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What the Dodgers' depth means for their World Series hopes

To break the drought and return to their dominant glory days, L.A. will need its stars to be stars, and its depth model to be better than everyone else's depth model.   Richard Mackson/USA TODAY Sports

What you're about to read is an examination of the roster depth of the Los Angeles Dodgers as they start their World Series quest. To fully appreciate the origins of this admirable trait, we have to wind the clock back a ways.

Let's start here: Through the formative years of baseball-inclined Gen-Xers like myself, back in the 1970s, the Dodgers represented stability. You always heard the Dodgers were a model franchise, the most consistently well-run organization in the game.

There was a corporate efficiency to the Dodgers back then, an almost comforting dependability, even if you weren't particularly a fan.

This was during the salad days, when Tommy Lasorda was in the dugout.

In 1976, Lasorda, a Dodger since the Brooklyn days who remains a steady presence around the club at age 90, replaced Walter Alston, whose long tenure stretched all the way back to Ebbets Field. During his heyday, Lasorda was arguably the face of the Dodgers, preaching about what we might now call brand loyalty. Dodger Blue was his product and it was something greater than any individual cause or player.

"I bleed Dodger Blue," Lasorda has said many times. "And when I die, I'm going to the Big Dodger in the sky."

Year over year, L.A.'s rosters saw remarkably little attrition. The state-of-the-art minor league system was reliably fertile.

Forever young and vibrant, Dodger Stadium nestled brilliantly into the hills of Chavez Ravine as one of baseball's iconic locales. And of course, there was always golden-throated Vin Scully up in the press box.

So, the playoff appearances came frequently: seven in 15 years, all during the four-division era. That time included five pennants and two World Series wins, the most recent in 1988.

As we know, the Dodgers haven't won a title since.

The Dark Blue times

It's not the longest drought in baseball, not even among this year's postseason teams, but in its own way it's the most remarkable. With their vast resources and status as a prime free-agent draw -- Hollywood, nice weather, etc. -- how could the Dodgers possibly go three decades without winning a championship?

Prolonged excellence in sports is invariably tied to stable ownership and the Dodgers certainly had that in Walter O'Malley and his family, who weathered the unpopular decision to leave Brooklyn and then flourished for decades on the other side of the continent. Then the Dodgers went corporate, losing their way during a stretch under the Fox Entertainment group. It got worse during the tumultuous ownership reign of Frank McCourt, which ended in bankruptcy court and an ugly battle with Major League Baseball.

On the field, things weren't disastrous, but the payrolls were bloated and the postseason appearances grew sparser. Another World Series crown seemed far away. Finally, early in the 2012 season, things turned around.

The current ownership group, officially known as Guggenheim Baseball Management and led by Mark Walter and including NBA legend Magic Johnson and longtime sports executive Stan Kasten, took over the team.

That's really what brings us to today.

The Guggenheim era

Each full season since the Guggenheim group took over has ended in an NL West title for the Dodgers. As they were in the '70s, the Dodgers are once again a model franchise. They bring in enormous revenue and put those resources into building a carefully honed organization from top to bottom. Their baseball operations department, overseen by Kasten and run by Andrew Friedman, is cutting edge. The minor-league system is once again elite, as homegrown young stars such as Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager take their place alongside established stars such as Clayton Kershaw.

The bottom line is that the Dodgers look a lot today like the Dodgers from the collective youth of Generation X. The current club has the aforementioned star power. But it is even more so marked by tremendous depth, fed not only by the minor league system, but also by developmental processes that have seen young veterans like Justin Turner and Chris Taylor find new levels after coming to Los Angeles.

Not long after the new owners took over, the Dodgers paid a visit to Wrigley Field for a series against the Cubs. Kasten was hanging around the dugout and because at the time I was heavy into NBA analysis, I found myself talking hoops with the former Atlanta Hawks executive. I asked him about the differences between constructing NBA and MLB rosters.

"In the NBA, you draft Shaquille, you go to the Finals," Kasten said. "You draft LeBron, you go to the Finals. You draft Magic, you win multiple championships. It just doesn't work that way in baseball. If your best player is a pitcher, you're going to see him for seven innings every fifth game. It's just a very different thing.

"You can have three great guys in basketball and go win a championship. That just doesn't happen in baseball. It's much more of a developmental, more of an organizational challenge in baseball. If you're a GM in basketball, not only do you know every player in the league, you might know their families. In baseball, it's not uncommon to make a trade for a player you had never heard the name of until 30 minutes before."

