Mookie Betts Trade Underscores NL West Imbalance

On Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Dodgers traded for Mookie Betts and David Price. Assuming the parties involved can hammer out the details, the deal obviously makes the Dodgers a better baseball team, both in the here and now and, to a lesser extent, in the future. For Los Angeles fans tired of October flameouts and agonizing World Series defeats, this is fantastic news: Betts alone is something like a five-win upgrade and he’ll make a long lineup that much more daunting come the playoffs.

As far as simply reaching the playoffs goes though, Betts barely moves the needle. Of all the teams in baseball, it’s not like this one “needed” to get better, at least when it comes to maximizing its playoff chances. Dan Szymborski took great pains to express that the ZiPS projections he’s cooking up are still under-baked and not yet fit for public consumption; that caveat aside, he has the Dodgers projected to win the NL West by 12 games without Betts. With him in the fold, that jumps to 16. Los Angeles has already won the division seven times in a row; with a loaded roster, and a deep farm system, their streak wasn’t in any jeopardy this year and won’t be for some time yet.

Whether or not the trade looks redundant in a competitive sense for the Dodgers, it must feel like just another body blow in Phoenix, Denver, and San Diego. Through the realities of geography, vagaries of expansion, and a league-wide desire to limit travel costs, four other franchises are stuck perpetually competing with the West Coast’s foremost superpower. The Giants have the resources to remain competitive in spite of their southern rival, but the other three teams have looked comparatively hapless. The Giants and Dodgers have captured all but one division title since 2007. In that period, the Padres, Diamondbacks, and Rockies have only reached the playoffs five times combined, never escaping the NLDS. For the little three, the Dodgers are an immovable barrier blocking any real chance of sustained success. That’s a problem in a league that emphasizes postseason glory first and foremost, particularly in a sport that is primarily consumed locally.

The arbitrary unfairness of divisions isn’t a new problem. We hear about it whenever a club or two outgrows its neighborhood, most notably with the Braves at the turn of the century, or the AL East in the mid-aughts when the Yankees and Red Sox were swapping pennants while their division mates mostly failed to tread water. The point was as salient then as it is now, and the proof is in the results: Over the last 15 years, in a period where the Red Sox and Yankees each went through something like a slump by their standards, those two still managed to capture 11 division crowns and four championships.

This isn’t an easy time to mount an argument against divisions, or really do anything else to address competitive balance. In an age where too many teams are willfully uncompetitive, the reflexive answer to any club crying about the big bad bully in their division would go something like “Well, have you really tried beating them?” There’s certainly no reason to feel badly for the perennially cellar-dwelling Marlins, a glorified hedge fund that happens to employ baseball players, or even a team like the Mariners, who have sporadically shown they have the financial wherewithal to compete, even as October baseball still dangles stubbornly out of reach.

But that’s not really the case in the NL West. The Padres, at the very least, are battling. In recent years, the club has assembled arguably the top collection of minor league talent we’ve seen this century. That in and of itself isn’t a ticket to anywhere — the Friars headed a lot of 2012 prospect list rankings and got very little out of that core — but this system is already bearing fruit, in the form of stars like Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack, with the promise of more on the way. San Diego has also been the rare bird active on the free agent market in recent years, having signed Eric Hosmer for $140 million prior to the 2018 season and Manny Machado for another $300 million the following winter. I don’t know if you could earnestly describe any major league club as financially “maxed out” or “all in.” But the Padres have been as aggressive as anyone lately, having combined big investments in free agency with a stellar crop of minor leaguers. And after all that, they’re probably stuck hoping for a spot in a Wild Card game some time in the next few years.

It’s a similar story for the Diamondbacks. Arizona’s farm system is also one of the best in baseball, even after dealing from strength to acquire Starling Marte earlier this winter. The club has deftly moved on from the Goldschmidt era without tearing everything down, or even getting appreciably worse in the interim, and they’ve also busted out the checkbook in free agency, adding players like Madison Bumgarner and Kole Calhoun. In another division, they’d be legitimate contenders for the title. In this one, not so much.

Colorado faces even greater competitive disadvantages. Rockies pitchers already have to work half of their games in the most difficult ballpark in baseball, which presents an undue burden on young pitchers acclimating to the big leagues and a significant obstacle to recruiting free agents who can help manage the load. Their hitters are also challenged by the altitude, especially on the road, when they must adjust to breaking balls dipping and spinning and dropping far more than they do at home. That they must also contend with a well-run financial behemoth like the Dodgers seems like at least one obstacle too many.

