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They've Rebuilt the Farm

Dodgers' minor league system has gone from one of baseball's worst to among the best

June 30, 2006|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

In the batting cages at Dodgertown, wrapped in catcher's gear, staring through horizontal bars, pelted by hard and undeveloped sliders, Russell Martin still knew.

He had left third base at the passing suggestion of it, not because he didn't like it there, where the air isn't clogged with quite so much dust or mayhem.

They told him a big league journey of a thousand contusions began with a single squat. He believed them.

Martin could not have known it, but he was becoming a symbol of a new Dodgers organization, rebuilt from the bottom up. He did not mark the beginning of it, or the best of it, or even the last of it. He was just a good kid, adequately skilled, with a malleable psyche and a rigid spirit.

He held that new mitt as steady as he could while a Dominican right-hander named Jose Diaz, big enough that everyone called him Jumbo, became his first battery mate.

In the weeks that followed, Martin graduated to intrasquad games on the back fields, where coaches such as Jon Debus, Travis Barbary and Dann Bilardello observed from a screen set up a few feet off his heels. When his half-innings were through, he sat beside them, and they asked him about pitch selections, talked him through in-game quandaries, then patted his shoulder and sent him out again.

It was the fall of 2002. Martin, raised in Canada, had been drafted that June from Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla. He'd gone in the 17th round, following better-known prospects James Loney, Greg Miller and Jonathan Broxton, among others. But it didn't matter to him.

"Every year I played, I was trying to make the big leagues right now," he said. "It never felt far away."

From the toehold of those afternoon games, half an inning catching, half an inning listening, an organization pushing from behind, it was 3 1/2 years.

"I saw him have some tough nights," said Terry Collins, then the Dodgers' minor league field coordinator. "He went to the backstop a lot of times. A lot of times. But he stuck with it."

Dan Evans, the general manager hired during the 2001 season, had arrived at Dodger Stadium to find a flawed, pricey major league roster, with $210 million in guaranteed salaries spread through future seasons, and a farm system ranked 28th out of 30 teams by Baseball America.

By the 2002 draft, Evans had hired Kim Ng as assistant general manager, Bill Bavasi as farm director, Logan White as amateur scouting director and Collins, who in three years would replace Bavasi. Evans eventually would be replaced too, first by Paul DePodesta, then by Ned Colletti, as owner Frank McCourt adjusted and readjusted his baseball vision.

Bavasi resigned to become general manager of the Seattle Mariners, where he hired Evans as a consultant and scout. Roy Smith was hired from the Pittsburgh Pirates to serve as director of scouting and player development, wedding those two departments, and less than a year later DePodesta, who hired him, was fired. Dozens of scouts and other baseball minds -- John Boles and Joey Amalfitano included -- washed in and out of the organization, stability gone the way of the Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey infield.

And, yet, through three regimes, through some marginal successes and many more malfunctions at the big league level, the farm system has become, at the very least and by recent appearances, reliable.

White has run five drafts. From those, and the handful of players left from Evans' predecessor, Kevin Malone, along with trades and international signings, the Dodgers' farm system, by Baseball America's estimation, has rated second for three years running.

"That happened," Evans said recently, "because a lot of good people were on the same page."

On June 10 against the Colorado Rockies, Matt Kemp started in left field, Joel Guzman at third base, Martin at catcher, Willy Aybar at second base. Five days later, Chad Billingsley made his big league debut, a game in which Broxton was the winning pitcher and Andre Ethier, acquired by Colletti in a trade with the Oakland Athletics, started in left field.

"We just had a good combination of kids coming through the draft, and through international, that are beginning to surface," said Jeff Schugel, a former Dodgers director of international scouting who is now a major league scout with the Angels.

It began, according to those who were there, after the 2001 season. The Dodgers had won 86 games for a second consecutive season and finished third in the NL West. Chan Ho Park, then 28, had won 15 games and thrown 234 innings. He also was a free agent, represented by Scott Boras.

Although he'd pinned his organizational objectives to pitching and defense, Evans chose to let Park leave. With the compensatory draft pick received from the Texas Rangers in exchange for signing Park, the Dodgers took Miller, a left-handed pitcher from Esperanza High.

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