The Big Bad (Slightly Scarier) Dodgers

The San Diego Padres mid-season firing of general manager Josh Byrnes seems to have triggered front office upheaval in the rest of the National League West.* Since then, the Arizona Diamondbacks fired Kevin Towers and hired Dave Stewart/ De Jon Watson (which we discussed last month), the Colorado Rockies promoted from within with Jeff Bridich replacing the departing Dan O’Dowd, and now the Los Angeles Dodgers have shifted longtime GM Ned Colletti to a senior advisor role and plucked Andrew Friedman from the Tampa Bay Rays to be their president of baseball operations.

*The Giants, who just punched their biennial ticket to the World Series, likely won’t be making any major front office changes anytime soon. 

The reaction to that last bit of news — the part about the Dodgers hiring Friedman — was a resounding “Oh, shit!” to NL West fans that don’t root for LA. If you haven’t followed Friedman closely, the biggest thing to know is, well, that he helped transform the Rays from a perennial laughing stock to a perennial contender, and he did it all on a shoe-string budget. Tampa Bay’s short existence as a franchise allows us to neatly separate its history into two periods:

Pre-Andrew Friedman Era (1998-2005) Andrew Friedman Era (2006-2014)
65-97 average record 84-78 average record

Friedman led the Rays to their first division title, their first playoff appearance, and their first American League pennant all in 2008. The Rays have reeled off five 90-plus win seasons, two division titles, and four playoff appearances since Friedman took the reins as general manager, and they’ve done it in the ultra competitive American League East with the high-rolling Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

As Sam Miller discussed in his wonderful (subscription required) piece on the subject, the Rays were always on the forefront of the sabermetric movement under Friedman, specializing in things like long-term extensions to pre-arbitration players, the value of defense, and catcher framing before they were all the rage. Heck, even their Manager Joe Maddon remains the pinnacle of a modern day skipper, saber-savvy but also a well-respected Leader of Men.

Yet while there was an entire book dedicated to the Rays story, as Miller notes, much of what they’ve done — exactly — is shrouded in a cloud of uncertainty. Still, their decisions — like giving the light-hitting Jose Molina bunches of PAs and a contract extension — left us with a pretty good idea of their master plan: make the most of what resources you have and stay ahead of the curve on, yes, market inefficiencies.*

*Speaking of books

Friedman moving from Tampa Bay to LA leaves us with this fun factoid: the Dodgers $229.3 million payroll last year (per Cot’s Contracts) was nearly three times bigger than the Rays $76.8 million tab.

Fun fact Number 2: the Dodgers have $130.8 million locked up in contracts for the year 2018; the Rays have just $43.3 million locked up for next season.

So … Friedman heads west to the team with the biggest coffers in major league baseball (yes, even bigger than the Yankees, it appears) after spending the last decade succeeding with the cash-strapped Rays. That spells bad news for the rest of the league, for sure, particularly for teams like the Padres who can’t compete financially and haven’t yet been able to establish a winning stride.

But, as Miller’s articles focuses (as well as others), we probably shouldn’t get too carried away with how much the addition of Friedman is going to help the Dodgers. Here are a few reasons:

  • The Dodgers were really smart before they hired Friedman. Sure, Ned Colletti might not be viewed as an elite front office executive, but since Stan Kasten took over as team president in April of 2012, the Dodgers have built a stronger analytics department and beefed up their scouting staff. Already an intelligent organization moving in the right direction, there’s only so much room for Friedman to further push the needle.
  • Spending lots of money isn’t that easy. As Grant Brisbee notes, signing aging free agents to mega-deals isn’t usually the best way to build an organization. Sure, if the money’s there you may as well spend it, but mistakes are costly and not all that uncommon. And Friedman is completely untested in the game of signing high-priced free agents and maybe, just maybe it won’t be his strong suit. (Or he’ll get unlucky.)
  • Speaking of luck … it’s baseball, after all, and the Royals just made it to the World Series. The Dodgers and Yankees, who were a clear 1-2 in spending in 2014, won a total of one playoff game and the Yankees (those poor Yankees) have missed the playoffs for two straight years despite spending gobs of money on every star under the sun.

No doubt, the hiring of Andrew Friedman makes the Dodgers an even more ominous threat in the NL West and stamps them as the franchise to be reckoned with, but his arrival doesn’t suddenly crown them as an unbeatable superpower. They’ll still have to deal with the vagaries of baseball, the high-risk, high-reward top end of the free agent market, the balancing of a farm system with a win-now attitude, and the always unpredictable crafting of a bullpen.

Friedman will probably help them sign better high-end free agents and he’ll almost certainly help them better allocate money and resources to the lower profile, often overlooked parts of the roster like the middle of the bullpen or the catcher’s framing ability or the Next Big Sabermetric Thing we’re not aware of yet. But he won’t make the Dodgers a foolproof bet to win 95 or 100 games every year, and his presence certainly won’t ensure a deep annual run into October.

For San Diego it’s business as usual, either way. The Padres weren’t going to compete with the Dodgers in a financial muscle flexing contest pre-Friedman just like they aren’t going to now. But the Padres have a weapon of their own in newly hired GM AJ Preller and his greatest area of strength — acquiring young talent — might be one of Friedman’s only glaring weak points. And that — along with the occasional foray into the depths of the national consciousness — is where the Padres need to keep their focus.

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