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Spring Training Dish: Dodgers Camp
by Chris Kline
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.
• 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."