Dodgers Swing Blockbuster, Acquire Scherzer and Turner

Over the past 10 or so years, the Dodgers have built a juggernaut, with enough talent to withstand both divisional rivals and injury woes. They’ve won the last eight NL West titles and been to three of the past four World Series. This year, though, it looked like that hegemony might finally, finally come to an end. Corey Seager is hurt. Mookie Betts has been banged up and is on the IL. Gavin Lux is out. Dustin May tore his UCL. Cody Bellinger missed a long stretch with a hairline fracture in his leg before suffering a hamstring injury. Clayton Kershaw hasn’t pitched in nearly a month. But with the Giants overperforming and the Dodgers facing an onrush of injury (and suspension), maybe this could be the year.

That feels less likely now, because the Dodgers just flipped the trade market on its head in one fell swoop, acquiring Max Scherzer and Trea Turner from the Nationals for a kingly ransom of prospects (update: the trade is now official)– Josiah Gray, Keibert Ruiz, Gerardo Carrillo, and Donovan Casey. The deal isn’t final yet, but it appears all but done and will likely be officially announced Friday. Turner was the best position player on the market. Scherzer was the best pitcher on the market. They’re both Dodgers now, more cogs in the most powerful machine in baseball, one that looks increasingly likely to dispatch the Giants and bring home the NL West crown yet again.

As is customary with such a big deal, we’ll cover it in two parts. Here, Eric Longenhagen gives Nats fans a piping-hot helping of prospect analysis — there’s plenty of it in a deal of this magnitude. I’ll focus on the major league side of things, which is to say the Dodgers’ side of things; Washington was already dead in the water in the NL East, but now they’re super dead.

Since joining the Nationals, Scherzer has done nothing but take the mound every five days and dominate. The “every five days” part hasn’t been completely true this year; he missed a start in June with a groin strain, then had one postponed last week due to triceps tightness. Even without the injuries, he might not be quite the pitcher he was five years ago, but he’s still unquestionably one of the best in the game, with unmatched durability and a will to win that makes every game he starts feel like it is his team’s for the taking.

The intangibles are great, but the tangibles might be even better. Though he’s now 37, Scherzer has defied aging. He throws as hard as he did at his peak; indeed, his 94.2 mph average fastball velocity is actually a 10th of a tick higher than it was in his first year with the Nats. He complements that riding, bat-missing monster with four solid secondary offerings: a low-90s cutter, a devastating mid-80s slider, a curveball he uses mostly for show, and a changeup that he mostly reserves for lefties.

The slider and the fastball draw the headlines, because they’re both overpowering. He’s drawing swinging strikes on 16.8% of his four-seamers this season, the highest mark of his career and a top-five rate among starters. His slider checks in at 26%, behind only Kershaw and Jacob deGrom. If he were simply a two-pitch wonder — fastballs high and sliders playing off of them — he’d still be an effective starter.

But he’s more than that. The cutter, curve, and changeup sharpen the other pitches, putting hitters in a bind right from the start. In each of his six seasons in Washington, he’s struck out more than 30% of opponents, a ludicrous streak. Some of that is because he’s unhittable, of course; the swinging strike rates on his two primary pitches don’t lie. But some of it is because despite those monstrous offerings, you can’t be sure what’s coming next with two strikes:

This is all fun, but let’s be real with each other. You didn’t come here to learn why Max Scherzer is good. If you’re reading a trade analysis, you already know who he is and what he does. The same is true for Trea Turner — he’s awesome, and he’s having a career year. Since he’s more difficult to slot into a lineup, though, and also under team control for an extra year, let’s talk about how the Dodgers will fit him in and what he might do to their future plans.

Turner is an offensive dynamo — this year’s .322/.369/.521 slash line (137 wRC+) also comes with 18 homers and 21 steals — who brings considerable positional versatility with him, though he hasn’t used it recently. Since 2017, he’s only played shortstop, and he’s been better than you think — he’s been worth 14 Outs Above Average per Statcast, though other defensive systems disagree. In the short-term, that makes things easy. The Dodgers have been using Chris Taylor at short with Seager injured, but Taylor is a better fit at second or in the outfield. Bam, presto! Turner moves to short, which lets Taylor move to second, which lets Max Muncy move to first, which lets Cody Bellinger move to center… there are a lot of moving parts, but you get the idea. Turner will unlock a cascade of defensive improvement.

