Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ned Colletti, The Luckiest Man in Sports


I probably don't need to write much on this topic.

I could simply say, "look at the picture above.  Imagine that Frank McCourt is the one in the foreground and that Ned Colletti is the one in the background, out of focus.  It's a metaphor for the freedom that Colletti has enjoyed to make horrible decision after horrible decision thanks to the distraction that McCourt has caused by being a horrible, horrible owner."

But it's worth a deeper look to comprehend how the general manager the person that is most directly responsible for the collapse of the Dodgers since he was hired in 2006.

McCourt deserves every negative word said about him -- and only those who have followed this thing for years and read every detailed, disgusting account of how he and his family abused Dodger funds for personal use know just how much of a scumbag he really is -- but at the end of the day, Ned Colletti had almost $100 million a year to spend on his major league baseball team.  He may not have had access to the resources to go after C.C. Sabathia or Cliff Lee, but neither did 28 other teams, and most of them are considerably better put-together than the Blue.

Few would look at the the team over the last year and a half -- or even the playoff years of 2008 and 2009, for that matter -- and argue that the general manager has done a particularly good job, but he has also been largely absent from the discussion of how this franchise has gone from promising to the precipice of the Pennant to pathetic. When the Dodgers reached consecutive National League Championship Series in 2008 and 2009, they were ahead of schedule.  Clayton Kershaw was a rookie in '08 and neither Matt Kemp nor Andre Ethier had hit their prime, so who could blame you for expecting to see them playing in October for years to come?



What you have seen over time is a sustained sequence of poor personnel decisions that has managed to squander one of the most fruitful farm systems of the past decade.  Any general manager that has the privilege of working alongside Logan White should be considered fortunate.  White is known throughout baseball as one of the best amateur talent evaluators in the game, and his draft record supports that.  The lifeblood of any organization is the talent it produces through its scouting and development process and almost every winning organization does so by supplementing that with a free agent pick up or savvy trade here and there.

To put it bluntly, Ned Colletti has been in charge for more than five seasons and made such moves almost never.  And that is how you wind up with a wave of talent that came through the Dodgers' system in the mid-2000's, including perhaps the best pitcher-hitter combination in the league in Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp, and little else to support them.

***Editor's note: David Young of True Blue L.A. has a thorough look at Colletti's trade deadline history, check it out.***

When the Dodgers made it to the National League Championship Series in 2008 and 2009, they featured only two starters -- Rafael Furcal and Manny Ramirez -- that didn't come through the system or in a trade as a minor leaguer (Andre Ethier).  Ethier is actually the only "prospect" that Colletti has acquired during his tenure that has or is expected to amount to anything.  Interestingly, Colletti hit it big less than a month into his tenure by trading away Milton Bradley, who had fallen out of favor in L.A., for Ethier.

Other than the Manny deal in 2008, it was Colletti's only big win on the trade market, and he went on to compound it with arguably his worst decision of all: Juan Pierre for 5 years and $44 milion.  By signing Pierre, he not only paid a player far more than he deserved and for far longer, but he effectively blocked Ethier, who had hit .308/.365/.477 the year before as a rookie.  The deal also created one of the many significant financial roadblocks that Colletti would set for himself down the road.  It also revealed his troubling and enduring passion for overrated attributes, like speed and grit.

The trademark of Colletti's time and managerial style has been an over-reliance on veterans, which has at many points come at the expense of young players and prospects.  No Dodger fan can (or should) forget about the deal in which Colletti traded away Carlos Santana for two months of 34 year-old Casey Blake.  At the time, Santana was a 22 year-old switch-hitting catcher in the midst of a .326/.431/.568 season between high-A and double-A.  Currently, Santana is one of the best catchers in the league.  It was one case, but it illustrated perfectly the kind of disregard for young talent that any team, especially one with dire financial issues like the Dodgers have had, can not afford.

Last season, despite being out of contention and winding up 4th in the NL West, Colletti felt the need to trade away 25 year-old James McDonald, with less than 200 Major League innings under his belt, to Pittsburgh for 18 innings of 36 year-old reliever, Octavio Dotel.  Regardless of McDonald's future performance (he pitched to a 3.52 ERA and now boasts a 3.95 ERA for the FIRST PLACE PIRATES), you don't trade a legit young pitcher for a an old reliever.  Ever.




One of the best parts of baseball is that the value of every dollar spent and decision made can be put into perspective despite wide discrepancies in Major League payrolls.  Because you can isolate and measure individual performance so accurately, general managers can, over time, reveal trends that come to define their philosophies.  We all know about the Tampa Bay Rays, for instance, as a team that has managed to compete for division titles in the American League East based on shrewd business moves (think 12 of the first 60 picks in this year's draft) and an eye towards scouting and development.  They may only spend $42 million on their Major League payroll this year, yet they are still in position to trade players that become expensive and replace them with similarly talented younger ones and affordable vets to play roles.  In doing so, they continually restock their minor league system while competing at the Major League level.

