No End in Sight for Dodgers' Deep Blue Sea of Talent

They win 90 games every year. They're likely headed to their third straight World Series. How do the Dodgers do it? By continually churning out young stars like Dustin May, Will Smith and Gavin Lux.
photo of Scott MillerScott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistSeptember 16, 2019

Hair-raising, is what it is. This pipeline of young talent from the bushes to Los Angeles, this ongoing gusher of resources that has helped produce seven consecutive NL West titles with no end in sight.

Now comes right-hander Dustin May, whose big hair enters a room a full 30 seconds before his fastball vaporizes you; and catcher Will Smith, who is neither the San Francisco Giants reliever nor the Hollywood actor of the same name; and Gavin Lux, whose late, Labor Day debut could lead to October playing time, much the way teammate Corey Seager forced that issue in 2015.

It is an embarrassment of riches designed for continued suffocation of the rest of the NL West. It is an abundance of wealth that goes well beyond a gaudy $200 million payroll, which ranks fourth in the game. Already, the Dodgers employ two recent Rookies of the Year in Seager (2016) and 2019 MVP candidate Cody Bellinger (2017).

And now, with the best record in the National League, they're poised to run the NL table again, play in their third consecutive World Series and take another whack at winning their first championship since 1988.

The way these crude resources keep flowing from Triple-A Oklahoma City and Double-A Tulsa into L.A.'s big league refinery, good luck to anybody in the NL who hopes to knock off the Dodgers anytime soon. Following this summer's July 31 trade deadlinethe one in which Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman was dinged for not trading blue-chippers for a stud reliever such as Pittsburgh's Felipe Vazquez—MLB Pipeline, ranked L.A.'s as the game's third-best farm system.

As one veteran major league talent evaluator says simply, "They have better players than everybody else."

And the three star rookies they've added to the major league roster this year are no exception.

May is 22 and, the Dodgers believe, has a similar ceiling to that of Walker Buehlerthe 25-year-old 2015 first-rounder who's in the process of taking the ace mantle from three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw.

Smith, 24, was called up from Oklahoma City in late May, smashed a walk-off home run in his fourth major league contest, walloped another game-ender three weeks later, earned the everyday job at warp speed and handles the pitching staff like a veteran. 

Think opponents aren't weary of getting burned by the Dodgers' ongoing youth movement? Smith's first homer was part of a trilogy as the Dodgers became the first team in MLB history to enjoy three consecutive rookie walk-off homers. Matt Beaty and Alex Verdugo preceded Smith during that June blast.

Lux, 21, batted .347 with 26 homers and 76 RBI in 113 games combined in Triple- and Double-A this year. He then became the first Dodgers rookie ever to score three runs in his big league debut (though he's cooled off since).

All three came via the 2016 draft, and all three could be crucial cogs in the Dodgers' hope to hoist a trophy for the first time in more than 30 years.

May is auditioning down the stretch for a role to beef up Los Angeles' one weakness: the bullpen. Lux was called up to fill the opening that occurred when Max Muncy was sidelined with small fracture in his right wrist. And Smith has already won a role in the Dodgers' everyday lineup and a place in the heart of manager Dave Roberts, who sees a lot of Buster Posey in him.

"I've heard that he puts his time in and loves the game," says Rod Barajas, the longtime catcher, who, as the San Diego Padres' bench coach has seen more than his share of the Dodgers this year. "You hear reports like that—as an opponent, it makes you worried.

"Especially those guys, who are going to be around for a long time."

 So maybe we'd better meet them…

            

Don't Call Him 'Gingergaard' 

Though he has struggled a bit to find a role with the Dodgers, Dustin May registered 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings in the minor leagues this season before his call-up.
Though he has struggled a bit to find a role with the Dodgers, Dustin May registered 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings in the minor leagues this season before his call-up.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

May is a gearhead from Justin, Texas (near Fort Worth), who loves cool cars, meals from Whataburger and strikeouts. What this Carrot Top-resembling pitcher doesn't love is the moniker somebody tagged him with simply because his filthy stuff and untamed hair both resemble that of Noah Syndergaard.

