And then, with minutes to spare ahead of the MLB nonwaiver trade deadline, the Dodgers got even better and deeper, making a blockbuster trade for Texas Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish, arguably the top starting pitcher available on the trade market, in exchange for three minor leaguers. It was a bold move for a team all but assured of heading into October with the NL’s best record.
And it underscored one reality: if the Dodgers weren’t already the team to beat in the 2017 postseason, they are now.
“I think it will definitely be an emotional boost for the team,” Dodgers General Manager Farhan Zaidi told reporters, “although it’s hard to say they need it.”
The 30-year-old Darvish, a four-time all-star and the 2013 American League Cy Young runner-up, was one of two top starting pitchers to change teams Monday, the deadline for teams to make unrestricted trades. The New York Yankees, having surged past Boston in the AL East, landed right-hander Sonny Gray from the Oakland A’s in exchange for three top prospects. The Yankees’ cost in prospects for Gray exceeded in quality what the Dodgers gave up for Darvish because Gray, 27, is under club control through 2019 while Darvish, as a pending free agent, is a strict rental.
Most of the other deals that came down Monday involved contenders bolstering their bullpens, with the Washington Nationals (Minnesota’s Brandon Kintzler), Chicago Cubs (Detroit’s Justin Wilson), Cleveland Indians (Toronto’s Joe Smith), Milwaukee Brewers (Texas’s Jeremy Jeffress), Arizona Diamondbacks (Anaheim’s David Hernandez), Houston Astros (Toronto’s Francisco Liriano) and Boston Red Sox (the Mets’ Addison Reed) all landing significant bullpen arms ahead of the deadline. Though none are expected to be pure closers for their new teams, all will provide additional late-inning options as October approaches.
The Dodgers, too, made a pair of separate trades for relievers, acquiring lefties Tony Watson from Pittsburgh and Tony Cingriani from Cincinnati. All told, between Darvish and the two relievers, the Dodgers parted with six younger players, including infielder Willie Calhoun, the organization’s third-rated prospect in Baseball America’s midseason rankings. The Dodgers did, however, manage to hold onto their two best prospects, pitcher Walker Buehler and outfielder Alex Verdugo.
Although the Dodgers had shown interest in Darvish all summer, they might not have been motivated to meet the Rangers’ steep price were it not for the back injury suffered two weeks ago by ace Clayton Kershaw, which interrupted another Cy Young-caliber season by the star left-hander and is expected to keep him out for at least another month and possibly longer.
With Kershaw’s status uncertain, the Dodgers saw Darvish as somewhere between a luxury and a necessity. In a best-case scenario, with Kershaw healthy for the postseason, Darvish could be their Game 2 starter, ahead of Rich Hill and Alex Wood, and in a worst-case scenario — meaning Kershaw doesn’t make it back to full health — he could serve as a capable replacement to start Game 1. Hill was a trade-deadline acquisition by the Dodgers in 2016, Wood in 2015.
The Yankees’ trade for Gray, meantime, was the second major trade pulled off by General Manager Brian Cashman this month, following the one two weeks ago that brought infielder Todd Frazier and relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle — as the Yankees, following a 12-month “transitional” period of shedding payroll and cultivating youth, have shifted back into go-for-it mode. Since the all-star break, the Yankees are 11-6 and have gone from 3½ games behind the Red Sox to a half-game ahead, entering Monday.
“Brian has turned them into the Golden State Warriors,” Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski said of the Yankees, playfully turning around a comment Cashman had made about the Red Sox during December’s winter meetings.
It was a year ago that the Yankees turned uber-relievers Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman into a haul of top prospects at the trade deadline, simultaneously transforming their own sagging farm system and handing the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs, respectively, a pair of bullpen arms that those teams rode all the way to the World Series. More than ever, teams had begun to view a bullpen full of overpowering arms as the ultimate card to play in October.
Though there wasn’t anyone as uniquely dominant as Miller or Chapman available for acquisition this deadline, top contenders did the next best thing, hoarding lockdown arms in quantity, if not necessarily in quality. The Nationals, for example, were the contender most in need of bullpen help, and they wound up with three excellent, late-inning options in Kintzler, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson, the latter two acquired from Oakland two weeks ago.
Arguably the two most coveted relievers on the trade market, Baltimore Orioles lefty Zach Britton and San Diego Padres lefty Brad Hand, both wound up staying put, with no team stepping up to meet the outsize demands their teams were asking for. The Orioles, in fact, not only held on to all their potential trade pieces this month, they also added pieces in back-end starter Jeremy Hellickson (Phillies) and shortstop Tim Beckham (Rays) — curious moves for a team that entered Monday’s play 5½ games out of a playoff spot.
“There was a steep price paid for the relievers that were traded last year, and that really wasn’t the market this year,” Orioles GM Dan Duquette said, explaining his lack of dealmaking. “ … There was interest in a lot of our players. [But] I still like this team. I like this team for this year. I like this team for next year.”
The Houston Astros, who hold the AL’s best record but whose pitching staff is beset by injuries and other question marks — with all-star pitcher Lance McCullers going back on the disabled list on Monday — were thought to be the biggest suitor for Britton, but somewhat curiously, emerged from Monday’s deadline with only Liriano to show for their efforts. Liriano, a 33-year-old lefty, has been exclusively a starter in Toronto this season, but could become a hybrid, multi-inning bullpen weapon for the Astros in October.
In a regular season strangely devoid of pennant-race drama — the Dodgers, Nationals and Astros all have commanding division leads, the Cubs are beginning to pull away in the NL Central, and the Diamondbacks and Rockies are comfortably ahead in the NL wild-card race — this year’s trade deadline was largely about the likeliest playoff teams positioning themselves for October.
There is no likelier playoff team, of course, than the mighty Dodgers, and after Monday, there is no one better positioned for October, either.