Dodgers, Guardians Shore Up Weak Spots With Rosario-Syndergaard Swap

Amed Rosario
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Two former Mets are on the move from one playoff contender to another, with the Guardians trading Amed Rosario to the Dodgers in exchange for Noah Syndergaard and $2 million. The Dodgers receive a shortstop who, despite having a down year, adds a much-needed right-handed bat to their lineup. The Guardians receive a pitcher who had a 7.16 ERA before he landed on the IL nearly two months ago. In all, it makes for a seemingly lopsided challenge trade. Imagine going back to the fall of 2018 and explaining to yourself that a straight-up trade of Syndergaard for Rosario would seem a little light for the team receiving the former, but don’t actually do it, because your 2018 self’s head would explode, and you’d alter the space-time continuum.

The deal came into public consciousness on Wednesday evening piecemeal, via a flurry of tweets from several of baseball’s leading bombardiers. Jeff Passan and Jesse Rogers reported that a deal for Rosario was approaching, Ken Rosenthal confirmed it, and Pat Ragazzo reported that Syndergaard would be the corresponding piece from Los Angeles. Jon Heyman was the first to indicate that the Dodgers were sending money to the Guardians, and Zack Meisel reported the amount. If you’re a news-breaker who didn’t get to announce the terms of at least one part of this trade, it might be time to get out of the game.

Now in his sixth full season, Rosario has been an extremely consistent player. Year in and year out, he’s been a bit below average at short and right around average at the plate, with a wRC+ within three points of 100 in three of the last four seasons. In all, that’s a recipe for a two-win player — 2.5 when the BABIP gods decide to smile on Cleveland.

Unfortunately, that consistency has not carried over to 2023. At the plate, Rosario’s 86 wRC+ is the worst since the 76 he put up in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. His game has always centered around putting the ball on the ground and busting it to first, but this year he’s running a career-high 32% fly ball rate… and a career-low .239 wOBA on those fly balls. Given his xwOBA of .328 on fly balls, he is probably getting a bit unlucky, but he’s also pulling a career-low 10.7% of them and hitting a career-high 42.9% of them to center. That’s a great way to underperform your expected stats. His barrel rate is also down, and his HR/FB rate is at a career-worst 3.1%. Rosario has raised his launch angle, hard-hit rate, and average exit velocity, but to this point, the effect of that change has been an increase in flyouts to the big part of the ballpark.

Rosario’s defense is what’s really dragging him down this season, though. His -15 OAA and -15 DRS are dead last among shortstops. His .963 fielding percentage is second-worst, his -3.0 UZR is fourth-worst, and his -2.0 DRP is sixth-worst. According to OAA, he has actually been an average shortstop when he’s playing straight up. All of his demerits have come when he’s been shaded over toward second or playing in the hole closer to third; the same was true last year as well. Rosario’s sprint speed and home-to-first times are still in line with his career norms, so it doesn’t seem likely that the decline in his defense is because he physically can’t get to the balls he used to.

Even in a down year, Rosario checks a couple boxes for the Dodgers. First of all, he’s a living, breathing shortstop. The Dodgers have gotten less value at shortstop than at any other position; it’s the only spot where they rank in the bottom third of the league.

Dodgers Positional WAR and Rank
Position WAR MLB Rank
Pitcher 10.9 9
Catcher 2.2 7
First Base 5 1
Second Base 1.9 10
Third Base 1.5 17
Shortstop 0.6 24
Left Field 1.4 15
Center Field 1.7 17
Right Field 4.3 2
DH 1.4 5

With Miguel Vargas struggling enough to be sent back down to Triple-A, Miguel Rojas had taken over as the starter at short. His -0.1 WAR this season matches Rosario’s, but he’s running a wRC+ of 54. He’s also underperforming his xwOBA by a greater margin than Rosario, but his career wRC+ is 12 points lower. Since the start of June, Rosario has put up a 107 wRC+, 10th among shortstops. It’s hard to blame the Dodgers for hoping that he can keep hitting and that half a season’s worth of errors and ugly defensive metrics don’t indicate his true talent level.

The Dodgers could really use a right-handed bat, even one with an 86 wRC+. Their 117 wRC+ against righties is the best in baseball, and their 109 wRC+ against lefties is 11th. The lefty-heavy lineup has only had the platoon advantage in 65.6% of their plate appearances against left-handed pitchers this season, seventh-lowest in baseball. (The Guardians are lower at 63.3%). Rosario has a 126 wRC+ against lefties this year, as opposed to 70 against righties, very much in line with his career splits of 123 and 83. That instantly makes him the Dodgers’ fourth-best hitter against lefties, ahead of names like J.D. Martinez, Jason Heyward, James Outman, and Max Muncy. Combined with Tuesday’s reunion with Enrique Hernández, the Dodgers have bolstered their middle infield with right-handed bats. They can let Mookie Betts and Chris Taylor spend more time in the outfield, giving Outman and David Peralta some rest against left-handed pitching.

