No Need To Feel Blue

VERO BEACH, Fla.–At the end of the 2005 season–the Dodgers’ second-worst since they arrived on the West Coast almost four decades ago–anyone who followed the club closely could survey the organizational landscape and see something akin to the surface of the moon. It was barren, with holes everywhere, and offered few reasons for optimism.

When Ned Colletti surveyed it, he saw a Picasso–grotesque and disfigured on the surface, but with a hidden beauty waiting to be brought to the surface.

“I saw a franchise that needed its confidence restored,” said Colletti, who was named the Dodgers’ general manager last Nov. 15. “I thought it had a decent nucleus of veteran players that needed some support. But it had one of the better farm systems in the game.”

In fact, the Dodgers were swimming in prospects, the result of several consecutive productive drafts and a solid minor league coaching foundation that had kept the development of most of those players on schedule. In the first days after Colletti was hired, he immediately identified that talent-rich system as the foundation from which to build this club for years to come.

Building it for the year to come was another story. And that’s where Colletti knew things would get dicey for all the prospects. Most of them appeared at least a year or two away from being ready for the big leagues, and Colletti understood that as a baseball market, Los Angeles bears no resemblance to Milwaukee or Kansas City. That’s particularly true with the aggressive, 2002 World Series champion Angels adopting the L.A. name and earning more and more attention.

Dodgers fans are not patient. Dodgers owner Frank McCourt is not patient. So Colletti couldn’t afford to be patient, either.

That meant that for the second winter in a row, the major league roster would be largely overhauled through trades and free-agent signings. The key would be how many of those trades Colletti could pull off without touching his stockpile of promising prospects–because it was clear that some of their names would be brought up in almost every trade negotiation Colletti would enter.

“Not on every deal, but on a lot of deals,” Colletti said. “I would say 80 percent.”

Prospects In Demand

Although Colletti wouldn’t get into specifics, it is clear the most asked-about players in the system were the five who led Double-A Jacksonville, Baseball America’s 2005 Team of the Year, to its runaway Southern League championship last summer–righthander Chad Billingsley, catcher Russell Martin and infielders Andy LaRoche and James Loney and outfielder Joel Guzman.

But three months after taking over, Colletti went to spring training with all five of those players–and other high ceiling prospects like lefthander Scott Elbert, third baseman Blake DeWitt, outfielder Matt Kemp still in the fold.

This after signing five significant free agents in Rafael Furcal, Bill Mueller, Nomar Garciaparra, Kenny Lofton and Brett Tomko. This after making two major trades, which gave the Dodgers so much pitching depth that two of the acquisitions, former all-star closers Danys Baez and Lance Carter, will rarely if ever be called on to close in L.A. This after making a third major trade that rid the Dodgers of widely-known headache Milton Bradley and lesser-known headache Antonio Perez and netted a pretty good outfield prospect in return in Andre Ethier from Oakland.

For that, Colletti gave up exactly two prospects. One was former top pitching prospect Edwin Jackson, whose star had fallen so far in the past two seasons that a change of scenery might have been in his best interest, anyway. The other was lefty Chuck Tiffany, who has the makings of a future major league starter, but lacks the upside of Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton and Elbert and has also yet to pitch above Class A.

“There is no question that was a tough deal to make,” Colletti said. “It wasn’t easy to move either player. But I knew what we needed at the big league level.”

Dodgers scouting director Logan White, who drafted Tiffany but not Jackson, supported the deal when Colletti sought his opinion. White is the man generally credited with stocking the Dodgers through the draft. But the prevailing organizational philosophy, even before Colletti replaced the cerebral Paul DePodesta, was that players are developed not only to help the Dodgers on the field, but to help them through trades, as well.

New Operating System

The important thing was that Colletti did, in fact, seek White’s opinion, along with several other opinions within the organization, before making the trade. And that alone is a radical departure from DePodesta, who seemed to trust no one outside his inner circle–least of all those in the scouting department–and whose inner circle didn’t have much of a radius.

“Ned and I hit it off so well right away,” White said. “He’s such a good baseball guy. Before he jumps into anything, he examines every aspect of it and gets a feel for the whole puzzle. With that trade, I knew we were going to have to give up some talented players. But when you have a chance to get a guy like Baez, I felt like that was a move we had to make.”

The system remains knee-deep in pitching, with names like Broxton–White’s first draft pick to reach the majors–as well as Elbert, Justin Orenduff, Julio Pimentel, Blake Johnson, Josh Wall, Eric Stults and Chris Malone. There also are plenty of position players, like infielders DeWitt, Delwyn Young, Ivan DeJesus Jr. and Chin-Lung Hu and outfielders Justin Ruggiano and Scott Van Slyke, many of whom are in the early stages of development.

When those players start making it to the big leagues in a few years, not all of them will be with the Dodgers.

“Our job is to produce major league players,” farm director Terry Collins said. “You make the deals you have to make in order to make the big league club better. That’s part of the development process. If we produce a major league player and the big league club makes itself better by trading that player, then we have done our job.”

One key to Colletti’s offseason maneuvering was judging how quickly some of those top prospects will be ready, and in turn determining the proper contract length for some of the veterans he signed. Garciaparra was signed for one year in the belief Loney can be ready by 2007, while Mueller was signed for two years despite the fact LaRoche also could be ready next season. But Jeff Kent’s contract expires after this season, potentially clearing the way for Mueller to move to second to make room for LaRoche. By 2008, either DeWitt, Willy Aybar or Tony Abreu should be ready to take over at second.

Furcal is signed through 2008, one reason why Guzman moved to left field this spring. Some club officials see the possibility of a Martin-Loney-LaRoche-Furcal (with DeWitt, Aybar or Abreu) infield matriculating to the majors, similar to the former Dodgers infield alignment of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Ron Cey and Bill Russell that was together for a dozen seasons.

“I like having options,” Colletti said. “If you sign a player to a short-term deal and he has great success and turns out to be more expensive the second time around, I’m fine with that. Add those prospects to it, and you get a whole other pool of potential players.”

And lest anyone think the Dodgers stream of prospects is finite, consider this: all indications are the Dodgers will be unable to sign last year’s first-round pick, Tennessee righthander Luke Hochevar. They will get one compensatory pick in this year’s draft for that, and another for losing Jeff Weaver to free agency after last season.

Come June, that will give the Dodgers three of this year’s first 31 selections, including the No. 7 overall pick, giving an already fertile farm system another boost.