How do you build a championship team? That’s the question every general manager faces each year, the question that motivates the entire baseball world. The answer to that question changes every year, and even if you uncover it, the gulf between knowing and executing is vast. And sometimes, even when it works, the path to a World Series can take almost a decade to travel, as the Astros, fresh off their first World Series in franchise history, can attest.
What of the opponent the Astros just sent home? The Dodgers looked like a championship team all year—did they slip up somewhere, or can you make a championship plan only so foolproof?
Here’s how to build a team like the Dodgers, one good enough to get to Game 7 of the World Series:
Hire People Who Know What They’re Doing
When Guggenheim Baseball Management splashed $2 billion to pry the Dodgers from the McCourts in 2012, they let the team ride for two and a half years under veteran general manager Ned Colletti, who’d been in his position since 2005, and empowered him to run up the highest payroll in the game. In October 2014, after going three seasons without winning a pennant, they cashiered Colletti and poached Andrew Friedman from the Tampa Bay Rays to be their new president of baseball operations.
Friedman was the Rays’ general manager from 2005 through 2014, a nine-season run that includes all six of the franchise’s winning seasons, all four of its playoff appearances, and its only pennant. As the Cubs were on their way to a World Series after turning the keys over to Theo Epstein, the Dodgers went out and got the closest thing to Theo without actually hiring Theo, and gave him the new and impressive title the Cubs had invented for Theo. On a shoestring budget, Friedman had built a team that could compete with the Yankees and Red Sox, and made himself a star in the process—imagine what he could do with more than $200 million to spend on salary every year.
Friedman surrounded himself with similarly celebrated minds: for his general manager, Friedman chose Farhan Zaidi, a graduate of MIT and Berkley who’d spent the past decade learning at the foot of Billy Beane. He also hired Josh Byrnes, a former Epstein lieutenant who led the Diamondbacks to the NLCS in 2007 as a GM, and then spent four years running the Padres. When Alex Anthopoulos, who’d built the dominant Blue Jays team of 2015, became available after that season, he joined the Dodgers’ front office, too. That same year, Friedman hired Dave Roberts, who’d played under Byrnes in Boston and coached under him in San Diego, to be his field manager. In his first year, Roberts won 91 games, the NL West, and the NL Manager of the Year award.
Spend Tons of Money
The phrase “throw money at the problem” is a grotesque piece of linguistic legerdemain—especially outside of the world of sports, it implies, with disdain, that spending lots of money on something is a lazy solution, when the history of capitalism says it’s the exact opposite: You spend money on things you care about. The Yankees have dominated baseball through most of the sport’s history by sheer economic force, and though you can’t buy a title as easily in the age of amateur bonus restrictions and the luxury tax, it still helps. The Red Sox were able to wrest AL East supremacy from the Yankees only by ranking second, second, and third in payroll in the three years they won the World Series this century. Even the comparatively plucky Giants ranked 11th in payroll in 2010, and no lower than eighth every year since.
Nobody spends more than the Dodgers. The Guggenhiem group upped the team’s big league payroll by more than $100 million from 2012 to 2013, and they’ve had the highest payroll in baseball every year since 2014, in which time they’ve spent more than $1 billion in player salary. If spending money is a measure of willpower, nobody wants a title more than the Dodgers.
Cultivate and Develop Amateur Talent
The Dodgers haven’t hit on that many first-round picks in the recent past, but when they have drafted well, they’ve drafted very well. Clayton Kershaw, the no. 7 overall pick in 2006, just finished his 10th big league season and might end up being the best pitcher in baseball history. Corey Seager, the 18th pick in 2012, has been worth 13.5 bWAR in just 329 big league games and finished third in NL MVP voting in 2016 as a 22-year-old rookie. Their adventures in the international market have also turned up Julio Urías from Mexico, who posted a 119 ERA+ in 77 innings as a 19-year-old rookie in 2016 and then hurt his shoulder this year, as well as Yasiel Puig from Cuba and Kenta Maeda from Japan.
It also helps that the Dodgers have been able to supplement their big-name draftees and signees with later-round projects and lottery tickets, whom they’ve developed as well as anyone. Cody Bellinger, who hit 39 home runs as a rookie this year, was a fourth-round pick. Catcher Austin Barnes, who hit .289/.408/.486 as a rookie this year and forced veteran starter Yasmani Grandal to the bench during the playoffs, was a ninth-rounder out of Arizona State in 2011 and never appeared on a top-100 list. Joc Pederson, who was just as much a building block as Seager until a slump sent him to the bench in 2017, was an 11th-rounder. Kenley Jansen, the National League’s reliever of the year, is a converted catcher out of Curacao.
And these players aren’t just useful on the big league roster: José De León, a 24th-rounder out of little-scouted Southern University, turned into a consensus top-50 prospect in 2016 and 2017 and ended up landing the Dodgers their starting second baseman, Logan Forsythe, in a trade from Tampa Bay this past offseason, while 2015 fourth-rounder Willie Calhoun turned from a positionless semi-prospect into a good enough hitter to headline a deal for Yu Darvish at the 2017 deadline.
