Dodgers Upgrade Rotation in Unexpected, Intelligent Way

The Dodgers have an apparently endless supply of cash, and are using it to run the largest payroll in baseball this year, so naturally, any time a prominent and expensive player is rumored to be trade bait, LA is one of the first teams mentioned. They’ve been linked to Cole Hamels all year. More recently, they’ve been tied to David Price. They needed pitching, they had the money to afford those guys, and so the fit seemed to make sense.

But we should perhaps note that, since Andrew Friedman took over the reigns of the Dodgers baseball operations department, that’s not really how the Dodgers have used their resources. They haven’t been at all shy about throwing money around, but they haven’t yet shown any willingness to spend big money on Major League veterans. Despite a roster that they wanted to completely turnover, they only signed two prominent MLB free agents over the winter, and both Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson were more mid-level value plays than the buy-stars-with-cash approach.

When they needed a catcher, they traded for Yasmani Grandal, who they saw as an undervalued player they could acquire at a good price, and managed to dump a lot of Matt Kemp’s overpriced contract in the deal. They wanted a new middle infield, but targeted production-over-flash with Howie Kendrick and Jimmy Rollins, solid role players on short-term commitments who could provide value while waiting for the team’s up-and-coming prospects to develop. They needed better relievers to get them to Kenley Jansen, so they traded for Juan Nicasio and Chris Hatcher, then went with a bunch of youngsters after guys like Yimi Garcia dominated spring training. The Dodgers have had plenty of opportunities to use their ample payroll to acquire marquis players, and at every chance, they’ve gone another direction.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that, when it came time to replace McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu in the rotation, they looked for alternatives to the go-get-the-most-expensive-guy plan. That isn’t to say that they won’t still end up with Price– we’d be fools to ever assume the Dodgers are done working on things, given the number of moves they’ve made in the last year — or some other big name player before Friday’s deadline, but today’s move is probably the most Dodgers transaction we’ve seen since Friedman and Farhan Zaidi were given unlimited funds and told to do what they do best.

The deal, as we understand it at this point.

Dodgers Acquire:

LHP Alex Wood
RHP Mat Latos
RHP Jim Johnson
LHP Luis Avilan
2B/OF Jose Peraza
1B Michael Morse

Braves Acquire:

2B/3B Hector Olivera
LHP Paco Rodriguez
RHP Zach Bird
Competitive Balance Pick (#35 overall, currently)

Marlins Acquire:

RHP Jeff Brigham
RHP Victor Araujo
RHP Kevin Guzman
Corporate Profits

The Dodgers, of course, just signed Hector Olivera to a $62.5 million contract a few months ago — because international spending has been a primary area where the team has invested their financial resources — but then saw his role on the team clouded when Justin Turner decided to just keep hitting. So, rather than simply let a valuable asset hang around as depth, the Dodgers are using Olivera to upgrade their pitching staff.

Jeff wrote up the reasons for optimism surrounding Mat Latos this morning, back when this looked like a pretty bland two team deal, but the prize here is clearly Alex Wood, who isn’t at the level of Hamels or Price but also isn’t quite as far behind as you might think. Here are the the numbers for those three pitchers since 2013, the first year of Wood’s big league career.

David Price 581 4% 24% 42% 9% 73% 0.300 82 76 79
Alex Wood 368 7% 22% 47% 8% 77% 0.316 84 85 92
Cole Hamels 553 7% 24% 45% 9% 76% 0.295 86 83 88

Price is on another level — his ERA is only close to the other two because of a low strand rate, but that’s a short-term fluctuation, as his career results line up with his excellent peripherals — but Wood’s numbers aren’t that different than Hamels, albeit in about 60% of the innings. Certainly, he doesn’t have the track record of either of the two multiple-time All-Stars, and his combination of a painful-looking delivery, a decrease in velocity, and a drop in strikeout rate make him a significantly more risky asset than the established stars, but clearly, the upside for him to pitch at a high level is there. He’s done it for roughly the equivalent of two full seasons, after all.

Going for Wood instead of Hamels or Price is somewhat similar to going for McCarthy instead of Max Scherzer or Jon Lester, with the Dodgers betting they can get 85-90% of the performance for 25% of the cost, and taking on some health risk in the process. Wood has already had Tommy John surgery once, missed some time with forearm tightness last year, and if you haven’t seen him throw before, check these GIFs out, and you’ll quickly see why a lot of people think he’s not going to be able to do this forever. That delivery could be charitably described as funky, and while predicting future injuries isn’t a secret anyone has yet solved, he certainly seems to check a lot of boxes for a guy who might be a short-peak pitcher, not entirely unlike Tim Lincecum.