I thought of that conversation a few months ago while listening to an episode of Malcolm Gladwell's podcast "Revisionist History" about the weak-link concept.

The notion was floated in a book called "The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong" by Chris Anderson and David Sally. Basically, they found that in soccer, a team is really only as strong as its weakest link.

From that, Gladwell deduced that many things exist on a continuum between strongest link and weakest link. Basketball is clearly a strong-link sport, and soccer is at the other end of the continuum. But the best baseball teams reside somewhere in between. In other words, if you ask someone like Kasten whether the fortunes of a baseball club are determined by its strongest players or its weakest players, the correct answer is "both."

That, as much as anything, describes the current Dodgers.

Deep Dodger Blue

The percentage of overall value teams get from their top three players has dropped over the decades. Mostly this seems due to the changing ways in which starting pitchers are used. Once, workhorse aces such as Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale from the 1960s-era Dodgers seemingly dragged their teams into contention. Now, workloads are more spread out so wins come from a wider distribution of roster spots.

The average team has used about 50 players this season. In 1977, Lasorda's second at the helm of the Dodgers, the average was about 37.

There are a lot of reasons for that, such as specialization in pitching roles and advances in sports science that have led to teams valuing rest more than they used to. But if you're going to use so many players, you might as well use good ones, and that's where the Dodgers have come to excel.

No team manages player workloads more than the Dodgers. It's really not even close. Among the position players, Yasiel Puig is the only one on pace to appear in at least 150 games. Seager is the only one who will have 600 plate appearances. Among the pitchers, only Kershaw will qualify for the ERA title.

"The one thing that we've done is, we've turned over every stone as far as looking at potential weakness or something that could be exploited and adding depth," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "That's a credit to everyone, the scouting and the front office and the players that we acquired."

With so little being asked of even its core players, the Dodgers' WAR distribution looks out of place among baseball's other postseason teams. Whether Turner or Seager ends up leading the Dodgers in WAR, their total will be the second-lowest among the team leaders of all the clubs playing into October. However, only the Indians and Yankees are likely to finish with more WAR beyond the top slot.

The Dodgers have reaped value from every avenue of talent acquisition. Having Kershaw in hand as a holdover from the previous ownership regime is a great starting point, of course, and Andre Ethier has been a Dodger even longer than him. There have been great international signings (Puig, Kenley Jansen), big-ticket trade additions (Yu Darvish, Adrian Gonzalez, Rich Hill) and draft successes (Bellinger, Seager).

"Every player has a different path and a different story," Roberts says. "I think that one thing that our organization does is, number one, find guys that you [know] are on the come. Guys that have abilities that haven't been tapped into. Also, in the case of, for example, Chase Utley, an opportunity to put him in a platoon situation and add to the clubhouse variable."

The Dodgers have made 424 moves since the end of last season -- including everything from trades to minor league rehab assignments -- to end up with the product you're seeing on the field now. Part of that is an aggressive use of baseball's new disabled list guidelines, especially when it comes to managing pitcher workloads.

The constant churn of the roster lasted well past the traditional trade deadline, as veteran Curtis Granderson wasn't added until the third week of August.

The Dodgers' strongest links -- Kershaw, Seager, Bellinger, Jansen -- are fixed at the top of the pecking order. But even as the club raced to a 91-36 start, the L.A. front office never stopped tinkering with the end of a roster that, from the outside, didn't seem to need fixing.

"Anybody can beat you at any time, even if it's the guys just coming in for the sixth inning to get a hold or to keep us in the ballgame," Granderson observed of his new team. "Pass it on to the next guy. There are a lot of different weapons coming at you every night. You can't set your plan of attack against them where you say, 'If we get this guy out, we have a shot.'"

Secret weapon: Improvement

After the 2013 season, Turner was 28 and he'd put up 0.8 WAR over 318 big league games. When he signed as a free agent with the Dodgers before the 2014 campaign, his acquisition merited no more than an obscure mention on the transaction wire. Since then, he has posted 18.7 WAR and is finishing up the first season of a four-year, $64 million deal he signed last winter.

Taylor, acquired last season, had 0.6 WAR through 2016, his age-25 season. This year, he's at 4.7. There are stories like this up and down the roster -- relievers Josh Fields and Brandon Morrow, who signed over the winter on a minor-league contract. Starter Alex Wood. These are all players with untapped potential that they found while being developed by the Dodgers at the big league level. This, too, is a primary driver of the team's remarkable depth.

