The Dodgers just traded prized pitching prospect Jose De Leon to the Rays in exchange for Logan Forsythe, and since then, I’ve heard nothing but favorable reviews for the Dodgers’ end of things. (That doesn’t mean that outsiders didn’t also like it from the Rays’ side, though.)
It’s easy to see why. Andrew Friedman is every saber-blogger’s superhero. The Dodgers have had a recent history of success, winning 90+ games and the division crown in each of the past four seasons. Although they have also sported the highest payroll in baseball over that period, most of that was residue from the Ned Colletti administration, and the majority of their recent key transactions have been of the low-key variety.
The Dodgers needed a starting second baseman, a leadoff hitter with capable on-base abilities, and someone who could hit lefties. They found someone in Brian Dozier who could check all three boxes, but reached an impasse with the Twins because Minnesota reportedly wanted Jose De Leon and at least one other highly-regarded prospect. The Dodgers then found someone else (Forsythe) who also checked all three boxes, and they acquired him for the price of just De Leon. Forsythe is considered quite the underrated commodity himself, someone who fits perfectly into the archetype of the kind of player that the new Dodgers regime would target.
The rationale for the move, from the Dodgers’ perspective, was very easily explainable and came from many corners of the Internet, including from authors whose opinions I greatly respect. FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan loved it. Our very own Ryan Romano understood the Dodgers’ perspective as well.
However, it’s time to be the wet blanket. I’m just not seeing how this was the best course of action for the Dodgers and their second base spot this offseason. The only reason that it was even a hole in the first place was because Los Angeles dealt Howie Kendrick at the beginning of the offseason for two players, Darin Ruf and Darnell Sweeney, that are neither high-level prospects nor players that are likely to be on the Dodgers’ 25-man roster for the majority of the 2017 season.
If you take a look at Kendrick’s career numbers and compare them to Forsythe’s, they look remarkably similar.
In fact, Kendrick’s are slightly better, and come with a much longer track record.
“But wait!” you proclaim so loud in my ear that I almost regret writing this article, “Kendrick’s worst full season of his career came last season, while Forsythe’s best two came in each of the last two seasons! Simply using career numbers doesn’t properly weight recent events!”
This is true, so why don’t we use a projection system, such as Steamer, that does weigh recency?
They’re projected for remarkably similar non-adjusted lines, but because Steamer expects Kendrick to spend his home games in the righty-friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park, Forsythe’s line comes out to a production roughly five percentage points better.
The large difference in perception between Kendrick and Forsythe comes primarily from age and Kendrick’s awful 2016 season. Kendrick is four years older than Forsythe and posted a pitiful .255/.326/.366 line last season. However, Kendrick is far more durable than Forsythe, who has had quite a lengthy injury history in his limited MLB career. Like Forsythe, he hits both lefties and righties, can play multiple positions, and comes on a relatively affordable contract that has minimal long-term obligations. Lastly, if you take out Kendrick’s first and last month of the season, he hit a much more Kendrick-like .286/.358/.431. Of course, you can’t just “take those out”, because they still happened, but it just shows that he’s capable of posting a strong four-month span, and did so in the very recent past.
None of this is to say that Kendrick at one year and roughly $10 million is as valuable as Forsythe at 2 years and roughly $15 million, or even that Kendrick is as good as Forsythe. But the point is that they’re comparable enough, and the Dodgers already had Kendrick in-house and under contract. Now, there’s the added wrinkle that Kendrick requested a trade, but that was likely because he wasn’t happy with the role he had in 2016, often coming off the bench and bouncing around between left field, second base, third base, and first base. Would he have requested out of LA if he were guaranteed the starting second base job? I can’t say for sure, but I feel comfortable saying probably not.
There are enough additional signs in 2016 (career-high walk rate for Kendrick, career-worst strikeout rate and contact percentage for Forsythe) that I can’t definitively say that Logan Forsythe will be better than Howie Kendrick next year. Forsythe is a better bet, but the difference between the two is probably similar to the difference between Forsythe and Brian Dozier.
Now, the larger problem I have with this deal isn’t with Forsythe, because I think he’ll be a fine addition to a team that is already an overwhelming favorite to make the playoffs. It has to do with the acquisition cost. Is the difference between Kendrick and Forsythe really worth Jose De Leon, a more-or-less consensus top 30 prospect across the minors? If you answered “yes” to that incremental difference, then why did the Dodgers refuse to send De Leon and an unnamed additional player to the Twins in exchange for Dozier?
