The Dodgers have ruled the Los Angeles sports scene for the past several years, but the
beloved team is now the talk of Major League Baseball, and for good reason.
“The Dodgers are absolutely amazing,” ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian said on television after L.A. defeated the White Sox last Thursday. Los Angeles had notched its 31st win in the last 35 games, a feat that had not been accomplished since the 1977 Kansas City Royals. “They lead the league in ERA, they lead the league with 10 shutouts and they’re second in the league in runs scored.”
As of Tuesday, the Dodgers also have a major-league-best 69 victories and a double-digit lead in the National League West, which they have won the past four seasons.
“I think it has to do with the number of different guys who have had their fingerprints on the success of the team to date,” said Dodgers President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, who resides in Pasadena. “We’ve had a few guys who have been consistently way above average, and a number of other guys who have chipped in to give us length in the lineup and rotation.”
The team’s success can be attributed to second-year manager Dave Roberts or to the team’s combination of young talent and veteran stars, but the most glaring fingerprints on the team’s blueprint are those of Friedman.
After losing the National League Championship Series against St. Louis in 2013 and 2014, the Dodgers turned to one of the brightest young minds in baseball. They rewarded Friedman with a reported five-year, $35 million contract, making him the highest paid front office executive.
Friedman — a mere 40 years old — was baseball’s wunderkind exec after rebuilding the Tampa Bay Rays before the 2006 season and helping orchestrate the team’s first World Series appearance (in 2008) in the franchise’s brief history. Sporting News named him the Baseball Executive of the Year, and the Rays became perennial playoff contenders — despite having one of the lowest payrolls in the league — with Friedman at the helm.
He changed the culture in Tampa and wasted little time doing the same in Los Angeles. Friedman first hired former Oakland Athletics executive Farhan Zaidi as general manager and former San Diego Padres general manager Josh Byrnes as vice president of Baseball Operations to add to the organization’s brain trust, which included Dodgers President Stan Kasten and senior adviser Ned Colletti.
The focus quickly shifted onto the team. The Dodgers front office was busy before the 2015 season, parting ways with fan favorites such as Matt Kemp, Dee Gordon and Hanley Ramirez, to acquire key players and young talent to strengthen the organization’s farm system.
Fans questioned some of the moves, but one acquisition began turning the tide for the executives and team.
“We talked about [the future success of the team] a lot in 2015,” Friedman said. “I think the first massive shift in that direction was when we acquired Chase [Utley]. Last year was a major step forward, and this year has been another major step forward.”
Utley’s confidence and veteran leadership helped the Dodgers down the stretch, which is why he was brought back for the 2016 and 2017 seasons. The other big name to come before the 2016 campaign was Roberts, who was the Padres’ bench coach prior to managing the Dodgers.
The hiring of an inexperienced manager was a gamble for Friedman, but one that ultimately paid off. Roberts’ optimism was infectious on the executives and, later, on the players.
“I think Dave’s relentless optimism and communication skills and the way he thinks of the games really rubbed off on the players,” Friedman said. “The coaching staff did a tremendous job with a good group of veteran players. All those things help expedite the process.
“In his first interview, he blew us away. It was almost as if he had our answer sheet. Philosophically, he aligned with where we are, which is really important. Dave and the coaching staff are tremendous. I think they only help us in our pursuit of bringing a championship.”
Roberts impressed just about everyone after guiding the Dodgers to the 2016 National League Championship Series despite having a major-league-record 28 players on the disabled list throughout the season. The first-year skipper was named National League Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers of America and Sporting News.
Roberts managed to weather the storm of injuries because of the wealth of resources provided by Friedman and the front office. The organization filled holes without parting ways with prized talent, giving the Dodgers’ coaching staff more depth than any other team in the league.
“It definitely was [part of the plan],” Friedman said. “Injuries are part of the game and they happen, sometimes more often than not. We wanted to fortify ourselves and not have injuries as an excuse to end our season. Our depth withstood our injuries, and this year is the same.”