"That's definitely not my favorite nickname," says May, a shy kid with a soft voice. "Last year was the first year I heard it. I don't even remember when. I didn't really like it. I tried to let it go. I just didn't like it."

So if you don't mind, please refer to him by his longtime nicknames: Big Red or Code Red. Both of which will do when he's on his game.

May created a loud buzz in the Cactus League this past spring and then fanned 110 while walking only 29 at Double- and Triple-A this summer before the Dodgers summoned him in August. The test drive over these past few weeks included his first relief appearance, an Aug. 18 game at Atlanta in which Rafael Ortega ambushed him with a grand slam during his two-inning outing.

That moment will serve either as a postseason warning…or as an in-season instruction manual from which May will learn and be better prepared for the playoffs.

"He just came in over-amped," Roberts says. "You don't finish the curveball, the cutter's not there because you're overthrowing everything. ... It's one of those things where if you can't bet on the head and believe this guy can handle it, then it kind of puts you in a box as an organization. But this guy can handle anything that we throw at him. He's going to be fine in whatever role we choose."

May, who also survived a line drive off his head in his second relief appearance, says, "I could tell something was off" from the moment he entered that Atlanta game. His hands weren't breaking at the right time because he was overthrowing. It's a lesson now tucked away in the back of his mind: Just treat these bullpen appearances like a start. Settle down. Breathe and think.

When he's not going to school on the mound, he drives a 2013 BMW M6, but that's not his preferred ride. That, instead, is an '09 Dodge Ram 2500. "Definitely more my speed," he says of the truck. That's not the only way he keeps a big part of Texas with him in Southern California.

"Definitely Whataburger over In-N-Out," he says. "I feel like Whataburger's on another level. I'm not a big fan of eating four burgers when I can eat just one."

When he does, no doubt eyes in the joint are drawn to his hair, which he let loose about four years ago.

"I've cut it a couple of times—not really cut it, but trimmed it to keep it in shape," he says. "I like it."

"Special," Kershaw deadpans. "He really likes it, so it's great. More power to him, I guess."

Where the New York Yankees are more buttoned downoutfielder Clint Frazier is a former big-haired redhead, having chopped off his locks to avoid being a "distraction"one of the secrets to the Dodgers' player-development success is to, ahem, simply let the kids play.

"You know what I love?" Roberts says. "He always uses product. It's a great head of hair. And he owns it. I really enjoy that."

          

Do Play Him Some 'Fresh Prince'

Will Smith got a crash course in life as a major leaguer when the Dodgers brought him in with the team late last season but didn't activate him.
Will Smith got a crash course in life as a major leaguer when the Dodgers brought him in with the team late last season but didn't activate him.Rob Leiter/Getty Images

About an hour before Will Smith's major league debut May 28 in Los Angeles, veteran catcher Russell Martin recognized the moment: How could Smith's walk-up song not be the theme to the hit television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which starred…Will Smith?

"We had a little conversation," Smith (the catcher) says. "He told me he'd take care of it."

Hey, you don't win seven consecutive division titles without acing even the small details. Martin took care of it. And Smith still often uses it as his walk-up song, which elicits big smiles from both the Dodgers and their fans.

"It's funny," Justin Turner says. "We have fun in here."

The genius in the way the Dodgers have developed Smith, though, isn't in his Hollywood entrance. It's that they brought him to Los Angeles last September for a world-class apprenticeship—even though they never activated him.

"Invaluable," Roberts says. "He conceded a month at home to be with the Dodgers and be in the clubhouse and be a part of meetings, engaging with players in the clubhouse, seeing how the mechanics of the day worked. The language we use, scouting and advance reports."

Smith was such a serious, studious presence that when October rolled around and it was time for him to go home, veterans such as Kershaw, Rich Hill and Chase Utley were asking the brass why Smith couldn't stick around for more.

Roberts credits Friedman with the idea and loves what it also said about the coaches and players who fully engaged. They saw Smith again this spring and, when he made his debut in late May, it was as comfortable a fit as the other Will Smith and Hollywood.

"It was awesome," Smith says. "It was good to get a little taste of the big leagues in September, to go about the daily routine without actually having to perform and meet those expectations. It made the transition here way easier because I knew what … exactly to expect, so when I did get called up for the first time it was: All right, I've kind of done this before. Now let's do all that and go play and perform."