That rings especially true when you compare the divisions. The Dodgers have won an average of 101 games over the past three years, and could well top that this season. The NL Central and NL East winners, meanwhile, have averaged 93 and 94.6 wins respectively over that time, with no club hitting the 100-win mark. The Central looks like a particularly flimsy division in 2020, where none of the five teams — three of which either got worse or were mostly inactive — look like a good bet to reach 90 wins.

The fairness of a divisional system is predicated on an even distribution of talent, at least in the long run. That’s hard to achieve in any sport and it’s pretty clearly not a reality in baseball, where the biggest markets are densely concentrated on the coasts and a few huge teams can consistently squat atop the pile. Big franchises will always win disproportionately no matter the setup, and there’s only so much that can (and should) be done about that. But that doesn’t mean it’s fair for some challengers to have a taller hill to climb than others. The absurdity of the current setup from a competitive standpoint should be readily evident: It makes no sense to consistently handicap the Orioles and Diamondbacks with a tougher landscape than the Nationals and Tigers.

The fairest fix is to eliminate the divisions. Most fans have embraced the second Wild Card, and there’s no reason you’d have to eliminate the play-in game in a new format. You’d simply line up the five best teams in each circuit, and have the fourth-best host the fifth for the honor of traveling to the league champ. The benefits are clear: It’s much fairer, and it also offers a chance to enhance the prestige of the regular season by conferring a greater importance on — and subsequently appreciation for — winning the most games in the league. Best of all, if the Diamondbacks win the third most games in the league, as they did in 2017, they won’t have to worry about gutting their way through the coin-flip round.

Of course, to do this effectively you’d have to make everyone travel more, which costs time and money, something neither the players nor ownership seem likely to embrace. That’s the reality and with no shortage of pressing issues on the horizon before the next collective bargaining negotiation, divisional imbalance is not a subject likely to garner much air time. Sooner or later though, Padres fans are going to see their top farm system and big free agent outlays on one half of the division, and LA’s star-studded roster and financial might on the other, and think that there must be a better way to run things. They’ll be right about that.





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ascheff
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ascheff

I don’t agree with this point: “the deal obviously makes the Dodgers a better baseball team, both in the here and now and, to a lesser extent, in the future.”

I understand why the Dodgers made the trade and think it was probably a good move, but they traded five years of Alex Verdugo for one year of Mookie Betts. Obviously they could extend or sign Betts in free agency, but they could have done that in nine months without giving up Verdugo. I think this trade pretty unequivocally makes the Dodgers better in 2020 and worse in 2021-2024. Obviously they won’t mind if they win a World Series in 2020, and they’ll still almost certainly be the best team on paper in the NL West in 2021, but this trade definitely made the 2021 Dodgers worse than they would have been without making it.

HappyFunBall
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HappyFunBall

And of course there are many more pieces than that. Stripling and Maeda moved out to make room for Price, which is a relatively break-even place to be performance-wise, but FAR more expensive dollars-wise in the years 2021+

If the LADs extend Betts then it probably does help them some in the future, but it will be at a massive cost that will almost assuredly necessitate moving out some other parts.

If they do not extend Mookie, then I struggle to see how it makes them better in 2021 even a little bit.

bosoxforlife
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bosoxforlife

That is, of course, the counter argument to why the Red Sox side of the deal looks good over the longer term. The Red Sox, already facing a potential Yankee powerhouse this year, will be weaker in 2020 but potentially stronger in 2021-2025. A very reasonable trade-off from the Red Sox point of view.

stever20
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stever20

I wouldn’t go so far to say it unequivocally makes them better in 2020. Joc Pederson was a pretty good hitter. He’s not that far off of what Betts does at the plate….

However pitching wise. Lose Maeda and Stripling, and gain Price. Regular season Maeda has been a better starter than Price. Stripling gives you solid innings. And you get to the playoffs, and while Price will probably be a starter, how good will he be, and also you have the rather huge hole in the bullpen from what Maeda gives them.

BenZobrist4MVP
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BenZobrist4MVP

Joc Pederson has a career 120 wRC+ and is an average corner outfielder and average baserunner. Mookie Betts has a career 135 wRC+ and is an excellent fielder and excellent baserunner. Joc is a good player, but Mookie is much, much better.

stever20
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stever20

120 vs 135 is a bit more than 10% better….

I think people think of Betts and think totally of what has been his career year.

bosoxforlife
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bosoxforlife

Unless a fan has had an opportunity to watch Betts play every game for the past 5 1/2 years it is very difficult to realize just how good he is at every aspect of the game. His defense in RF is sublime. Great range, great jumps and a cannon hidden inside the right sleeve. His base running is equally superb. While this part of the game doesn’t contribute as much as his bat and glove he never lets an opportunity to advance go by and often makes things happen with his daring. I was privileged to have watched Jackie Robinson change the game with his flair on the basepaths and Mookie is in the same class.

