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Monday, January 13, 2014
For prospects, it's a congested road to L.A.

By Mark Saxon

LOS ANGELES -- Some members of the Dodgers front office recently spent time playing tour guide to 15 of the team’s best minor-league players. They took them sightseeing in Los Angeles, lined up a series of former major-leaguers to counsel them and laid the luxuries of Dodger Stadium at their feet.

Seems almost cruel, doesn’t it?

If you’re a promising young baseball player trying to crawl out of the obscurity of the bush leagues, there’s no more exciting organization to work for than the Dodgers. If you break through, you have the chance to play in front of 50,000 people a night. You might even compete in a World Series. Tens of millions of people might suddenly know your name.

But there’s also no more frustrating organization to play for these days, particularly if you are a pitcher or an outfielder. The Dodgers have a rotation stacked with superstar arms from No. 1 to 5, a group they’ll be paying somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 million to next season, all on guaranteed contracts. And they might not be done. They’re still making efforts to sign Japanese superstar Masahiro Tanaka and Chad Billingsley could be a factor by June.

Meanwhile, they have four outfielders who have been All-Stars at one time or other and the one who has never played in an All-Star game, Yasiel Puig, might be the best of them. Older prospects, Scott Van Slyke and Dee Gordon, figure to get first crack at the fifth outfielder job, if there is one.

There is some serious traffic, not only around Dodger Stadium, but for young, talented players trying to get on the field.

In a way, it's a flashback to the glory days of the Dodgers' franchise. As Tommy Lasorda likes to say, back in the 1950s and 1960s, "If you were an outfielder who hit 40 home runs at Montreal, you went back to Montreal, because there was an outfielder who hit 40 home runs on the Dodgers."

Let’s take a look at three of the Dodgers’ most promising minor leaguers and how they’re dealing with the possibility that their major league dreams are blocked by veterans:

Ross Stripling

One of the prospects is used to being in one of these holding patterns. It happened all the way through college to Ross Stripling.

Stripling was a standout pitcher at Texas A&M, leading the nation in wins by his junior season, but he was never the Aggies’ No. 1 starter, never the guy who pitched under the Friday night lights. The first impediment was Barret Loux, who wound up a No. 6 overall pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Then came John Stilson, who went in the third round to the Toronto Blue Jays.

When Stripling was a sophomore, he roomed with a freshman named Michael Wacha, who also moved ahead of him in the rotation. You’ve heard of Wacha, right, Dodgers fans?

As Wacha was dominating the Dodgers in Games 2 and 6 of the National League Championship Series, Stripling felt emotionally torn. His phone was buzzing incessantly with incoming text messages from mutual friends.

“I knew I had to be careful what I tweeted and what I talked about,” Stripling said. “In a perfect world, I would have liked the Dodgers to win 1-0 on an unearned run. That was an awkward situation, but I’m just so proud of him. I’ve been with him since he was an 18-year-old kid and seen him get better every year.”

Stripling’s path to the majors is more cluttered than Wacha’s.

Arguably the fastest-moving pitching prospect in the Dodgers’ system, Stripling went from a largely forgotten man to reaching the cusp of major-league relevance. He did so by fighting his way out of Single-A Rancho Cucamonga and then posting a 2.94 ERA at Double-A Chattanooga.

Yet where’s he going to go from here? The choices seem relatively unexciting: back to Chattanooga or on to Triple-A Albuquerque. Stripling is 24, an age at which most prospects need to establish themselves in a team’s plans.

To reach Los Angeles, he has to not only excel, but out-perform pitchers like Zach Lee, Matt Magill and Chris Reed.

“It’s frustrating, but I understand it’s a business and they want their best players and I know they’ve got to develop the minor leagues as well,” Stripling said. “You say, ‘Man, I want to get up here, I think I’m ready and all that. You’ve just got to compete the best and hope it happens.”

Zach Lee

Lee hasn’t had as far to come as Stripling and his path has been generally smooth until reaching this first potential road block. The Dodgers had to pry him away from the LSU football team, where he was headed to play quarterback, by paying him $5.25 million after picking him 10th overall in the 2010 draft.

He did what you would have expected a top prospect to do at age 22. He dominated at Double-A Chattanooga, holding batters to a .247 batting average, striking out 131 in 28 games and pitching to a 3.22 ERA, third-best in the Southern League among pitchers with at least 140 innings.

Normally, that’s exactly the type of performance that puts a pitcher on the cusp of joining a major-league rotation, but is Lee even in that discussion as the Dodgers prepare to head to Arizona in about a month? Who would he beat out, Dan Haren making $10 million? Beckett making $15 million?

Perhaps he’s playing tricks on himself to stay motivated, but Lee thinks he is in the mix for one of those coveted five jobs.

“I’m striving to get here as soon as I can,” Lee said. “Ultimately, if I pitch well and control what I can control, the opportunity will present itself, whether it’s right after spring, later in the year, in September. I can just control what I control, but I’m pretty confident.”

Of course, the Dodgers could have other plans for their best pitching prospects. They could hold onto them for next season, when Beckett and, perhaps, Haren are free agents and they might need a replacement or two. Or, they could use them via trade to acquire yet another proven veteran. The Tampa Bay Rays might be moved to trade David Price if they can get back more than one potential major-league starter. Players like Lee and Stripling aren't blind to the possibility of being traded. They're the kind of people rebuilding teams want.

“Ultimately, the goal will be there, whether it’s here or whether it’s somewhere else,” Lee says.

Joc Pederson

Many people in the Dodgers’ organization think Pederson will be major-league ready some time this season. The team’s 2012 Minor League Player of the Year, Pederson had an .878 OPS with 22 home runs and 31 stolen bases at Chattanooga. He was picked for the Futures Game, then polished off his season by playing 34 games in Venezuela at the team’s request.

He is viewed as a stalwart everyday major-league outfielder one day. If he ever figures out how to hit left-handed pitching, he could be far better than that.

Yet, to break into the Dodgers’ outfield, the team would have to trade at least two of its well-paid outfielders or see at least two of its outfielders go down with injury. If you paid attention last season, the latter scenario seems more likely than the former.

The outfielders who are blocking Pederson are still in their primes -- and signed to long-term deals -- or, in Puig’s case, just a year older than Pederson. So, if the Dodgers make a trade, he’s as likely to be the person looking for a new apartment as Matt Kemp or Carl Crawford.

“Obviously, I don’t want to get traded. Being in L.A. would be something special and it’s close to home, but the Dodgers would be just trying to win and I understand that,” Pederson said. “I’m not really competing with a normal outfield. You have four superstars.”

Of course, going into spring training last year, nobody was really expecting Puig to be a major-league factor in 2013. By the end of spring training, people were wondering how he couldn’t be. In the end, the Dodgers waited until June, selecting Puig instead of Pederson out of Chattanooga when they needed an outfielder.

In other words, Pederson -- like the other Dodgers prospects -- might have to do something above and beyond simply playing well to get noticed. There aren’t many people who can do that the way Puig did.

“It’s just a shock he made that big an impact. It was like even more than [Mike] Trout,” Pederson said. “Trout was a superstar, he was a super-superstar. It was like he took over L.A.”

Can a young player take over the city two years in a row? Pederson has to hope so.