If you are age 35 or younger, you haven't been alive for the biggest thing ever to hit baseball. Once upon a time, if they didn’t outright own the World Series, the Yankees and the Dodgers at least held a timeshare in it. From 1941 through '81, they played each other in 11 of the 41 World Series, including seven times when they were both residents of New York City. You never had to wait any longer than 14 years to see the Yankees and Dodgers go at it.
Celebrities and stars filled the ballparks. America stopped what it was doing to pay attention. The television ratings went through the roof. There has never been a World Series with a larger television audience than when the Yankees and the Dodgers met in 1978, when 44.2 million people tuned in.
We still are a long way from October. But if you believe the trade deadline influences which teams will win the pennant, the chance of a Yankees-Dodgers World Series—it is the biggest spectacle possible in baseball now that the Cubs ended their 108-year title drought last fall—became a lot more likely. That’s because New York and Los Angeles were the biggest winners on Deadline Day.
The Yankees addressed their one obvious flaw—starting pitching—by getting Sonny Gray from the Oakland Athletics. They did so not only without upsetting their 25-man roster, but also by retaining their top prospects and yielding two players with major injuries, outfielder Dustin Fowler (knee) and pitcher James Kaprielian (elbow) and infielder/outfielder Jorge Mateo.
Gray has some red flags, including an injury history, a late load to his delivery that stresses his shoulder and arm, and, at 5'10", a lack of height. Only two righthanded pitchers that short in the past 30 years have taken full turns in a rotation at those ages: Tom Gordon and Steve Stone. Gray's workload must be managed closely. On the other hand he is still just 27 years old, he finished third in the AL Cy Young voting just two years ago and he is under control for the Yankees for the next two seasons at ages 28 and 29. He has also been lights out lately (a 1.37 ERA in his past six starts) and has the stuff to last three times around a batting order in a postseason game.
Behind him is a bullpen that features four of the top 18 reliever strikeout rates in baseball: Dellin Betances, Tommy Kahnle, Aroldis Chapman and Dave Robertson; all but Betances have been acquired or re-acquired in the past eight months. There's a case to be made that with the trades of Chapman (who was re-signed in the off-season) and Andrew Miller last year, and the addition of Gray this year (as well as Kahnle, Robertson and Todd Frazier in a deal with the White Sox earlier this month), Yankees GM Brian Cashman won back-to-back deadlines.
In Los Angeles, president Andrew Friedman can make his own claim as this year’s winner. To a team that is on pace to win 114 games he added the best starting pitcher available, four-time All-Star Yu Darvish, and two lefthanded power arms, Tony Cingrani and Tony Watson.
The Dodgers, despite playing like the 1998 Yankees and boat-racing the field this year, were vulnerable in the postseason because they simply could not win starting pitching matchups against the Cubs or the Nationals, even if Clayton Kershaw returns from his back injury and pitches like the ace that he is. Now they can line up Kershaw, Darvish and either Alex Wood or Rich Hill—one of them can be used as a fourth starter, avoiding their oft-repeated fatal mistake of using Kershaw on short rest in October—and not be disadvantaged against Chicago or Washington.
Think about a New York-Los Angeles World Series. Kershaw, the greatest pitcher of this generation, would be appearing in his first Fall Classic. Darvish, an international superstar from his days in his native Japan, would bring a global audience. Young superstars Corey Seager and Aaron Judge (Judge is two years and one day older than Seager) on the World Series stage for the first time. Cody Bellinger playing at Yankee Stadium, where his dad, Clay, won two World Series championships with the Yankees. And maybe the two biggest deadline day acquistions, Darvish and Gray, matching up in Game 2 at Dodger Stadium, which has waited 29 years to host a World Series game.
No, there are no guarantees. For all we know the Dodgers could be the 2001 Mariners, and pile up a record number wins only to fall through one of the trap doors that are infamous in October. The Yankees could lose the AL East race to Boston and fail to survive the wild-card game for the second time in three years. They haven’t won a postseason game since 2012, so it’s not exactly a battle-tested team.
But for one day, one of the most important days of the baseball calendar, the Dodgers and the Yankees each moved closer to the World Series, and as big a show as baseball could possible get.
Here are the other biggest takeaways from Deadline Day:
1. The home run has changed baseball, Part I
Nobody needs position players. A year after Jay Bruce, Carlos Beltran, Jonathan Lucroy, Josh Reddick, Brandon Guyer and Steve Pearce were dealt, on Monday we got . . . Adam Rosales (A's to Diamondbacks) and Tim Beckham (Rays to Orioles)? The market for hitters has absolutely cratered. You saw it on the free agent market last winter (Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, et al). Offense is easy to find. Why? More runs are produced via home runs than ever before in the game’s history. More players are hitting home runs, so teams can feel good about their offensive potential because it means relying on quick strikes once in a while rather than sustained rallies.
2. The Home Run has changed baseball, Part II
The way to defend the home run is to keep bringing swing-and-miss pitchers into the game. Deadline Day looked like just another game in 2017: a parade of relief pitchers with strikeout stuff. This is the first year in history in which relievers average one strikeout per inning. So it's no surprise that relief pitchers with high strikeout rates were in demand. After Sean Doolittle (12.6 per nine), Robertson (12.6), Justin Wilson (12.3), AJ Ramos (10.4) and Pat Neshek (10.1) had already been dealt, Deadline Day saw teams scoop up Joe Smith (12.9), Tony Cingrani (9.3), David Hernandez (9.2), Addison Reed (8.8), Francisco Liriano (8.1), Tony Watson (6.8), Jeremy Jeffress (6.1) and Brad Kintzler (5.4).
It’s just another reason why baseball is losing star power. The big-time, marquee starting pitchers yield too often to faceless, fungible, hard-throwing relievers.
3. Houston whiffed
The Astros needed a starting pitcher and a matchup lefty reliever. They didn’t get a starter and they didn’t get Wilson, Watson, Cingrani or Zack Britton, but settled for Liriano, who has pitched in 303 regular season games and started 274 of them. Now Houston must hope that ace Dallas Keuchel can fully recover from his neck injury and that Lance McCullers is merely going through a slump this month and not hitting a wall.
4. Oakland president Billy Beane took another huge risk
He traded the most valuable asset in baseball—a young, controllable starting pitcher with strikeout stuff—and got back two broken bodies from the Yankees. Now, let’s wait to see how this plays out. New York did promote Fowler before Clint Frazier, and Fowler had been tearing up Triple A. Maybe he will recover just fine from the knee injury he suffered in the first inning of his first major league game. And Kaprielian, who hasn't pitched above Single A, could yet turn into a reliable mid-rotation starter. But in each case it’s a big bet by Beane, who also must answer for trading Addison Russell, Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes in recent years.
5. Rangers GM Jon Daniels is a realist
With his team only 5 ½ games out of a wild card spot, Daniels did the right self-evaluation of his club and did not see a playoff caliber team. Out went Darvish, reliever Jeffress and catcher Jonathan Lucroy, the latter two of whom had been acquired at last year's deadline and helped Texas win the AL West. That is indicative of a less-than-wild wild-card race this season, as only two AL clubs (the Rays and Mariners) and none in the NL are within five games of the wild-card leaders in each league.