RoyalsFan#14321
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RoyalsFan#14321

Nah dude, it’s easy enough to pull up their respective player pages here at FG and see how awesome Mookie Betts is at every aspect of the game. His worst season (so far) might be considered a career year for Joc Pederson. Joc is a good player, and a worthy OF for a playoff team, but Betts is next level superstar.

This comment thread is awfully confusing.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

That’s not a fair calculation. You need to subtract the expected wRC+ of a replacement player (the kind specified by WAR) from both figures, and only then should you calculate the ratio.

Curacao LL
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Curacao LL

10% is a lot at this level.

ResumeMan
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ResumeMan

“Joc Pederson …[is] … not that far off of what Betts does at the plate….”

Yes he is! Even taking a relatively down year for Mookie, last year he was 6.6 WAR, .380 wOBA, vs Joc at 3.0, .362 and BIG platoon splits.

The pitchers are a big wild card. Comes down to health really since both Maeda and Price have been iffy on that front lately. If one gets hurt and the other’s healthy that obviously skews things quite a bit. But if they’re both healthy I’d take Price.

So yes, I think this makes the Dodgers better this year.

I do agree that I don’t see how this necessarily helps them past 2020.

stever20
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stever20

Kind of curious why you didn’t use wRC+ instead of WAR. Obviously the fielding is a big advantage for Betts….. BUT at the plate, .380 vs .362 is not a big difference…..

Also, not sure why you are saying it’s a Down year. Here are his wRC+ for his career….
120, 136, 107, 185, and 135. What it looks like is the 185 was a huge outlier. you say use wOBA. .351, .379, .339, .449, .380. Once again the .449 was a huge outier.

Sorry but Betts looking at the numbers looks really propped up by a huge career year(where he had a babip of .368, some 54 points above his career average.

Maeda been far healthier than Price the last few years. 2 of the last 3 years, Price hasn’t even made 110 innings.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

So aside from the fact that Mookie Betts is an excellent baserunner and defender–far better than Joc Pederson on both points–the big difference for them is that Joc Pederson hits well against lefties, and Mookie Betts hits well against everyone.

The result is that the rate stats here are misleading because the Dodgers never play him against left-handed pitchers, and when they do, he subtracts value instead of adding to it. Joc Pederson and Mookie Betts had kind of similar wRC+’s last year, but Mookie’s 37 Off is literally double that of Joc Pederson’s 18.4.

Add it all up and Mookie Betts is a 5.5-6-win player and Joc Pederson is a 2.5-3-win player, and that’s an unbelievably large difference. Betts is more or less twice as good as Joc Pederson in anything you can measure, partly because he is better on a rate basis, and partly because he can play a lot more. Joc Pederson is a really good baseball player who can be part of an exceptionally productive platoon, but Mookie Betts is a Top 10 position player in MLB, some would say higher.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Well, why are you only comparing their hitting values while ignoring their defense and baserunning in the first place?

Rich
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Rich

2019 wasn’t a down year for Mookie. That was about what you should expect in a good year from him. In his other 4 full seasons, he’s exceeded that 2019 twice and underperformed it twice. The range of outcomes is all very good, but he’s a solid 6ish WAR player overall.

sugarsticky
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sugarsticky

Joc is propped up by a strict platoon. Give him the no. of at-bats Betts gets and watch that wRC+ plummet.

stever20
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stever20

but what has the other side of the platoon done for the Dodgers there? That’s what you need to compare- what the Dodgers have gotten total there compared to what Betts will give you.

I think there is this thought that Betts is one of the 5-6 best batters in MLB. Last 5 years he’s #16 in wRC+. Right between Rizzo and George Springer.

Also Betts on defense has slipped. In 2 years, his defense part of the WAR calculations has gone down from 14.3 to 11.6 to 6.3.

bosoxforlife
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bosoxforlife

Which proves again that defensive WAR is GARBAGE.

drewsylvania
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drewsylvania

Defensive metrics are notoriously unreliable at the season level. Also, WAR in general does not account for the huge RF at Fenway. You need a CF to play RF well at Fenway.

Betts would be a CF on any other team, and a good one.

And…Joc is a platoon player. Your comparison was Betts/Pederson, not Betts/both sides of that platoon.

You keep changing your argument.

