At first glance, it wouldn't seem like much has changed with the Los Angeles Dodgers' farm system since Frank McCourt sold the team to Stan Kasten's Guggenheim Group in March 2012.
While the team rode a group of high-priced veterans, mostly acquired via trade and free agency, to the NLCS last year, the system remains ranked around the middle of the pack by most who do that sort of thing. Baseball Prospectus, for instance, had the Dodgers 19th in 2012, 21st in 2013, and still only 14th in 2014.
But it's worth keeping in mind that the job of De Jon Watson, the Dodgers' vice president of player development since the end of the 2012 season, is now a bit different, and more variable, than the task would be in most other organizations.
The Dodgers are spending a ton of money right now, not just on the Zack Greinkes and Clayton Kershaws of the world, but to add young talent to the organization from all over the world. They signed Yasiel Puig for $42 million, Hyun-Jin Ryu for $36 million, Alexander Guerrero for $28 million, and Erisbel Arruebarruena for $25 million.
Ryu started with the Dodgers. Puig graduated to the major leagues in less than a year, while the Dodgers expect Guerrero and Arruebarrena on an expedited basis as well. That's a far cry from the usual delivery times for player development systems.
They've also dramatically bulked up the number of scouts they have in Mexico and other countries, leading to several Mexican imports among their top prospects, including the absurdly exciting Julio Urias, who dominated full-season A-ball as a 16-year-old last year.
Accordingly, how the Dodgers prepare the players they bring in, whether through the amateur draft or internationally, has become far more advanced in the two years Dodgers ownership has been in place, too. It has to be, with so many important players coming in with wildly different timetables and even abilities to speak English.
So it's complicated to measure just what's gone on, and what will go on, in the Dodgers' system, rating it against 29 other teams who are primarily adding talent through traditional means. The new collective bargaining agreement has essentially put an end to going over slot to add high-priced talent later in the amateur draft, and the international spending caps limit how much teams can throw money around, Cuban imports excepted.
What's clear, from Watson right down to the players who have experienced Dodger development both before and after McCourt is that things have changed, rapidly. How much it ultimately pays off will go a long way toward deciding just how much of an advantage Dodgers money will be.
"I don't think our vision has really changed," Watson told me as we sat in a golf cart on the third base side of a minor league field where many of the prospects in his charge played an intra-squad game on Friday afternoon. "What's really nice is that we've actually invested into the international market. And it's given us a broader player pool to choose from. Whereas before, I don't want to say we were just domestically-I mean, [Vice President of Amateur Scouting] Logan White was doing internationally and domestic-but we just didn't have the resources to really go out and be aggressive on the international market.
"And so that's probably the biggest change. We're able to get a little deeper into the international market. And so you see the impact of Ryu, you see the impact of Yasiel Puig. We had Onelki Garcia scratch the surface at the major leagues last year. We bring in Erisbel Arruebarruena. So again, those pieces? It gives you volume in the organization as far as depth is concerned."
The knock-on effects of that depth, though, change the equation for some of the more traditionally developed prospects. Take Joc Pederson, for example. The 11th round pick from 2010 has jumped onto top 100 prospect lists the past two years after putting up a .913 OPS in high-A ball in 2012, and following up with an .878 OPS in 2013 for Double-A Chattanooga. He can handle all three outfield positions.
And even with the big-splash addition of Carl Crawford, the long-term deals to Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, it is easy to picture Pederson getting plenty of time spelling Crawford and Ethier, or even playing in Kemp's place should his return from multiple injuries have any setbacks. But Puig means the Dodgers now have four outfielders for three spots. Even if Pederson hits well in Triple-A, the math that gets him regular at-bats at Dodger Stadium is convoluted.
"I think I'm fortunate to come up to a camp like this, where there are four great outfielders," Pederson told me as we chatted in front of his locker Friday morning. "So I think it means I need to compete a little bit more, and get to see what they're doing. You want to be around the best so you can take after them, and hopefully be the best."
