Dodgers' home-grown prospects are a true-blue success story
Draft picks have contributed mightily to the Dodgers' recent run
Every Dodgers first-round pick from 2002 to '06 has made the majors
There was no doubt, the kid could pitch. And at 6-feet-3, with a powerful left arm, high school senior James Loney had scouts crowding around the backstop, oohing and awing in advance of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft. But once Loney stepped in the batter's box, the crowd thinned and the interest of most scouts waned. But not Chris Smith.
"He was a fine pitcher," says Smith, a Dodgers scout. "But I thought he was going to be a very special bat." The Dodgers ended up taking Loney with their first pick that year -- as a first baseman, not as a pitcher. The consensus in baseball circles was that they were crazy, that they had not only wasted their most precious pick but also Loney's golden arm.
No one is saying that anymore. Since debuting in 2006, Loney has posted a .303 batting average in the major leagues, and this season he drove in 90 runs for the NL West champions. In their Division Series sweep of the Cubs, Loney drove in six runs -- equal to the number of runs that of the entire Cubs team. Loney's performance did as much to fell the Cubs as it did to validate the Dodgers' player development philosophy. Fans and media in L.A. have focused most of their attention for the Dodgers' success on fresh, A-list storylines -- Manny being Manny, Joe Torre's West Coast revival, etc. -- but an overlooked key has been a decidedly old school approach that emphasizes savvy scouting and smart drafting.
Loney, catcher Russell Martin, center fielder Matt Kemp, infielder Blake DeWitt and pitchers Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton, Clayton Kershaw and Corey Wade are all post-2001 Dodger draft picks who have contributed mightily to L.A.'s recent run. Thirteen of the Dodgers' 20 RBIs in the Division Series came off the bats of Loney, Martin and Kemp, while Billingsley, a 24-year-old first-rounder, won Game 2; Broxton, a 24-year-old second-rounder, closed out the last two games; and 25-year-old 10th-round pick Wade contributed two key holds.
The Dodgers' draft strategy isn't just about smartly snagging first-round prospects, but also deftly mining the lower rounds. The right-handed Billingsley went 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA for Team USA and was a surefire draft selection with the Dodgers' first pick in 2003, but Martin, now an All-Star catcher, languished until the 17th round of the '02 draft before Los Angeles snared him. Kemp, too, was passed on until the sixth round. The Dodgers' drafts are not only deep, but balanced, producing roughly equal quantities of pitchers and position players. The draft boom has been the perfect antidote to L.A.'s recent free-agent busts. Players such as Juan Pierre (five years, $44 million) and Andruw Jones (two years, $36.2 million) have been offset by a crop of young draftees who will make no more than $500,000 this year.
"What we tried to do is draft the player with the highest ceiling who can get to the majors the quickest," says Logan White, the Dodgers' assistant general manager who came to L.A. in 2002 after a distinguished scouting career with the Mariners, Orioles and Padres. When he took over the draft in L.A., the Moneyball philosophy -- which strongly leaned toward drafting safer, more proven picks out of colleges rather than high schools -- was all the rage. But as White combed through the first- and second-round picks from 1990 to '97, he found that 15 college players picked in the first or second rounds made it to the big leagues, compared with 39 high schoolers.
"From that I learned, why would I limit my pool to college players?" White says. All the Moneyballers left plenty of talented high school prospects on the table. White also dug further into Dodgers history and discovered that the Dodgers drafted 30 players in both the 1970s and '80s who went on to accumulate at least five years of major league service time; from 1990 through 2000 that number dipped to 12. And as the number of promising prospects dropped, naturally, so did the Dodgers' fortunes. After winning seven NL West titles, five pennants and two World Series from 1974-1988, the Dodgers made just three postseason apperances in the next 19 seasons, and never advanced past the first round. Now, White says, selecting at least 30 players for long-term major league careers is one of his primary goals.
He and the Dodgers seem to be on target for that benchmark. White has led the last seven Dodger drafts, three of which have been ranked in the top five by Baseball America. Every Dodgers first-round pick from 2002 to '06 has made the majors, giving the team an astounding 100 percent rate of return on its first-rounders when the industry standard is around 65 percent. White's work has earned him a spot on the hot list of potential GM candidates, talk he slinks away from. An industry source indicates that it might be tough to pry him away from the Dodgers because of his loyalty to the McCourt family, which owns the team. In the meantime, White will continue to dig through Dodgers history, while his draft picks, like Loney, continue to make it.