Sports

The Dodgers Just Had the Biggest Trading Day Ever. Now They Have to Win the NL West.

For four months, the Dodgers, Padres, and Giants have taken turns trading body blows in some of the season’s signature games. In the first week of April, the Padres and Giants played a three-game set so tight that each team totaled seven runs; it took until the 10th inning of the third game for the Giants to plate the 14th and final run and decide the series. The week after that, the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts made an incredible catch against San Diego to turn a game-tying single into a game-ending out. The week after that, the Padres turned the tables and erased a six-run deficit before beating the Dodgers in extras. Just last week, the Dodgers and Giants made history by playing a series in which three games ended with the trailing team scoring three or more runs in the ninth to win. Every contest between two of the three contenders could be the one that the loser looks back on and laments.

But no single squandered lead or comeback is likely to matter as much as what went down on Thursday, when the Dodgers reportedly prevented their division rivals from snagging the best starting pitcher on the trade market by securing his services themselves—and, in the process, acquired the best position player on the trade market too. Hours after The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that the Padres were “close” to acquiring Nationals ace Max Scherzer—and Rosenthal’s colleague Jim Bowden chimed in to describe a deal as “inches away”—the Dodgers dealt for Scherzer and All-Star shortstop Trea Turner. The “blockbuster of blockbusters,” which overshadowed every other move made on a day that was stuffed with wall-to-wall trade activity, represented a significant setback for the Padres and Giants, both of which were rumored to have set their sights on Scherzer. At least for one day, Dodgers exec Andrew Friedman outmaneuvered Padres GM A.J. Preller, master of the jaw-dropping deal. And the supercharged Dodgers may be poised to complete their transition from perennial postseason losers to long-awaited World Series winners to unstoppable playoff villains.

Deadline trades don’t often decide divisions: Two months’ worth of work from one or two players typically isn’t enough to account for the final margin of victory (or defeat) in the end-of-season standings. But by trading for Scherzer, Turner, and Royals southpaw Danny Duffy in one day—technically two, if we go by the official transaction dates—the Dodgers may well have given themselves the boost they needed to finish first in the thrilling NL West race. And regardless of what happens between now and October, the caliber of the players they added in their deadline deals has already made history.

The table below lists the highest totals of combined year-to-date Baseball-Reference WAR ever acquired over a span of two days via midseason trades. Turner (4.1), Scherzer (2.4), and Duffy (2.1) generated 8.6 WAR this season for the Nats and Royals, respectively, which vaults the Dodgers’ two-day haul to the top of the all-time leaderboard. (Although the 1976 Yankees would have barely edged them out if commissioner Bowie Kuhn hadn’t nullified their attempt to purchase Vida Blue’s contract from the fire-selling A’s.)

Most Combined WAR Traded for in Two-Day Midseason Span

Team Date WAR Players Added
Team Date WAR Players Added
Dodgers 7/29-30/2021 8.6 Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Danny Duffy
Blue Jays 7/30-31/2015 7.5 David Price, Ben Revere, Mark Lowe
Athletics 7/29/1999 7.0 Randy Velarde, Omar Olivares
Athletics 8/31/1992 6.4 Jeff Russell, Ruben Sierra, Bobby Witt
Giants 7/31/1997 6.3 Wilson Álvarez, Roberto Hernández, Danny Darwin
Angels 8/31/2017 6.2 Justin Upton, Brandon Phillips
Astros 8/31/2017 6.1 Justin Verlander, Cameron Maybin
Braves 8/28/1996 6.0 Denny Neagle
Reds 5/30/1944 5.9 Fritz Ostermueller, Bill Lohrman
Astros 7/31/2019 5.9 Zack Greinke, Martín Maldonado, Joe Biagini, Aaron Sanchez
Phillies 7/29/2009 5.6 Cliff Lee, Ben Francisco
Rangers 8/1/2016 5.5 Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Beltrán, Jeremy Jeffress
Athletics 8/29/1990 5.4 Willie McGee, Harold Baines
Athletics 7/5/2014 5.2 Jason Hammel, Jeff Samardzija
Rangers 7/31/1998 5.2 Todd Stottlemyre, Todd Zeile, Royce Clayton

To make matters more daunting in the short term for the Dodgers’ foes, L.A. landed Turner, Scherzer, and Duffy without surrendering any players who have produced for them this year. To acquire their three reinforcements, the Dodgers dispatched four prospects plus a player to be named later. Although some of those prospects are highly regarded, only two of them (catcher Keibert Ruiz and pitcher Josiah Gray) played in the majors for the Dodgers this year. They totaled -0.2 WAR, which means that the Dodgers’ net combined WAR added—that is, the year-to-date WAR of the players they acquired minus the year-to-date WAR of the players they sent away—is even higher than their gross combined WAR added. The former figure of 8.8 WAR is also record-setting.

