LOS ANGELES — The Dodgers’ trade season has been a flurry. With four days before Tuesday’s deadline, they’ve acquired four big-league pieces at close to a minimal cost.
It’s a gamble. A bet on their ability to maximize talents on the margins in a trade market that appears thin on proven top-end talents.
“I think we’re always trying to figure out true talent level,” Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes said Friday after the club’s latest deal. “Looking at the underlying numbers is helpful in that. … We feel if the players have buy-in, which the players definitely do with our staff, we’ll get the best out of them and get to that true talent level.”
Kiké Hernández? Acquired for a pair of minor-league relievers, one of which cleared a 40-man spot to let the deal go through. Nick Robertson has value as an optionable arm but likely wouldn’t have factored into the club’s postseason bullpen. And a rival evaluator described Justin Hagenman as “intriguing, but fringy.”
Amed Rosario’s acquisition required a return of Noah Syndergaard, who floundered after signing for $13 million this winter and likely wasn’t going to throw another pitch for the Dodgers.
Amed Rosario greeting his new Dodgers teammates. pic.twitter.com/Hf6dnsrY6J
— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) July 28, 2023
Then came Friday, when the Dodgers swung a deal with the floundering White Sox to acquire right-hander Lance Lynn and reacquire reliever Joe Kelly. That required parting with one arm from their highly-regarded Double-A rotation in right-hander Nick Nastrini, along with reliever Jordan Leasure and outfielder Trayce Thompson. Nastrini, 23, is a former fourth-rounder who has blossomed after the Dodgers got him to throw more strikes and who a rival evaluator said projects to be a mid-rotation arm with continued development. Nastrini is someone the organization valued, a real prospect, but one of several talented young, controllable arms the club has in the system.
“Amazing they can trade a guy like (Nastrini) and not have it hurt one bit,” a rival evaluator said of the return the Dodgers gave, a testament to the organization’s system depth that will already have to be thinned out some with minor-league roster limits in place next season.
Leasure was a 14th-rounder two years ago and has put up strong numbers as a reliever at Double-A Tulsa (a 3.09 ERA in 29 appearances). He could have pitched his way into the big-league picture before long but was still a relief-only prospect. Thompson just started a rehabilitation assignment for a strained oblique, but was the odd man out after the Dodgers acquired other right-handed options in Hernández and Rosario earlier this week.
Friday’s deal represented the biggest return given out yet by the Dodgers in this deadline period, but it still came without touching some of the most notable names in the organization’s system.
For that cost, the Dodgers’ will have to hope to get more out of their acquisitions than they’ve shown this year. Their trade haul has combined to produce -2.4 WAR according to Baseball Reference at the time of their deals.
“For us, (this) is trying to put guys in the best possible chance to have success, give them some runway, and expect it work out,” manager Dave Roberts said.
Hernández and Rosario have slumped on both sides of the ball, combining for a .643 OPS while grading out as the two worst defensive infielders in baseball this season by Outs Above Average (-15). The Dodgers’ hope is that both players can bank on their career production against left-handed pitching, and neither is expected to remain at shortstop amid their struggles. Rosario is expected to play second base for the first time in his career along with some center field, where he briefly played in 2021. Hernández is expected to bounce around the diamond against left-handed pitching, giving the Dodgers the ability to effectively throw out a line change based on the handedness of the opposing pitcher.
Lance Lynn has a 6.47 ERA this season in 21 starts. Joe Kelly has a 5.59 ERA in 71 appearances for the White Sox the last two seasons. But the Dodgers are hoping their peripherals show upside.
Lynn had top-six Cy Young finishes in three consecutive years from 2019-21, has accrued his usual volume and strikeout totals but also dealt with a career-worst home run rate (he leads the majors with 28 allowed). He’s also been obliterated by left-handed hitting (a 1.037 OPS against him this season). His trade interest was robust despite his ugly numbers, with the Rays and Rangers among the clubs in the mix to acquire him in hopes that some tweaks and regression to the mean would allow him to be at least a quality starter for their postseason-bound clubs.
It’s the stability the Dodgers need out of their rotation. They entered Friday ranking 21st in baseball with a 4.71 ERA from their starters, relying heavily on three rookies who have had their share of growing pains in their first taste of the bigs. Julio Urías (4.98 ERA) and Tony Gonsolin (4.25) are having down years. Clayton Kershaw is close to a return but has been out since the end of June with an unspecified shoulder issue. Dustin May is out for the year. Walker Buehler is optimistic he can return this year from his second Tommy John surgery but hasn’t even faced hitters yet. The Syndergaard signing didn’t work out, and he was dumped to Cleveland on Wednesday in the Rosario deal.
The Dodgers hope Lynn can return to being a functional starter. The bonus would be if he can regain the form that made him a front-end type down the stretch a year ago when he had a 2.43 ERA in 74 innings over the final two months of the season.
Bringing back Kelly is more than just another reunion tour (along with reacquiring Hernández) this deadline. The Dodgers’ bullpen has certainly stabilized from where it was early in June, when it had the worst ERA in the National League, but would still benefit from a high-leverage arm with the kind of stuff that Kelly possesses. Kelly’s first stint with the Dodgers was marked by injury concerns, sometimes volatile results and one memorable pouty face. But he was throwing the ball brilliantly down the stretch in 2021 (when he had a 2.86 ERA in 44 innings) before injuring his biceps in the postseason. The results weren’t great with the White Sox (his ERA over two seasons is 5.59), but he still possesses premium stuff and brings familiarity with the Dodgers’ pitching development staff.
“It’s the ability to both raise our floor with the opportunity to also add some real ceiling in there with some guys that have performed at the highest level on the biggest stage,” Gomes said of adding the two arms Friday.
The Dodgers haven’t had to give up much this week, in part because of how early they’ve moved in a market that has yet to solidify.
Remaining targets can move the needle much higher. As the Los Angeles Times reported on Thursday (and as The Athletic’s Katie Woo laid out Friday), the Dodgers and Cardinals have had discussions about acquiring third baseman Nolan Arenado, sources told The Athletic, with Los Angeles gauging the possibility of using their deep farm system to acquire a star-level talent. That prospective deal, as Woo explained, comes with hurdles and complicating factors — like the Cardinals’ reluctance to move Arenado mid-season — that would make it unlikely on the surface and would require considerably more momentum than there appears to be right now. Gomes declined to comment on Friday when asked about the likelihood of a deal for Arenado.
The club has also not ruled out adding more. The Mets’ Tommy Pham and Mark Canha remain options of interest to the Dodgers, sources told The Athletic, since Hernández and Rosario’s positional versatility allows them to move around. They would benefit from adding another starter even after bringing in Lynn, which could include the likes of the Cardinals’ Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty.
“There’s still time on the clock,” Roberts said.
(Photo of Lance Lynn: Joe Nicholson / USA Today)