The Dodgers were two wins shy of their first World Series appearance since 1988, but Friedman and the rest of the front office saw the 2016 season as a successful year and decided it was best to keep the group intact.
“Assessing things in the winter, even coming off a good year, a number of changes need to be made,” Friedman said. “When we got to the end of the series against the Cubs, in our internal meetings, the sentiment was how close we were and how talented and dynamic of a group we have. Our group was keen on keeping the band together and have some selective targeted acquisitions mixed in. We’re returning a lot of the team from last year with a few new guys.”
The Dodgers re-signed third baseman Justin Turner, closer Kenley Jansen and starting pitcher Rich Hill, and traded for second baseman Logan Forsythe, and the team picked up where it left off last year. The Dodgers battled with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies for the top spot in the division early in the 2017 season but have since pulled away. Los Angeles went on a remarkable 34-6 run from June 6 to July 24 to build a double-digit lead over its division rivals and boast the best record in the majors.
The secret to the Dodgers’ success is out of the bag and Friedman’s deals that have added young talent to the roster and farm system during the past two years are looking a lot bigger and better in hindsight.
“Their lineup and their bench are deeper than any team in the National League,” Kurkjian said on ESPN last week. “They have all the money and all the resources to get exactly what they need before the July 31 trade deadline, but at the moment, the Dodgers don’t need anything. They are that good.”
The Dodgers’ resources seemingly always make them a factor near the trade deadline, but the organization hasn’t pulled the trigger on high-profile stars, opting to go for those who outperform their value and cost less.
“I think there is a level of aggressiveness we’re willing to do and a level that we’re not,” Friedman said. “There are lots of teams that made aggressive July moves and didn’t win the World Series. It’s risk versus reward. Our goal in our offseason is not to need to do anything in July. That doesn’t mean we won’t or shouldn’t. During the offseason, our goal is to not [need to make any deals in July], and I feel like this team has a lot of depth and is really clicking on all cylinders. That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to get better and have conversations.”
Some of the best moves made by the front office are the ones they didn’t make, keeping sought-after young stars such as Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger and Julio Urias. Seager was the unanimous winner of the National League Rookie of the Year Award last season, Bellinger is currently one of the top sluggers in the league and Urias is one of the most coveted young arms in baseball.
“I think the most difficult thing to do every July is to look through potential deals with clarity of mind,” Friedman said. “There’s a lot of noise in July, and I think it’s important to think what your future self will think about the transaction. We didn’t have a hard rule on not trading these guys. We held on to the ones we felt really represent who we are.”
In 2015, the Royals traded three prospects for starting pitcher Johnny Cueto, and their bullpen propelled them to a World Series title. The following year, the Chicago Cubs’ stellar rotation and acquisition of closer Aroldis Chapman in exchange for four players helped the organization win its first World Series championship since 1908, which was the longest drought in the league.
The Dodgers’ World Series drought is currently 28 seasons, but the past isn’t clouding Friedman’s thought process going into the trade deadline. The young executive believes the last two champions made deals that made for an interesting story, but he’s focused on building his own narrative.
“I think you can look back over the last five to 10 years and each World Series winner has a fairly unique DNA,” Friedman said. “I’m looking forward for us to win this year and have teams talk about what we’ve done and emulate that. It’s a copycat industry in a lot of ways. We pay attention to what other teams do, but I believe those kinds of narratives are formed after the fact and what it took for you to do it.”
Friedman went on to say the Dodgers’ narrative is “a combination of talented stars, and quality and depth of the players. The coaching staff does a great job preparing each guy going into each game. In a lot of ways, we’re doing well on a number of fronts.”
Friedman, a Tulane University business school graduate known for making good decisions, seems to have made another correct call in choosing Pasadena as his home base. Friedman said he and his family enjoy living in the city.
“My family and I absolutely love the city of Pasadena,” he said. “My wife and I have three young kids who are really enjoying all aspects of what the city has to offer. The people here have been amazing, and we love the restaurants. It’s just a tremendous place to raise a family.”