Spring Training Dish: Dodgers Camp

Editor’s note: Assistant editor Chris Kline is spending three weeks
of spring training coverage in Florida’s Grapefruit League. Today’s
stop: Dodgers camp. Coming Monday: Nationals camp in Viera.

VERO BEACH, Fla.–Over the winter, Dodgers owner Frank McCourt
handed out hats at a charity function that were tongue-in-cheek to say
the least; reading “The Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles.”

And Tommy Lasorda takes that one step further, saying “The only Angels who go to heaven are ex-Dodgers.”

Without
a doubt, there is a rumble going on in the greater Los Angeles area.
And while the Angels have most the attention at the major league level
right now, both farm systems are fairly equals in terms of impact
talent and depth.

“We’re the Dodgers, and there’s so much
reverence and history that goes along with that,” vice president of
scouting and player development Roy Smith said. “We’re competing now to
bring this organization back to prominence.”

They have the pieces in place to do just that.

While
the National League West continues to remain clouded with mediocrity,
the Dodgers’ plan to a return to the glory days rests squarely in the
hands of righthander Chad Billingsley, third baseman Andy LaRoche,
outfielder Joel Guzman, catcher Russell Martin and one of the best
crops of prospects in the game today.

We had the opportunity
to sit down with Smith, who just returned from a trip to the Dominican
Republic with the rest of the Dodger brass, to talk about how much the
organization’s development philosophy has changed since he came over to
the club in 2004 after six seasons as assistant general manager of the
Pirates; the sudden depth of outfielders in the system and the state of
international scouting–an area in which the organization has lacked in
recent years since the departure of international scouting director
Rene Francisco.

Baseball America: With all the
offseason changes in the organization, have there been any new
philosophies implemented in player development?

Roy Smith:
Really, we were in good hands with (farm director) Terry Collins. He
brings a wealth of experience to the organization–being a manager with
two major league teams, having come up and managed in the Dodgers
system. I mean, there wasn’t a lot I was going to tell him. Plus, we
were very successful with George Hendrick as the hitting coach, and
Rick Honeycutt as the pitching coach.

One thing I did bring
in–and something (Pirates farm director) Brian Graham brought into
Pittsburgh–was that we meet with every minor league player
individually before spring training just to kind of give them the state
of the union. We ask them where they think they’re at, what they have
to work on and then we give them feedback. That way they know exactly
what’s expected of them and what they’re up against heading into spring
training. But overall, with what was happening here before I got here,
I wasn’t going to fix what wasn’t broken.

BA: There
is a wealth of pitching depth in the system, especially with
righthanders. Everyone points to Billingsley, but there are other guys
behind him like Justin Orneduff, Julio Pimentel, Blake Johnson, Josh
Wall. How do you feel about the overall pitching depth in the system?

RS:
We feel good about it. I mean, Blake Johnson, Chris Malone, John Meloan
(2005 draft, Arizona) . . . there’s a lot of depth there and we feel
real good about it. Now, other than Billinglsey, it’s probably a year
away at least. And Billingsley still needs to smooth over a few rough
edges, but we feel real good about the depth of pitching in the
organization.

BA: Being so deep at just about every position, is there an area you wish were stronger at this point?

RS:
Before acquiring (Andre) Ethier (from the Athletics), you know, Matt
Kemp showing what he’s showing–and he’ll probably start out in
Double-A; and he’s getting better by the second–I would have said
outfield because most of our prospects are on the mound or in the
infield. But with (Joel) Guzman moving to the outfield, Delwyn Young
moving to the outfield, we have a chance to have an all
prospect-outfield in Triple-A this year. You take a kid like Kemp and
guys that are under the radar screen like (Justin) Ruggiano, (Anthony)
Raglani . . . again, when you’re in the organization you feel good and
you’re looking through rose-colored glasses, but our infield depth
speaks for itself, although Guzman’s now moved to the outfield. But
with guys like Tony Abreu, Blake DeWitt now moving to second base gives
us a potential lefthanded bat in the middle of the field–you’ve got to
feel good there. Catching is headed up by (Dioner) Navarro and (Russ)
Martin.

But in reality, 50 percent of what you hope happens
actually happens, and if that happens, then you’re real good. There is
definitely an element here of tempering expectations. Having been
through it a long time, there is going to be a disappointment here.
There is somebody that’s going to get hurt, there is somebody who’s not
going to live up to what we think he’s going to be. There’s another guy
who probably isn’t as good as his hype and maybe we know it.

