In case you missed yesterday’s installment of this two-part series, click here for the introduction/thesis/apologia and the AL version of this article. Today we move on to lessons from the National League, who opened divisional play yesterday with two eminently entertaining games between the Marlins and Braves and Padres and Dodgers.
The Padres’ Lesson: Take Risks
This one is related to the advice from the Rays, Be Unconventional (even if it makes people mad), but goes further. The Padres haven’t shied away from seeking talent in any way possible, from splashy free agency acquisitions to extensive IFA signings to risky draft choices to blockbuster trades to signing a passel of Rule 5 picks and carrying them on their roster for a whole season. A.J. Preller makes the trade-happy Jerry Dipoto look like a grizzled fossil talking about WAR-doopie; if Dipoto has been in recent years a Red Bull-fueled gambler in Vegas in the single-digit hours of the morning, Preller is the guy in the penthouse suite leveraging his 401K to gamble for the casino. That hasn’t always worked out for Preller, both between the lines and outside of them, as he’s been suspended, fined, and just generally scolded for not following baseball’s rules, but it has made the Padres interesting to follow even when they underachieved, which isn’t exactly something you can say about the Dipoto-led Mariners.
Common driving wisdom holds that the cop never gets the fastest speeder but instead the car right behind the leader, so it’s inadvisable to hew too closely to Preller’s mad-scientist path lest one run more afoul of MLB’s rules than Preller did, but there are certainly more risk-taking behaviors Dipoto could incorporate into the front office. Many point to “Trader Jerry” as an emblem of reckless abandon, but Dipoto’s first years with the win-now Mariners focused on shedding fringe minor-leaguers to acquire complementary pieces for the big-league club; the only current Top-100 Mariners prospect Dipoto has ever dealt is Tyler O’Neill, for whom he received Marco Gonzales, who has since cemented himself as the Mariners’ ace. (Alex Jackson was in the Top-100 in 2015 but not when he was traded in 2016.) And while the Dipoto-led Mariners haven’t been adverse to some good old chum-churn at the bottom levels of the roster, endlessly DFA’ing and claiming fringe relievers and career minor leaguers to try to discover the next Austin Adams, Dylan Moore, or Austin Nola, they haven’t swung big in the two areas most easily accessible to them: the draft and international free agency.
Internationally, the Mariners under Dipoto have committed some big paydays to Julio Rodriguez and Noelvi Marte, notably, but they’re always just outside the tier of the biggest spenders and the hottest names in free agency, both at home and abroad. Dipoto himself has said they like to treat international free agency as “penny stocks,” which is 1) a gross way to talk about human beings; and 2) a risky strategy, although not in a good way, as it relies on the idea that other teams have inherently poorer scouting systems than the ones in-house. But the bigger issue is the draft, where Dipoto and scouting director Scott Hunter have repeatedly prized high-floor, safer college targets with their early-round choices. By contrast, the Padres have gone for high-upside preps with each of their past four first-round draft choices, which has resulted in MacKenzie Gore, Ryan Weathers, C.J. Abrams, and Robert Hassell, all of whom are well-regarded prospects. In fact, Weathers, a left-handed pitcher from the 2018 draft, just made his MLB debut yesterday, in the playoffs, at 20 years of age.
The Mariners will have the 12th pick in the draft in 2021, ripe to target some of this year’s deep prep infielder class; I will be endlessly disappointed if we come away from this year’s draft with yet another high-floor college pitcher or outfielder. In fact, if the Mariners go college again with the #12 pick in this year’s draft, they will be the first team to draft a non-prep player at that slot since...the Mariners in 2013, when they took UNM’s D.J. Peterson (current Mariner J.P. Crawford would go four picks later out of his California high school; and a pitcher from the little-known college of Gonzaga named Marco Gonzales would be tabbed by the Cardinals three picks after that).
