The landscape of baseball has changed. Gone are the days when the only indicators of offensive output were home runs, RBIs, and batting average. Who would have thought ten years ago that Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, one of the first public advocates of sabermetrics and moneyball, would be portrayed on camera by Brad Pitt? Indeed, moneyball has finally gone mainstream and reached the masses, with teams focusing on a player’s overall production more than power output. Teams hoping to slash budgets by seeking out affordable replacements have also characterized the new era. Heck, even the New York Yankees made an ostensible commitment to getting under the luxury tax threshold for the 2013 season.
However, in an era where teams are attempting to slash budgets and focus more on developing talent rather than acquiring it via free agency, one team continues to cling to the antiquated ways of the past few decades. That team is of course the Los Angeles Dodgers. The historic franchise has failed to capture a pennant since its last World Series win in 1988, due in large part to poor planning and management at the executive level. Since the club’s last title, the franchise has been marred by ownership changes, poor general management decisions, and a lack of significant results on the playing field. Their club now features the most bloated payroll in baseball.
One may wonder where it all went wrong for the Dodgers – a team that dominated during the 70’s and 80’s, largely due to the fact that they were able to develop talent within the club and keep a core lineup together for many years at a time. In my opinion, one specific event can be highlighted as the turning point from superior executive management to incompetence within the Dodgers organization.
The event in question took place on April 6, 1987. Without consulting anyone else within the organization, Dodgers’ general manager Al Campanis agreed to make a special appearance on the television program Nightline to discuss the historical significance of Jackie Robinson. Campanis had played with Robinson during his time in the majors and could speak first-hand about the experiences and struggles Robinson went through.
During the interview, however, Campanis made several disparaging remarks directed toward African-Americans, including questioning whether an African-American was fit to manage a baseball club. He made several other derogatory statements throughout the program, including the claim that there were no black general managers in baseball because African-Americans lack the basic skills necessary to lead an organization and also claimed African-Americans are poor swimmers because they lack buoyancy.
Although Campanis was not known to be a racist, the remarks were simply too inflammatory to be forgotten, and Campanis was fired two days later. After he was relieved of his duties, Campanis would be replaced as general manager by Fred Claire, which would mark the beginning of the end of executive excellence for the Dodgers franchise.
Campanis had remarkable success as general manager of the Dodgers for a number of reasons. Most notably, he had a propensity for discovering talent and developing it within the organization. Throughout his tenure, Campanis provided a model for frugal spending and stability within a baseball organization. Even though the team’s average payroll during the early 80’s was often below the league average, the team was nearly always in contention and won the World Series in 1981.
Let’s rewind to the 1960’s to examine the foundation Campanis was constructing to achieve prolonged success. He was officially promoted to general manager in 1968, but had played a major role in the organization for at least a decade prior to his promotion. As scouting director for the club, Campanis famously discovered a young Sandy Koufax. Pairing Koufax with Don Drysdale at the top of the rotation, the club team had tremendous success, appearing in 4 World Series between 1959 and 1966, and winning three of the four.
Following the retirement of Koufax and Drysdale, the club relied on another homegrown talent to lead it through the 1970’s. Management quickly realized the potential of young pitcher Don Sutton and relied on him to anchor the rotation for the next decade. Sutton, a four-time All-Star, really came into his own during the first few years of the 70’s, thanks in large part to talented personnel that worked with Sutton to help him reach his full potential. The club never won a World Series during Sutton’s tenure, despite the fact that they reached baseball’s grandest stage three times and were almost always near the top of the standings.
In 1972, a court ruling would forever alter Major League Baseball. Prior to 1972, owners feared that allowing a player to seek out employment from another team would ultimately lead to higher contracts for all players, which could lead to less well-off teams folding if they could not meet salary demands. As a result, all contacts contained what was then known as a “reserve clause.”
In essence, the reserve clause allowed for teams to retain players indefinitely. After the player’s contract had expired, the team would hold the rights to the to the player for an additional year. This left players with three options: sign a new contract with the current team, sit out an entire year and sign with a new team, or request a trade.
The reserve clause dominated the game of baseball for many years, allowing for teams to acquire players at a young age and keep them throughout the prime of their careers. As a result, many players grew frustrated by the terms of their contacts, leading one man to file suit.
