The Los Angeles Dodgers are sick of being bounced in the postseason. After four straight years of early October exits, the team isn’t willing to wait any longer. They proved as much Monday, trading pitching prospect Jose De Leon in exchange for Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Logan Forsythe.
On the surface, the move seems puzzling. Why would the Dodgers give up a highly-rated pitching prospect who is under team control for a long time for a 30-year-old with just two above-average offensive seasons on his resume?
A closer look reveals the truth: The Dodgers need to stress the short-term over the long-term. While dealing De Leon could come back to bite the Dodgers in a major way, Forsythe helps the team more right now. That’s exactly what the Dodgers should prioritize given their current situation.
Forsythe isn’t exactly a household name, but he’s blossomed into a solid player over the past two years. With Tampa Bay, Forsythe has posted a .273/.347/.444 slash line over 1,182 plate appearances. That performance was good enough for a 119 wRC+, and advanced stat that measures a player’s offensive contributions. That figure ranks Forsythe sixth at second base over that period.
It’s worth noting that Forsythe did see a drop-off in his numbers in 2016. After putting up a career best .281/.359/.444 slash line in 2015, Forsythe saw that fall to .264/.333/.444 last season. His strikeout rate also jumped over four percentage points, as he failed to keep some of the gains from his breakout year.
Even with that decline, Forsythe was still valuable. He was nearly a three-win player according to FanGraphs, and his 113 wRC+ ranked 12th at the position in 2016. His contract is also a plus. Forsythe will make $7 million in 2017, and has an $8.5 million team option for 2018. As long as Forsythe repeats what he did last season, he’ll be an above-average player for the Dodgers over the next two years.
He’ll also be a major upgrade over anyone else they were going to put at second this year. The Dodgers’ internal candidates to replace Chase Utley at second included some combination of Enrique Hernandez, Charlie Culberson and Chris Taylor. That’s not exactly an inspiring list, and shows why the Dodgers were involved in trade rumors for second basemen the instant the offseason began. Forsythe may not be a superstar, but he is an above-average second baseman. The Dodgers didn’t have anything resembling that prior to Monday.
The cost of an “above-average second baseman” may wind up being steep. De Leon entered last year as a consensus top-30 prospect according to Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com. The 24-year-old has a strong fastball/changeup combination, and has posted some gaudy strikeout numbers in the minors.
His star may have dimmed a bit in 2016. While his 2.61 ERA at Triple-A was excellent, De Leon was limited by injuries, tossing just 86 1/3 innings at the level. He missed the start of the year with an ankle issue, and then missed time in May due to a sore shoulder. Despite that, De Leon managed to strike out 111 batters over those innings.
It’s worth noting De Leon was pounded for a 6.35 ERA over four starts in the majors, though it’s tough to hold that against him. Many players struggle upon initially reaching the majors, and it would be foolish to judge any pitcher after just 17 innings.
Looking at his overall body of work, it’s easy to see why a number of teams coveted De Leon this offseason. He looks like a mid-rotation starter, with a chance to be more. The Rays are happy to lock that up for the foreseeable future. De Leon isn’t even eligible for arbitration yet, so he’ll still be under Tampa’s control long after Forsythe’s current contract expires. If you offered this trade to the Rays 100 times, they would gladly accept it every single time.
Just because that’s true doesn’t mean the deal is a total loss for the Dodgers. The team already has a crowded rotation heading into 2017. Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, Scott Kazmir and Julio Urias are set to open the year as the starting five, but they still have Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy coming back from injuries.
While those aren’t the most dependable arms, the club still has Yadier Alvarez and Walker Buehler in the minors. The Dodgers are pretty high on both players. Even if their evaluations are wrong, and De Leon is the superior prospect, the Dodgers still have solid pitching depth. At best, De Leon would have been the team’s seventh option on the depth chart going into the year. The Dodgers traded that for a guy who should be an above-average everyday player in 2017.
The future matters, of course. De Leon may not have contributed much to Los Angeles in 2017, but he could have been a staple of the rotation in 2019.
The Dodgers don’t have the luxury of waiting that long. The team is set up to contend now. And while the team’s future isn’t bleak, it’s reasonable to wonder how much longer their window will be open. Two key members of their core are already pretty old. Adrian Gonzalez is 34, and only under contract for two more years. Hill, who they just brought back, is 36.
Clayton Kershaw isn’t either of those things, but he dealt with a significant injury for the first time in his career in 2016. While he should continue to be the best pitcher on the planet, it’s easy to see why the Dodgers might have some urgency after seeing realizing their superstar is mortal.
Having great prospects is important to team-building. No one knows that better than the Dodgers. A significant portion of the team’s core, including Kershaw, Urias, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager and Joc Pederson were developed by the organization.
While adding another talented youngster to that group would be nice, that takes time. After coming so close to the World Series the past four seasons only to fall short, you can’t blame the Dodgers for finally running out of patience.
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