When Seager returns, things will get trickier. He’s been the everyday shortstop since 2016, and his other natural position — third — already houses a different Turner, this one of the Justin variety. Seager is likely a worse shortstop defender than Trea — two of the three defensive systems think so, and the third thinks they’re both middling — but it’s not clear how well he’d take to second base. He’s also the incumbent, which will surely carry some weight in the decision-making process.

Turner spent a good amount of time in center field as a rookie, and has played second base as well. His blinding straight-line speed plays up in the outfield, though instinctually he’s an infielder. If he slides to second, that puts the squeeze on Taylor, who would then slide to an outfield corner. Given how well he’s hitting this year, he wouldn’t lose much if any playing time — which means that AJ Pollock, who’s also having a great year, might be operating on borrowed time.

If the Dodgers don’t want to bench Pollock and his .288/.347/.519 line (good for a 134 wRC+), they might also consider the unthinkable: reducing Bellinger’s playing time. Limited to just 45 games due to the aforementioned injuries, the 2019 NL MVP has been putrid when he has been healthy enough to play; his power has completely disappeared, while his previous gains in strikeout rate have reversed, leaving him with a gross .165/.272/.297 line and a 61 wRC+. It feels weird to bench a former MVP, and his projections still best Pollock’s, but at the very least, adding another beastly right-handed hitter means Bellinger should be getting plenty of rest against southpaws.

This game of musical chairs won’t start right away, though, because of the aforementioned injuries (and because Turner is currently on the COVID-19 IL). The Dodgers need to win games right now if they want to avoid the Wild Card game, and until reinforcements arrive, Turner will be replacing either Matt Beaty or Billy McKinney in the lineup — no difficult decisions there. Likewise, Scherzer slots cleanly into the rotation — Gray was handling fifth starter duties with Kershaw sidelined, and he’s headed to Washington.

When Kershaw returns, the Dodgers will have a comically deep rotation. Walker Buehler, Scherzer, and Kershaw are among the best in the big leagues. Julio Urías has been great, and he’ll be the fourth starter. That’s a hellacious playoff rotation, potentially one of the best of the 21st century.

That assumes the Dodgers make the playoffs, and uh, they’re probably going to make the playoffs. Before this trade, ZiPS gave them a 56.9% chance of winning the West. Now, they’re nearly two-thirds likely to take it down:

ZiPS Projected Standings – NL West
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% #1 Pick Avg Draft Pos
Los Angeles Dodgers 97 65 .599 65.1% 34.4% 99.5% 13.3% 0.0% 28.1
San Francisco Giants 93 69 4 .574 19.8% 74.5% 94.3% 7.2% 0.0% 25.5
San Diego Padres 93 69 4 .574 15.2% 77.9% 93.1% 6.5% 0.0% 25.0
Colorado Rockies 68 94 29 .420 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.2% 5.7
Arizona Diamondbacks 56 106 41 .346 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 62.0% 1.6

The Giants have a three-game lead in the division, but that likely won’t be enough to stop this LA barrage. Even reduced by injuries and Trevor Bauer’s suspension, the Dodgers have the best BaseRuns record in the league, and the best run differential; they already look like the class of the sport. Adding a top-20 hitter and top-20 pitcher to the mix doesn’t exactly hurt them.

Those are all implications for 2021, but Turner will be back in Chavez Ravine next year in his final year of arbitration. That raises the interesting question of whether the team should pursue Seager in free agency or give Turner the job and try to keep him around. Luckily, I got my friendly neighborhood Dan Szymborski to run percentile projections on both shortstops’ 2022 output. First, Turner:

ZiPS 2022 Percentile Projections – Trea Turner
90% .325 .384 .617 579 110 188 36 8 39 112 53 54 164 8.1
80% .312 .370 .578 581 105 181 33 7 36 105 51 44 150 6.9
70% .305 .362 .545 583 103 178 32 6 32 98 49 39 140 6.1
60% .298 .354 .524 584 101 174 30 6 30 94 48 36 133 5.5
50% .294 .348 .503 586 99 172 29 5 28 90 46 33 126 4.9
40% .292 .346 .495 586 98 171 28 5 27 87 46 30 124 4.6
30% .286 .339 .474 588 95 168 26 5 25 85 44 27 116 4.1
20% .280 .332 .458 589 94 165 25 4 24 80 43 22 111 3.5
10% .271 .321 .423 591 90 160 24 3 20 73 41 17 99 2.7

Then, Seager:

