Edwin Drexler was a center fielder when the Dodgers drafted him in June. He signed his contract, reported to their Arizona training facility and met his fellow draftees. On the first day of his professional career, he headed onto the field, where the players started their workout with a group stretching session.
All of a sudden, Drexler looked up. Two of the Dodgers’ executives wanted to talk to him, right away.
Stretching could wait. Gabe Kapler, the Dodgers’ director of player development, introduced himself. So did Kapler’s assistant, Nick Francona.
Kapler told Drexler to put away his bat and glove for the rest of the season. Drexler would run, and that was all. If he did it well enough, he might find himself in a Dodgers uniform by the end of the season, sharing a clubhouse with Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig.
As he recounted the conversation, Drexler smiled.
“They said they were going to make me into a baserunning monster,” Drexler said.
There is nothing unusual about a team using a designated runner in September and October. Find a fast guy in your minor league system, call him up, and deploy him when a slow guy gets on base and one run can be vital.
What the Dodgers have done this year, in the latest example of a new and creative front office diligently pursuing even the slightest of advantages, is to search for the most effective designated runner by opening what amounts to a baserunning academy.
“Speed camp,” Drexler said.
The Dodgers enrolled five players in speed camp. Two were released. The other three completed intensive training in tracking a pitcher’s move, getting a good jump and maximizing acceleration, then headed to minor league affiliates to test their abilities in actual games.
Drexler, 23, said he is a second cousin of NBA Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler. He was identified by Dodgers scouts charged with finding a potential designated runner, and he was selected from Grambling in the third-to-last round of the draft.
Robbie Garvey, 26, had played six seasons in the minor leagues without advancing past the Class A level, but he had a background as a competitive sprinter.
Kyle Hudson, 28, had 2,350 at-bats in the minor leagues and 28 in the major leagues, with no home runs. He had started as a volunteer assistant coach at the University of Illinois this spring, when the Dodgers invited him to come play for them — er, run for them.
“We said, ‘We have an opportunity for you to be a professional baseball player again,’” Kapler said. “That’s not a tough sell.”
Since the end of speed camp, the three have played in a total of 40 minor league games, with zero at-bats, and 27 stolen bases in 36 attempts, through Friday’s games. They pinch-run, and they are done.
“Everybody knows they’re running,” said Class A Rancho Cucamonga Manager Bill Haselman, a former major league catcher. “If they can have a good success rate with that challenge, that’s pretty good.”
Hudson is on the disabled list because of a strained calf, but Drexler is at Rancho Cucamonga and Garvey at double-A Tulsa. With one chance to run every day — and with no need to worry about offense or defense — the Dodgers hope the players can master the art of the stolen base.
“You can have the fastest guy in the world, and he can get thrown out every time,” Haselman said.
In 1974, Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley signed world-class sprinter Herb Washington as a designated runner. The A’s beat the Baltimore Orioles in the league championship series, but Washington tried to steal twice and was thrown out both times. In the World Series, Dodgers reliever Mike Marshall picked off Washington, who was representing the tying run in the ninth inning. The Dodgers won that game, but the A’s won the series.
In 2002, the Angels deployed rookie Chone Figgins as their designated runner. Figgins played a critical role in the Angels’ miracle comeback in Game 6 of the World Series, racing from first base to third on a single to left field, then scoring the tying run.
The Kansas City Royals last year used outfielder Terrance Gore, who played in six postseason games. The Royals won them all.
In 2013, the Tampa Bay Rays — then run by Andrew Friedman, now the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations — played outfielder Freddy Guzman in one September game. Guzman ran for Matt Joyce, stole second base and scored the tying run in the 11th inning. The Rays won in 12 innings, and they won a wild-card playoff spot by one game.
It is by no means certain that the Dodgers will call up Drexler or Garvey when rosters expand in September. When they opened speed camp in June, they did not have a Figgins or a Gore in the upper levels of their organization. They do have a player like that now.
Jose Peraza, acquired from the Atlanta Braves in last month’s three-team, 13-player trade, can run. He also can hit, and play second base, shortstop and center field. The Dodgers might prefer to save a roster spot for him.
That spot could give the Dodgers a weapon they have not used very often, or very well, this season. The Dodgers rank last in the major leagues in stolen bases, and they have been caught stealing as many times as they have stolen successfully.
Although the Dodgers’ new front office flashes smarts, not just a credit card with a $300-million tab, Kapler said there is nothing genius in the concept behind speed camp.
“You can’t make anybody that fast,” Kapler said. “It’s Player Development 101: let’s develop the one skill that somebody does really well. Maybe there is a way we can use that skill.”
If Drexler plays in the World Series this year and in rookie ball next year, that would be a win-win situation.
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