A System Solution

June 06, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Los Angeles -- It has been two weeks since the Los Angeles Dodgers brought a quiet end to the turbulent tenure of troubled outfielder Darryl Strawberry, and they appear to have come away better for the bad experience.

Strawberry is well into the after-care portion of his drug rehabilitation therapy -- out of sight, out of the organization and finally out of mind -- and the Dodgers are displaying the same kind of organizational resilience that carried them to the first of two World Series championships during the 1980s.

The decision to give up on Eric Davis last year and the release of Strawberry last month pushed the Dodgers back to their roots and opened the way for the exciting emergence of young outfielders Raul Mondesi and Henry Rodriguez.

The club made the same kind of hard choices when it paid off free agents Dave Goltz and Don Stanhouse in the months leading up to the 1981 season and rode the emergence of several young stars to the World Series.

Of course, the circumstances are not entirely the same. Davis, like Goltz and Stanhouse, was unable to justify the Dodgers' large financial investment because of physical problems. Strawberry also had trouble staying healthy, but it was a second bout with substance abuse that persuaded the team to buy him out of the final two years of his contract.

In each case, however, the Dodgers were forced by fate to refocus on the organization's greatest strength -- player development. The departure of Goltz and Stanhouse was followed by the emergence of a couple young pitchers named Fernando Valenzuela and Dave Stewart and the arrival of promising position players Steve Sax and Pedro Guerrero. It is no wonder they won three division titles over the next five years and added a second World Series title with many of the same players in 1988.

Could this be the culmination of another Dodgers developmental bonanza? And, if so, did the decision to release Strawberry remove the last obstacle to a new Dodgers dynasty?

"This is basically the same situation," said manager Tommy Lasorda, who has suffered through a series of difficult seasons since the club last reached the playoffs in 1988. "I hope it turns out the same way."

The 1981 club still had the veteran nucleus that carried the Dodgers to three division titles in the 1970s, but they would have gotten nowhere without the magical performance of Valenzuela, who became their third consecutive National League Rookie of the Year.

More similarities? The Dodgers could have a third straight Rookie of the Year again if Mondesi continues to impress everyone with his hot bat and his outstanding throwing arm. First baseman Eric Karros won the award in 1992 and catcher Mike Piazza won it last year. Mondesi is batting .330 and showing no signs of being the least bit intimidated by the big-league experience.

But Mondesi was expected to play every day regardless of the status of Strawberry. Rodriguez, who spent most of the past seven seasons in the minor leagues, moved into a platoon situation with veteran Cory Snyder and suddenly came into his own as a major-league hitter.

"We have two guys who were put in that outfield and have done a super job for us," Lasorda said. "If you take the numbers of Cory and Henry and combined them, you've got a hell of a performance in left field."

The standings tell the whole story. The San Francisco Giants were supposed to be a clear favorite in the NL West, but while they were coping with the loss of free agent Will Clark and waiting for Barry Bonds to break out of an early-season slump, the Dodgers recovered from a slow start and climbed to the top of the standings.

It's far too early to write them into the playoffs, but they certainly have positioned themselves to become the division's dominant team in the second half of the 1990s.

If history is repeating itself, Dodgers general manager Fred Claire shies away from the comparisons. The Goltz/Stanhouse fiasco was the Dodgers' first real foray into the free-agent market, and it was a very expensive lesson that reinforced the organization's grow-your-own developmental philosophy. The failed attempt to put hometown heroes Davis and Strawberry in the same outfield was just as traumatic and even more expensive, but Claire insists that it will not change the way the Dodgers do business in the future.

"It hasn't changed anything," Claire said. "The philosophy of this organization is to field a winning team and to do what we have to to do that. Goltz and Stanhouse didn't work. Darryl didn't work. ++ But Kirk Gibson led us to a world championship and we have had success with [free-agent] players like Brett Butler and Kevin Gross.

"We have signed free agents, but we have never backed off of player development."

Give the Dodgers credit for one thing. They have acted decisively to minimize the damage when a move goes awry. They swallowed rich multi-year contracts when they released Goltz and Stanhouse 14 years ago and they paid millions to move Strawberry off the roster.

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