At this point in the baseball year, there is a well-defined template for how the trade market works. Contending teams are looking to move prospects for major leaguers that can help them down the stretch to get into, and go as far as possible in, the playoffs. These established MLB players come from teams with poor records and minimal playoff chances looking to plan for the future and acquire young players with more years of team control.
This is how the template always has looked, for as long as the modern system of trades and player compensation has exist, and it’s how the template almost always will look. Contending teams don’t usually trade players off of their MLB roster, especially ones who are significant contributors, because then it becomes somewhat of a lateral move. For example, one major counterexample of this from last deadline was the Nationals moving Felipe Rivero for Mark Melancon, but did that really end up being a major upgrade? It was a one-for-one swap of players at the exact same position, both already in the MLB. Melancon was good, but the impact of his addition was muted, since he was replacing the also-good Rivero.
However, the 2017 Dodgers sit in a unique position in the market. They, along with the Houston Astros, have been the best teams in baseball through the first half of the season. But they’ve achieved their success through much different models of roster construction. The Astros’ success has largely been the product of outstanding performances from their superstars like Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel, and Lance McCullers, not to mention a similar type of production from Marwin Gonzalez (but without the superstar label).
The Dodgers, on the other hand, have been successful largely because of their unbelievable depth up and down the roster. Sure, they have stars — Justin Turner, Corey Seager, Clayton Kershaw, and Kenley Jansen have all been unbelievable. But they don’t have the same stable of stars as the Astros, especially ones anchoring the lineup. For example, the Astros have four guys with a wRC+ of at least 159. The Dodgers have one above 150 wRC+, and he (Turner) doesn’t even have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Instead, the Dodgers’ incredible production from their position players has come from their depth, defensive versatility, and bench production.
In other words, the Astros’ talent is more concentrated, while the Dodgers’ is more evenly distributed throughout the roster. One approach isn’t necessarily better than the other. The Dodgers have minimized their risk while building an almost infallible regular season team. The Astros probably have a better postseason lineup if everyone is healthy.
What this does mean, though, is that the two teams have different types of capital that they can deal at the deadline. The Astros, should they make a move for another starting pitcher, will almost certainly be dealing from their minor league system, with perhaps some fringe contributors on their MLB roster such as Joe Musgrove and Francis Martes available as well.
The Dodgers, on the other hand, can only bat eight of their hitters at one time in a postseason game. They can only start up to four of their six starting pitchers, and they will probably only carry up to eight of their 12 relievers that they’ve been rotating throughout the season (with some of those six starters possibly fighting for the same relief slots as well). They are really the only buyer in the market that can offer significant talent off of their MLB roster in an offer to a seller without doing any damage to their postseason plans.
This is probably somewhat appealing to the Dodgers — they can acquire talent without depleting their minor league system too much, and keep their future outlook strong. But is it more desirable for sellers? The answer is probably that it depends on the team. Teams like the Padres, Phillies, Athletics, and White Sox are in it for the long haul. Their rebuild is more focused on the long-term, and a young MLB player may actually be less desirable than, say, Yadier Alvarez (a 21-year-old pitching prospect in hi-A). The MLB player will be accruing service time and inching closer to free agency while the team is still in its rebuild, while Alvarez (or a similarly young player) will be hitting the majors right when the team is ready to contend. However, other teams that may be selling but not engaging in a full rebuild, like the Orioles, Rangers, Pirates, and Mets, would have a much stronger interest in young MLB players who can contribute in 2018.
The crown jewel of the Dodgers’ young expendable corps is Austin Barnes, who is in the top 10 among all MLB catchers in bWAR, fWAR, and WARP (the version of WAR that includes framing) this season despite serving as the backup to Yasmani Grandal and only accumulating 135 PAs. On a WAR per PA basis, Barnes has been the best catcher in baseball, even ahead of Buster Posey’s ridiculous season. Now, the point isn’t that Barnes projects as the world’s best backstop going forward, but he has plenty of margin to regress from his current .291/.400/.536, 149 wRC+ line and still be excellent. His peripherals back it up — he walks at an outstanding 14.6 percent clip while managing to keep his strikeouts under control (18.5 percent), and his 17.2 percent chase rate is better than every single qualified hitter in the Majors this season. The .333 BABIP and 17.2 HR/FB percent might be slightly high but look far from fluky. Take a peek at Barnes’s minor league numbers and you’ll see a career .299/.388/.439 hitter with more walks plus hit-by-pitches than strikeouts.
He’s also regarded as an excellent framer (by scouts and by Baseball Prospectus’s statistics), decent game-caller, and an above-average athlete for a catcher (he’s stolen 35 bases at an 88% success rate since the start of 2015 between the majors and the minors). He’s logged significant playing time at both second and third base in the minors, and spent some time at second in the MLB. In other words, the combination and diversity of skills here creates both a very high baseline and the possibility of a very high ceiling. Because Barnes is a rookie, he comes with five more years of team control after this season.