Develop at the Big League Level
For a team that spends the most money in baseball, the Dodgers have a knack not only for developing minor leaguers but getting the best out of players the rest of the baseball world has given up on.
Justin Turner was a 29-year-old utility infielder when the Mets non-tendered him with three years and change of service time after the 2013 season. Since joining the Dodgers that offseason, Turner’s unleashed his new hitting mechanics, grown an unfortunate beard, and posted a 139 OPS+, seventh-best among all MLB infielders with at least 1,000 plate appearances since 2014. Chris Taylor, an anonymous infielder with the Mariners, became a nearly five-win player while playing five positions for the Dodgers in 2017, and in the playoffs he was on base so much he became an early internet meme. Reliever Brandon Morrow stayed healthy for the first time since 2010, posted a 204 ERA+, and became the second pitcher in history to appear in all seven games of a World Series.
Not all of this is player development—Morrow staying healthy for a year is dumb luck, to an extent, and Turner revamped his swing under the tutelage of a private hitting coach while he was still with the Mets—but looking back on the results, it almost doesn’t matter if these success stories are the results of good coaching, good scouting, or just dumb luck: The 2017 Dodgers had several castoffs who ended up playing like stars.
Get More Pitchers Than You Need
The best way to face down the Astros, who had one of the best offenses in recent baseball history, is to build a comparably formidable pitching staff. The Dodgers were built with the intention of having more pitchers than they could use. That’s important because pitchers get hurt, and when they do, most teams can’t afford to replace them.
Through a mix of trades, free-agent signings, and internal development, the 2017 Dodgers had somewhere between nine and 12 quality big league starters under contract, depending on whether you count prospects Wilmer Font and Walker Buehler, who appeared only in late-season bullpen cameos, and how you feel about Ross Stripling. And sure enough, most of them got hurt. Not a single Dodger made 30 starts or threw 180 innings in 2017. Urías and Hyun-Jin Ryu might have made the playoff rotation but got hurt during the season, while Scott Kazmir never even threw a pitch in 2017.
It didn’t matter: Kershaw, Rich Hill, Darvish, and Alex Wood were all healthy come October, as was Maeda, whom Roberts had the luxury of pitching out of the bullpen. Bullpen depth has become an obsession in baseball circles after the Royals and Indians won three straight American League pennants in large part because their bullpens were so good and so deep. L.A.’s bullpen, led by Jansen, Maeda, Morrow, and two lefties acquired at the deadline—Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani—at one point threw 28 consecutive scoreless innings this postseason. The easiest way to lose in the postseason is to run out of pitchers, and the Dodgers simply have too many pitchers to run out.
The Dodgers, despite losing 16 of 17 at one point this year, finished with 104 wins, the most in baseball. They allowed the second-fewest runs and had the third-best ERA+ in all of baseball, and they had the second-best team OPS+ in the National League. They rated above-average at every position, by Baseball-Reference WAR, except first base and center field, two positions they’d solved by the World Series by sticking Bellinger and Taylor at those two positions, rather than in an outfield corner. All 13 pitchers who threw 40 innings or more for the Dodgers this year had an ERA+ of 99 or better, and seven different Dodgers with at least 200 PA posted an OPS+ of 100 or better, and three more posted an OPS+ of at least 90.
So what the hell happened? If this team was so perfect, how did it lose in the World Series?
Baseball is a game that’s extremely random and unfair in small chunks—bullet line drives turn into double plays, while broken-bat flares turn into doubles—but it works over 162 games because those peculiarities even out. In a best-of-seven series, those things you can’t control can have an outsize influence on the game. Turner played part of the series through a nagging injury. Entering the series, Jansen had allowed an earned run in just two of his 24 career playoff appearances, and he’d never taken a loss or blown a save. In this World Series, he allowed earned runs in three appearances in a row, blew a save in Game 2, and took a loss in Game 5. You can’t plan for that any more than you can plan for Darvish and Kershaw combining to get shelled three times in four starts, but those three bad starts, plus Jansen’s blown save, accounted for all four of the Dodgers’ losses in this series.
But most importantly, baseball is zero-sum, and no amount of spending, coaching, and regular-season dominance can prevent some other really good team from showing up in the opposite dugout in the World Series. The Astros won 101 games this year, behind the best offense in baseball. The Dodgers couldn’t plan for George Springer having the best week of his life at the plate. They couldn’t help that the Astros would run out a rotation that included three right-handed pitchers—Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, and Lance McCullers—who can absolutely bury a breaking ball at a left-handed hitter’s back foot, and that Seager and Bellinger wouldn’t be able to adapt.
The Dodgers are owned by extremely rich people, who empowered a bunch of extremely smart people to assemble a team of extremely talented people. People who are rich, smart, and/or talented also tend to be arrogant, because most of the time being one of those things will open doors for you and get you out of jams. One reason baseball is so incredible is that no amount of money, intelligence, or talent can fully guarantee success—it humbles the prideful and lays low the mighty.
What could the Dodgers have done better? Nothing, and they lost anyway. Isn’t that cool?