It’s like going to the movies and seeing three sizes of popcorn – the small size costs $2, the medium costs $5, and the large costs $6. The Dodgers just bought the medium size popcorn. Assuming they were craving popcorn, and they can eat all of the popcorn in the large size without diminishing marginal satisfaction (as is the case with wins above replacement), then sure, they made a purchase that would satisfy their needs. But it was far from the optimal or efficient purchase, and that’s the problem here.
The other argument I hear is that Jose De Leon was expendable to the Dodgers because of their rotation depth, sporting six other legitimate options competing for just the fifth spot (Alex Wood, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, Hyun Jin Ryu, Brock Stewart, and Ross Stripling), not to mention prospects Trevor Oaks, Chase De Jong, and Josh Sborz close to MLB-ready as well. But just because De Leon’s projected value, especially relative to the alternatives, was negligible, doesn’t mean that the Dodgers should’ve gotten less than full value for him.
I’m rarely a fan of one-for-one veteran-for-prospect swaps from the side dealing away the prospect, because that probably means that the acquiring team just landed the maximum-level prospect for their MLB asset. The expected value for a prospect tends to follow an exponential curve, in that a more-highly regarded prospect is exponentially more likely to succeed than a fringe prospect. By dealing three to four prospects instead of one superior prospect, even if the team is increasing the chances of dealing away a future major leaguer (which may not even be true), it is lessening the chance of dealing a future star. Now, I trust that the Dodgers did their due diligence, so Forsythe was probably the best second baseman they could’ve acquired for De Leon straight up. However, they should’ve only moved De Leon for a better prize in the first place, and centering a package around him while adding additional pieces would’ve allowed them to acquire a superior player or a younger one with more years of team control.
As I mentioned before, adding something like Willie Calhoun or Yusniel Diaz in order to land Dozier would’ve made more sense. Javy Baez projects to something similar as Forsythe, but he’s younger, comes with more team control at a cheaper price, and has significantly more upside. With the presence of Jurickson Profar in Texas, maybe the Dodgers could’ve pried away Rougned Odor. Jose Ramirez and Anthony Rendon are both capable second basemen forced to play third base because of strong teammates, but each player’s value is being suppressed because the threshold for hitting is stronger at the hot corner. Friedman, the king of three-team trades, could’ve explored a three-way trade sending a De Leon-package to a third party, sending a true third baseman with a superior offensive profile (such as Jung Ho Kang or Evan Longoria) to Cleveland or Washington, and sending Ramirez or Rendon to LA.
The last intriguing option would have been to acquire a third baseman directly, such as pending free agent and personal favorite Mike Moustakas, and utilize Justin Turner at second base for a season. As crazy as that sounds, Jhonny Peralta and Chase Utley have shown over the years that positioning matters much more in defense than pure range does, and Turner was a former second baseman himself. In addition, more so than with any other position, second base has become a heavily shifted position in recent years that relies on team data and spray charts rather than the natural range of the defender.
Some of the second basemen that I mentioned may not even be available. But the issue is that at least one of them was — at least two, in fact (Forsythe and Dozier). And the Dodgers were the only legitimate buyer looking for a second baseman, as the Twins can attest. Hopefully you remember basic economics from your high school or college class — when supply (at least two available second basemen) exceeds demand (one team looking for a second baseman), the buyer is the one that should receive a discount below equilibrium. The fact that the Dodgers did not receive this, and that the Twins are almost assuredly stuck with Dozier to begin the season, means that there was both lost consumer and producer surplus here. It’s admirable that each team set a value for their assets and stuck to it, but their stubbornness ended up hurting each side.
It’s impossible to say which of the above hypotheticals were actually options Los Angeles could’ve pursued, and at the end of the day, they’ve put themselves in a position to contend. They needed to make a move for a second baseman, especially after moving Kendrick. In a vacuum, this was a deal that the Dodgers absolutely had to do. And by filling their need without stripping their prospect cupboards bare, they did the job.
However, they are not in a vacuum. The options weren’t “trade for Forsythe” or “make no trades at all and head into the season”. There were other, better alternatives, and the Dodgers strayed away from them in favor of the medium size popcorn.