Zach Lee, a top Dodgers pitching prospect, echoed this sentiment when I put the numbers to him as well. It is easy to envision the Dodgers grooming Lee for the rotation spot currently occupied by Ryu, or the one occupied by the free agent signing Dan Haren, or the expensive trade addition Josh Beckett.
"I mean, for the most part it's motivation," Lee said, sitting in a locker right next to Pederson. "Obviously, I'm trying to get up there as quick as I can. I'm just kind of competitive within myself. But it's also great for the organization to be able to bring in guys with the amount of experience they have."
That's the double-edged sword that all the Dodger spending to win now brings. There's enough talent to get the team to the NLCS. But for now, there aren't always spots to play their prospects once they are deemed ready. Not only can a veteran block the way, but so can an international import closer to the major leagues.
Or sometimes, both. Take Corey Seager, for instance, which the Dodgers did in the first round of the 2012 draft. A consensus top-100 prospect around baseball, Seager showed an alluring combination of power and defensive skills at the position, playing full-season A-ball. He struggled a bit in high-A, but his development is right on track, with a possible 2016 debut a reasonable goal.
But the Dodgers already have a shortstop named Hanley Ramirez, who was vital to the 2013 season, and is in talks to remain "a Dodger for life". And then, earlier this month, along came Arruebarruena. In most other organizations, a smooth path for the first round pick would be assured. The Dodgers aren't playing that way right now. And it's a good problem to have for the team. It's just tricky. The Dodgers can always trade their young, developed prospects, but then the team ends up more expensive and veteran-laden, missing upside. Or it can integrate young players, and if they fail, spend a ton of money on a major league roster, just not enough to win.
The changed calculations are clear with Urias. Watson casually talked about Double-A as a possibility for Arias this year, in his age-17 season. There's nothing crazy about it, though, with his arsenal, success, and polish. And yet, there's no rush, for reasons that have nothing to do with Urias.
"He was 16 when we had him in the Midwest League last year," Watson said. "And he pitched like he was 23-very mature, unbelievable feel for pitching, understands his body, delivery. For us, it's really managing the progression for him as he moves forward.
"We're not sure where we're gonna send him right now. He was in the Midwest League last year. Chance he could be in the [California] League, chance he could be Double-A. Again, he was pitching well enough to go from the Midwest League at 16 to Double-A at 16. But what's the hurry, you know, when our rotation is as deep as it is, when we have enough bodies there? It's not like we're gonna need-well hey, you've got to get this guy going. We're able to take our time, do it the right way, expose him to small pieces, so when he's ready to make that jump, he'll be prepared for it."
For his part, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly doesn't think the massive spending on both veteran and young international, near-ready prospects has a negative effect on the draft-and-develop guys, either. If anyone would know, it would be Mattingly, who came through the Yankees system at a time the major league club spent wildly on free agents and veterans, rather than develop from within. (And no, I'm not saying Mattingly is currently in the Yankee system.)
"I don't think it changes anything," Mattingly told me Friday. "Honestly, if you can play, you can play. And you've got to work your way through. You're gonna have to perform. It's part of competition. I think it's a good thing for me. If you can play at the big league level, you can play, you get to go prove it all the time ... I think you keep knocking on that door, is the way I look at it. Keep hitting, keep doing your thing. And then make them find a spot for you."
Mattingly pointed to the two-tiered approach I've heard the Dodgers mention from ownership on down many times.
"The moves that we've made, it's been to shore up the major leagues right now, allow our system to build, and not have to bring guys before they're ready," Mattingly said. "And hopefully, as guys kind of get ready, the guy belongs, ready to move, so he's pushing from the bottom up. And hopefully he's ready.
"What the ownership promised L.A. Is you're not going to have to wait five years to see a good team. And when you go make a trade with Boston, and you go pick up an Adrian Gonzalez, a Carl Crawford, you go pick up a Hanley Ramirez, you sign Zack and Ryu and obviously we've seen Puig, at that point it buys time to build your system. I think that's what you're trying to do, is get that system to where it's really sustaining you for the long haul."