In terms of both skill set and value, he’s very comparable to J.T. Realmuto. If you prefer Realmuto’s larger track record at the MLB level, I wouldn’t blame you. If you prefer Barnes’s plate discipline and extra two years of team control, I wouldn’t blame you either. But the point is that the Marlins have basically declared that Realmuto is their most untouchable player, and a player of a similar caliber may be more available than you might think.
Why would the Dodgers move him, if he’s so valuable? Because backup catchers often get exactly zero plate appearances and zero innings in the field over the course of an entire postseason, and Grandal is the incumbent here (and no slouch himself; he’s one of the few catchers above Barnes on the various WAR leaderboards). Grandal is under team control through this season and next, and while the Dodgers may see Barnes as the successor, they may also be interested in re-signing a player that has been so successful for them for the past few seasons. Additionally, the one knock on Barnes is that he’s already 27 years old, and the Dodgers would really be throwing away his prime years by having him serve as a backup for another year and a half. Losing Barnes would hurt the Dodgers, but they already have a potential replacement ready, as their 26-year-old Triple-A catcher Kyle Farmer is currently sporting a .320/.377/.480 line in the minors this season and has been similarly blocked the way Barnes had been over the last couple of seasons. The Dodgers have a surplus of riches at catcher, and the result is a trade chip of a type that no other team can offer.
Another interesting piece that may be available is utility man Chris Taylor, who is currently rocking a .291/.369/.492 line and can play every position on the diamond except catcher and first base. Taylor has been essential to the 2017 Dodgers, having already amassed 2.5 fWAR, and is currently standing in as the starting left fielder while Adrian González is out and Cody Bellinger plays first. That, however, wastes a ton of Taylor’s positional value, and if the Dodgers do end up landing the corner outfielder that they’ve been linked to in trade rumors, Taylor may suddenly find himself without a position. His underlying stats (.389 BABIP, 27.9 K%, 18.5 HR/FB% despite middling quality-of-contact numbers) indicate that Taylor is far from a true-talent 130 wRC+ player. But if you see him as a starting second baseman who can hit 10 percent better than average, or a Ben Zobrist-lite that can accrue 550 plate appearances a year while spelling each of your other starters, and factor in his remaining 4.5 years of team control, you can see why he might be a wildly desirable piece for acquiring teams.
Because the length of this article is already longer than I originally intended, I’m going to have to be short and sweet about Andrew Toles, Julio Urias, Enrique Hernández, Ross Stripling, and Brock Stewart, but they all follow a similar script: young player who has reached the major leagues and would have more value on another team than this iteration of the Dodgers, and who the Dodgers probably won’t rely on during the playoffs. Toles and Urias won’t be able to contribute this season due to injury, but either could be desired if another team is willing to take on the risk that they might not return fully healthy. Hernández’s skillset and profile is similar to Chris Taylor’s, and despite the fact that he comes with less control and might be slightly inferior, would also be interesting as a featured starter on a rebuilding team. Stripling and Stewart are both capable of starting in an MLB rotation right now but have no clear path to that role with the Dodgers.
How does this all relate to the premise of the article? Well, it would allow the Dodgers to make a godfather offer for a player on a non-contending team that may not be thought of as “available”. Pitchers like Jacob deGrom, Carlos Martinez, Marcus Stroman, Gerrit Cole, James Paxton, and Michael Fulmer are probably and understandably deemed unavailable by their respective clubs, as they’re talented hurlers under control for multiple seasons, and the teams that currently employ them all intend to compete during that window of control. But if these teams get overwhelmed by an offer from the Dodgers of players with even longer control and the ability to perform right away, that stance may soften.
To reference the Melancon trade from earlier, the Pirates were looking to move Melancon last deadline but didn’t want to commit to a full rebuild because they planned to contend in 2017. Therefore, they targeted Felipe Rivero, who wasn’t a prospect but a young MLB player with ample service time, as the main return for Melancon, and Rivero has been a major contributor to the Pirates’ roster this season. The Dodgers could do something similar, but for a player much, much more impactful than Melancon, and with more than half a season of team control remaining.
Now, it’s always possible that all of this talk will have been for nothing. The Dodgers could elect not to add anyone significant at the deadline; the roster they have currently is fearsome enough. They could also go the traditional route and use prospect capital to acquire a veteran, as youngsters such as Alex Verdugo, Yadier Alvarez, and Willie Calhoun could be on the move as well. But it’s a nice luxury for Andrew Friedman to have, knowing that he has a different form of trade capital that few of his competing buyers can offer.