If you’re a Los Angeles Dodgers fan—Hell, if you’re a baseball fan, or a sports fan, or even a ceiling fan—the last 24 hours have been bedlam. When Jon Lester agreed to sign with the Chicago Cubs, he released a dam of nearly-finished player moves that had been waiting, all conditional upon Lester’s landing spot, all ready to spill forth in a rush. A half-dozen teams made at least one move Wednesday, but the Dodgers made what feels like a half-dozen. Quickly, now:
- They traded incumbent second baseman Dee Gordon, veteran starting pitcher Dan Haren and backup infielder Miguel Rojas to the Miami Marlins, receiving top pitching prospect Andrew Heaney, relief arm Chris Hatcher, versatile positional prospect Austin Barnes and utility man Kike Hernandez in return.
- They flipped Heaney to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, for long-time Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick.
- They agreed to a four-year deal with free-agent starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy.
- They agreed to a deal to bring Jimmy Rollins to L.A. as the starting shortstop, although that move has yet to be finalized and the players they will send to the Philadelphia Phillies have yet to be identified. And…
- They agreed to a deal sending Matt Kemp to the San Diego Padres, for catcher Yasmani Grandal and either one or two young pitchers. The deal will also involve the Dodgers coughing up 30 percent of the remaining money owed on Kemp’s contract, and replacing Grandal on the Padres’ roster by sending along catcher Tim Fedorowicz.
That’s a huge series of moves, and some of them will need to be unpacked more on an individual level, but let’s take a broad-strokes look at it and try to make sense of the madness. First of all, the Gordon, Kendrick and Rollins deals: These all fit a clear objective. Despite the presence of Alexander Guerrero, Corey Seager and Arisbel Arruebarruena in their farm system, the Dodgers had a fairly thin-looking middle-infield depth chart for the 2015 season, prior to these moves. Gordon is a poor defender with poor on-base skills, and while he has exceptional speed, he’s found out the hard way that he can’t steal first base. Hanley Ramirez left the Dodgers for Boston after the season, and even before he did, he was a miserable defensive shortstop. He’ll slide five rungs down the defensive spectrum and play left field for the Red Sox this year. Rollins is no longer an offensive force to match Ramirez, but he’s miles better with the leather. Kendrick, for his part, is better than Gordon in both major phases of the game. The Dodgers picked up 20 or 25 runs of defensive value by reshaping their middle infield, and the offensive value balances out—Kendrick is better than Gordon by roughly the same amount as that by which Ramirez is better than Rollins.
Of course, their improvement is actually larger than that, in a sense, because Ramirez was already gone. The Dodgers absolutely had to add a shortstop, so Rollins’ total value, not just his marginal value, should be used to figure out what was gained through this series of maneuvers. Still, it’s hard to tell how much, exactly, the Dodgers have paid for this upgrade. Without knowing the specific return for Rollins, there’s no way to do so.
What we can say, for now, is that the Los Angeles front office did nimble work to make the upgrade at second base. In essence, they used the Marlins. The Angels needed to add to their starting-pitching depth, so to get their hands on Kendrick, the Dodgers set out to find a pitcher the Angels would take. As was noted after the trade came down, the Angels tried to acquire Heaney from the Marlins earlier this year. Knowing that was a player Angels GM Jerry Dipoto coveted, then, Dodgers President Andrew Friedman and GM Farhan Zaidi made the best trade they could in order to acquire Heaney—helpfully, getting rid of Gordon in the process, cutting a clear path for Kendrick to the second-base job. The greatest genius of the move might be that they even came out ahead, receiving extra pieces in addition to Heaney, rather than paying a transaction cost for the wheeling and dealing. This is the benefit of trading with the Marlins.
McCarthy is an unsurprising, solid addition. Haren’s departure left two holes in the team’s starting rotation, and although their top three are so strong that the team could have survived without major additions, a team as rich as the Dodgers never needs to settle. McCarthy had a strong relationship with Zaidi when both were in Oakland, so coming off his career year, it was Zaidi to whom McCarthy came to make his fortune.
What do the Dodgers see in McCarthy? For one thing, he reached 200 innings pitched in 2014, the first time he’s done so in his entire career, and really, just the second healthy season on his record. McCarthy has nearly always been good when he’s been on the mound, and as he begins to show signs of durability, his value curves sharply upward.
Here’s another thing:
|1st PA in G, as SP||161||32||2||6||44||7.33||.209||.244||.275||.518||.280||42||53|
|2nd PA in G, as SP||161||55||6||9||27||3.00||.372||.406||.581||.987||.419||164||177|
|3rd PA in G, as SP||136||40||7||4||20||5.00||.305||.324||.542||.866||.314||129||128|
|4th+ PA in G, as SP||8||4||0||1||2||2.00||.571||.625||1.000||1.625||.800||331||358|
Those are his statistics split by times facing batters within a game, during his time with the Arizona Diamondbacks at the beginning of this season. As you can see, McCarthy really struggled as the game went on, and in particular, had a tough time once he turned over the lineup card. Part of that was bad luck, but part of it was real, too. Batters squared up McCarthy a lot once they started getting second and third looks at him during games.
