Heading into the offseason, the Dodgers looked like one of the prospective NL juggernauts for 2017 — with one glaring problem. Chase Utley had manned second base for the club in 2016, but he was set to become a free agent, and at age 38, he wouldn’t last much longer. Howie Kendrick, who’d been a second baseman for most of his career, had struggled on offense after moving to left field; the team would later offload him on the Phillies.
This situation was less than ideal, so Andrew Friedman and co. tried to remedy it. First they attempted — repeatedly — to trade for the Twins’ Brian Dozier. Those plans eventually fell through, forcing the Dodgers to their Plan B: Logan Forsythe. A few hours ago, they pried him away from the Rays in exchange for pitching prospect Jose De Leon.
Two years ago, Forsythe was a nobody — he’d hit .235/.303/.343 over 1,098 plate appearances, which translated to an 84 wRC+ and 1.1 fWAR. Then in 2015, he exploded: His triple-slash rose to .281/.359/.444, giving him a 125 wRC+ and 4.0 fWAR. That breakout convinced the Rays to lock him up on a two-year, $10.25-million contract extension. With the $8.5 million team option, that deal ensures Forsythe can stay a Dodger for 2017 and 2018.
What kind of second baseman will Los Angeles be getting for that money? While Forsythe was still a reliable player in 2016, his production declined significantly — he put up only a 113 wRC+ for Tampa Bay. If Forsythe remains a 2.8-fWAR player in 2017, the Dodgers will obviously be satisfied, but they’d most likely prefer he returned to four-win territory.
For that to happen, Forsythe may need to return to his 2015 approach at the plate — swing at pitches in the middle of the zone, rather than undercutting the ball:
In 2016, Forsythe offered at 68.7 percent of pitches in the lower third of the strike zone, up from 57.4 percent in 2015. Concomitantly, he lowered his swing rate on pitches in the middle third from 61.9 percent to 58.3 percent. Although that strategy didn’t help him hit more fly balls — his ground ball rate actually increased by 2.4 percentage points — it did help his home run-fly ball rate grow from 9.7 percent to 14.7 percent.
That approach had two problems, though. The first was that, while Forsythe had more four-baggers in 2016, his two- and three-baggers dropped off. (In less jargon-y terms, he had fewer doubles and triples.) That meant his ISO went up a mere 17 points, from .163 to .180. The second was that he started swinging-and-missing a lot more often, which pumped up his strikeout rate from 18.0 to 22.4 percent.
This could be somewhat unlucky; the rise in whiff rate (6.7 percent in 2015, 8.2 percent in 2016) may not be enough to account for Forsythe’s punchout spike. But Steamer appears to think it’s for real — the system projects a .254/.327/.405 triple-slash and 101 wRC+ for 2017. Playing in a ballpark that doesn’t favor righties, Forsythe could see his output reduced even more; even if that happens, though, he should stay an above-average player overall.
On the other side of this trade, the Rays land a captivating young pitcher in De Leon. The 24-year-old right-hander put together a sterling campaign in Triple-A Oklahoma City last season. Pitching in the notoriously hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, he piled up 111 strikeouts and 20 walks over 86.1 frames of 2.61-ERA ball.
Is De Leon’s ceiling as high as that performance would suggest, though? Earlier this month, Baseball Prospectus’ Craig Goldstein had this to say regarding De Leon:
The MiLB numbers are daunting, but the stuff belies more of a mid-rotation profile.
Goldstein believed some iffy fastball command and a lingering case of gopheritis could sink De Leon, which was definitely the case late in 2016. Following a September promotion, he allowed 17 runs in 17 big-league innings; during that time, his fastball was worth -6.7 runs, according to FanGraphs’ Pitch Type Linear Weights, and he gave up five long balls.
Still, the potential for something more hasn’t gone away. De Leon’s changeup could become a devastating weapon — Goldstein noted it “featured plenty of depth and tumble” and was the best offering in his repertoire — so if he can get his fastball under control and work on his slider, he could blossom into the frontline starter he was in the minors.
L.A.’s roster still has some shortcomings. Adrian Gonzalez is a shell of his former self at first base, and the bullpen is a work in progress (beyond Kenley Jansen, of course). But Forsythe gives them a little bit of certainty at the keystone — even if he can’t arrest his decline, he should at least be an average player, which could be enough to lift the Dodgers back to the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Rays will likely miss out on the postseason for the fourth straight year. That doesn’t make this a bad deal for them, though — they just may not see the rewards in 2017. As De Leon has another year to tinker with his arsenal, he’ll try to put it all together and develop into an ace. If he doesn’t make it that far, well, the Rays will have six years of an average starter, which they’d certainly value.
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Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, and about politics for The Diamondback. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.