Dodgers' talent high at lower levels
There was a time, and it wasn't that long ago, when the stockpile of talent in the Dodgers' minor league system was enough to induce foaming at the mouth among scouts from other teams and so-called experts from media outlets that chronicled such things. There was also a time, and it was right around the same period, when the only thing foaming at Dodger Stadium were the beer taps because the big league club with the storied past and promising future didn't seem to have much of a present.
So now that most of those prospects have blossomed into full-fledged major leaguers, now that the Dodgers have reached the playoffs four times in the past six seasons and knocked on the door of the World Series in each of the past two, there is a widespread perception that the minor league cupboard has gone bare, at least on the upper shelves.
But is that perception accurate?
In rankings released last week by ESPN.com baseball analyst Keith Law, a former big league scout, the Dodgers came in 19th among the 30 major league clubs for the quality of their farm system. Not long ago, when the likes of Russell Martin, James Loney and Matt Kemp were working their way up the minor-league ladder, the Dodgers consistently ranked at or near the top of almost every such list that showed up in baseball publications.
On the one hand, the very purpose of a minor league system is to develop major league talent, not only to help the organization win at the major league level but also to be used in trades to acquire veteran talent when needed. On the other hand, it is the job of the amateur and international scouting departments to continue to stock that system, to replace those players who have moved up or moved on.
Dodgers assistant general manager Logan White, who oversees amateur scouting, said he believes that the talent at the team's lower levels runs so deep that the Dodgers' system might be as strong as a whole as it has been at any time since his arrival in 2002.
"To me, it doesn't make a lot of sense to knock us down just because a lot of the talent in our system isn't at the upper echelons yet," White said. "I think after next year, the competition within our organization is going to be really fierce, especially in terms of pitching. There are going to be some really good guys who don't make our staff."
The Dodgers are holding a mini-camp at their spring-training facility in Glendale, Ariz., this week for several of their most coveted prospects, most of whom haven't made it to Double-A yet. After watching all those pitching prospects throw from a mound, White rattled off a list of six guys -- 2008 first-round draft pick Ethan Martin, 2007 first-rounder Chris Withrow, 2009 first-round sandwich pick Aaron Miller, converted catcher and recent 40-man roster addition Kenley Jansen and Dominican Republic natives Carlos Frias and Rubby De La Rosa -- who all throw at least 95 mph.
"We actually have 15 guys who are 95-plus with good deliveries and mechanics," White said. "Now, I know how attrition works, and all 15 of them aren't going to pitch in the big leagues. But I guarantee you that five or six of them are all going to be ready in the next couple of years to push each other for jobs. When that happens, it's going to be tough to figure out who makes the team and who doesn't. I can honestly tell you we have guys who have better deliveries, better arm action and probably better stuff than [Chad] Billingsley and [Jonathan] Broxton had at the same age.
"That next wave is coming, and we have some strong position guys coming, too."
Among those are fleet shortstop Dee Gordon, who led the Midwest League with 73 stolen bases last season; outfielder Andrew Lambo, who is coming off an outstanding Arizona Fall League campaign; and power-hitting outfielder Kyle Russell.
Of all the aforementioned players, only Withrow, Jansen and Lambo have played above low Class A, only Withrow and Lambo have spent so much as a day at Double-A, and only Lambo has spent a full season there.
All of which leaves something of a gap between those waves.
"Obviously, we have graduated a lot of players who now comprise not all, but much, of our core at the big-league level," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "We do have a bit of a [gap] from Double-A to the big leagues, but we do have a lot of talent, particularly pitching, that spent most of last year in A-ball."
The system isn't completely bare at the upper levels, though. The Dodgers announced Thursday that right-hander Josh Lindblom, their second-round pick in 2008, will be invited to spring training for the second year in a row. His chance of making the opening-day roster is remote, but he does have some chance of pitching in the majors this year, whether as a starter or reliever.
Lindblom, 22, a former closer at Purdue University, finished last season at Triple-A Albuquerque, where he went 3-0 with a 2.54 ERA in three starts and 17 relief appearances and walked 12 batters in 39 innings. He'll begin spring training on a starter's program.
"I would like to see Lindblom start," Colletti said. "In his case, he really needs to pitch some innings. He still doesn't have a lot of professional innings under his belt."
Colletti has been lauded in his four years as GM for rebuilding the Dodgers into contenders without trading away much of the top talent in the minors. But that isn't to say he hasn't traded away any of that talent.
He sent infielder Josh Bell and pitcher Steven Johnson to Baltimore last summer to acquire veteran setup man George Sherrill, and Bell is now among the Orioles' top prospects. He traded Cody Ross to Cincinnati in 2006 and Andy LaRoche to Pittsburgh in 2008, only to see both become everyday players in the big leagues. But the Dodgers didn't have a spot for either one of them, and besides, the LaRoche deal was the one that brought Manny Ramirez to town.
Shortly after his arrival in November 2005, Colletti traded then-top pitching prospect Edwin Jackson, along with fellow pitching prospect Chuck Tiffany, to Tampa Bay for the forgettable likes of Danys Baez and Lance Carter, a deal that might go down as the worst trade of the Colletti era. But while Jackson became an All-Star with Detroit last season, it's also notable that after being dealt to Arizona last month, he will play for his third team in five seasons since the Dodgers traded him.
Colletti said the only trade of a top prospect that really gave him pause at the time was the one he made on July 26, 2008. That was the day he sent highly touted catcher Carlos Santana, along with pitcher Jon Meloan, to the Cleveland Indians for Casey Blake. But the Dodgers had a hole at third base at the time, and Blake was a veteran with a reputation for being a strong presence in the clubhouse.
"We had sent our best evaluators in to see Santana days before the deal," Colletti said. "They knew what we needed at the big league level, and they thought he was going to be a big league hitter, no question. But whether or not he was a big league catcher, in some opinions, that wasn't a slam dunk."
So Colletti made the deal. While Santana is consistently listed among the top prospects not only for the Indians but for all of baseball, he still hasn't played above Double-A. The Dodgers, meanwhile, probably wouldn't have made it to the past two National League Championship Series without Blake.
Just as the advancement of Martin, Loney, et al., played a role in depleting the upper levels of the Dodgers' farm system, so did those trades. But just as Martin, Loney, et al., have made the Dodgers better at the big league level, so have those trades.
And that, in the end, is the ultimate purpose of a minor-league system, a system that in the Dodgers' case still seems to be serving that purpose well.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.