Curt Flood spent most of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals; however, the team attempted to trade Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies following the 1969 season. Citing a number of reasons, including racist fans and poor play on the field, Flood refused to report to the Phillies and filed legal action to challenge the reserve clause. The country’s highest court actually ruled against Flood during the case, claiming MLB’s antitrust exemption allowed for the reserve clause. Despite the fact that he would lose the case, he opened the door to free agency in baseball – as he worked with MLBPA director Marvin Miller to eliminate the reserve clause and open the world of baseball to free agency in 1974.
The elimination of the reserve clause a little over five years into Al Campanis’s run as general manager makes his accomplishments that much more impressive. Whereas teams could previously lock down talent at an affordable rate for their entire careers, general managers were now forced to deal with free agency, and as a result, inflated contracts.
The changing topography of baseball provided the canvas for Campanis to paint his masterpiece during the early 1980’s. While teams previously had the ability to keep players under contract indefinitely, free agency was now an option for acquiring talent. In order to compete in an era that was soon to be dominated by exorbitant contracts and cutthroat negotiations, the Dodgers’ GM utilized a three-prong approach, which included developing young talent, maintaining a stable roster, and making wise free agent signings.
The first step was conducted brilliantly, as the Dodgers’ possessed one of the best farm systems in the league during the early 1980’s. The strength of their young talent was continuously recognized, with a member of the Dodgers winning the Rookie of the Year award for four consecutive seasons.
Step two involved stabilizing the roster to provide the team with a sense of continuity. A number of talented young players were developed in the organization and kept for long periods of time. Most notable is the Dodgers’ infield of Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Bill Russell, and Davey Lopes. The group was the epitome of stability, as they stayed together for eight and a half seasons with the Dodgers. The club also developed catcher Mike Scoscia and worked to provide as much stability as possible in the pitching rotation. Mark Timmons asks “Has there ever been a better time to be a Dodger fan?” and paints a decent picture of the era.
Lastly, with free agency now an option in baseball, Campanis realized the value of a well-timed signing. When casting his line into the waters of free agency, Campanis never reeled in a bigger fish than Fernando Valenzuela. While other general managers around the league were hesitant to sign the Mexican star, the Dodgers’ GM felt he was worth a shot, and the investment paid dividends.
By the end of his first season with the club, Valenzuela had taken the league by storm, winning the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards during his first season in the majors, while also leading his club to a World Series title. “Fernandomania”, as it was dubbed, set the baseball world ablaze. Valenzuela would go on to have a remarkable career, appearing in 6 All-Star Games and remaining a fixture at the top of the Dodgers’ rotation throughout the 80’s. Although he was one of the top pitchers in the league for most of his time in Los Angeles, his annual salary was usually only around a million dollars per season.
The club was spoiled throughout Campanis’s stint as GM, as they had grown accustomed to developing the best talent in the league and competing for a playoff spot almost every year. However, following the dreadful Nightline appearance, the club was on the brink of an era plagued by greed and incompetence at the executive level.
Following Campanis’s forced resignation, Fred Claire was promoted from within the organization to serve as the new general manager. During his first season at the helm, the Dodgers made a miraculous run and managed to win the World Series. However, most of the players on the club were signed and developed under Campanis, including Valenzuela, Steve Sax, and some guy who went by the nickname “The Bulldog.”
In Claire’s defense, he signed Kirk Gibson and Mike Davis before the season, but the core of the team had already been in place. The team would go on to miss the playoffs during the next 6 seasons, finishing in the bottom half of the division during half of the seasons. In what was probably his last wise move as GM, Claire was at least smart enough to back away from the bidding war for Kirk Gibson in 1991.
Following Gibson’s 1988 MVP season, he frequently battled injury while his production fell off considerably. When the Kansas City Royals offered Gibson $1.7 million dollars (more than $300,000 more than the Dodgers had paid him during the previous season), Claire quickly stepped away from the negotiating table. The move proved to be extremely wise, as Gibson posted a paltry .236 average with only 55 RBIs during his only season with the Royals. Other than one productive season with the Detroit Tigers in 1994, Gibson was unable to match his pre-1988 production again in his career.
Poor decisions plagued the rest of Claire’s time with the club. He made several poor signings, and traded away much of the team’s young talent. Three particular transactions have gone on to define Claire’s incompetence as general manager.