ZiPS 2022 Percentile Projections – Corey Seager
90% .313 .388 .593 428 78 134 34 4 26 111 50 8 160 5.9
80% .299 .372 .552 431 75 129 31 3 24 104 47 5 145 5.0
70% .289 .359 .524 433 74 125 30 3 22 99 45 5 135 4.4
60% .283 .353 .505 434 73 123 29 2 21 94 44 5 128 4.0
50% .278 .347 .490 435 71 121 28 2 20 90 43 3 123 3.6
40% .271 .339 .463 436 69 118 26 2 18 86 42 3 114 3.1
30% .265 .331 .447 438 68 116 25 2 17 83 40 3 108 2.7
20% .257 .322 .431 439 66 113 24 2 16 79 39 3 101 2.3
10% .249 .312 .406 441 65 110 22 1 15 74 37 2 92 1.8

The two are nearly equal on a per-game basis, but Turner projects for roughly 150 more at-bats. That’s not some made-up number that ZiPS pulled from thin air; Turner has nearly 1,000 more plate appearances than Seager over the past four years, though he too had injury struggles before then. When you’re as good as these two are, staying on the field is a skill, and Seager hasn’t shown he has it of late.

If the Dodgers sign Seager, next year will be every bit as complicated as this year. Among their starting position players, only Taylor and Seager are hitting free agency, and Taylor’s versatility has been so valuable that I think they’re likely to find a way to keep him in Los Angeles. They could trade Pollock, but heck, they could trade anybody; it’s going to be a fun and complicated puzzle to solve in any case.

One quick note before my grand sweeping conclusion: the Dodgers are covering the remainder of both player’s salaries this year. Scherzer isn’t owed that money until 2028, thanks to the weird deferral-laden contract he signed, and Turner’s pro-rated salary comes to just under $5 million, but people like to know where salaries are going for whatever reason. With the Dodgers already over the most punitive tax level, there were no red lines to avoid breaching, so they simply waved everything in rather than deal with changing prospect returns to secure cash.

You don’t often see trades like this, for several reasons. First, few teams have two stars nearing free agency to trade at the same time, and most of those teams are good. The Nationals won the World Series only two years ago; if things had broken slightly differently, neither Turner nor Scherzer would even be on the market. Second, buyers are increasingly holding on to their top prospects for dear life, and a smattering of mid-level lottery tickets was never going to be enough return for such a big haul.

The Dodgers, though, are in the perfect position for this move to make sense. There’s huge equity in going from a Wild Card spot to the division title. Just playing in the Wild Card game cuts your chances of winning the World Series roughly in half, and even then your rotation is out of whack for the next series. Getting your odds cut in half would also hurt the Dodgers most, because they have the highest odds to start with; they’re the best team in baseball.

In addition, they can afford to lose Ruiz and Gray. They’ll still have a stacked rotation next year, and they already have one of the best young catchers in baseball. They often run away with the NL West crown; in a year where it’s close, it’s worth spending a bit of future potential to shore up the now. Not only that, but both the Padres and Giants were rumored to be in on Scherzer, and adding him keeps their rivals from doing the same.

From the Nats’ standpoint, this feels like a fair return. Again, it’s hard to acquire prospects these days, particularly multiple top 100 prospects in the same deal. Rentals don’t fetch as much as they used to; teams have become more and more averse to surrendering future value for short-term acquisitions. In a surplus value context, the Nationals are coming out ahead, and quite frankly, there probably aren’t other teams who have multiple top 100 prospects they’re willing to trade. The game has swung pretty far towards prospect preservation, at the expense of teams looking to trade veterans at the deadline. It hurts to trade two key cogs from your championship team, but swinging one of the biggest prospect returns in terms of top-end talent since the Chris Archer trade should soften the blow.

It’s become fashionable in baseball to hold onto your prospects and play the long game. A lot of the time, it’s the right play — that’s why every front office does it. That’s not always the case, however, and I think the Dodgers are wise to recognize when it’s time to step on the gas pedal. This deal takes a great team and kicks it into overdrive, just when they most need it. Watching them slug it out with the Padres and Giants down the stretch should be a delight.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Slacker Georgemember
2 years ago

Assuming the Dodgers know whether Turner was vaccinated, this seems like an incredible risk if he wasn’t.

2 years ago
Reply to  Slacker George

Do you not remember the whole Justin Turner World Series saga?

Slacker Georgemember
2 years ago
Reply to  Sodaks

Yes, I remember. I don’t see how it relates to my point. MLB Player Risk, from greatest to lowest: No Vaccine + Covid, No Vaccine + No Covid, Vaccine + Covid, Vaccine + No Covid. If Dodgers traded for Turner and he was not vaccinated and is on Covid IL, how is that not a huge risk? You can’t assume Turner would be unaffected by COVID.