With a 14-game lead over the Diamondbacks in the NL West, an 11-game advantage over the Nationals for the league's best record, and an eight-game winning streak at the time, the Dodgers didn't need to make a blockbuster move at the July 31 trade deadline. But in a year where so few difference-makers changed hands, they nonetheless went out and traded three prospects—hardly their three best—for Yu Darvish, who will debut for the Dodgers against the Mets at Citi Field on Friday night.
The Rangers approached the deadline reluctant to deal the 30-year-old righty, who had been the staff ace since arriving from Japan in 2012. But as they struggled to keep their record above .500 and realized how far apart they were likely to be in negotiations once he reached free agency this fall (Stephen Strasburg’s seven-year, $175 million contract is reportedly the comparison), a trade became inevitable. With just minutes to go before the deadline, they bit the bullet and dealt Darvish to the Dodgers for Triple-A second baseman/outfielder Willie Calhoun, the team's fourth-rated prospect, and a pair of 19-year-old lottery tickets, 6' 4" right A.J. Alexy (an 11th-round 2016 pick) and shortstop Brendan Davis (a fifth-round 2015 pick). Dodger president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman had deemed outfielder Alex Verdugo and pitchers Walker Buehler and Yadier Alvarez, by consensus their top three prospects, untouchable in trade talks.
Since taking over the Dodgers in October 2014, Freidman and general manager Farhan Zaidi have been accused of not doing enough at the July 31st deadline to boost the team's chances in October. The Dodgers are en route to their fifth straight NL West title, and their ninth postseason appearance in the last 14 seasons, but they haven't even been to the World Series since winning in 1988. On Friedman's watch, they made a complicated three-way deal on July 30, 2015, acquiring seven players from the Braves and Marlins, most notably Alex Wood, Mat Latos and Jim Johnson, but none of them did much to help the team that year. Wood pitched to a 4.35 ERA in 12 starts, Latos was released after getting shelled in six appearances, and Johnson was lit for a 10.13 ERA. Despite strong performances by the Clayton Kershaw-Zack Greinke tandem, the Dodgers lost a five-game Division Series to the Mets by one run and were left to wonder what might have been had they made a bigger move.
Friedman and Zaidi were more aggressive at last year's deadline, adding outfielder Josh Reddick, starter Rich Hill and relievers Josh Fields and Jesse Chavez. Hill was the best starter traded at the deadline, but his impact was muted by a persistent blister problem that limited him to six regular season starts after being acquired. He was shaky in his first two postseason turns, but shut the Cubs out for six innings in Game 3 of the NLCS. Though lined up for Game 7, he never got to pitch as the Cubs broke through to beat Kershaw in Game 6.
At the very least, the Darvish move screams "BLOCKBUSTER" in comparison to the acquisitions of Wood or Hill. There's a psychological aspect to it with Kershaw’s back strain relegating him to the disabled list, his second consecutive summer of being sidelined while questing for a fourth Cy Young award. Last year, Kershaw missed two-and-a-half-months while dealing with a herniated disc. This injury is less severe, and early signs—his playing catch three straight days, and now pushing to throw off a mound again—point to him returning on the near end of his expected four-to-six week absence. That would bring him back in the second half of August, perhaps following a rehab start, a luxury he was not afforded last year. The unspoken notion is that in a Kershaw-free playoff rotation, Darvish gives the Dodgers another frontline pitcher ahead of Wood, Hill, and either Kenta Maeda, Hyun-jin Ryu or Brandon McCarthy. And assuming Kershaw returns, Darvish is expected to be the next Greinke, a pitcher who on a given night can deliver every bit as dominant a performance as the ace lefty.
Still, it's not at all clear that Darivsh is the better pitcher than Wood and Hill (whom they re-signed as a free agent this past winter) in 2017. Wood made the NL All-Star team this year, and would rank third in the league in ERA (2.34) and seventh in strikeouts per nine (9.7) if he had 3 2/3 more innings under his belt; as it is, he's tied for second behind Kershaw in wins (13) thanks to the Dodgers' booming offense. Hill, after a slow start and further blister problems that limited him to two starts before May 16, has rounded into form with a 3.35 ERA and 10.4 strikeouts per nine.
Darvish, by comparison, arrives carrying career worsts in ERA (4.01) and strikeouts per nine (9.7, his first time below 10). Some context is in order; the Rangers play in a much more hitter-friendly ballpark, so his 115 ERA+ is better than, say, the 110 of his countryman and new teammate Kenta Maeda, off a 3.79 ERA. Plus that strikeout rate comes from the DH league; Darvish has whiffed 10.9 per nine in his four interleague starts.
The perception of Darvish's season is distorted somewhat by his Rangers swan song. After striking out a season-high 12 and netting a career-best 30 swings and misses in a brilliant, sharp outing against the Rays on July 21, he was battered for nine hits and 10 runs in 3 2/3 innings by the Marlins five days later; the outing pushed his ERA from 3.44 to 4.01 while raising his home run rate to a career-worst 1.3 per nine.
In addition to moving to a more pitcher-friendly ballpark in the non-DH league, Darvish has a few other things going for him with his change of address. The Dodgers' offense is more potent (5.07 runs per game to Texas' 4.93), their defense more stifling (.705 defensive efficiency to Texas' .694), and their bullpen more reliable (2.96 ERA vs. Texas' 4.43) even before adding lefties Tony Cingrani and Tony Watson at the deadline.
All of that should help, but perhaps the biggest difference with the move is behind the plate. According to the metrics at Baseball Prospectus, backstops Yasmani Grandal and Austin Barnes are second and eighth in the majors at stealing strikes, at 14.5 runs and 7.9 runs above average, respectively. The Rangers' Robinson Chironos is a whisker above average (0.1 runs), while Jonathan Lucroy ranks as the majors' worst in that area (-15.5 runs). Given Darvish's propensity for pitching deep into counts in search of strikeouts, he should see a significant gain there.
All of those should further burnish the four-time All-Stars credentials as he approaches free agency in search of a Strasburg-ian contract. Darvish’s third trip to the postseason will give him the chance to redefine himself as a big-game pitcher, supplanting memories of his solid performance in a losing cause in the 2012 AL Wild Card game and a dud in Game 2 of the 2016 Division Series against the Blue Jays.
That’s two months away. For the moment, the Dodgers will continue to chase history. At 76–32, they're on a 114-win pace, which would set a modern NL record. Through Tuesday, they had won 40 of 46 games, becoming just the third team in history to sustain such a hot streak over that span after the 1906 Cubs (42–4) and 1941 Yankees (40–6). They have won 65 of their last 85 games, a 124-win pace. They won’t keep that up, but with the arrival of Darvish, their shot at a title can’t be much more clear.