talent in exchange for top prospects. The team formerly known as the Florida Marlins won two World Series titles in less than a decade using such a strategy. The South-Beach faithful showed up in droves when the team made their playoff runs, but when they were in their rebuild, attendance numbers plummeted. In today’s MLB, the Tampa Bay Rays stand as an organization that has managed to sustain success all while being forced to ship away their best players due to payroll restraints.

Depending on how you look at it, major sports markets such as Philadelphia place substantially more pressure on their ownership groups to consistently produce a winner than locations like Tampa and Miami. If an owner of one of the Philadelphia teams pulled what Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria did to the taxpayers of Florida, one could argue he or she would be dragged out of the city.

Yet with the Marlins boasting world-class young talent such as Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton, its hard to imagine the Marlins will be down for too long. Should they return to contention, I’d bet my last dollar that the new stadium that cost so much hard-earned money will be filled to the brims with fans looking to jump on the bandwagon.

Sep 28, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard (6) watches from the dugout against the Atlanta Braves in the third inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies are in a similar position to what the Dodgers were in at the turn of 2010. After consecutive runs to the National League Championship Series, the team went two straight years finishing in the middle of the pack. The team had some very talented pieces, most notably Kershaw and Matt Kemp, but the overall roster did not have the collective tools or approach to stop teams like the Giants and Diamondbacks from surging ahead of them in the division. With a rich tradition of winning in a major market, the Dodgers were at a crossroads in terms of how they were going to re-establish themselves in the grand scheme of baseball. With their farm system teetering as far as professional-caliber prospects are concerned, the team could have overhauled the entire minor league program by shipping away Kershaw or Kemp. Instead, after the team was sold, the new ownership group realized that the only way to cash in on their investment was to strike early and often. While the did not have the sort of blue-chip players that could bring back names such as Hanley Ramirez or Adrian Gonzalez, they did have the money to provide relief to a few organizations that were hemorrhaging losses and ready to get out of a few questionable contracts.

It is true that not every year will provide such opportunities to jump at, as teams generally don’t admit a mistake like that Red Sox and Blue Jays did within a year of making a personnel decision. What is true is that, if you are a team that is on the brink of the luxury tax and you have cornerstone players that you are unwilling to move, surpassing the luxury tax might be the best approach. With the Phillies on the cusp of what promises to be a semi-lucrative television contract, it seems as if they’ve been stringing along the fanbase for the last two seasons. Unwilling to sell off parts in an attempt to collect prospects, the Phillies have seen their core age right in front of them to the point where they can no longer produce at the level that made them stars. They’ve wasted some of Cliff Lee’s best seasons by not providing a supporting cast that could hit behind him, and with Roy Halladay all but finished, the one-two punch at the top of the Phillies rotation is nothing but a memory now. Jonathan Papelbon has proved to be both an unnecessary luxury and an overpaid bust, as he hasn’t had enough games to close when he was pitching well, and he struggled in 2013 when given more opportunities.

Sep 20, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels (35) delivers to the plate during the third inning against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park. The Mets defeated the Phillies 6-4. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The team did lock up Cole Hamels to a long-term extension, identifying the lefty as the piece to build around moving forward. However, with Father Time baring down on the Phillies at a record pace, rebuilding the organization from the ground up during both Hamels’ and Lee’s primes is out of the question at this point. With the Phillies already in the midst of an active offseason, while 2013 might not be the year to do it, the franchise should stop looking at the ‘model franchises’ of the league and shift towards a borderline reckless approach to replenish the talent of the team. As far as their farm system, the Phillies are about to be in a position to draft their second consecutive impact player early in the draft. After years of losing first round picks due to signing free agents, the team drafted SS J.P. Crawford in 2012, and with the 7th pick in 2013, expect to bring in another talent that should be an impact in the future.

Yet with a new manager in place and an organizational overhaul underway, it would be unreasonable to expect immediate relief from the minor leagues any time soon. Outside of Maikel Franco and Cody Asche (who appeared late in 2013), there are few young players ready to step in and produce on a team in a pennant race. Divison foes Atlanta and Washington are already stocked with young talent that has shown they can win big games and the Mets and Marlins don’t appear too far behind. Unless the organization plans on moving Hamels and Lee, the only way the Phillies can contend in their division is to break the bank and outspend others while they still can.