Those around him are impressed.

"Catching's tough, man," Kershaw says. "So any extra time you can get around the guys you're going to catch and figuring out the different scouting and different things that we do here … honestly, I can't really understand it myself. It's a lot. I get myself ready, but he has to get 12 guys all on the same page."

Over 15 years, Hill has played with eight organizations. The Dodgers, he says, are the best he's seen at creating a culture and skillfully assimilating young talent. Smith's "internship" last September and the break-in period for May and Lux this year are examples.

"There's going to be a couple-week period where they're getting used to other ballparkshow you get to the bullpen, where's the bathroom," Hill says, citing some of the game's most basic tasks and needs. "Crowds are different in different parts of the country. Who plays in an intense market? Who plays in a lighter market? The biggest thing is to be consistent with your effort."

Oh, and yes, Smith was a fan of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Favorite character?

"Probably Will or Carlton," he says.

      

The Book on Los Angeles' Latest Lux-ury

Gavin Lux could force his way into the postseason lineup if he continues to hold his own against big league pitching.
Gavin Lux could force his way into the postseason lineup if he continues to hold his own against big league pitching.Nick Wass/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Long before his late-season debut, and even before he shredded minor league pitching like so much smoked pork this summer, Lux broke away from major league camp this spring for a field trip.

Lux and May both enjoy movies, so an assignment was handed out during the team-bonding portion of camp: Go see Green Book and report back.

Veteran reliever Joe Kelly, a new Dodger himself after he signed as a free agent for three years and $25 million last offseason, volunteered to take them.

"It's little stuff in the spring—get a team to learn about the young guys, where they're from, what they're like, pick their brains a little bit," Kelly says. "So we went, came back, and they told the team about it, kind of like a current events [assignment]."

The script for Lux this summer worked too. The consensus top prospect in the Dodgers system earned Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year honor. He then rapped two hits and scored three runs in his Dodgers debut Sept. 2, including ripping the first big league pitch he saw, a 93 mph heater from Colorado's Peter Lambert into center field for a single.

The moment has already become legendary: His parents were in from their home in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and television cameras caught his father, Tom, with tears welling.

"I saw a video of my first hit and my dad, and he was crying," Lux told reporters. "I thought he was the tough guy. I thought he was going to be the one to not do that."

Lux's road from high school to the majors included a complete overhaul of his swing early in his minor league career and then the overcoming of a mild case of the yips this spring. Once viewed as the man who would become the club's everyday second baseman in 2020 (he mostly played shortstop in the minors, but Seager is entrenched there in L.A.), Lux could push that timetable to this postseason if he gets hot.

"He's become a really good team guy over the last couple years, leading by example," says Tony Gonsolin, a rookie hurler whose path overlapped with Lux's in Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A. "He doesn't talk too much. He's quiet and works hard."

Last October as a Dodgers farmhand, Lux was in the stands for all four games of the NL Championship Series in Milwaukee, one of the few folks in town rooting for the Brewers to go down. It was similar to when Buehler watched the 2017 World Series from the left field upper deck at Dodger Stadium.

Indeed, the Dodgers don't just want their youngsters to absorb the atmosphere around the team; they also want them to soak in the experiences of a veteran corps that has won at least 90 games each of the past seven seasons.

"There was a game a few days ago where I saw Clayton Kershaw being flanked by [May and Gonsolin] for six innings, and that just brought the biggest smile to my face in the dugout," Roberts says. "They were just picking his brain nonstop. That's when—you have a future Hall of Famer and these two green pitchers and the dialogue is going back and forth—and you're just like, 'We're doing things right here.'"

One by one, they keep arriving in Los Angeles, the Dodgers' player development system firing like Detroit's old 24-hour automobile assembly lines. Major award winners. Aces. Winners.

Talking about a young Seager one day a few years ago, then-manager Don Mattingly paused and offered a knowing smile about another farmhand closing in on the majors.

"Just wait until you see Bellinger," Mattingly said.

And Buehler. And Joc Pederson. And May. And…

On and on it's gone. Just like the Dodgers.

               

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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