This is also a big opportunity for Rosario. After debuting as the number three prospect in all of baseball back in 2017, then settling in as a league-average regular, he lands with a franchise that’s known for helping hitters unlock their potential. That’s a good place to be halfway through a contract year.

As for the Guardians, they’re likely hoping that this trade improves their infield as well. At the very least, it will clear a logjam and let them see what they have in some promising young middle infielders. After posting a 149 wRC+ in Triple-A, Tyler Freeman has 105 wRC+ in 35 games with Cleveland this season. He’s seen more time at second and third this season, but he primarily played short in 2022. Gabriel Arias has played every infield position this season but spent a plurality of his innings in right field. He has yet to hit at the big-league level, and his bat has never been his calling card, but more consistent playing time certainly wouldn’t hurt as he tries to figure things out. The Guardians also have the switch-hitting Brayan Rocchio waiting in the wings in Columbus. The team’s third-ranked prospect has a 108 wRC+ in Triple-A; Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin gave a 50/60 Future Value to his hit tool back in January, calling him “one of many Guardians upper-level middle infielders with the talent to be an everyday player.” The Guardians are going to let the kids play, specifically at shortstop.

But if letting their young middle infielders try their strength was Cleveland’s goal, they achieved it in somewhat dubious fashion. Syndergaard hasn’t pitched in the majors since June 7, when he went on the IL with a blister on his index finger. He’s made two starts during a rehab assignment with Triple-A Oklahoma City, allowing six runs over 10 innings. Looking ahead to the third rehab start, manager Dave Roberts recently told reporters, “That’s when the rubber meets the road, and we have to make a decision.” Altogether, it seemed very likely that Syndergaard had thrown his last pitch in Dodger blue.

The Guardians could have moved Rosario to the bench while retaining the right to make a qualifying offer at the end of the season. They could have traded him elsewhere, or taken a flier on a low-level prospect. Syndergaard might be just what they need, though: a veteran who can eat innings as they wait for Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, and Cal Quantrill to return from the IL. But if that’s who they think they’re getting, they paid a pretty high price for him.

The other possibility is that the Guardians saw something they liked in Syndergaard. They are known for their pitching development, but it’s not as if the Dodgers are slouches in that department. As Dan Szymborski put it when ranking Syndergaard third on his list of midseason projection decliners: “What especially worries me — and ZiPS doesn’t account for it — is that this is happening with an organization with an excellent record of fixing up misfit toys.” Syndergaard spent the offseason working with the Dodgers to regain some of his missing velocity, but he has instead lost nearly two ticks off his fastball this season.

If you’re an optimist, you can point to Syndergaard’s ERA being much higher than his underlying numbers. The problem is that the underlying numbers aren’t very promising either: a 5.67 xERA, 5.54 FIP, and 4.69 xFIP. Among pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings, his Stuff+ mark of 80 is the 10th worst in the league. His 17.9% HR/FB rate likely makes things look a bit worse than they actually are, but he is running career lows in both groundball rate and popup rate. That’s not a recipe for success. He has been very open about hard he’s worked and his desire to be “the old me.” Maybe the Guardians are excited to have someone who wants to succeed that badly, even if it’s just as a placeholder for their bigger arms.

Any fan who remembers the electric atmosphere at Citi Field when Syndergaard was striking out nine or 10 batters per nine would love it if the Guardians could find a way to turn him around. If they can help him find a way to bring his ERA down to his xFIP, making him something like a league-average pitcher, that would be a real boon to a team that’s two games back in the AL Central. It would also be a boon to Syndergaard, who is in a contract year and clearly wants to keep pitching at a high level. In the meantime, he’ll be in the same boat as all of his young middle infielder teammates, trying to make the most of a new chance at meaningful playing time.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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8 months ago

I don’t think the Dodgers’ WAR at 2B is 4.5, unless the number was supposed to be negative 4.5.

8 months ago
Reply to  Anonymous

It can’t be that either, but yeah. Something is off there. Mookie alone is 4.5 WAR, and he’s only played 32 games at second this season. Chris Taylor has played two games there. Yonny Hernandez is a negative overall and has also only played eight games at second. What are we missing?

8 months ago
Reply to  Davy Andrews

With the revisions, the Dodgers have replaced a replacement-level killer with another replacement-level killer.