While operating under the tight financial restraints placed on him in Tampa Bay, new Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman prioritized young, controllable talent to build a perennial contender if not division dark horse from 2008-2013. Removing these constraints might alter how Friedman acquires and handles such young assets, but the overall importance of the farm system isn’t likely to change.
Theo Epstein has recently noted that the two most important factors in building a competitor is money and young talent, but admitted that money doesn’t provide as much value as it once did. The Dodgers recognize this in their hiring of Friedman; the team must improve on the margins, using their financial might to improve the organization beyond free agency. While Friedman may capitalize on looser purse strings, he must also beware of the changing risks factors associated with a bigger market and adapt his previous development strategy accordingly. Using his last six seasons at the helm of the Rays’ baseball decisions as a guide, I’ve highlighted a few trends from Friedman’s usage of the farm system and amateur draft to hopefully shed light on what we may expect for the Dodgers’ minor league system going forward.
Balanced draft approach, but checkered results at the top
Since shifting to the back half of the first round, the Rays have found it difficult identify and develop front-line prospects or major league regular hopefuls in the first round. Ignoring the disaster that was 2009 and its litany of unsigned picks, the Rays have made nine picks in the first round, but only Mikie Mahtook from 2011 looking close to knocking on the major league door. That shouldn’t suggest that the Rays won’t see strong returns from these nine players in time, nor should you infer that the picks weren’t lauded at the time. I personally was, and to a degree remain, a big fan of Ryan Stanek and Richie Shaffer when I covered the draft from a Rockies’ perspective at Purple Row. Likewise, Justin O’Conner and Nick Ciuffo were upward trending high schoolers at premium position when they were taken, and both still show the upside of major league contributors.
The Rays have also taken talent gambles with extra picks in the supplemental rounds that litter their prospect lists, most notably Blake Snell and Brent Honeywell. The supplemental rounds and high draft picks in rounds two and three is where we see any sort of emphasis during the Friedman era, leaning towards projectable-frame high schoolers on the mound and in the outfield. Largely, the Rays appear to have attempted to balance risk and ceiling in the early rounds, rarely overpaying on an overly projectable high school player, but taking more tempered risks with loud-tooled high schoolers (Guerrieri and Sale, more on them to follow) or sliding college stars (Mahtook, Shaffer, and Stanek all expected to go higher than Tampa’s selection in their respective years).
While they have yet to hit pay dirt on any of these picks, I’d expect the same type of balance of risk to populate Friedman’s Dodger drafts, where Los Angeles will likely be picking near the bottom of round one. If improvement is needed, it must come from the approach in development of these picks.
The Dodgers' hire of Billy Gasparino as director of amateur scouting opening further promotes this strategy. The last two Padres drafts have been particularly inspiring with the leverage risk of an accomplished collegian in round one against high ceiling-raw tooled high schoolers in the next few picks. Both Hunter Renfroe and Trea Turner are expected to move quickly through the Padres system and both carry higher tool sets then the average college bat. Gasparino took one of the highest ceiling-lowest floor players in last year’s draft in Michael Gettys, who has few peers even at the MLB level in terms of athleticism and raw tools. In players like Gettys and Dustin Peterson, Gasparino has taken gambles on unearthing top talent without having to leverage his draft on those picks by taking "safer" yet high quality collegiate players in round one.
Gambling on character in a small market
With fewer eyes watching the Rays every player move, and with little consequence for making the wrong move, Friedman’s Rays were wont to take risks on character, though not necessarily to stellar results. Taylor Guerrieri is arguably the top amateur talent selected during the Friedman era and was only available to Tampa Bay due to significant character concerns, and he’s only repaid the organization by "serving" a 50 game suspension for drug of abuse while rehabbing Tommy John surgery. Josh Sale’s hit tool may have rivaled Guerreri’s fastball as the "loudest tool" at the time of their respective draft, yet his career has also become more notable for off-field indiscretions. To Friedman and the Rays’ credit, I’ve found nothing to suggest Sale had character issues leading up to the draft, and they’ve handled him appropriately from a punishment standpoint.
It’s also worth noting that Josh Lueke - charged with rape and sodomy for a 2008 incident while in the Rangers' minor league system, but plead to a lesser charge of false imprisonment and served 40 days in jail - was acquired during this time period. I don’t mean to suggest that Friedman and the Dodgers should avoid taking a chance on character-flagged players, however I do think it’s worth noting that Friedman is stepping on to a larger stage and will likely gauge risk accordingly. Given the current ethical climate in sports, Lueke would in no way have been an appropriate trade target, and the negative perception would have been magnified in a market as big as Los Angeles.
While character gambles might have been exploitable in a disinterested market like Tampa Bay, you would expect such risk will be given heavier weight in Friedman’s new organization.
A strong eye for acquiring young talent through trade
Of all the characteristics Friedman has shown, this is the one I hope follows him to Los Angeles, but also is the one I am most curious to see how it plays out in his new market. Because Tampa could not always extend it’s young stars beyond their cost controlled seasons (or perhaps it would be better suggested they knew the inherent value of their players and leveraged it appropriately), Tampa was often in a position of having one of the highest valued commodities during trade season. While the talent procurement from the draft slowed, Friedman has successfully augmented his system via trade.
A WAR comparison might put Tampa Bay in the red at the moment, but the talent acquired in the James Shields-Wade Davis for Wil Myers-Jake Odorizzi-plus trade cheaply plugged holes in the team and offered the potential for a franchise cornerstone in . Similarly, Chris Archer was a fast rising Cubs arm when Friedman landed him and heralded Hak-Ju Lee (though the inevitable trap no-hit all-field SS prospect) for Matt Garza. Friedman even utilized a backup catcher reshuffle prior to 2014 to acquire Nate Karns, who provides the organization on option in 2015 as a promising bullpen arm or 3-5 starter. The point of such moves haven’t necessarily been to come out ahead in a WAR comparison, but to create a position of strength out of an unfortunate situation born from the realities of their financial situation. Friedman made the moves that many small market teams are often afraid to make in the midst of a winning run.
The Dodgers don’t have to find themselves on the wrong side of an impending pay increase to in-prime talent, but they do need help in reshaping the roster for sustained success. In an effort to become relevant as quickly as possible, the Dodgers ability to take back bad contracts for better talent and less trade return was an asset. However, some roster trimming is necessary to make it more flexible in future seasons, lest Los Angeles wants to become the west coast version of the .500 Yankees, salary-bloated over 30 roster and all. Friedman might have to make some immediately unpopular decisions to parts of the fan base (a Matt Kemp trade?) in order to better insure future winning without compromising the short term goals. Friedman has seen the benefit of prioritizing young-controllable talent first hand, and that should bode well for the respective futures of Joc Pederson, Julio Urias, and Corey Seager in Los Angeles, and might mean even more to seemingly tradeable assets like Chris Reed and Scott Schebler.
For their perceived shortcomings in drafting and development, the previous regime has left Friedman with a pretty solid base of young, controllable talent, at least at the top. Given the successes Friedman has had with such talent, and empowered with superior resources to augment this base, it should be worth watching how true he stays to the trends he developed in Tampa Bay. More success in the early rounds of the draft won’t be as imperative here as it was in Tampa, but should be no less a priority, as young talent is still the league’s greatest currency. Finding a way to procure it from other teams by dealing players that threaten to become "unmovable objects" in the not too distant future becomes his newest challenge, and should make for a riveting off-season.