TommyLasordid
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TommyLasordid

If you’re judging whether the Dodgers got better with this trade then you need to include who will be replacing Maeda and Stripling as starters, and that will likely be Price and May. Plus the Dodgers have already addressed their bullpen. The 2019 version of Ryu will be missed, but I doubt the Dodgers would have seen that level of pitching over the next four years. Better to make way for May and Gonsolin.

insidb
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insidb

Ummm, Joc is as good as Mookie is from both sides of the plate, from only one side of the plate: he’s essentially a platoon player.

I will agree that, IF Stripling goes, the Dodgers have some potentially VERY serious pitching issues.

In 2019, Price put up an fWAR that would have been 5th in the Dodgers rotation, and LAD looks poised to move 3 of their top 5 arms.

Given Wood’s and Price’s injury histories, this team could end up looking very early 2000s Yankees: all pop and no pitching.

Moranall
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Moranall

By the Steamer projections, the Dodgers are sending out 8.7 fWAR (Verdugo, Pederson, Maeda, and Stripling) and receiving 8.8 back (Betts + Price). Obviously these are median projections, but that doesn’t make the Dodgers “obviously better” like every writer and fan seems to just assume.

If Betts plays like his 10-win season in 2018, then yes, this will be a win for the Dodgers. But what if he plays closer to the projection? What if Price’s injury woes continue and the stuff stays diminished? Suddenly, it’s pretty likely that this ends up more as a wash than an improvement, as the projections are saying.

This trade gives the Dodgers more upside – if Betts and Price can play above their projections, which they are capable of doing, then it’s good. But the Dodgers just traded away their biggest strength: depth. Losing Pederson and Verdugo is really significant – do you REALLY expect a full season from AJ Pollock???

And look at the rotation – Kershaw, Buehler, Price, Wood, and Urias. Price and Wood are walking IL stints and have massive question marks for 2020. Wood has not been very good since he lost velo in the middle of 2017. Kershaw hasn’t made more than 28 starts since 2015!!

In the past few years, the Dodgers have been so good because of their depth. They’ve mastered manipulating the injured list for their starting pitching. Any time they had to fill another hole, they had another really solid player coming in. That’s no longer the case. In the almost certain case that one of their pitchers gets hurt at some point, now they’re turning to a rookie (May or Gonsolin) instead of someone like Rich Hill, Maeda, or Stripling. And while it’s likely May ends up being a good pitcher, is that what you really want to count on in a 2020 playoff push?

This trade, simply put, does not make the Dodgers better. It has the potential to make them better, but it also adds a lot more risk and question marks to their roster. It’s mostly likely that this trade ends up being fairly neutral, as the projections show, except that LA gave up 4 years of control for Verdugo (already projected for over 3 WAR), for 1 year of Betts.

radivel
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Concentrating more WAR in fewer players also allows you to make upgrades or have greater contributions from more different sources. That’s why the game’s best players are so coveted, because they represent concentrated value.

I know the point you’re trying to make about comparing WAR, but a 4 for 2 comparison of values should really be 4 for 4, but we don’t know who the other 2 are.

bernardgilkeyhasaposse
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bernardgilkeyhasaposse

very much the case – my Cardinals tend to have an excess of 2-2.5 WAR type guys, and except for that 1 season we got from Heyward (who was fantastic) – it’s been hard to wrangle a serious upgrade.

HappyFunBall
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HappyFunBall

Yeah, mostly it’s about upgrading the top end of the roster. They shipped out useful depth and added one of the few guys in MLB with a puncher’s chance of out WAR-ing Mike Trout.

They can probably replace the useful depth with other guys that might not have made the roster otherwise. Guys that can help win 100 games but don’t have much of a role in the postseason.

The cost in years 2021+ is enormous. This isn’t just a win-now trade. This is a 2020 World Series or Bust move like no other.

Francoeurstein
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Francoeurstein

I’d argue that the cost isn’t enormous – given the Dodgers flexibility, depth, and minor league resources. I’d say the cost of the Chris Sale trade was enormous when regarding the future.

Rich
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Rich

I agree that it seems to be a 2020-or-bust move for sure, but doesn’t it feel like the Dodgers are also saying “Well, we always seem to get the pitching side of the equation wrong, so hopefully we’ll just be able to outscore everyone now”?

drewsylvania
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drewsylvania

How on earth do you come to the conclusion that they get the pitching side of the equation wrong?

Also, Betts is a great defender, it’s not about outscoring on offense.

Rich
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Rich

Maybe because pitching, and Dave Roberts’ management of such, is what has been their downfall in every playoff run… There’s really not much room to argue against that.

Famous Mortimer
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I think the players they traded away are eminently replaceable, far more so than a player like Mookie. I like that they’re not fetishising years of control when they know they can just pay money and get a Verdugo-like player back. With their top-level prospects, how much would they have needed Verdugo anyway?