Are the Dodgers Now the Team to Beat?

Well before the rumors of a deal between the Dodgers and Orioles surfaced this week, Manny Machado was — as a legitimate star with an expiring contract on a team unlikely to contend — considered the prize of this year’s trade deadline. The 2018 season has done nothing so far to invalidate that notion, Machado bouncing back considerably from a surprisingly unimpressive 2017 season to hit .315/.387/.575, all three parts of that slash line representing career bests. The move back to shortstop hasn’t been quite as successful, but even a narcoleptic Jeff Blauser would have significant value with this kind of offensive contribution.

It took about 92 games longer than expected, but the Dodgers entered the All-Star break in first place, caressing a half-game lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West. Nor is it a two-team race: the Colorado Rockies sit just two games back and the team’s traditional rivals, the San Francisco Giants, are still hanging on four games behind despite a bevy of nasty surprises in the rotation this season. There are reasons to believe that the Dodgers are in better position than their slim divisional lead might suggest, their somewhat modest record due more to underperformance than any fatal flaw in how the roster is designed. Even before the Machado trade, the updated ZiPS projections saw the Dodgers as the strongest National League team in terms of the strength of roster and the likely depth-chart configuration.

ZiPS Projections, NL Roster Strength, Pre-Trade
Team Roster Strength
Los Angeles Dodgers .584
Chicago Cubs .572
Washington Nationals .542
Arizona Diamondbacks .531
St. Louis Cardinals .530
Milwaukee Brewers .528
Philadelphia Phillies .520
Colorado Rockies .515
San Francisco Giants .514
Atlanta Braves .514
Pittsburgh Pirates .488
New York Mets .472
Cincinnati Reds .466
San Diego Padres .444
Miami Marlins .409

There are areas where ZiPS produces different results than the official postseason odds calculated from the combined Steamer/ZiPS projections. ZiPS, for example, has long preferred the Braves, Brewers, and Phillies while being a bit Nationals-skeptical, but both the ZiPS and FanGraphs methodologies agree that the Dodgers had the best roster in the National League before the trade. The problem the Dodgers faced is that, while the mean projections obviously look quite favorably on their prospects, mean projections also don’t account for the uncertainty around the numbers, which can be quite significant. Even firmly believing that the Dodgers had the strongest roster in the NL West, ZiPS still called for them — after a million years of game-by-game matchups — to lose out on the division about once every three times.

ZiPS Projected Standings, NL West, Pre-Trade
Los Angeles Dodgers 91 71 .562 69.6% 17.3% 86.9%
Arizona Diamondbacks 87 75 4 .537 20.3% 32.0% 52.3%
Colorado Rockies 85 77 6 .525 7.3% 19.5% 26.8%
San Francisco Giants 83 79 8 .512 2.8% 9.9% 12.7%
San Diego Padres 68 94 23 .420 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

Rebuilding teams ought to value risk and uncertainty. Contending teams, on the other hand, have a great deal of incentive to be more risk-averse. While the Dodgers are generally very well run, even reasonable decisions can lead to less-than-ideal outcomes (see the Astros and J.D. Martinez or the Cubs and Jason Heyward‘s contract). I felt, like the team did, that Logan Forsythe was a solid short-term pickup, with LA valuing some short-term stability at second base over Jose De Leon’s upside. While the actual results haven’t been terrible from a value-gained standpoint — at least not yet, thanks in large part to De Leon’s Tommy John surgery — Forsythe has recorded only a .219/.326/.318 line and 1.3 WAR in his time in Los Angeles. Max Muncy can theoretically play second base, of course, but just committing to him full-time at the position is, again, a little riskier than the Dodgers should be thinking. It’s getting increasingly difficult to see Forsythe even finish the season as a Dodger now because, with Chris Taylor at second and Muncy, Kiké Hernandez, and Chase Utley all capable of handling second — and, theoretically, Machado or Justin Turner in an emergency — he’s not bringing much to the table.

