7/26/2013 11:00 A.M. ET
Investment in farm system paying off for Dodgers
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
LOS ANGELES -- Even while spending hundreds of millions of dollars on veterans last year, new ownership insisted the long-term business model for the Dodgers was player development, with a renewed emphasis on international talent that had been long neglected.
One year later, the farm system is stirring with signs of life. The Yasiel Puig phenomenon is the quick payoff for what promises to be a reopening of a foreign pipeline of talent the Dodgers originally discovered, then abandoned.
More subtle, but no less important, is a sea-change in Draft approach from high-risk, high-reward high schoolers to more projectable college talent that should allow the Dodgers to more quickly fill more holes from within, which had become a frustration in recent years.
Even though last year's flurry of mega trades dispatched many of the franchise's better young players to land Hanley Ramirez, Randy Choate, Shane Victorino, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto, the Dodgers actually have more top 100 prospects this year (four) than at this time last year (one).
The one who returns is Zach Lee, who should get his chance in next year's big-league starting rotation with Ted Lilly and Chris Capuano upcoming free agents. Lee cost $5.25 million to sign in what remains a head-scratching personnel move of the otherwise frugal McCourt Era.
A $42 million signing is a unique way to jump-start a farm system, and that's what the Dodgers did with Puig, who arrived faster and had a greater immediate impact than even the most fervent Puigmaniacs could project with a record June until he cooled off in July.
But Puig isn't the only graduate from the preseason prospect list. Tim Federowicz finally has been entrusted with the back-up catcher role after management backslid by acquiring Ramon Hernandez. Federowicz has thus far fulfilled the scouting report of a Major League-ready receiver with an unproven bat.
And the biggest surprise of the three is 100-mph right-hander Jose Dominguez, who won over manager Don Mattingly during his brief trial with electric stuff and composure on the mound, considering his inexperience.
A year ago, the only midseason graduate from the list was reliever Shawn Tolleson.
The club finally waved the white flag on Blake Smith as a hitter last month, switching him to pitcher, which some teams considered him to be when the Dodgers drafted him in 2009. So, at age 25, he's starting over at Class A.
Jonathan Martinez hasn't bombed and this is only his third professional season. The left-hander's exclusion from the list is just as much an indicator of a deeper farm system than it is anything Martinez can't do.
Angel Sanchez was the least advanced of three pitchers the Dodgers sent to Miami for Ricky Nolasco.
Chris Anderson, this year's first-round pick, is already off to a great start with Great Lakes (2-0 and 1.96). The Dodgers did a reversal of form and went heavy on college pitchers this year because it was taking the high schoolers too long to make an impact. Tom Windle, this year's second-round pick, is another college draftee duplicating the success of Anderson. Both are being protected with pitch limits, but both are showing why they were taken high.
He's still only 16, but that hasn't stopped Julio Urias from his impressive U.S. debut with Great Lakes, where he is 2-0 with a 2.65 ERA. Understandably, the club is babying his arm. But the more he succeeds, the more the temptation will be to see just how fast he can climb. Jose Dominguez's rise to the Major Leagues was accelerated by a switch last year to the bullpen. Like Urias, he signed as a 16-year-old. After a long apprenticeship, his stock has suddenly skyrocketed.
Venezuelan Miguel Sulbaran, left-handed and only 19, has been a winner each of his three seasons. He was only a 26th-round JC pick in 2010, but Scott Schebler looks like a hitter. Hard to ignore an OPS nearing 1.000, which is what he's doing at Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga.
dodgers' top prospects
Corey Seager's stock has climbed the highest since the preseason, rising to No. 53. Joc Pederson is also in a bull market, with his point total rising 36 to No. 49. Zach Lee improved 17 points, but still was passed by Seager and Pederson.
Top 100 representation
The only Dodger listed in the Top 100 a year ago was Lee. This year, he's joined by Pederson, Seager and Urias. The 300 percent increase in representation gives the Dodgers four Top 100 prospects, which is good for seventh in MLB and an indicator of a farm system on the comeback.
A solid performance in the recent Futures Game continued Pederson's emergence as a player now on the radar. He's known as a grinder who doesn't catch the eye a la Yasiel Puig, but plays the game the right way and gets the most out of his tools.
Seager continues to look like the real deal as a 19-year-old at Great Lakes with a .300 average and .872 OPS. The Dodgers continue to play him at shortstop, although most believe he will wind up at third base, especially with the organization's international scouts pursuing middle infielders aggressively.
Lee skipped out on Louisiana State football practice to be a Dodgers Minor Leaguer. So far, if he hasn't shown he's worth $5.25 million, he's been good enough for the Dodgers to resist including him in any of their trades. Scouts say Lee lacks the dominant pitch that would make him a No. 1 starter, but he has enough of an arsenal and all the intangibles to qualify as a middle rotation starter.
The Dodgers have one more Top 100 prospect now than in the preseason. The gain of 80 prospect points from the preseason is the fourth-highest of the 30 MLB teams.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.