Most Combined Net WAR Traded for in Two-Day Midseason Span

Team Date WAR Players Added Players Lost
Team Date WAR Players Added Players Lost
Dodgers 7/29-30/2021 8.8 Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Danny Duffy Keibert Ruiz, Josiah Gray
Blue Jays 7/30-31/2015 8.0 David Price, Ben Revere, Mark Lowe Daniel Norris, Matthew Boyd, Rob Rasmussen, Félix Doubront
Giants 7/31/1997 7.7 Wilson Álvarez, Roberto Hernández, Danny Darwin Keith Foulke
Athletics 7/29/1999 7.0 Randy Velarde, Omar Olivares
Astros 7/31/2019 6.4 Zack Greinke, Martín Maldonado, Joe Biagini, Aaron Sanchez Tony Kemp, Derek Fisher, Corbin Martin, Max Stassi
Rangers 7/31/1998 6.1 Todd Stottlemyre, Todd Zeile, Royce Clayton Fernando Tatis, Darren Oliver
Astros 8/31/2017 6.1 Justin Verlander, Cameron Maybin
Braves 8/28/1996 6.0 Denny Neagle
Reds 5/30/1944 5.9 Fritz Ostermueller, Bill Lohrman
Rangers 8/1/2016 5.5 Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Beltrán, Jeremy Jeffress
Phillies 7/29/2009 5.5 Cliff Lee, Ben Francisco Lou Marson

A couple of caveats: WAR is a counting stat, so the later in the season a move is made, the higher the year-to-date WARs of the players involved have the potential to be. Thus, there’s an era effect here: Until 1986, the non-waiver trading deadline was June 15, which made it more difficult to trade for players who had already racked up a substantial amount of same-season WAR. One might also argue that previous-season WAR, projected rest-of-season WAR, or actual rest-of-season WAR would be better measures of momentousness than year-to-date WAR.

However, we don’t yet know what Turner, Scherzer, and Duffy will do over the next two months, and we can’t easily generate retroactive rest-of-season projections for players who were traded decades ago. Moreover, it’s not as if the players the Dodgers added are small-sample wonders whose year-to-date WARs don’t reflect their true talents; Scherzer is a three-time Cy Young Award winner and a surefire future Hall of Famer, and Turner trails only four current National League hitters in WAR dating back to the beginning of 2018.

WAR totals alone can’t quite capture the full impact of the Turner-Scherzer trade. Although the first-place Giants, second-place Dodgers, and third-place Padres are all nearly locks to qualify for the playoffs, the division title—and the privilege of skipping the wild-card contest and advancing directly to the division series—are still up for grabs. Entering Friday, only 5.5 games separated the Giants and Padres, with the Dodgers (who lost to San Francisco on Thursday) three games out of first. When the Dodgers made their Thursday deals, they were two games out, and FanGraphs’ playoff odds (which still see the Giants as overachievers) pegged them as clear division favorites. But that outcome was (and is) far from certain, and it would have been much more in doubt if the Dodgers had missed out on the D.C. sweepstakes as the Padres or Giants helped themselves to one of the Nationals’ stars. By swap-blocking their direct competitors—or at least forcing them to look elsewhere for upgrades—the Dodgers also potentially saved themselves the strain of facing Scherzer in their last series against San Francisco or their three series still to come against San Diego.

FanGraphs

Like last year’s acquisition and extension of Mookie Betts, the Dodgers’ latest dealing is a testament to the team’s prowess at pairing high payrolls with adept player development. The Dodgers entered 2021 as the sport’s biggest spenders, and the only team to blow by the competitive balance tax threshold. As MLB’s other coastal titan, the Yankees, parted with better prospects in lieu of absorbing the salaries of lefty sluggers Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo this week, the Dodgers took on the remainder of the money owed to Turner and Scherzer this year. Their luxury-tax tab is still soaring, steepest penalties be damned.