All told, when comparing the team’s expectations before and after the trade, the difference is about +1.7 wins per 66 games for Los Angeles, on average. That’s enough to make the Dodgers a .610 team in the eyes of ZiPS — note that this is not the expected winning percentage, which considers game-by-game matchups — a figure that moves them past the Red Sox (.603) and Yankees (.607) while pulling them closer to the Astros (.620). In terms of World Series probabilities, the bump from 14.1% to 16.3% is significant, as these things go, although winning the division is still the best predictor of a World Series victory at this point.

ZiPS Projected Standings, NL West, Post-Trade
Los Angeles Dodgers 93 69 .574 80.0% 13.4% 93.5% 10.4% 6.6%
Arizona Diamondbacks 87 75 6 .537 13.7% 37.3% 51.0% -6.7% -1.3%
Colorado Rockies 85 77 8 .525 4.6% 21.1% 25.8% -2.7% -1.1%
San Francisco Giants 83 79 10 .512 1.7% 10.3% 12.0% -1.1% -0.7%
San Diego Padres 68 94 25 .420 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

If any team’s fans should be unhappy, it’s not the Orioles’. In the last 24 hours, I’ve seen a lot of O’s fans bemoaning the fact that the Orioles didn’t make a trade that would singlehandedly stock the farm system. The truth is, there was never going to be a Walker Buehler in this trade, there was never going to be an Alex VerdugoKeibert RuizYusniel Diaz package out there. If the Dodgers were ever going to give up more for Machado in 2018 — and it still wouldn’t be like anything in the last sentence — it would’ve been when the team was truly in a difficult position, as many as nine games back in early May and fighting with the Padres for fourth place while Arizona’s average pitcher was performing like Chris Sale and Corey Seager was newly out for the season. Baltimore actually fared better than I expected, with enough teams in the race for Machado that he fetched a package superior to the one Detroit landed for J.D. Martinez in 2017.

The rest of the NL West (well, except the Padres) should feel a bit uncomfortable now. While their projected playoff odds don’t take major hits, the three other contending teams each lose roughly a third of their chances of winning the division, an extremely unpleasant development in baseball’s current playoffs system that gives a gigantic handicap to Wild Card teams versus division-winning teams, via the one-game wild card playoff. And responding to this kind of acquisition isn’t easy. Not only do the Dodgers gain a playoff boost, they also take away the possibility of getting that same Machado-driven playoff boost from the other teams in the division, especially Arizona. It was already difficult to imagine the team cobbling together a package that could land Machado, but even if they could, he’s no longer for sale. There’s no store that offers another Manny Machado at the Orioles’ price. Imagine a world in which the Diamondbacks were able to land Manny. The contours of the NL West race would change significantly.

ZiPS Projected Standings, NL West, Arizona Gets Manny
Los Angeles Dodgers 91 71 .562 55.1% 29.1% 84.2% -14.5% -2.6%
Arizona Diamondbacks 90 72 1 .556 38.3% 37.8% 76.1% 17.9% 23.8%
Colorado Rockies 85 77 6 .525 4.9% 18.0% 22.9% -2.4% -3.9%
San Francisco Giants 83 79 8 .512 1.7% 8.6% 10.4% -1.0% -2.3%
San Diego Padres 68 94 23 .420 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

Getting something you want is great. Simultaneously depriving the competition of something they want is even better. I don’t think Arizona would have been an impossibility. The Dodgers’ package is very good, but they keep the crown jewels. Could Baltimore have turned down a Jon Duplantier/Jasrado Chisholm/Taylor Clarke/Jimmie Sherfy package, or something of that nature? Maybe they quibble with the prospects, but I think Arizona had the potential to close a deal somehow, and in fact, I’ve heard enough whispers to back up the published reports that the Diamondbacks were in the hunt.

I tend to dislike sports clichés, but the whole “go big or go home” is applicable in a sport that is structured to penalize water-treading. The Dodgers went big here and even when Manny is a nice-to-have rather than a have-to-have, the team has significantly increased their odds of not being able to make any golf plans until November.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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5 years ago

I think the Diamondbacks will look to see if they can get a modest improvement in their infield. I honestly think Josh Harrison would be an interesting situation with his career batting profile in that park (could bring some juice back to his juuust not strong enough bat) there he could bat as an average/above average offensive output while being able to play 2b and 3b and spell in the OF as needed. Considering the lack of cost to acquire him, maybe that is something to respond instead of ‘go big’