The $90 Million Ragtag Wonders

May 02, 2005
May 02, 2005

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May 2, 2005

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The $90 Million Ragtag Wonders

Led by unlikely cheerleader Milton Bradley, the rejiggered Dodgers are making their G.M. look smart with a fast early run into first place

Paul DePodesta refuses to say, "I told you so." The Los Angeles Dodgers' general manager could point to his team's 13-5 record, the best in the National League at week's end, and say, "See?"--a fitting riposte from a man who was burned to a crisp on last winter's hot stove for radically remaking a playoff team. While he fixed what appeared, at least on the surface, not to be broken, baseball's chattering class chewed him up. But DePodesta is a 32-year-old not cursed by either smugness or self-doubt. He grasps the danger of taking a small sample, barely one tenth of a season, and trying to derive any immutable truth from it. Eight-game winning streaks? Three-game losing streaks? These Dodgers have had both, but DePodesta, the former assistant to Billy Beane in Oakland, prefers the expansive view, one he summons with a few strokes on his computer keyboard. He has done a seasonlong projection of the number of runs his team is likely to score, how many it will allow and how many wins all this should mean. DePodesta declines to share the results, other than allowing that L.A. figures to be "competitive." Like other general managers of the Moneyball generation, he prefers bytes to sound bites.

This is an article from the May 2, 2005 issue Original Layout

But there is something to be gleaned from the Dodgers' start, which gave them an early 2 1/2-game lead in a downtrodden National League West. "We've done this while having some very talented players on the disabled list," DePodesta says, referring to closer Eric Gagné (right elbow sprain), leftfielder Jayson Werth (left wrist fracture) and starter Brad Penny (nerve irritation in right arm), who made his return on Sunday in an 8-6 win over the Colorado Rockies. "We could have felt sorry for ourselves, but we didn't. The other thing is, we got quite a lot out of some of those wins, not just a W. There was a psychological impact there, and it's given us an awful lot of confidence."

With five new regulars, two new starters in the rotation and a bullpen that's younger than springtime, manager Jim Tracy's team has been living on the edge. While two losses last weekend in Colorado were egregious--L.A. fell 8-6 last Saturday, stranding 16 runners and failing to score after loading the bases in three separate innings--the Dodgers have shown a knack for tight victories. Five of their first 13 wins were comebacks in which L.A. scored the winning run in its final at bat. At week's end 70 of the team's 107 runs had come in the sixth inning or later. With a lineup built on DePodesta's cornerstones of patience and power, the Dodgers stress not giving away at bats the way most teams preach not giving extra outs in the field. Through Sunday, L.A. led the league in runs, slugging and on-base percentage.

"If we're going to make outs--and we're going to be making seven or eight out of [every] 10 at bats for the rest of our lives--we try to make them productive," says Jason Phillips, the catcher acquired from the Mets during spring training. "Move a runner over or string out a five-, six-, seven-pitch at bat, maybe hurt a [starter] later on, get into their bullpen early. Those things have gone unnoticed on a lot of teams I've played for, but here when you have a good at bat even if you make an out, Tracy's the first one to say, 'Hey, man, great job.' We just don't panic. Shoot, right now we don't have to panic. We have a lot of guys who've been traded or released from other places, and nobody's expecting much from us. We're kind of a ragtag team."

Ragtag is overstating things. Dodger Stadium is hardly a flea market, and a $90 million--plus payroll is no cause for a telethon. DePodesta did not re-sign free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre, who hit .334 with 48 homers and 121 RBIs last year, and he traded outfielder Shawn Green to Arizona, but the Dodgers spent $72 million to replace their production. Outfielder J.D. Drew, who stayed healthy long enough to play in a career-high 145 games in his one season with Atlanta, had recovered from an 0-for-25 start to get his OBP up to .375 with 13 runs scored at week's end, and low-key second baseman Jeff Kent ranked second in the league in slugging, at .696. "[Kent's] not the valedictorian; he doesn't need to have a prepared speech," Tracy says. "He's all business. You don't appreciate him as much until you have him in your uniform."

Still, there is a most un-Dodgerlike messiness to this team. Third baseman José Valentin, who has hit at least 25 home runs for five straight years, had played scarcely 10% of his 1,410 big league games at the position before this season. Drew will periodically need to play centerfield instead of right because running into the corner and planting to make throws can bother his surgically repaired right knee. And first baseman Hee Seop Choi evinces patience but has only eight extra-base hits in 104 at bats since DePodesta acquired him in the unpopular trade last July that sent catcher Paul Lo Duca to Florida.

