The Dodgers, as Jon Weisman astutely notes this morning at LA Magazine, find themselves in a very difficult position as the trading deadline nears. They’ve been in first place or close to it for basically the entire season, and that along with a new ownership group eager to impress and a general manager hoping to hang on to his job means that they have to continue trying to win this year. But the reality increasingly seems to be that the hot start to the season is just not backed up by a roster with the talent needed to compete, not with the worst corner infield situation in baseball, zero production out of shortstop, very little coming from left field, and a starting rotation that may actually need to send the unheralded Stephen Fife to make his major league debut against Roy Halladay tonight. Even if they could fill all of those holes in the next two weeks – and due to the quantity of them, I think it’s pretty clear that they can’t – they’re held back both by a minor league system which doesn’t have the top-end talent other teams desire and a new playoff system which will make the few clubs willing to sell ask for sky-high prices.
You have to compete, but you may not realistically be able to win. What do you do?
I can’t say I know what the Dodgers will do, but I know what I would do, and that’s try to build for the future right now. I’ve said a few times that my highest priority is not making the playoffs in 2012, it’s trying to create an organization which can be a consistent contender for years to come. That doesn’t always correspond with what the casual fan wants to see, since they they see a team in position to make a playoff run and think that going for it all right now is the only option, but taking an unpopular position is fine with me.
That means that simply adding a rental player, never a path I like anyway, should be a “break glass in case of emergency” type of move. Sure, I’d like to add Ryan Dempster, and if the price is right, fine. But the price looks increasingly less likely to be right as more teams seek to add pitching, and with the new CBA rules, the Dodgers couldn’t even collect draft pick compensation should Dempster leave at the end of the season. Dempster’s a nice add, but he alone isn’t going to fix the problems that ail this team, and if you haven’t also figured out a way to fix first base & third base & left field & shortstop, then it barely seems to matter.
Looking at the list of available free agents over the next year or two, a few trends seem to stand out. You can buy starting pitching, led by Cole Hamels & Zack Greinke, along with a few others. You can buy another outfielder if you choose to, though adding another megadeal to Matt Kemp & Andre Ethier may be a bit unwieldy. But what you absolutely cannot do is find quality infield help, and that’s what the Dodgers need more than anything. You could even argue (assuming that Mike Napoli is a catcher, where he has stated he feels far more comfortable) that James Loney is the best free agent first baseman this winter. Yuniesky Betancourt may be the best shortstop; Maicer Izturis the best third baseman. The following year is as bad if not worse, without even considering that some guys will be locked up before then.
If you can’t fill those holes through free agency – and you absolutely, 100% cannot go into 2013 with the same mess at first and third as you have now – and you can’t fill them through the minor leagues, which you can’t unless you’re suddenly optimistic about Jerry Sands & Scott Van Slyke, then you have to fill them through trade. That’s why it’s so important that if you’re going to pay inflated July prices, you do so for players who help you for more than two months. That’s why Chase Headley makes so much sense. That’s why Jimmy Rollins, even though I’m not convinced the Phillies would actually move him, makes an increasing amount of sense in a down shortstop market. (After all, Luis Cruz is awful, and Dee Gordon has proven nothing.) If you like Justin Morneau, Aramis Ramirez, & Michael Cuddyer – which I’m not sure I do – they help you into the future as well.
None of those guys, on their own, are going to make this roster good enough to win it all in 2012. But they’ll help a little, and they’ll allow you to say that you didn’t stand still, and most importantly, they’ll fill a spot in 2013 that you’ll need as you attempt to sign a Hamels or a Greinke or a Josh Hamilton or a Michael Bourn.
As I’ve always said, I don’t mind trading prospects when the return is worth it. Two months of a rental on a team that probably isn’t good enough is rarely worth it. One or two years plus two months on a team with a good core and lots of money to spent this winter just might be.
It’s a tough situation to be in, I’ll admit, and there are going to be moves we don’t like. Let’s just hope that if we’re saying goodbye to prospects with a future, it’s for players with a future of their own.