"Starting from the top, from Andrew [Friedman] in the front office, down to Dave and the coaching staff and into the locker room, the veteran guys around here just allow guys to come in and be themselves," Turner says. "Don't try to make them do anything out of the ordinary. Be you and enjoy the game. When you play comfortable, you get better results."

There are likely technical aspects to all of it, too. Taylor cites his work with the staff in revamping his swing and generating more exit velocity to help him find his way.

"It starts with the coaching staff," Taylor said. "They do a great job of making players feel comfortable here."

For Roberts, it's just what the Dodgers do.

"As far as an organizational philosophy, it's trying to maximize each player, for me, the coaches and player development," Roberts says. "We do a great job as an organization of finding certain players."

Also, the Dodgers have integrated analytics in a fine-grained way, as Roberts and his coaching staff continually put players in the right spots. Only five teams have had fewer plate appearances with a platoon disadvantage (righty vs. righty or lefty vs. lefty) than the Dodgers even though Yasmani Grandal is the only switch-hitter on the roster.

"If there is an overarching theme in our organization, as far as what we feel will help us win a championship, obviously [part of it] is getting very good players and having depth and information," Roberts says. "But it really goes for naught if players don't buy in."

Hidden component

Ah, buy-in. A very important part of the Dodgers' success -- and why Roberts shouldn't be overlooked in Manager of the Year discussions -- is the unselfish culture he has created. This clubhouse mindset allows such a preponderance of good players to co-exist even though the playing time opportunities in a baseball season are finite. Everyone would like to play more, but no one complains that they don't.

"It's all Dave," Turner says. "He's a tremendous communicator. He's up front with everyone, tells you exactly how it is and doesn't sugarcoat it. When you have conversations like that up front, it's hard to gripe about situations. That's all 100 percent Doc and the way he runs the clubhouse and has that open line of communication."

The front office gets credit, as well, for identifying the right mesh of personalities. If Granderson were a me-first player likely to create waves about sitting against lefties or being moved out of center field, it's unlikely the Dodgers would have targeted him. Granderson is the exact opposite of a me-first player, though, and his fit was seamless, at least in the clubhouse.

"Good leadership," is what Taylor attributes it to. "Everybody is on the same page. We're all focused on winning baseball games. That's everybody's main concern. Honestly, when you're having a lot of success, it's easy to unify around that idea. It kind of takes all the personal, selfish thoughts out of it."

This is what Roberts refers to when he mentions buy-in.

"There's got to be some sacrifice and to each man, they've done that," Roberts said. "That's allowed for us to really reach our potential. What's our ceiling? I don't know. That remains to be seen. All the credit has to go to the players who are understanding of what we're trying to do. There is tremendous buy-in."

The end game

Of course, all of that will be put to the test in a fierce postseason derby stocked with high-power teams that can match the Dodgers in star power and depth. And all of that depth didn't keep the Dodgers from sinking into a mind-boggling stretch of losing 16 out of 17, though Los Angeles seems to be back on track now after wrapping up home-field throughout the playoffs.

"We play the game the right way, and that checks a lot of boxes," Roberts said. "That was our identity last year and it is this year. We're a better club this year, top to bottom."

It will be the seventh career playoff appearance for Kershaw, adding to his record for Dodgers pitchers. If Ethier makes the postseason roster as a pinch-hitter, it would be his eighth time in the playoffs with the Dodgers, establishing a franchise mark among position players. They have played together four times in a National League championship series. Neither has ever played in the World Series, and if the Dodgers don't win it all this season, the overall franchise title drought will extend to a full three decades.

"There's got to be some sacrifice and to each man, they've done that. That's allowed for us to really reach our potential. What's our ceiling? I don't know. That remains to be seen. All the credit has to go to the players who are understanding of what we're trying to do. There is tremendous buy-in."

Dave Roberts

To break that drought, the Dodgers will need their stars to be stars, but they will also need all of those other high-quality pieces to perform on the game's biggest stage. They need their depth model to be better than everyone else's depth model.

Maybe in the end, it will be about belief. Earlier this season, in a pregame chat in Chicago, Roberts spoke about the importance of process in relation to a game when his club had struggled in high-leverage spots. Such things don't rattle a manager who has so many tools in the tool shed.

"With our club, one through 25, I believe and I know we're the best team every night we take the field," Roberts said at the time. "We know that. That's why when you're talking about 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position and having quality at-bats, we've just got to stay focused on the process."

For the Dodgers, it's time for the process to yield the ultimate results. All of the pieces are in place and if L.A. finishes the job, at long last the Dodgers might become the franchise every struggling organization wants to become. Just like they used to be.