Ultimately, the Dodgers can use their financial muscle to far greater effect by developing their own talent internally, and signing those players to expensive contracts that buy out arbitration and some free agent years during player peaks, rather than adding useful, but ultimately declining players like Adrian Gonzalez on the other side of 30. And the Dodgers wouldn't need to spend $22.5 million on three years of Brandon League to fill a bullpen slot.
"That gives you the ability to manage your payroll, where you're gonna go," Watson said. "Do I think we'll always be at this number? No. I think, if we're doing our jobs correctly, we will eventually be filtering our players into that big league bullpen, like a Chris Withrow, like a Jose Dominguez. Hopefully soon, we will have a Zack Lee in that rotation. For me, the volume of quality starters is key. Okay, they break camp with five starters. For me, that next five at Triple-A, next five at Double-A-that's your inventory. So there may be someone in that bullpen, a long man in that bullpen, who may actually be that spot starter. Growing and developing pitchers who are capable of pitching at the highest level-that's always our responsibility."
Accordingly, the Dodgers are making certain their prospects are getting as much coaching time as possible, and prepared in a holistic way. The facilities are better. They've increased their number of minor league coaches significantly under new ownership. Their English-language tutoring is far beyond some of the scattershot classes found in some other organizations. They have 38 players getting one-on-one tutoring at the hotel for 90-120 minutes per day, six days a week, with quarterly testing to make sure players are reaching proficiency goals.
Even the food is better.
"I know in past years, we were getting like, Smuckers sandwiches before an instructional league game," Pederson said, and it is impossible to overstate the disdain with which he uttered the phrase "Smuckers sandwiches". "And at least now, it's like, turkey burgers and stuff. It might be some of the same food, but it's better quality."
"Yes, I don't miss the Smuckers sandwiches," Lee echoed. "I don't miss what we used to call the bread sandwiches, where you'd have the bread that was about two inches thick, slice of cheese, one slice of meat. No, I certainly don't miss those."
Watson pointed out that even the food upgrades under new ownership have come with greater education about nutrition.
"I think it's so important," Watson said. "These kids come in, and they haven't been educated about how to eat properly, how to fuel their bodies to play. And we have these classrooms, and we have these sessions with these kids, about what they should put in their bodies, about how to eat on the road. Even the kids who come here for ESL classes for the first time, we'll take them to Walmart, we'll take them to a restaurant, we'll have pictures and walk them through-try to educate them about what they should be eating after a ballgame, versus just eating the pizza and burger."
It's not as if the Dodgers implemented all of these programs over the past two years. But the more people in place to make the ideas work, the better they work. And with so many different kinds of players, in terms of on-field experience, background and age, tailoring individual attention for Watson's system is vital.
"The crazy thing is, we try to treat every player, not just our higher picks, we want every player to feel like he has a fair shot of making it," Watson said. "So we spend a ton of time with these guys on a one-on-one basis. Our roving hitting guys, our roving pitching guys. We have a roving catching guy, we have a sports psychologist. So they're constantly going through our system, like myself, because players are so fluid. They're up and down. Because we're dealing in humans. And emotionally, anything can go on, positive or negative, that can affect them... You just never know which voice is going to be the right voice for that player to hear."
Ultimately, it's unlikely that very many of Watson's development Dodgers are going to get to the big leagues this season. And as long as the Dodgers continue to stack their team with veterans, that's not going to change. So I wondered exactly how Watson saw success or failure measured for him, while he waited for these new initiatives and the freshly-financed older ones to bear fruit.
"That's hard," Watson said with a laugh. "That's really difficult. I guess having a system that is so strong that whenever there's a need for a player, and that player goes up to the major leagues, he's able to contribute. They're not missing a beat when they get to the major leagues. We're not saying we're going to send up an everyday regular, a perennial all star. But we're saying, 'Hey, this guy can help us."