Dodgers step into 21st century

LOS ANGELES -- Two trade deadlines ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers got deep into discussions with the Los Angeles Angels to acquire second baseman Howie Kendrick.

The Angels were foundering and looking to deal expensive veterans for talent that could help replenish their bereft farm system. The Dodgers, living with aging Mark Ellis as their primary second baseman, felt in need of an upgrade. In the end, the Dodgers passed on the deal because they didn't want to part with pitching prospect Zach Lee and they were worried about tampering with a team on a historic run.

According to sources, that decision widened a rift in the team's front office. It lingered for nearly a year and a half. The push-pull, in general terms, was between general manager Ned Colletti and his small group of loyalists, primarily scouts and former scouts such as Rick Ragazzo and Vance Lovelace, and an analytics group that felt its input sometimes fell on deaf ears.

While the Dodgers were fortunate that Dee Gordon blossomed into the productive second baseman and leadoff hitter he became, he still had a WAR (2.4) that was dwarfed by Kendrick's (5.4) this past season. Lee, a former first-round pick who turned 23 in September, had a 5.38 ERA at Triple-A Albuquerque.

While no one on the Dodgers points to that fizzled deal -- or even Colletti's inability to make any this past July -- as the reason he was removed as general manager Tuesday, you just have to glance at the résumé of the man hired to run the team's front office, Andrew Friedman, to realize what the Dodgers were really trying to accomplish here. It's about the Dodgers establishing themselves as a 21st-century team -- they hope the preeminent 21st-century team.

Drenched as the organization is in tradition, becoming hidebound is the quickest path to irrelevance in baseball or any other sport. Even Colletti, who will remain with the team as a special assistant to president Stan Kasten, acknowledged the differences between his approach and that of his successor.

"To sum up from a distance, I would say [Friedman] has a great analytic mind and base," Colletti said.

Friedman, the team's new executive vice president of baseball operations, had a previous career in a field where you can go broke ignoring the latest technology. He studied finance at Tulane University and worked at Bear Stearns and MidMark Capital before entering the baseball world. He joined the Tampa Bay Rays in 2004 and the next year, at age 28, became the general manager.

Nobody in baseball these days wants to be forced into the old "Moneyball" labels, in part because they no longer fit. Friedman, for example, played college baseball. He can recognize a good slider or the value of a 95 mph fastball as well as the next scout. But the Dodgers have spent a lot of money, with very little hoopla, beefing up their analytics department, investing in computers and hardware. It was an area where the team had fallen behind under former owner Frank McCourt and, yeah, his appointed baseball guy, Colletti.

"I'd say when I got here, maybe we were near the bottom," Kasten said, summing up the state of the Dodgers' analytical efforts. "I'd say now we're easily middle of the pack, but you know, we're the Dodgers, so I feel we should be leaders and I know we will be because we're on that path. Andrew will be helpful there, but he's not a one-trick pony. I think it's unfair to characterize it that way."

The Guggenheim Baseball Group, guided in baseball decisions by Kasten, has talked about a phased approach since it took over the team two springs ago. It threw money around in record fashion to regain fan interest quickly, and while that approach worked to some extent, it never got the Dodgers the World Series trophy they have been chasing futilely for 26 years. Phase 2 is more nuanced and, probably, won't be as popular. It does, however, typically work better over the long run.

While some people have speculated that Friedman's hiring means the Dodgers are more likely to sign prized pitcher and former Ray David Price two winters from now, it might, in fact, mean the opposite. The Rays, under Friedman, managed to produce similar results to the Dodgers' at one-third the payroll. The Dodgers are looking to win in the future with talent they draft and develop, the way they traditionally thrived.

The Dodgers aren't going to become the Rays or Oakland A's overnight, and nor are they trying to become that, with a huge stadium they can nearly fill on a nightly basis and one of the best brands in sports. They have too many expensive long-term contracts on the books -- and too many players due raises -- to fit under the luxury tax threshold next season and, probably, for many seasons to come.

But the Adrian Gonzalez-Boston Red Sox blockbuster was, to put it in Kasten's terms, so Phase 1 it's not even funny. It won't be the way the team expects to operate under Friedman.

"Over time, we expect to become that homegrown, player-development organization. We are on our way, and I think, along with that, with being homegrown with being younger, you end up with a payroll that's less, but it's never the payroll driving the decision," Kasten said. "It never has been since we've been here. I'm not aware of constraints. The only constraint is trying to win with the best team we have."

Tuesday's shake-up in the front office was more about lifting constraints than creating them.