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In the minutes leading up to 3:40 p.m. ET on Monday, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ brain trust was lamenting a missed opportunity. The Dodgers hoped they had the pieces to complete a trade for Baltimore Orioles closer Zach Britton. At 3:35 p.m., they were told there would be no deal. Earlier in the day, after more than a week of the posturing and pretense that defines conversations leading up to Major League Baseball’s trade deadline, they had abandoned hope of getting the other available elite pitcher, Texas Rangers starter Yu Darvish, too.
Then Farhan Zaidi’s phone rang. Zaidi is the Dodgers’ general manager, and the voice on the other line had grown familiar in recent days. Jon Daniels runs the Rangers, and with 20 minutes to go before the deadline, he was ready to make a deal.
Reality had crashed on Daniels in the hours leading up to 4 p.m., when no market materialized for Darvish and efforts to create one came up empty. Darvish had his flaws. Teams had their hang-ups. The trade market isn’t always rational. And even though Daniels had told Darvish after his previous start that he almost certainly would be traded by July 31, the clock was ticking, the deadline approaching, the Dodgers the only team left in the sweepstakes.
The Dodgers did not need Darvish. At 74-31 going into Monday, they were off to the third-best start through 105 games since World War II. They had won 64 of their last 83 games and outscored opponents on average by more than two runs a game. The Dodgers’ ace and heart, Clayton Kershaw, left his start with a back injury more than a week ago. They hadn’t lost since.
Darvish, for them, would be a luxury, but then the Dodgers – the team with baseball’s richest payroll four years’ running – can afford luxuries, and with 19 minutes before the deadline, they realized if Daniels was on the phone with them, this was like a flash sale on Rodeo Drive. The Rangers understood as much, too, and weren’t going to give Darvish away for the sake of giving him away. Call a team at 3:40 p.m. on deadline day, though, and the implications are obvious.
The clock turned. It was 3:41 p.m., and the teams started exchanging names. Inside the rooms serving as the hub of Dodgers trade activity, officials buzzed about, pulling over a trainer to look at Darvish’s medical information, giving iterations of a possible deal to Zaidi, distilling the factors at hand – the impending deadline, the Rangers’ urgency, the value of Darvish on the field, the value of him inside the clubhouse and to the public – into an overriding calculus.
A few days earlier, the Rangers insisted a deal for Darvish include one of Los Angeles’ two best prospects, pitcher Walker Buehler or outfielder Alex Verdugo. The Dodgers refused to consider either, a position on which they held firm in all offers. Texas eventually softened its stance and considered a deal around Willie Calhoun, one of the most unique prospects in years.
Calhoun is listed at 5-foot-8 and 187 pounds. He is neither. Shave off an inch or two, add 25 pounds or so, and that is Calhoun. He is listed as a second baseman. He is not that, either. Best-case scenario, Calhoun sticks in left field. And should that not work, he would wind up at designated hitter, which was incompatible with the Dodgers but might be a palatable-enough fallback option for the Rangers, because even they can’t deny one truth about Calhoun: He can hit. And not a for-his-size hit or a may-grow-into-something hit. Calhoun can hit now, he will hit in the major leagues soon and he will keep hitting there for a long time.
Both Dodgers and Rangers analysts agreed: Calhoun’s combination of power and contact is rare and elite for a 22-year-old already at Triple-A. Combine that with his body, and he is a true outlier, one of one, the sort who confounds those who compile prospect lists, which have become something of a guiding light to fans during trade season. The idea of trade value being defined by prospects’ place on a list somehow has come into prominence, and it is the height of absurdity, as if being top 50 on one person’s subjective list, as opposed to top 75, makes one particular trade more valuable than others.
About 30 minutes before the Darvish negotiations accelerated, the New York Yankees had acquired starter Sonny Gray from the Oakland A’s for infielder Jorge Mateo, starter James Kaprielian and outfielder Dustin Fowler. While huzzahs were sent the Yankees’ way, a number of evaluators noted Mateo at one point was a top 50 prospect, Kaprielian before his Tommy John surgery close to the same and Fowler an under-the-radar favorite of scouts across baseball. While the Yankees ostensibly held on to their highest-rated prospects, it did not prevent Oakland from receiving what most believed a considerable haul, particularly if Kaprielian and Fowler, who is out with a ruptured patella tendon, return strong from their injuries.
Around this time last year, few in baseball knew that a pitcher nearing his return from Tommy John was throwing 99 mph with a pair of frontline offspeed pitches. He was nowhere near top 100 lists. The Dodgers knew what they had in Walker Buehler, but to the rest of the world, he wasn’t nearly the type of prospect as Calhoun.