We can accept that that not every team can have the smartest front office.  But what we do know is that there are only 30 G.M. positions in the Major Leagues, and to occupy one for as long as Colletti has, you should be expected to do more than let a core of Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, James Loney and Russell Martin come and go without supporting them with the kinds of players and coaches that can build a sustained winner.  What kind of coaches do you get to help develop such a sensationally promising young core?  Not guys like Larry Bowa, who find it appropriate to publicly disparage cornerstone stars like Kemp

As we know from paying attention, the best baseball teams aren't always the ones that spend the most money.  In fact, most of the best and brightest front offices win because of decisions made in the margins.  Many of those cost significantly less than the contract of a top-level free agent, like: Mark Teixiera, Adrian Beltre (twice), Carl Crawford, Carlos Beltran or Alex Rodriguez (all of whom signed as free agents during Colletti's time as GM).

Colletti has been handed what every G.M. wants: impact talent.  Kemp is back to being his MVP self and Kershaw is busy leading the league in strikeouts in games that don't matter.  Russell Martin was an All-Star again this season after being cut loose over a an amount of money that pales in comparison to the dough Colletti has coughed up for guys like:

Ted Lilly (3 years, $33 million)
Juan Uribe (3 years, $21 million)
Casey Blake (3 years, $17.5 million)
Rod Barajas (1 year, $3.25 million)
Marcus Thames (1 year, $1 million)
Dioner Navarro (1 year, $1 million)
Jay Gibbons (1 year, $.65 million)
Jon Garland (1 year, $.5 million)
Tony Gwynn (1 year, $.675 million)
Aaron Miles (1 year, $.5 million)

That is about $80 million worth of bad contracts for bad players.  You can say all you want about Frank McCourt -- and say it loud, say it proud! -- but someone tell me how the performance of the man responsible for giving JUAN URIBE three years and $21 million, he of the career .298 on-base percentage, has been anything but pitiful.

He'll tell you that his team is underperforming.  He did it when they were winning in 2008 and 2009, and he's doing it again this year (from Tony Jackson of ESPNLA.com):

"It has been frustrating on a lot of fronts," he said. "I hold myself accountable because I am the one sitting in front of it. What we do have a chance to do this year is try to get healthy and try to be more productive, especially offensively. I still think we have a chance to play better than we have played, whether it's players playing for a free-agent contract or their next Dodgers contract or simply for the pride of the Dodgers organization."
He'll make it about the players, about their pride and their commitment to the organization (is there a bigger oxymoron than calling the Dodgers an "organization?"), but at the end of the day, this all reflects on Ned.

A few years ago when Orlando Hudson was playing like the best $3.38 million signing of all time, Fangraphs ran a story entitled: "Orlando Hudson is making Ned Colletti look smart."  The premise was that Hudson's superb play at the bargain rate for which he signed reflected some great wisdom on the part of the general manager.  I have been fortunate to meet some of the geniuses who write for Fangraphs, and let me tell you what I'm sure they would say about the story: as a G.M., Colletti wasn't and isn't smart.

He had a young second baseman in camp that spring named Blake DeWitt. DeWitt was a former first-round pick that had hit a little bit in the minors, but at the end of the day, Colletti didn't feel comfortable with the idea of him as the team's starting second baseman, despite all the grit and grind that young Blake exuded.  He picked up Orlando Hudson at the very end of the offseason and Orlando Hudson hit like hell for most of the season.  He got lucky, just like he has with guys like Jamey Carroll, although even Jamey Carroll has been a success in ways that Ned Colletti doesn't even understand.  Because you see, Ned Colletti thinks that Jamey Carroll is good because he is a veteran and because he runs hard to first base, when in reality, Carroll is valuable simply because he gets on base.

As this trade deadline approaches, we will get a chance to see what Ned can do with a team that has been out of the playoff race, thanks to his own incompetence, for months now.  For years when the Dodgers were in contention, the joke among Dodger fans was to beg Ned not to pick up the phone around this time of year, knowing that other G.M.'s would be licking their chops at the chance to dump a reliever on the Dodgers for a kid with a chance to provide value for cheap.  His job now is simple: trade guys like Carroll and Hiroki Kuroda for prospects that can help the team next year and beyond.  Who knows if he'll be able to do it, but I know one thing, it'd be much easier if there were more Ned Colletti's around the league to deal with.

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