Just
go down the line. I don’t know who those guys are. And then there’s
going to be some guys who are surprises and blow by the guys that are
getting all the ink. It happens all the time, so you’d better expect
it. And if anything happens better than that, then you thank the Lord.

BA: You just touched a little bit on DeWitt. What are your impressions of him since the position change?

RS:
I think since we’ve had him, something like that’s been contemplated.
But having that lefthanded bat in the middle of the field–he’s got the
feed, he’s got the arm, he’s got the makeup–so we like what we’ve seen
so far and we think he’s going to have a real future at second.

BA:
Matt Kemp had a solid year last season and followed it up with an
outstanding showing in the Arizona Fall League. Where does Kemp stand
now, playing center field in big league camp, and what is his plan for
the future?

RS: He’s got to
play–that’s all–he’s got to play. It’s funny, because his batting
average isn’t that high this spring, yet everyone’s impressed with him.
He’s a big guy that can run and we’re going to keep him in center field
until he plays himself off it. I don’t know that he can’t. He looks
fine out there, shows good instincts. I think he can, but if he
doesn’t, that’s OK. He’s going to hit for enough power, but there’s
still a little bit of rawness. Like any kid at his level, at his
age–he’s not even (40-man) roster-eligible, so we just give him time.
We’ll give him another 500 at-bats at probably Double-A this year and
then see what we have. But potentially by the time you see him in L.A.
it could be 1,000 at-bats from now, and that’s a good feeling.

BA:
So it looks like you’re going to have a lot of talent this year in
Triple-A. Are there any concerns that someone on the pitching staff
could go through the same struggles Edwin Jackson went through in the
Pacific Coast League after having so much early success?

RS:
You have to make your pitches and you have to be aggressive in that
league. You’re going to give up some home runs and sometimes the scores
are going to be sometimes a little higher. But there are places to
pitch in that league. You can’t use it as an excuse. I don’t know if
that was the reason that explains Edwin Jackson. He was a converted guy
who didn’t have a lot of experience. And when you hit a bump in the
road and there are high expectations, it’s magnified. This kid’s still
a young kid and the story has yet to be written on him. We didn’t trade
him with the idea, ‘Hey, he’s a flop;’ we got value for him and I think
it was a good baseball trade.

You have to take into account
when you’re evaluating guys out there that they’re in an environment
that’s tough to pitch in. We don’t use that as an excuse in the
organization. It’s not like the next level’s going to be easier because
you’re not in Vegas. You have to be aggressive and you can’t beat
yourself. If you develop that mindset, you’re benefiting from the tough
conditions because it’s even more reinforced that you can’t walk
people. And that’s what we’re drumming into our guys.

BA:
We’re two years removed from James Loney’s huge spring in big league
camp, and it seems like the hype has died down on him. Where does he
fit in and what is your overall assessment of him since that breakout
spring when everyone thought he was the answer?

RS:
He’s a big kid with tools. He’s gotten strong, his body’s good and he’s
an excellent defender. You look at the numbers and the power hasn’t
been there, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t in there. What we want him
to do is be himself and let things come naturally. He’s made
improvements, he’s a first-year roster player and he’s going to play
Triple-A. This is where you want these guys to be at this point in
their career. So in no way has anything negative happened. If anything,
he’s progressed. He just moved quick early. But with most hitters,
power comes last. And he’ll either prove it or disprove it, but the
important thing is he has time.

Again, it’s a first-year
roster player that’s going to Triple-A. It’s not like he’s in high A or
just going to Double-A. He’s where you want the kid to be. And it’s
unfortunate that he’s dealt with negatives because there was hype early
on. But you draft a kid and you tell the higher-ups that this guy’s
going to be in Triple-A his first year on the roster, that’s great. The
kid shouldn’t feel guilty about getting a base hit.

BA:
As we all know, Guzman has moved to the outfield full-time. But there
were some reports where he wasn’t happy having to move off shortstop in
the Dominican League this winter–that he threatened not to play. So
how has he taken the move now?