The world of prospecting in baseball is fickle, and that was perhaps the greatest challenge Daniels faced Monday. Cleveland wasn’t willing to trade its top minor leaguer, catcher Francisco Mejia, and even if the Indians were, Darvish included them on his no-trade list, and forcing him to make a snap decision wasn’t something the Rangers wanted to do to a player they respect. That scratched off the Chicago Cubs, too, even though about 75 minutes before the deadline, they checked in anyway, just to see if there might be a chance.
The Washington Nationals, with Stephen Strasburg on the disabled list and Edwin Jackson holding down the fourth slot in their rotation, seemed a perfect landing spot for Darvish. Nope. The Boston Red Sox, with David Price on the DL and the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays making move after July move to make a run in the American League East, made sense as well. Their effort began and ended without any traction.
That left the Houston Astros, the poor-man’s Dodgers. At full health, the Astros are every bit as inspiring a team. Today, star shortstop Carlos Correa and center fielder George Springer are on the disabled list, and All-Star right-hander Lance McCullers joined them there. Ace Dallas Keuchel returned from nearly two months on the disabled list this week and lasted three innings. The Astros’ hallmark is their depth, and while Brad Peacock, Mike Fiers and Charlie Morton have done a more-than-admirable job fortifying the Astros’ rotation, the prospect of adding a frontline starter excited the coaching staff and players.
While the Astros and Rangers organizations share a mutual dislike bordering on contempt, it didn’t prevent the sides from talking about Darvish. Never did they come anywhere close to the parameters on a mutually agreeable deal, though, which surprised teams around baseball – including the Dodgers – who believed the Astros and Rangers matched up best of all the teams involved.
The last conversation between Houston and Texas was an hour before the deadline, and the stalemate was obvious. The Rangers didn’t have time to consider how they could have gone about ginning up a market. It was too late for that. If they held onto Darvish, tendered him a qualifying offer before free agency and he signed elsewhere, they would receive a draft pick after the second round as compensation. Surely they could do better than that, even with next to no leverage. And it led the Rangers back to the one team they knew liked Darvish even if he gave up 10 runs in his last start or carried a 4.01 ERA or in his one playoff start last season allowed four home runs or would be with his new team for only two months before seeking a contract in excess of $100 million.
It wasn’t just Darvish’s name. His stuff remains among the game’s best. He would provide a right-handed bridge between Kershaw and the Dodgers’ other standout starter, Alex Wood, or, in case Kershaw’s back continues to sideline him, insurance for an October in which the Dodgers will enter as favorites. Even though Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, loathes trading in July, the confluence of events Monday stirred him out of his standard reticence. The cratering cost in recent years for rental players – what the Cubs paid for Aroldis Chapman last season was the exception, not the rule – would allow the Dodgers to satisfy their actuarial jones while simultaneously doing right by the players and fans that hankered for a reinforcement worthy of this juggernaut.
The clock was still moving, 3:42 p.m. and 3:43 p.m. and 3:44 p.m. More names exchanged, more potential deals, 3:45 p.m., 3:46 p.m., 3:47 p.m. The medicals got a thumbs up, the names narrowed, 3:48 p.m., 3:49 p.m., 3:50 p.m. One piece, two pieces, three pieces, 3:51 p.m. And at 3:52 p.m, a dozen minutes after Jon Daniels called Farhan Zaidi, Yu Darvish was the newest Los Angeles Dodger.
Inside Dodger Stadium, the baseball-operations staff celebrated, another victory in a season full of them. They hated giving up a bat the caliber of Calhoun’s, an arm like that of 19-year-old A.J. Alexy, all the potential in the body of 6-foot-4 third baseman Brendon Davis. Among them and three other prospects they traded to acquire left-handed relievers Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani, the Dodgers had chipped away at the organizational depth they had spent years building under Friedman. This team was worth it.
Halfway across the country, the Rangers juggled a mess of conflicted emotions. There was relief that they’d snuck the Darvish trade in before the deadline and despair that their disappointment of a season necessitated he go at all. There was pride in the investment in Darvish six years ago that proved so successful and the fear that, at 31, he would spend the remainder of his career in another uniform.
There was the excitement of what Calhoun, Alexy and Davis may be, and there was the anxiety of what Calhoun, Alexy and Davis may be.
Out of this Texas hopes to retool rather than rebuild. For all their obsessiveness with maintaining a pipeline of players for years to come, the Dodgers showed their desire today is singular: win their first World Series since 1988. And as the fallout from all the trades Monday settled, the rest of the game got to bask in the glory of a deadline where in 12 frenzied minutes the course of two organizations was rewritten, the lives of four players changed, the path of baseball in 2017 and beyond altered.
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