Two hours before the first game of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ biggest series in four years, on a warm evening in St. Louis, the team’s most famous owner, Magic Johnson, stopped to answer a few questions on the Busch Stadium field.
What he said gave a glimpse into the Dodgers’ long-term plan.
“If you could model an organization, I think you’d pick [the St. Louis Cardinals], with the consistency they’ve had and the winning they’ve done while losing players, losing a [Albert] Pujols. It’s truly amazing,” Johnson said. “It’s outstanding what they’ve built here, and we want to build the same thing back in L.A.”
Magic, who is high on enthusiasm but still learning the nuances of baseball, could have taken it a step further and gotten a little more specific. General manager Ned Colletti took it there shortly after the Dodgers bowed out in the sixth game of the NLCS and gave the Cardinals a crack at their third World Series title since 2006.
“They’ve taken a lot of college power arms,” Colletti said. “They’ve done a great job of developing and a great job of drafting.”
Michael Wacha, the rookie MVP of the series, otherwise known as the guy the Dodgers couldn’t touch, was pitching for Texas A&M last college season; Trevor Rosenthal, the nastiest reliever the Dodgers faced all year, pitched at a Kansas community college in 2009; Seth Maness was pitching at East Carolina in 2011; Joe Kelly, who won Game 1 (and broke Hanley Ramirez’s rib with a pitch) was pitching at UC Riverside the same year; Lance Lynn came out of the University of Missisippi the year before.
Sense a pattern here? St. Louis’ young arms were the difference in the series. It certainly wasn’t the St. Louis lineup, which didn’t show up until Game 6. The Dodgers hit .234 in the six games. The Cardinals hit .178. The Dodgers hit two more home runs than St. Louis.
The Cardinals’ edges both were the direct result of their organizational plan. They're younger, so while several Dodgers were dealing with nagging ailments of various kinds, the Cardinals looked fresh. They have unprecedented bullpen depth stocked from the farm system. The Dodgers fretted about covering the sixth and seventh innings all season and had to plug their holes with expensive veterans like Brian Wilson and Carlos Marmol.
The Cardinals’ payroll was $116 million, $100 million less than the Dodgers’, so there’s that.
In a way, the Dodgers already have begun following the Cardinals' model. In the last draft, 21 of their 40 players taken were pitchers. Of the 40 picks, 31 came out of colleges. The team’s top pick out of Jacksonville University, Chris Anderson, pitched in the upper 90s at Class A Great Lakes and had a 1.96 ERA with 50 strikeouts in 46 innings.
The Dodgers also have beefed up their international scouting efforts to historic levels. They’re spending as freely as the rules allow. We’re not just talking about Yasiel Puig. They signed a 15-year-old left-hander, Julio Urias, out of Sinaloa, Mexico, who dominated alongside Anderson at Great Lakes. They limited his innings because he is so young, but he had a 2.48 ERA.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Anderson were a factor for the Dodgers some time next season and Urias the year after that. (Or, who knows, maybe he’ll be the rare 18-year-old major leaguer).
While people were dazzled by the excitement of this 2013 Dodgers team, some of the most impactful moves were happening in the shadows, the work of baseball’s unheralded ranks -- the scouts. If the Dodgers can soon find and develop pitchers as well as the Cardinals have, they could enter a series like this past NLCS with the swagger of celebrity talent filled in with young, inexpensive talent from below. Once the games begin, talent is talent.
That combination could make them, as the Cardinals are, a yearly World Series contender. That, of course, is what Magic was talking about.