Following disappointing seasons in both 1989 and 1990, the team hoped to make a splash by signing free agent outfield Darryl Strawberry. At the time, Strawberry was coming off of an amazing run with the New York Mets, where he combined power and speed to become one of the top players in the game.
The contract seemed like a decent bargain at first. Although Strawberry received a massive contract, his numbers backed it up during the first season. The slugger posted a .361 on-base percentage, along with 28 home runs and 99 RBIs, leading many fans to believe he would be a fixture in the lineup for years to come.
However, the rest of his time was marred by various injuries and substance abuse problems. The move turned out to be the first of many poor executive decisions to hinder the club over the next 2 decades. Despite the fact that Strawberry was the highest paid player in baseball at the time, his overall WAR in 3 years with Dodgers was only a 2.3. An extra 2.3 wins over the course of 3 seasons was certainly not what Claire was hoping for when he signed Strawberry.
The next poor transaction involved sending away young talent in the hopes of reuniting childhood friends Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis. The goal was that Davis could provide some stability for Strawberry, who was dealing with substance abuse issues, while providing some pop to the struggling lineup. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Davis was unable to provide either.
Strawberry continued to struggle and left the club following the 1993 season, while Davis would also be traded to the Detroit Tigers during the 1993 season. The team sent away young pitchers John Wetteland and Tim Belcher in the deal to acquire Davis. Wetteland would go on to become a dominant relief pitcher, reaching three straight All-Star games, while Belcher would also put up admirable numbers throughout the rest of his career with several different clubs. As for Davis, he actually lost the team games during his time with the Dodgers. Davis posted a -0.5 WAR during two seasons, meaning a generic replacement player would have done better.
Lastly, Claire made one of the poorest decisions any general manager has ever made in the history of Major League Baseball. In a move most Dodgers fans will probably never forget, Claire traded away the best pitcher of his generation for shortstop Delino DeShields. The trade, in what can possibly be described the worst trade in the history of the sport not involving Babe Ruth, sent Pedro Martinez to the Montreal Expos for DeShields.
Despite attempts from Pedro’s brother Ramon to halt the trade, Claire went through with it anyway. By now, we all know how this one worked out. Pedro went on to win 3 Cy Young Awards and dominate hitters for over a decade, while DeShields would provide the team with 3 mediocre seasons before packing it in and moving on to another city. It is hard to fathom how Claire held onto his job after such a dreadful trade, but he stayed with the team through 1998.
By this time, previous owner Peter O’Malley had sold the team to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Those familiar with the corporation probably find it hard to believe anything could go wrong with Murdoch in charge, but it did. Also, if you think the previous sentence was not made in jest, please reference the word sarcasm.
At the start of the 1998 season, it had been ten years since the team had won a pennant, and the new ownership team was hoping to shake up the roster a bit. So, in an attempt to bolster the team’s talent, ownership of course sent away the most talented player the team had acquired in years for a package of players whose centerpiece was an aging Gary Sheffield.
The deal involved sending All-Star catcher Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile to the Florida Marlins in exchange for Gary Sheffield and a group of players, none of whom are worth mentioning. Although Sheffield was reasonably productive during his time in L.A., he was nowhere near as productive as Piazza, who would post six productive seasons for the New York Mets from behind the plate. In fact, over the next 4 years, Piazza would go on to hit more home runs as a catcher than Sheffield, a slugging outfielder. The deal stung many fans that had become fond of Piazza, and also caught GM Fred Claire by surprise, as he was not informed of the trade beforehand. Furious he had not been consulted regarding trading away the team’s most talented player, Claire objected to the deal and was subsequently removed from his position.
If fans thought the executive decisions had been terrible over the last decade as a result of the duo of Claire and former owner O’Malley, they would be in for an unpleasant surprise in the near future. The organization hoped to start the last year of the century off well by signing pitcher Kevin Brown to a huge contract.
The club made Kevin Brown the first $100 million man in baseball by signing him to a 7 year/$105 million deal that was publically lamented as one of the worst in the history of the sport. Brown posted an 18-7 record during the first year, leaving the club feeling confident in its ace. However, Brown would battle injuries during the latter half of the contract. Ultimately, the $100 million the team invested in Brown would only result in an average of 9 wins per season, and not a single playoff game.