Ironically, the most complete, dependable Dodger has been centerfielder Milton Bradley. Infamous for, among other things, ripping off his jersey on the field last Sept. 28 after spiking into the stands a plastic bottle that had been chucked in his direction by a fan--he was suspended for the final five games--he is now ripping up the league. He hit in 16 of his first 17 starts, clubbing five home runs in one five-game stretch, beating Milwaukee twice last week with late homers and throwing out a pair of San Diego runners last Thursday. He finished the week eighth in the NL with a .667 slugging percentage.

Bradley's goal is as quixotic as it is noble, something beyond DePodesta's computer and maybe beyond reason itself: He wants to be the Dodgers' version of Derek Jeter. "You think of the Yankees, you think of Jeter," Bradley said quietly in front of his locker last Friday before a 9-1 loss to the Rockies in which he singled and stole a base. "You think of him hustling into the stands, getting clutch hits. I want people to think of me like that, to associate me with the Dodgers. With everything that's happened in my career so far, to be able to turn it around and get that kind of respect is what I want."

To get respect, Bradley has begun giving some. He now greets the home plate umpire before his first at bat every game. The cordiality is simply a gesture, but gestures have been the undoing of a five-tool player whose talent has been overshadowed by his moods. "A strikeout is the most embarrassing, pathetic thing that can happen, and I'd take it out on the umpires," says Bradley, who sought anger-management counseling during the winter. When asked if his off-season marriage or a call after the bottle incident from childhood hero Magic Johnson (who explained how he learned from his own temper problem early in his career) had framed his decision, Bradley slowly shakes his head and says, "The most important step was looking in the mirror. In the past I might have said, I'm just a guy caught in a bad situation. Now I look and say that I brought it on myself."

Bradley's nadir, he says, was the three-day jail sentence he served in December, the result of a 2003 traffic stop from which he sped away after refusing to accept a police officer's ticket. "You sit there alone for 72 hours, just you and your thoughts in a jail cell in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio," says Bradley. "It's like, 'I got a million-dollar house, I got cars, I got money, I'm a pro ballplayer, and I'm sitting in jail. So what does it mean?' Meanwhile other people I've been blaming for my problems for years are out living their lives, not thinking about me. All that put together made me want to [start fresh]."

One jailhouse quasiepiphany and 16 RBIs later, he has been an exemplary player so far--a qualifier everyone around the Dodgers uses when mentioning Bradley. He convened a players-only meeting in spring training to reintroduce himself. He hashed out the centerfield matter with Drew, offering to move to right when Drew's knee acts up. And he says his favorite at bat was not the two-run homer that beat the Brewers 8-6 in the 10th inning on April 19 after L.A. had rallied from a 6-0 deficit, but a leadoff trip in the second inning on April 15 against San Diego's Woody Williams in which he battled back from 0 and 2 to grind out a walk. He eventually scored. When Bradley's comments were relayed to DePodesta, the G.M. said, "That gives me chills."

In retooling the team, DePodesta has chopped a few million off the payroll, which includes more than $25 million owed to players who either definitely won't take the field for the Dodgers this season (Green) or almost certainly won't (righthander Darren Dreifort, recovering from shoulder surgery). Of L.A.'s starting position players, only Valentin is a free agent after this season, and only Kent can walk after '06. Carrying Moneyball principles from small-market Oakland to flush Los Angeles, DePodesta has made the Dodgers not only cheaper but also younger, playoff-wiser (the new cast has appeared in a combined 51 postseason series) and, for the moment, no worse than the 2004 division winners. With Penny pitching again and Gagné expected in a few weeks, L.A. could be better than last year.

"The guys' coming back increases our possibilities and our versatility," says Tracy, who keeps a remarkably low profile for a man in his fifth season of managing one of the game's most storied franchises. "The other clubs we compete against--and I'm not taking a shot at them--don't have the same in-house resources we do."

Tracy might sound like the only person in America who has forgotten Barry Bonds, but the skipper has more than five months left to have his memory jogged. While his comments could land his mug shot on a bulletin board in San Francisco, his Dodgers remain more concerned with the big picture. ■

COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckBLEEDING BLUE The hot-hitting, sweet-talking Bradley celebrated another comeback win, this one against the Padres. COLOR PHOTOLARRY GOREN/WIREIMAGE.COMLONG VIEW DePodesta was roasted for some of his deals but didn't waver.COLOR PHOTOROBERT BECKQUIET MAN New second baseman Kent has earned his manager's praise as the strong, silent type.