So while Wood is still just 24 and under team control for four more seasons, he’s probably more of a short-term asset than is typical of a player his age. Perhaps the mechanical concerns are overblown, and maybe the strikeout rate and velocity declines aren’t signs of a lingering health issue; if all those things are true, Wood could very well still be one of the best pitchers in baseball in a few years. But there’s enough risk here to think that you’re acquiring Wood for about what he can do for you for the next year or two, and anything beyond that is probably gravy.

But Wood also doesn’t cost $25 million per year; he’ll make something close to the league minimum in 2016, and then go through arbitration three times, where his low-ish career innings totals should keep his prices reasonable, and of course, if he blows up along the way, those final years of control aren’t guaranteed. If he only lasts a few years before his elbow explodes, then the financial cost to the Dodgers will be minimal; he’s only going to cost real money if he turns into a long-term asset.

Of course, the Dodgers are paying for Wood, just in a roundabout way. $28 million of the $62 million they agreed to pay Olivera was in the form of a signing bonus, and now that he’ll never suit up for them, that money could instead be seen as a down payment on Wood’s future performance. But this whole transaction is a little more complicated than that, since there are a lot of pieces trading places, and assigning the cost of Olivera’s bonus to just one piece of the deal isn’t so straight forward.

After all, the Dodgers are getting back a solid prospect in Jose Peraza, a guy who ranked #44 on Kiley McDaniels pre-season Top 200. After a mediocre season in Triple-A (though is still just 21), he’ll likely rate lower on next year’s batch of lists, but he’s still a valuable asset. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got flipped in another trade before the deadline, or later this winter, as the Dodgers still have a surplus of middle infield prospects, but even if the Dodgers aren’t planning on Peraza as their long-term second baseman, he clearly has value to them and the rest of the league.

Between taking on the rest of Morse’s salary and essentially eating Olivera’s signing bonus, the Dodgers are using roughly $40 million to acquire Wood, Latos, Peraza, and Jim Johnson; the prospects they’re sending away are of minimal consequence, and Paco Rodriguez is out for the year following elbow surgery. To get back two solid major league starters, a quality reliever, and a legitimate prospect in exchange for essentially agreeing to pay Olivera’s signing bonus for the Braves and take on the money left on Morse’s deal is a remarkable bargain for Los Angeles.

Wood alone may very well produce $40 million in value above his salary over his team controlled years. Peraza is from the class of prospects that has been the centerpiece in deals for the best rentals traded so far, so even if they flip him, he’ll bring back something pretty shiny himself. And Latos and Johnson are solid depth pieces for a win-now team, and the Dodgers are getting them for something close to free.

Even after this trade, there’s still plenty of speculation that the Dodgers will make a run at David Price, and perhaps Wood or Peraza will be heading to Detroit in the next 36 hours. But at some point, maybe we’re all going to realize that big named MLB players haven’t really been Friedman and Zaidi’s thing. When they’ve spent money, it’s been to sign long-term assets internationally, or to buy draft picks or prospects from other organizations that don’t have the Dodgers cashflows. Wood and Latos fit in as perfectly reasonable #3 and #4 starters behind Kershaw and Greinke, so while David Price would absolutely make them better, they’ve essentially just filled out their rotation using the same plan they used last winter; bet on talent instead of health while looking for value instead of paying the retail price.

Of course, the Dodgers might not stop here just because they don’t need another starting pitcher; they didn’t need Hector Olivera when they outbid the Braves for him a few months ago either. Alex Wood is likely the kind of 2016 asset that the Tigers would love to land in a Price trade, though the Tigers would have to give up more than just Price to get Wood, in all likelihood; it’s not too hard to squint and see a deal for both Price and Yoenis Cespedes that also has the Tigers taking on some of the remaining Andre Ethier or Carl Crawford money as an incentive for the Dodgers to ship Wood north.

But for now, that’s all just speculation. While this deal isn’t final, and last night’s Carlos Gomez non-trade is a reminder that even fully-leaked deals aren’t done until they’re announced, the Dodgers have apparently gone a long way towards filling out their pitching staff, and doing it without really touching the young base of talent they have in their organization. It’s making deals like this, rather than simply unloading the farm system for expensive stars, that are why the Dodgers are going to be really good for a really long time.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Alex Wood: first MLB player to start at age 12.

Don Agan
Don Agan

I’m old and confused