After a few quiet years that featured managerial shakeups and front office changes, the organization was back on the trading block in 2004. This time, the team would trade away young talent in the form of catcher Paul Lo Duca and pitcher Guillermo Mota to the Marlins in exchange for pitcher Brad Penny and outfielder Hee-seop Choi.
Lo Duca would remain very productive for the next few seasons with the Marlins and Mets (this trading talented young catchers to the Marlins, and in turn, the Mets is becoming all too familiar by now). This move coincided with the team ownership being transferred from News Corp. to businessman Frank McCourt.
Upon completion of the sale of the team, McCourt enlisted Paul DePodesta to take over general management duties. His first move was to shake up the roster with the Lo Duca-Penny deal. It would backfire, however, as Choi was completely abysmal during his two seasons with the club, and Penny only delivered 2 productive seasons.
By now, the formula of sending away young talent to rely on older players had become standard procedure for Dodgers. So it is no surprise that following the 2004 season, the team would not resign young third-baseman Adrian Beltre and would instead opt for older talent in the form of Jeff Kent, Derek Lowe, and J.D. Drew.
Although Beltre’s first season with the Seattle Mariners was a bit of a disappointment, he has gone on to become one of the top sluggers in the league. Jeff Kent put up decent numbers during a few of his seasons with the squad, but was paid about $8 million per year for an average WAR of 2.0. Drew would have one productive season with the club and opt-out of the remaining years of his contract for a larger paycheck with the Boston Red Sox. Lowe was also less than spectacular. Despite a paycheck of nearly $10 million per season, Lowe only averaged about 12 wins per year, which resulted in the Dodgers paying roughly a million dollars per from the pitcher.
If someone were writing a book on executive incompetence, McCourt’s tenure as owner of the Dodgers would certainly make for an interesting case study. McCourt’s divorce caused ownership to drain the club for all it was worth, raising ticket and concession prices every year while still putting a poor product on the field. After McCourt’s former wife received a $130 million divorce settlement, the man who had used Dodger Stadium as collateral to initially buy the team was nearly broke. It is almost a surprise the team did not try to trade Vin Scully for a bag of peanuts at some point. Bill Shaikin explains how McCourt still has an influence in the direction of Dodger Stadium.
McCourt’s divorce, officially calculated as the costliest in the history of the state of California, devastated the team for years, as McCourt tried to magically transform talentless squads into contenders by hiring a new manager every few years. It is really no surprise this man did not succeed, as many recall he attempted to purchase the Boston Red Sox and pitched the brilliant idea of tearing down Fenway Park and building a new stadium.
Fans once again had reason to be optimistic when a group of investors, including Magic Johnson, agreed to purchase the team from McCourt. The owners made a commitment to investing in young talent and bringing in the top free agents on the market.
However, in an attempt to improve the team’s performance, management agreed to a trade with the Boston Red Sox in what may go down as one of the worst trades in league history. The club agreed to take on the enormous salaries of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett in hopes of bringing in veteran talent to complement young talent such as Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp, whose struggles this season have been well documented.
Crawford, despite the fact that he is making $20 million this season, has only contributed 21 RBIs and 11 stolen bases so far this season, although Steve Dilbeck suggests he may not be hitting as poorly as some may think. Beckett has not been much better, with a 0-5 record and a $17 million salary. Gonzalez, to his defense, has produced, but has already spent nearly a decade in the league and is on the decline. It is no surprise the Red Sox are now at the top of the standings after shedding the payroll and bringing in younger players.
The Dodgers now feature the second highest payroll in baseball and are expected to overtake the Yankees next year for the top spot. By bailing out the Red Sox on their poor investments, the team has inflated its payroll but has managed to turn its early season misfortunes into a division lead in recent weeks – a lead that is largely a result of the unexpected emergence of Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig, as well as the reemergence of Hanley Ramirez, as stated in an article on the blog Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness.
During the past 2 decades of futility, many entities within the organization have contributed to the poor decision-making. Trading away young talent certainly did not help, nor did signing overpaid veterans. In short, if the once-proud Dodgers organization hopes to regain prominence and seriously contend for championships over a prolonged period of time instead of hoping to hit the lottery by banking on all of the stars aligning for a season, they should look back at their superb executive model from the 70’s and 80’s, where the team focused on scouting and developing talent, maintaining a stable roster, and above all else, making sensible free agent signings.