LA Dodgers Providing Quality Players to Tulsa Drillers
WILL SMITH: Will Smith is one of the Drillers’ top players this season and projects to be in Los Angeles with the Dodgers in the next couple of years.
After 42 seasons in the Texas League, the Tulsa Drillers are finally reaching their Golden Age. They can say thank you to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
With three trips to the playoffs since becoming the Dodgers’ AA farm team in 2015, Tulsa is winning consistently on and off the field, and the trend is expected to continue.
”The Dodgers are an iconic brand to associate our city with. All their pennants and World Series success attribute to us in national exposure,’’ says Drillers General Manager Mike Melega. “The Dodgers have a large fan base and Tulsa fans can see our players on national television.
“We loved the Rockies too, but they didn’t have the national exposure the Dodgers get. They’ve won the National League West each year we’ve been affiliated with them and Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager were in the World Series last season.’’
The marriage between the Drillers and Dodgers has been a study in how the right romance can blossom into baseball bliss. After switching mascots from the Oilers to Drillers in 1977, Tulsa spent 26 seasons with the Texas Rangers and 12 more with the Colorado Rockies. Neither relationship produced the joy experienced with Los Angeles.
“One of the greatest things that ever happened to me came when the Rockies made the World Series in 2007. It added credibility to our relationship,’’ Melega says. “The Rangers are not a perennial contender and never made the World Series in the 26 seasons we were with them. The Dodgers have been in the playoffs all three years we’ve been affiliated.’’
So far it’s true the Drillers have benefitted more from their short-term association with LA than with the Rangers or Rockies. Tulsa has worked the ancient major-minor league structure to the hilt. The original idea was for “farm teams’’ to provide players to the majors. Prospects who needed work were sent down and players who excelled were called up. However, the plan worked best for the minor teams according to the quality of players signed by the big league club.
Today, the majors and minors have a system in place where every year there is a two-week post-season window allowing teams to change affiliations. The Drillers used it to their advantage four years ago.
“You can sign a two-year or four-year contract. You can extend it or let it play out,’’ says Melega. “At the end of the 2014 season, when our contract with the Rockies played out, we interviewed with the Diamondbacks, Twins and Dodgers. Sometimes teams change affiliation two or three times in 10 years.
“In 2014, we had built a new stadium and the Dodgers had more talent (than the Rockies). The Dodgers had the No. 1 organization in baseball in 2015 and have been in the top three ever since.’’
Los Angeles bought Oklahoma City’s International League team in 2015, creating a comfortable geographic area for players to move up or down from Tulsa. Melega calls the Drillers’ merger with the Dodgers a win-win situation.
“We’re selling the fan experience and fans know they will have a good time, win or lose,’’ Melaga says. “It’s about the family and food and fireworks. We don’t control the play on the field, but when we win it helps business.
“Fans are excited to see our guys move up and they love getting autographs. It’s like a TV show where roster moves change the storyline and create plot twists.’’
A couple of big moments in the show came when Seager was named the Major League Rookie of the Year in 2016 and Bellinger repeated last season. Caleb Ferguson, Daniel Corcino and Dennis Santana, Tulsa’s top three opening day pitchers, were called up this season.
“We’re doing our part,’’ says Melega “The Dodgers have a deep farm system and we’re fortunate to have stability. We’re planning on staying with the Dodgers.”