Of course, money alone wouldn’t have gotten the massive deal done. Ruiz (a 2014 amateur free agent signing) and Gray (a product of L.A.’s 2018 trade with Cincinnati, along with eventual Betts trade chip Jeter Downs) were the Dodgers’ top two prospects, and their departures further deplete a farm system that had already sunk to 14th this spring (per FanGraphs) after ranking third a year earlier. As promising and major-league ready as Ruiz is, though, the presence of Dodgers draftee Will Smith behind the plate made the younger backstop expendable. Going all in instead of hoarding prospects may make the Dodgers more vulnerable years down the road, but they’ve shown a knack for raising ceilings and finding free talent, and the obstacles in their path to a ninth straight NL West title are a more pressing problem.

Before the season started, and deep into April, the Dodgers looked almost as likely to challenge the single-season wins record as they did to be fighting for playoff position and calling in the cavalry. But because the Giants have refused to fade, the West’s expected two-team race has become a three-team dogfight, and the Dodgers’ vaunted depth has been tested by season-ending injuries to Dustin May and Edwin Ríos, prolonged shutdowns of Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Zach McKinstry, Tony Gonsolin, Brusdar Graterol, Corey Knebel, and Scott Alexander, and more minor injuries to many others. According to the Baseball Prospectus IL Ledger, the Dodgers have lost roughly eight WARP to players on the injured list, second only to the Mets. They’re also without regrettable offseason signee Trevor Bauer, who’s on administrative leave as he’s investigated for sexual assault. Bauer, whose civil hearing is scheduled to start on August 16, probably wouldn’t be welcomed back to the Dodgers’ clubhouse this season (if ever), even in the unlikely event that MLB cleared him to return.

Even though the Dodgers seemed to have so many capable backups that they could weather any difficulties, they’ve been forced to plug in castoffs from other organizations, including Albert Pujols, Yoshi Tsutsugo, Steven Souza Jr., and Billy McKinney. Yet despite the extended absences of so many projected contributors and some lousy luck in close games—they’re 13-18 in one-run games and 1-10 in games that have gone to extras—the Dodgers have the fourth-best record in baseball and the second-best record in the National League. They trail only the Astros in run differential (by a paltry two runs), and they boast baseball’s best BaseRuns record (though they’re barely ahead of the Giants). And as they get great imports, they’re also getting healthy: Corey Seager and Mookie Betts are expected to be activated this weekend, and Clayton Kershaw could be back next week.

FanGraphs

Then again, none of the players the Dodgers snared on Thursday has a completely clean bill of health. Duffy, who has a 2.51 ERA and 3.39 FIP in 13 games and 12 starts, is out for three to four weeks with a flexor strain. Turner went on the COVID IL on Thursday and may not be back for a week. Scherzer, who turned 37 on Tuesday, missed time with groin inflammation in June and suffered from triceps discomfort prior to his successful swan-song start for the fourth-place Nationals on Thursday. The impending free agent is neither as durable nor as dominant nor as liable to pitch deep into games as he was at his Hall of Fame peak, and the old adage about teams never having enough pitching has never been truer than it is in a season when injuries are up, workloads are down, and pitchers are at risk of fall fatigue after a short 2020 season and a midseason sticky-stuff crackdown.

That said, the NL All-Star starter is still a fearsome force at the front of the rotation, sporting a 2.76 ERA and a 3.59 FIP with 147 strikeouts in 111 innings. Although the seven-year deal the Nats gave Stephen Strasburg after 2019 is off to an extremely inauspicious start, the seven-year deal they gave Scherzer after 2014 should go down as one of the best long-term free agent signings ever. In 1,229 innings with Washington, Scherzer amassed almost 40 WAR, which was worth more than the Nationals paid him without even considering the World Series he helped win or the prospect haul he helped bring back. This is the first time he’s been traded during a season, and like a lot of his greatest contemporaries—CC Sabathia in 2008, Cliff Lee in 2009 and 2010, Jon Lester in 2014, David Price in 2014 and 2015, Cole Hamels in 2015 and 2018, Justin Verlander in 2017, Zack Greinke in 2019—he’ll have a chance to make a mark with a new team in October after changing allegiances in July. Scherzer, Walker Buehler, Julio Urías, and Kershaw should give the Dodgers one of MLB’s best October quartets, allowing them the luxury of using Duffy, Gonsolin, and Price in relief.