Even with the Braves and Nationals being forced to consider the future contracts of some of their young stars, both organizations have ownership groups hungry for a title. Soon, the group of Phillies players that made a habit of toying with the building Nationals and Braves franchises will be gone and, unless Philadelphia does something to counteract this inevitability, they could find themselves spending a lot more time toward the bottom of the division.

Instead, even after cursing the ludicrous contracts currently holding the team back for the better part of the last two seasons, I think that the Phillies need to take a page out of the Dodgers book, flex their muscles, and pay for the players the organization no longer has the time to develop. That does not mean I think the Phillies should pay $300 million for a 30-year old Robinson Cano, but I do think they should turn a blind eye to the free agent mistakes of the past and, if they want to capitalize on their investments on Lee and Hamels, get back into the business of being a top-three payroll, even if it means paying the luxury tax.

Phillies fans have already shown what sort of support they will give to a winner. For a half a decade, Citizens Bank Park was the mecca of Philadelphia sports and the team essentially printed money. This season, the Dodgers joined the Yankees as the only two teams forced to pay the league-mandated luxury tax for excessive payroll. While the multi-million dollar penalty may seem stiff on the surface, I’m certain that any worries by the team’s owners were washed away when the 2013 attendance figures were released.

The Dodgers, by nearly 5,000 fans a night, had the highest average attendance at 46,216 a night. It is easy to assume this would not be the case were the Dodgers not such an exciting team but they, much like the Phillies, remained in the top-10 of the league in attendance even when they were struggling. After holding down the top spot in 2011 and 2012, the Phillies dipped to 8th in the MLB in 2013. Despite the dropoff being significant, the rank showed that the city still wants to support their team. If the organization wants to remain in the top-ten, or higher, they cannot afford to ship off pieces in order to try and rebuild the minor league system. While they wait on their pending television contract, if they hope to reach the number that was expected when the team was contending for a World Series, they must improve the roster, substantially.

As far as how they plan on doing this, I do not have an answer. Outside of Robinson Cano, there are few free agents that teams will be salivating over and entering bidding wars over. While Jacoby Ellsbury or Shin-Soo Choo would improve a miserable Phillies outfield, neither name feels big enough for what the Phillies might be trying to attempt. However, with intriguing international prospects Jose Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka poised to bring their talents to the MLB, there’s no reason the Phillies should not be heavily involved in the pursuit of either. Even if the team has to overpay for a player like Ubaldo Jimenez, who is coming off a rather disappointing stint with the Cleveland Indians, gambling that he might pitch like he did in the 2nd half of 2013 might be worth outbidding the next-closest buyer.

As a Phillies fan, there was nothing more fun than watching the team’s core come up through the ranks and turn into a champion. Every players debut was met with fanfare and hope, and for the first time in my life as a Philadelphia sports fan, the young players delivered on the promise that they demonstrated early in their careers. As great as it would be to see that every five years, this is not the league, more specifically the team to do that. As they currently sit, the Phillies are in too deep with their big-market approach. They chased the rabbit for five years after their 2008 title, and came up empty. One can look back and think of all the instances that should have led to another title, but the nostalgic approach to baseball is what gets teams like to Phillies in the predicaments they sit in. Rather than shoving the memories of 2008-2011 down Phillies fans throats while the team embarrasses themselves pretending to be a contender, the responsibility of the Phillies ownership group should be to re-establish the excitement around this team to maximize their television deal and take the consequences in stride.

Sep 27, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg (23) has a word with an umpire in the seventh inning against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Considering the struggles of the last two seasons, this probably would not be the most popular plan of action. Critics would point to the Papelbon and Lee deals and roll their eyes thinking, ‘here we go again’. The way I look at it though, the Phillies have a much better chance of returning to the playoffs and cashing in on their current investments by surrounding those players with other high-profile talent and hope that new manager Ryne Sandberg is competent enough to build chemistry in the locker room and manage the egos that come along with millions of dollars in contracts.

So when the Dodgers win the World Series (I predict they beat the Red Sox in 7 games), try to keep a bit of perspective, Phillies fans. In a league where every team is trying to figure out the most effective way to spend money, the Dodgers will have just provided the blueprint on how to win by spending like a maniac.