The Braves’ Lesson: Invest Internationally
Again, similar to the Padres’ lesson above, and also with the same caveats, although former Atlanta GM John Coppolella was given a much harsher penalty than Preller, being placed on the permanently ineligible list, which feels a little like being sent to Baseball Hell. Yet the Braves’ aggressiveness on the international market landed them one of baseball’s elite players (and personalities) in Ronald Acuna Jr., along with fellow star Ozzie Albies and upcoming Top-100 prospect Cristian Pache. And now that the Braves are emerging from the penalty period, they’re ready to spend big again; they were originally linked to two of the top players in the class, but now with MLB limiting bonus pool trades due to the pandemic will only be able to sign one, shortstop Ambioris Tavarez (the other, Yeferson Tineo, is now expected to sign with the Rangers, boo).
Julio and Noelvi are both super-exciting prospects, signed in 2017 and 2018 for reasonable bonus money, but the Mariners took the foot off the gas pedal in 2019 in a big way, handing out no bonuses over $1M (outfielder George Feliz was the highest-paid player in this class, reportedly, signing for $900K; they also snatched up Venezuelan pitcher Kristian Cardozo for an undisclosed amount after the Dodgers failed to sign him). The pandemic disrupted the signing period in 2020, but the Mariners were again connected to players just outside the top tier of available free agents, linked mostly to third baseman Starlin Aguilar, expected to sign for around the same amount as Julio and Noelvi. And before you come at me with “Acuña only signed for 100K which was double what any other team wanted to pay him”—that was 2014, and everyone has a pocketful of tech now that wasn’t conceivable back when Jay Leno still hosted The Tonight Show.
The Dodgers’ Lesson: Invest in Development
Yes, the Dodgers have more money than the number of tickets it takes to win a giant stuffed teddy at the Funzone Arcade; yes, they use that money to hand out extensions to stars and secure the services of players like Mookie Betts and, I don’t know, watch a teen movie that has a poor school vs. a rich school, iPads for everyone maybe?; but also, the Dodgers put their money where it counts, into player development. White bread is purportedly banned in the minor league clubhouses of the Dodgers’ affiliates, with young players being stuffed full of leafy greens and whole grains like they’re being fed at the shared table in a consciousness-raising commune. So many legumes! Dodgers coaches are as readily available as tutors for the football team at a Division-I school. How did Chris Taylor, scrappy dirtbag utility infielder for the Mariners, become Chris Taylor, hitting god, of the Dodgers? With constant, patient support from Dodgers hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc, whom Taylor credits with saving his career.
To circle back to the beginning of this series, the Dodgers, like the Yankees, have an incredibly deep system, although the Dodgers have had one (1) losing season in the past 15 years. What they’ve done instead of enjoying prime draft position is to maximize the output of their draft choices, maximizing the hitting skills of former fringe players like Taylor, Justin Turner, and Max Muncy, and finding high value even deeper in the draft, like turning third-rounder Dustin May into a first-round-looking, fire-breathing, Nightmare Carrot Top. (Scare-ot Top? Still workshopping this.) Money spent on improving the training or quality of life for minor leaguers isn’t subject to any kind of salary cap in MLB other than what the team imposes on itself; there’s no competition for resources other than being willing to pay more than other clubs for talented teachers. It’s the easiest way to gain an advantage over more impecunious or tight-fisted clubs, and yet as cutbacks echo across the league, one that fewer and fewer organizations seem to be taking advantage of. To echo a call from the public sector: Pay your teachers, fools.
The Marlins’ Lesson: I’m Up All Night To Get Lucky
Look, there’s an undeniable amount of luck involved in getting to the playoffs. Sometimes the margins are thin and the ball just doesn’t bounce your way [stares in Night Court]. This is why I love the Marlins coming into these playoffs, half a bottle deep with an unbuttoned shirt, carrying a battery-powered boombox and wearing sunglasses indoors. Let’s get loud, and weird. Let’s get loird. 2020 has been full of endless reminders that life is short, and often cruel and mean, so gather ye Miguel Rojasbuds where ye may. Vaya con Isan Diaz.