FanGraphs

In L.A., Turner will probably see innings at second base and in center field, two positions he last played in 2016. The 28-year-old does everything well except walk, and he hits for high enough averages that his relatively few free passes aren’t a big drawback. He’s hitting .322/.369/.521, he’s one big fly shy of a career high, and he’s among the sport’s most prolific and highest-percentage base stealers. Only four teams have swiped fewer bags than the Dodgers this season, but Turner and a healthy Betts should make them more of a threat. If the Dodgers don’t re-sign Seager this offseason, Turner, who’s under team control through 2022, could slide over to short. For now, he’ll give L.A. a ridiculous lineup in which the worst hitter, based on recent results, would be Bellinger, the 2019 MVP.

The Scherzer-Turner trade was a collaboration between baseball’s 2019 and 2020 World Series winners, one of which is resetting around Juan Soto and the other of which is angling to become the first MLB team to defend a title since the 2000 Yankees. In order for one team to add a ton of talent via trade, another team has to let it go, and on Thursday, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo was the one distributing stars around the rest of the league. Both the Dodgers and the Padres (who traded for reliever Daniel Hudson) picked at the carcass of the 47-55 Nationals this week; so did the Red Sox and Blue Jays, who picked up Kyle Schwarber and Brad Hand, respectively, at the Nats’ going-out-of-contention sale. As of early Friday morning, Washington was also still expected to send catcher Yan Gomes to another team before the 4 p.m. ET deadline. If the Nats do deal Gomes without getting a big leaguer with a positive WAR back, that would bring their combined year-to-date WAR subtracted to at least 10.1, which would be another two-day record.

Most Combined Net WAR Traded Away in Two-Day Midseason Span

Team Date WAR Players Lost Players Added
Team Date WAR Players Lost Players Added
Nationals 7/29-30/2021 -10.1 Trea Turner, Max Scherzer, Kyle Schwarber, Yan Gomes, Daniel Hudson, Brad Hand Keibert Ruiz, Josiah Gray, Riley Adams
Tigers 8/31/2017 -9.8 Justin Upton, Justin Verlander
Tigers 7/30-31/2015 -9.1 David Price, Joakim Soria, Yoenis Céspedes Daniel Norris, Matthew Boyd
Reds 7/30-31/2003 -8.7 José Guillén, Scott Williamson, Aaron Boone, Gabe White Aaron Harang
White Sox 7/31/1997 -7.7 Wilson Álvarez, Roberto Hernández, Danny Darwin Keith Foulke
Angels 7/29/1999 -7.0 Randy Velarde, Omar Olivares
Cubs 7/30-31/2012 -6.3 Paul Maholm, Reed Johnson, Ryan Dempster, Geovany Soto
Pirates 8/28/1996 -6.0 Denny Neagle
Dodgers 5/30/1944 -5.9 Fritz Ostermueller, Bill Lohrman
Blue Jays 7/28/2019 -5.6 Marcus Stroman, Eric Sogard
Cleveland 7/29/2009 -5.5 Cliff Lee, Ben Francisco Lou Marson
Cleveland 6/27/2002 -5.4 Bartolo Colon Lee Stevens
Tigers 7/31/1995 -5.3 David Wells C.J. Nitkowski

Maybe sending Scherzer and Turner to Los Angeles instead of San Diego was Rizzo’s revenge for Padres reliever Daniel Camarena’s shocking grand slam. More likely, it was a way to package two All-Stars together and get good players back. Whatever sequence of events led to Scherzer donning Dodger blue—and here’s hoping for an oral history of Washington’s past few days—the NL West won’t be the same. Scherzer joining the third-place Padres, as the fifth frontline starter imported by Preller in 11 months, would have been fun. Scherzer joining the already-ancient, out-of-nowhere Giants would have been a blast. And Scherzer (and Turner) joining the defending champions to make even more of a megateam—well, that’s special too. Shohei Ohtani aside, the NL West race has been baseball’s best story in 2021. And like any unforgettable story, it was bound to take a dramatic, unanticipated turn.

Thanks to Kenny Jackelen of Baseball-Reference for research assistance.



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