Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Architect in Exile: Paul DePodesta is Dead, Long Live DePodesta!

In February 2004, the Dodgers hired Paul DePodesta, famous to Moneyball readers as Oakland GM Billy Beane's assistant and resident expert on computers and sabermetric analysis, as their new General Manager. My friends in the Mariners online community, as well as the writers at the USS Mariner blog, were incensed to see him hired by LA while in the same offseason Seattle had hired Bill Bavasi for the GM job without giving DePodesta so much as an interview. The sabermetric mind of DePodesta matched with the Dodgers' budget and resources was supposed to revitalize that franchise, doing for Los Angeles what Theo Epstein and Bill James along with a huge budget would, as it turned out, instead do for Boston.

The Los Angeles media, led by the LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke, as well as traditionalist elements within the Dodgers organization had a far different reaction. As Gleeman once noted in an eviscerating response to a 2004 Plaschke column titled, "With Luck, the Dodgers Won't Crash," the skeptics in the LA media thought of DePodesta as too young and too nerdy for the job of running their proud franchise, which hadn't been to the playoffs since 1996. Every move DePodesta would make was to be treated with suspicion or derision by much of the mainstream media, especially in Southern California.

When the Dodgers traded Paul LoDuca, Guillermo Mota, and Juan Encarnacion to the Marlins for Brad Penny, Hee Seop Choi, and a minor league pitcher in July 2004, most of the big media hailed The Fish for filling a couple big needs just in time for another pennant drive. Jayson Stark tabbed Florida the big winners at the trade deadline, and the Dodgers big losers. The backlash for trading the "Team Leader" LoDuca and an ace setup man in Mota, when the Dodgers were riding high in 1st place, was merciless. "To say I'm getting killed is an understatement," DePodesta told Peter Gammons, one of the few mainstream commentators to defend him, "but we did what we did to try not just to make the postseason, but to go deep. In this job, you have to do what you believe is right."

Never mind that the team would go on to win the NL West with a 93-69 mark, albeit losing to the eventual NL pennant winners in the NLDS; or that the Dodgers had in-house replacements for Mota in the bullpen; or that LoDuca was 32, getting old for a Catcher, and actually took his customary 2nd half swoon after the trade to Florida. DePo's detractors and LoDuca's fans would never forgive him for trading the Dodgers' "heart and soul" behind the plate.

They pounced again when DePodesta passed on re-signing Adrian Beltre after he'd finally posted a breakout year and nearly won the NL MVP in 2004. The Dodgers let Beltre sign a lucrative longterm deal with Seattle, and instead brought in Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew to replace his offense. Never mind that Kent went on to hit .289/.377/.512, and Drew hit .286/.412/.520 in the 72 games he was healthy enough to play, while Beltre turned into a pumpkin with the Mariners. Hee Seop Choi also hit .253/.336/.453, and Brad Penny as well as free agent signing Derek Lowe pitched well in 2005. But the Dodgers were crippled by injuries and fell to 4th place with 71 wins, and it was deemed DePodesta's fault. There was more bad buzz after the season when manager Jim Tracy left, supposedly because of friction with DePodesta. Shortly thereafter, Dodgers owner Frank McCourt caved to media pressure and fired his GM.

As the Dodgers come to Minnesota this week, they are back on top of the NL West. New Dodgers legend Nomah! has resurrected his career as a 1st baseman in LA, batting .364/.427/.582, while the ghost of Aaron Sele is fooling the Majors' weaker half, somehow posting a 2.73 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. Eric Gagne is hurt again, but Takashi Saito has been a brilliant replacement. Some other new acquisitions like Jae Seo, Kenny Lofton, and Rafael Furcal have struggled, but no matter. Especially when a crop of homegrown youngsters like Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Jason Repko, and Russell Martin have brought a new energy to the club.

Don't look now, though, but a healthy J.D. Drew is hitting .280/.373/.473, second on the team with 43.1 Runs Created, and Jeff Kent is still hitting .272/.378/.465 with 37 RC. Olmedo Saenz, another player DePodesta brought to the Dodgers, is batting .306/.333/.559. Derek Lowe comes into tonight's start with a 6-3 record and 2.90 ERA, and Brad Penny is 8-2 with a 3.06 ERA. By VORP, four of the five most valuable players on the Dodgers roster this year were acquired by Paul DePodesta. Meanwhile, Adrian Beltre is hitting .249/.313/.375 in the second year of a 5-year deal in Seattle, and Paul LoDuca is hitting .285/.325/.397 for the Mets and would be blocking either Russell Martin or Dioner Navarro if he were still in LA.

I hope that DePodesta feels vindicated, wherever he is today. His big moves have worked out for the club, and it seems there was nothing wrong with the Dodgers that a maturing crop of farm talent and one more big bat couldn't turn around and push the team in the right direction again. But I don't suppose the LA media will ever admit it.


At 6/28/2006 2:25 AM, Blogger twins15 said...

Great post. DePodesta needs and deserves another job somewhere. Heck, he should still be the GM in LA.

Bill Plaschke, on the other hand, shouldn't even be allowed to read the newspaper it this point. Just awful.

At 6/29/2006 2:25 PM, Blogger spycake said...

I pretty much agree -- Depodesta did all right in LA, and certainly didn't deserve early termination. If it wasn't for injuries to Penny and Gagne, he may still have the job.

I think ownership was showing the impatience typified by Boston and NY, but Depodesta was still working with fewer dollars than either of those teams last year. It's also probably an overreaction to losing a very weak division in 2005.

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