The Art of Making a Good Team Better

by Conway West 12.29.14

Andrew Friedman is successful at making other teams feel like they won trades

We have known for at least the past several decades that good GMs are worth their weight in gold. Of course, it is the players on the field that dictate the effectiveness of the front office. But putting those players together, and in a position to succeed, is all the front office. Money helps, but knowing what you are doing matters so much more.

This is why the Dodgers acquired Andrew Friedman, and are paying him player money: $35 million over 5 years, the highest-paid executive in baseball. Friedman inherited a 94-win team from 2014, second most in baseball, and a team with more projected wins than anyone for 2015. This did not stop him from revamping a star-studded roster. The Dodgers had a huge hole at SS if Hanley Ramirez left, no legitimate catcher options, and the need for pitching arms, particularly a durable starter.

The Dodgers couldn’t be farther from the Rays team that Friedman created in Tampa. The Rays consistently finished in the bottom 3 in payroll, and had so little revenue even while they were good. Friedman was able to trade all of his star pieces at high points in their value for other teams’ underrated players. Just this past July, he traded David Price for Nick Franklin and Drew Smiley, two players who did not seem to be worth David Price. In Tampa, Friedman lived for the deals where he makes other GMs feel like they win, only to end up looking smarter in the end. It was the only way he could win with such a small market-team.

Those problems don’t apply with the Dodgers. Seemingly made of money, the Dodgers had a huge (expensive) name at almost every position last year. They had a lot of steals from a scrappy leadoff hitter, and lots of homers from veteran bats. They had the best bullpen 2010 could buy.

Those in the know are aware that wins are not about the fastest, most powerful, or biggest named players: Wins are commodities. They are bought and sold. Friedman knows this well, and saw where the biggest discrepancies were on his roster between actual winning value and perceived value.

First was Hanley Ramirez. An elite hitter (133 career wRC+) in his big-league career, Hanley is a terrible defensive shortstop. So instead of keeping him there, the Dodgers bid farewell to the All Star. Then at Winter Meetings, the Dodgers got really busy, starting by trading Dee Gordon, last year’s leadoff sensation. The ultimately turned into Gordon and Dan Haren for Howie Kendrick and 3 minor leaguers. Even if nothing comes of those 3 minor leaguers, Howie Kendrick looks to be more valuable in 2015 than either Haren or Gordon. Just comparing Gordon and Kendrick: Kendrick has the decisive edge in wOBA (.330 to .293), defense (7 runs saved to -5), all while striking out less and walking more. And it’s not like Kendrick is a liability on the basepaths. The Dodgers traded one of their more overrated players for a high-value one, and got better.

Friedman immediately improved the Dodgers infield at the 2014 Winter Meetings in SanDiego

Friedman immediately improved the Dodgers infield at the 2014 Winter Meetings in SanDiego

Right off the tails of this move, the dodgers acquired Jimmy Rollins. Rollins is not the MVP he used to be, but still a top two-way shortstop with skills that maybe have eroded but have definitely not disappeared. He very well could be an equal with 2014 Hanley, which the Dodgers should and will take gladly. They also signed starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy, who has been someone who underperforms their FIP routinely, particularly in 2014. Depending on your belief in FIP, McCarthy could be looking at a 2014 Phil Hughes situation in 2015, where the change to a better defensive team and better park makes for a monster season.

No move proves Friedman’s philosophy more than the trade of Matt Kemp. Kemp is a polarizing ballplayer. Some love Kemp, some think he is wildly overrated. All should agree he is an really good, oft-injured, expensive hitter that doesn’t really catch a lot of baseballs in the outfield. This trade is brilliant for the Dodgers for three reasons. One, they are trading a player they can afford to lose at the height of his value. Kemp is hurt a lot, right? There is a good chance he will never be worth more on the market than he is now. And the Dodgers have Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford, and my personal favorite, Joc Pederson, still on the roster, with more talented youngins on the way. None of those outfielders were going to get as much in return as Kemp, most likely. Thing two, is they trade Kemp to a bad, bad team. The Padres don’t really get a ton better from this. They have a dreadful infield. They are probably going to trade Ian Kennedy, their best pitcher, in the next 6 months. Matt Kemp gives them a 2-4 win upgrade. They were probably a 70-win team. Should they celebrate that they will pay $75 million more to be a little less bad?

Thing three, and most important, the Dodgers get better without really losing all that much. Yasmani Grandal, the headliner for the Dodgers side, has not put it all together at the big league level like he did in the minors. Even if he is what he has shown in the bigs, a high-walk guy with better than average defense. That profiles to be AJ Ellis, 2012, which is a ton better than AJ Ellis, 2014. His ceiling is much more like Devin Mesoraco, who in case you didn’t see in 2014, was really good. Kemp, as I said, is worth 3 wins, but that isn’t as valuable in a crowded outfield as it is behind the plate for the Dodgers. So even without bashing Matt Kemp, this deal is still a win for the Dodgers.

Friedman is not in baseball because he played and “knows the game”. He is in baseball because he makes teams winners. All these deals, when you take the names out, are improvements to an already good Dodger team. So while the national and local media can scream about how the sky is falling, Friedman will keep the Dodgers winning. And all while making other teams feel good in the process.

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