Same goal, same position of need, different outcome: So it went for the Yankees and Dodgers on the day of the trade deadline, as both teams landed an ace-level starting pitcher on Monday afternoon. For New York, the prize is Sonny Gray; for Los Angeles, it’s Yu Darvish. Both pitchers cost a good package of prospects; both make each team a stronger World Series contender; both will likely make a huge impact. But both also represent a differing calculus for each franchise—recognition not only of where they are in their respective postseason races, but also what they need most to make those championship dreams come true.
Start with the Yankees, where Gray will join a rotation that has been fitfully functional. Luis Severino has broken out in his age-23 season: An All-Star for the first time, the righthander has posted a 3.03 ERA, 152 ERA+, 10.2 strikeouts per nine and 4.0 Wins Above Replacement—all tops among New York’s starters. Things are shakier after that, though. Ostensible ace Masahiro Tanaka has been a confusing mess, with a 5.09 ERA and 27 home runs allowed in 123 2/3 innings. CC Sabathia has been excellent, with a 126 ERA+ in 93 1/3 innings, but across 17 starts, that’s just 5.5 frames per turn, and the 36-year-old southpaw has struggled to stay healthy. Rookie lefty Jordan Montgomery has turned in a 111 ERA+ in 110 2/3 innings, but that leaves him just 29 innings shy of his career high. And Michael Pineda was laid low by Tommy John surgery, leaving the fifth spot to the not-ready-for-primetime likes of Luis Cessa, Caleb Smith and other minor league filler.
Gray, then, is here to provide some needed stability. But he won’t be asked to be a Max Scherzer or a Clayton Kershaw, delivering seven brilliant innings per turn like clockwork. No one in New York needs to be that: The Yankees’ deep bullpen is there to absorb the late innings with fresh arms and triple-digit fastballs. All Gray needs to do is be better than Cessa and Smith, and ideally help provide a blow for Montgomery and potentially Severino as they get later into the season (a job that could also fall to fellow deadline acquisition Jaime Garcia, picked up on Sunday from the Twins). Gray’s value lies in being able to eat up the innings that otherwise would have gone to rookies and Triple A chum, or that would have been squeezed out of the arms of Montgomery, Severino and Sabathia.
That’s not the case for the Dodgers, who don’t need Darvish to soak up innings in their rotation. Even with Clayton Kershaw sidelined by a back injury, Los Angeles still has a veritable army of starters: Alex Wood, Rich Hill, Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-jin Ryu, Kenta Maeda and Brock Stewart are already present. While Darvish is better than any one in that sextet, Los Angeles didn’t get him because they needed someone displaced. After all, does it matter how well McCarthy or Ryu or Maeda pitch when you have a 14-game division lead and the best record in baseball? The Dodgers have plenty of rope: They will win the National League West running away, and they would have done it with or without Darvish.
That’s where the impact and calculus changes for each club. The Yankees don’t have the leeway the Dodgers do: Like Los Angeles, New York is in first, but only by a slim margin (a mere half game going into Monday night’s action) over the Red Sox, who are slumping but are no flash in the pan. Behind Boston lurks Tampa Bay, fading slightly but still armed with a dangerous offense and a verified ace in Chris Archer. Should the Yankees falter in the AL East, they’ll find the sledding no easier in the wild-card race, where you can add the red-hot Royals and the Mariners (and, for now, the upstart Twins) to the list of teams fighting for position.
The Yankees need all the help they can get over the rest of the regular season, and they got Gray to help them gain every last advantage, rotation-wise, from here until Oct. 2. The innings he takes otherwise would have gone to Cessa or a tired Montgomery or Sabathia, and in a tight AL playoff race, that upgrade is potentially the difference between making the postseason and staying at home. But while Darvish also could have done that for New York, Gray’s contract status—he’s under team control for another two seasons on the cheap—made him the most sensible play for the Yankees. Should their postseason bid falter, they at least can count on having him for another two years, helping them paper over whatever rotation holes may crop up between now and then and fitting in perfectly with a young core that’s built to win now and later.
The Dodgers are also engineered for the present and the future, but they have never been in a better position to go for it now. The division is already theirs; the NL is ripe for the taking. If Kershaw comes back healthy, Los Angeles is the odds-on favorite to win the World Series. Darvish’s biggest impact, then, won’t be over these next two months, which won’t make a difference to the Dodgers, but in October, when he’ll help turn a playoff rotation from “Kershaw and the Question Marks” to a truly frightening conundrum for opposing teams.
Last year, manager Dave Roberts had to stretch Kershaw to his absolute limit in the postseason, forcing him to make two starts on three days’ rest (with a heroic relief appearance in between) just to get the Dodgers to within two wins of the World Series. Roberts had no one else in his rotation he could trust—not Hill, who managed just 13 innings across three starts, nor Maeda, who was clobbered in his two postseason turns, nor rookie Julio Urias. Darvish does away with that problem: He has likely already been penciled in for the start in Game 2 of the NLDS, and he will give the Dodgers a safety net should they face elimination with Kershaw unavailable or once again operating on three days’ rest.
Darvish also relieves the pressure on the Dodgers’ bullpen, which worked an endless number of high-stress innings last October because of the rotation’s inability to go deep into games. He gives Roberts another starter who can get through a lineup three times if needed—a crucial element to preserve the bullpen. And with Darvish in place, Roberts is free to mix and match with his less durable starters either across Games 3 and 4 or in relief; he can piggyback Hill and Wood, or Ryu and Maeda, or McCarthy and Ross Stripling. If everyone stays healthy (always a big if in Hollywood), the Dodgers will have postseason pitching depth like never before.
A free agent this off-season, Darvish is a go-for-it-now move, but that’s exactly what Los Angeles needed. The Dodgers have never been in better position to win a World Series and end the franchise’s 29-year title drought. They had to maximize their chances to survive the game of chance that is the postseason. Darvish does that; the impact—and success—of this trade will only be known once the Dodgers either go home empty-handed or hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy.
So while both the Yankees and Dodgers made big deadline additions, one will be asked to shoulder a two-month load to help his new team get to October, and the other will be tasked with being the difference-maker once that month arrives. The goal for New York and Los Angeles is the same, but the rotation pieces acquired along the way reflect the different paths that both teams have before them, as well as the obstacles along the way.