Pressure of unmet expectations sparks Dodgers' and Yankees' trade deadline fireworks

·6 min read

If it feels like the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees are inevitable, well, it should. They are the financial powerhouses of MLB. They not only lord over the free agent realm, but set the standard for the scouting and player development machines that account for so much of an organization’s success in the modern game. 

And even before they poured their wealth into supersizing the best practices of their nimble rivals, they were doing OK. The last postseason that featured neither franchise was in 1993.

They are the teams most equipped to flip a switch and collect stars like supermassive black holes at the trade deadline. But these machines they built are also geared for efficiency, which in 2021 means winning consistently without undue burden on the team owner’s wallet. They don’t do anything for fun, or as a show of force.

The deals that sent Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers and Anthony Rizzo to the Yankees on Thursday were competitive front office fireworks at their best, but the pressure of unfulfilled expectations lit the fuse. 

Los Angeles, CA - April 09:  The championship banner is unveiled during the World series ring ceremony prior to a baseball game during Opening Day between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Washington Nationals in Los Angeles on Friday, April 9, 2021. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
The Dodgers finally broke through with a World Series victory in 2020, but more of the same was expected from 2021's team. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

If you’re not first …

For all their seeming inevitability on paper, there’s no such thing on the field. The Dodgers have been looking up at the San Francisco Giants in their own division for an uncomfortably long time, and the Yankees are scrambling to catch up in the AL playoff race.

These are franchises that can rarely achieve satisfaction in the regular season. Los Angeles has won its division eight years in a row, yet labored under the weight of postseason disappointments until breaking through in the shortened 2020 season. Yankees who have won rings during their careers in the Bronx say things like this: “We’ve got our eyes set on the ultimate prize and obviously it’s been way too long since we’ve been back to the World Series.”

Perhaps Rizzo — whose enduring legacy will be bringing Cubs fans their first championship in 108 years — can offer some perspective there, but the impossible standards are just a reality. This spring, the Los Angeles Times confidently proclaimed that the 2021 Dodgers were the best team in baseball history, ready to “lock down Murderer’s Row, smother the Gashouse Gang, and turn the Big Red Machine blue.”

Instead, as we crease the corner of the calendar, preparing to flip to August, they haven’t managed to outplay the thoroughly un-nicknamed Giants — who weren’t even supposed to be good. These Dodgers are absolute locks for October, and still the betting favorites to win that repeat World Series (+325 at BetMGM). Still, they have spent a grand total of 25 days in first place, the last one being April 28. Even the very best baseball teams are at serious risk when their seasons come down to one game, as the Dodgers’ would if they can’t overtake San Francisco by season’s end.

The Yankees, meanwhile, would have to count even one playoff game as a win at this point. They are also experiencing the unpleasant shock of falling behind a rival — the same Boston Red Sox who volunteered Mookie Betts’ services to the Dodgers 18 months ago. Except the Yankees are not only behind the Red Sox, but also the Tampa Bay Rays, the Oakland A’s and even the Seattle Mariners. Previous beacon of inevitability Gerrit Cole surrendered eight runs (seven earned) to the Rays on Thursday afternoon after the team announced a deal for Rangers slugger Joey Gallo and before they pulled off the surprise acquisition of Rizzo, who had been more often linked to Boston.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JULY 27: Trea Turner #7 of the Washington Nationals looks on against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on July 27, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Nationals defeated the Phillies 6-4. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
In Trea Turner, the Dodgers added the best position player available in their trade with the Washington Nationals. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

How the deals boost the Dodgers and Yankees

For all the ways the Dodgers and Yankees were perhaps talented to get where they needed to get without stretching for more superstars, there were real weaknesses to address. 

The Dodgers’ airtight 99.4% postseason odds at FanGraphs are buffeted by the realization they only have a 68.7% chance at winning the division. A rotation that looked stacked at the start of the season will be without young flamethrower Dustin May for the rest of the year, and Trevor Bauer — currently on administrative leave as MLB and Pasadena police investigate a woman’s allegations of assault — is unlikely to contribute again. Even if he were to be reinstated, teammates reportedly do not want him to return.

Urias, the Dodgers’ third-best pitcher prior to luring Scherzer away from the Washington Nationals, is already 45 innings clear of his previous career-high in the big leagues. Scherzer is not only the most accomplished active pitcher they didn’t already have, but an enormous threat neutralized via acquisition. He would have strengthened the Giants or San Diego Padres to an even greater degree.

Then there’s Trea Turner. A bit overlooked in all this given a relative dearth of plaques with his name engraved on them, he has been the second-best position player in baseball since the start of the 2020 season — a 7 WAR player over his last 155 games. Short of blackmailing the Padres into forking over Fernando Tatis Jr., he was perhaps the best lineup addition they could have possibly imagined.

Plus — file this one under Maybe Just Showing Off — he is signed through 2022, relieving Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman of any stress he might have felt over Corey Seager’s impending free agency.

Yankees GM Brian Cashman had a more precarious position to evaluate. He has sold before — and gotten fast results — when faced with an uphill climb to October. The doom and gloom around this team was clearly too much for him, though. Instead of admitting any sort of defeat, he supplemented a much maligned, very right-handed lineup with two infusions of left-handed power. Rizzo and Gallo are also conveniently excellent defenders. Both major defensive metrics rate the hulking Yankees as a below-average fielding team so far.

They are pretty much toast in the AL East — down to a 6% chance of taking that crown, per FanGraphs — but their 45.1% playoff odds are virtually neck-and-neck with the A’s for the final spot in the field.

It’s the negative space in those odds that motivated Friedman and Cashman — calculating executives who above all believe in their own organizations — to pull the trigger on deals that sent the baseball world into delirium Thursday night. They draft and deal for and develop young players like the ultra-promising catcher Keibert Ruiz — soon to be a key piece of the Nationals future — or exciting middle infielder Ezequiel Duran — now of the Rangers — with the idea that they will become cost-efficient talent, yes.

They also breed and stockpile those young players for days like Thursday, when the thought of Dodger Stadium or Yankee Stadium going dark by the second weekend in October is simply too real to bear.

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