Now, check this out:
|1st PA in G, as SP||126||28||2||7||28||4.00||.237||.286||.322||.608||.295||66||80|
|2nd PA in G, as SP||126||29||2||4||26||6.50||.238||.262||.344||.606||.287||63||71|
|3rd PA in G, as SP||108||32||6||2||26||13.00||.308||.318||.558||.875||.356||131||130|
|4th+ PA in G, as SP||10||2||0||0||2||.200||.200||.200||.400||.250||10||16|
This is the same table, the same breakout, but for McCarthy’s starts with the Yankees after being traded in July. Clearly, he fixed some things. In fact, McCarthy himself said that the Diamondbacks were limiting him, restricting his repertoire. He used his cutter more after being traded to the Yankees, and it appears to have helped in this specific facet, one in which he struggled in Arizona. If the Dodgers think using his full arsenal will lead to sustainable success, they made a wise bet by locking him up. The four-year commitment and $48-million total outlay is more than I would have projected, but the Dodgers have no reason to worry about money. For precisely the reasons for which average or better starters see their prices inflated in the free-agent marketplace, the Dodgers had every reason to pay whatever it took to land McCarthy.
I want to unpack that last sentence for a moment, because it’s an interesting, often-overlooked point. Starting pitchers will always have more suitors than position players, when they hit free agency, and that will always drive up the price of their services. The reason is simple. There are five starting pitching slots for each team to fill. Even the best teams in baseball nearly always have at least one below-average pitcher at the back of their rotation. Most teams have someone who’s barely replacement-level. Therefore, a free-agent starter can offer himself as an upgrade for nearly any team, and he will simply end up with whichever team values his separation from their worst guy the most. A catcher has to find a team in need of an upgrade at catcher. A shortstop might be able to move off the position to make a fit happen, but that also lowers his value. Most importantly, most good teams have good players at most spots on the diamond. The benefit of adding an average starting arm to a good rotation just outruns the benefit of adding an average position player to a good lineup, every time. McCarthy makes the Dodgers’ rotation one of baseball’s very best.
That leaves the Matt Kemp-for-Yasmani Grandal trade. What a deal for the Dodgers. One by one, Friedman and Zaidi filled the holes they might have once needed to use their outfield surplus to address, and lo and behold, they did so without drawing upon their outfield surplus. That left them in position to complete the long-rumored deal of Kemp for Grandal. That Friedman pounced on that opportunity should surprise no one. Remember, Friedman is the one who used catcher-framing statistics to identify Jose Molina as a valuable, starting-caliber big-league catcher. Grandal, like Molina, is a receiver who can add as many as a dozen runs per year by stealing and saving strikes on the edges of the strike zone. Unlike Molina, though, Grandal is a young, switch-hitting player with serious offensive upside. He’s the kind of player the Tampa Bay Rays could never have afforded, at least not for long. The Dodgers have so little trouble affording him that they paid $30 million and change as part of acquiring him.
Kemp is a great hitter. However, like Grandal, he has injury issues, and unlike Grandal, he’s an atrocious defensive player without even the ability to play an ostensibly valuable position. A near-elite bat is a hard thing to find, especially these days, but Kemp is the least valuable possible version of that commodity. He’ll be playing first base halfway between now and the end of his contract, and that will both ossify the Padres’ roster and put pressure on his bat to age well. I don’t want to understate the risk with Grandal, who has really struggled to stay on the field and who was suspended for use of a banned substance earlier in his career, but the Padres could have dealt him for talent with higher upside and less risk, even after accounting for the discount the Dodgers are giving them on Kemp.
Grandal will take the place of A.J. Ellis, who (despite being a savvy, stat-friendly, well-liked person, one the statistical community would usually adore) is a terrible pitch-framer, and a rapidly devolving hitter. Presumably, Ellis becomes the team’s back-up backstop, and he has value in that role. In all, this deal improves the Dodgers by some 30 runs at catcher, and (remember, Kemp’s defense eats away a lot of the value his bat delivers) probably costs them no more than 10 runs in the outfield.
We’re talking about a six- or seven-win upgrade, in a single day. The Dodgers have done that without trading a single elite prospect (well, their own elite prospect, anyway), and though the monetary cost is astronomical, that doesn’t matter for them. This is the most dangerous team in the National League, at all times. They’re not the strongest team in the league, at least not yet, but they’re dangerous, because there is no move they can’t make. One more high-impact bat might make them the National League pennant favorites, and there are several open avenues to making that addition. As I wrote on Twitter when the Gordon-for-Heaney deal began the waterfall of Dodger activity: This is why you pay smart people a lot of money to run your team, and why you acquire as many of them as you can. Of course, it helps to have the money to throw at them, in the first place.Next post: Dodgers Leave Fan Base Dazed And Enthused
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