RS:
First of all, I never heard any of that. Second of all, he bounced
around in winter ball, played first, played third, played a little
short. We wanted our new big league staff to get a look at him and make
an assessment. The factors taken in are what’s best for the kid, what’s
the best way to have him reach his full potential; and two, what’s best
for the organization–where is there a need?

And corner
outfield is a position where there’s a path there. So the decision was
made to put him in left and work him hard. That doesn’t mean that
there’s a place waiting for him as soon as we think he’s ready. His bat
is going to determine when he’s ready for the big leagues. Obviously if
his bat was ready and he was at shortstop, there wasn’t a place for him
to go with (Rafael) Furcal here.

He’s worked hard, he’s
taken to it and sees the light at the end of the tunnel. He’s still in
the big leagues here. But he’s a young kid and we need to stay positive
with him. And when he gets down on himself we have to give him some
tough love too. He’s going to take to it and he’s going to be a big
leaguer.

And when it comes to catching, shortstop, center
field, those are the positions–the middle of the field positions.
Going back, the best little leaguer played short. the best outfielder
played center. There is a pride that goes along with catching. So
whenever you move one of those guys, you’re telling them they can’t,
but in their minds anyone can play second base. Anyone can play the
corners.

So I think he took a lot of pride in the fact that
he was a big man playing short. He looked at Rodriguez and Ripken and
said I can be one of those guys. And that he’d be disappointed to move
from there is totally understandable–it’s a pride thing.

BA:
You just returned yesterday from a trip to the Dominican Republic, so I
guess this question is pretty good timing. Where do the Dodgers stand
on the international market since director of international scouting
Rene Francisco left for Atlanta? Are you still committed to seeking
talent in Latin America?

RS: We’re
definitely committed. We’ve asked Ralph Avila to kind of come off the
bench for us here and help us transition. So he’s going to be
supervising our international scouts this year. We want to throw a
little old-school at them. We reaffirmed our commitment yesterday on a
trip to the Dominican that included Frank and Jamie McCourt, along with
(executive vice president, chief operating officer) Marty Greenspun,
(GM) Ned Coletti, (VP, spring training/minor league facilities) Craig
Callan and myself to let people know that we intend to still be a
player there. Ralph’s going to help us transition by whipping the
scouts into shape and at some point get somebody to take us into the
future and head up everything.

We’re still in good hands.
This guy knows the country like the back of his hand and quite frankly,
it doesn’t hurt to bring back some old-school values in there again.

As far as financial commitments, that’s still up in the air, but our efforts are going to be intensified.

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL


As Smith said, there have been some position changes in Dodgers camp
this spring. In addition to Guzman moving to the outfield, Delwyn Young moves from second base to left field, Blake DeWitt from third base to second base, and Travis Denker from second base to third.

• First baseman Cory Dunlap continues to impress with his bat, but he needs to work more on conditioning so that he doesn’t fall into the Calvin Pickering, or more recently, Walter Young
trap. A third-round pick in 2004, Dunlap is listed at 205 pounds, but
he’s closer to 260. He batted .291-7-77 in 430 at-bats at high Class A
Vero Beach last season.

“Cory can hit, but he has to get in
shape,” Smith said. “I was with Walter in Pittsburgh, and he’s one of
the nicest kids in the world–one of my favorites. But you can’t play
at 300 pounds. You can’t. There’s a reason why he’s bounced around. You
just can’t do it.

“But with Cory, we have hopes with him.
We’re contracted with API (Athletes Performance Institute) and we’ve
had them talk to him about nutrition and having a consistent approach
with his diet. We’re going to do our best to get the most out of this
kid, because we think he can hit. We’re going to try to show him that
we care. He just has to get in better shape.”

• The club had high hopes for lefthander Greg Miller
to make the team as a bullpen specialist out of camp, but he was
reassigned to minor league camp yesterday. “He still has a good arm,”
Smith said. “We lowered his arm angle last year and he’s taken to it.
He still has to be more consistent with his release point. The thing
with him is he needs to pitch this year. He really needs to post up and
show that he can go day in and day out. I’m sure there’s more in there
as he gets further and further away from his operation. He’s a big kid,
so you have to let him grow into his body, get to know it and almost
re-learn it because he’s been out so much. There’s been so many stops
and starts. But there’s still a lot to like. There’s still plenty in
there for him to be a big league pitcher in whatever role.”

Minors | #2006 #Daily Dish

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