The Brilliance of the Manny Machado Deal

A 15.5 million dollar international signing; a 7th round pick; an 8th round pick; a 14th round pick; and a player acquired for a prospect whose chances of ever seeing the majors look dimmer than ever. That’s what it took to acquire Manny Machado, not just the best player available at the trade deadline this year, but one of the best dozen or so hitters in the game. Machado does it all; he hits for average and power, and is putting up the best strikeout and walk rates of his career. He provides this offense at a premium position, and while defensive metrics haven’t loved his half-season at short, the sample size is small, and he’s a deserving multi-Gold Glove award winner at third base who will likely benefit from the Dodgers’ advanced defensive positioning practices.

Yet, this article isn’t about Machado. Every major publication that covers baseball or the Dodgers has already written plenty about what Machado will provide for the Dodgers moving forward. This article is about the process that allowed the Dodgers to not just make this deal, but to make one that barely puts a dent in their farm system.

For years, the national media narrative has been one of disdain towards the reluctance of the Dodgers’ front office to trade their best prospects for overpriced veterans. This narrative has persevered, in spite of the fact that since this front office took over, the team has made major trade deadline acquisitions each year, and has traded major prospects in all but one year. In 2015, the team made a three team with the Marlins and Braves that netted them Alex Wood and Jose Peraza, among others. The Dodgers didn’t trade any big prospects in this deal, but they did give up Cuban infielder Hector Olivera, whose career was later derailed by a domestic violence incident. In 2016, the team sent Grant Holmes, Jharel Cotton, and Frankie Montas to Oakland for Rich Hill and Josh Reddick. At the time, it could be argued that all three were among the top 15 prospects in the system, and Montas and Cotton were both close to the major leagues. In 2017, the front office made their biggest splash yet, acquiring Yu Darvish in the waning minutes before the deadline. They gave up a near universal top 100 prospect in Willie Calhoun, while AJ Alexy and Brendon Davis were both among the top 30 in the system. Even before the Manny Machado trade, there’s three consecutive years of big July trades, and trades that included top prospects as well.

While the Dodgers have made these deals, they’ve also declined to go after other players who had higher acquisition costs, such as Cole Hamels, David Price, and Brian Dozier. Back in 2015, Cole Hamels was arguably the best pitcher on the market, and the Phillies’ asking price included top prospects Corey Seager and Julio Urias. The Dodgers held off, and both players would make impacts as soon as the next year, with Seager even earning a starting spot late in 2015 and during the playoffs. In the offseason of 2016-2017, the Dodgers needed a new second baseman after trading away Howie Kendrick. Many connected them to Brian Dozier, but the Twins wanted the offer to be headlined by Cody Bellinger, which the Dodgers refused to do. Bellinger promptly won rookie of the year the very next year, once again validating the decision to hold on to a top prospect. And in 2017, the Rangers asked for either Walker Buehler or Alex Verdugo for Yu Darvish, which the Dodgers balked at. Texas eventually accepted an offer headlined by Willie Calhoun, and Buehler has been one of team’s best starters in 2018 as a rookie, while Verdugo is still mashing at OKC. Simply stating that “The Dodgers don’t like trading top prospects” is misguided and nearsighted. The Dodgers have traded quite a few highly ranked prospects the past several years; Calhoun, Cotton, Holmes, Montas, Jose De Leon, and now Yusniel Diaz were all ranked in the organizational top ten by differing publications at one point or another. However, the Dodgers’ front office has determined that there are certain prospects they’re not going to trade, and in recent years, those players have validated that reluctance.

The brilliance of the Machado deal doesn’t lie in the players who were in the trade; it lies with the players the Dodgers were able to keep out of the deal. Players of Machado’s caliber are not available often, and the Dodgers’ ability to keep nearly every one of their top prospects out of the deal speaks to the team’s depth at the minor league level. Alex Verdugo, Keibert Ruiz, Will Smith, Dustin May, Yadier Alvarez, Mitchell White, Gavin Lux, and Jeren Kendall all remain even after a trade for one of baseball’s best hitters. Plus, almost every player traded in the deal came at little acquisition cost for the Dodgers. The largest was Diaz, and the Dodgers were one of the few teams who could afford to take a chance on him for his price. Bannon, Pop, and Kremer were all mid-round draft picks, and Valera was acquired for a middling prospect. However, that isn’t to say the Dodgers robbed the Orioles; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Each of these players (who I’ll discuss individually below) was deserving of being in this deal, and all five have a pretty good shot of reaching the major leagues, which isn’t often for a trade of this size.

So, how did the Dodgers manage to flip those five guys for a perennial All-Star? The Dodgers’ strategy regarding amateur talent can be described in three words: outscout, outspend, and outdevelop. They were able to find guys like Bannon and Pop in the back half of day two of the draft, and Kremer on day three. They spent more than anyone else would for Diaz. And finally, they developed those players into legitimate prospects, when most of the industry didn’t see anyone besides Diaz as one as recently as a year ago. Trading with a team like the Orioles, whose cupboard is almost bare thanks to years of mismanagement, owner interference, and a complete disregard for international free agents, allowed the Dodgers to trade quantity over quality to a team that needs basically everything. But without the transformation of the Dodgers into a developmental powerhouse, the team wouldn’t have had the depth to make that kind of deal, one no other team could afford to make.

Yusniel Diaz was the second biggest signing of the Dodgers’ astronomical 2015-2016 international signing class, and the Dodgers were aggressive with him, assigning him to High-A Rancho as a 19 year old. He repeated the level last year before being promoted to Tulsa midway through the year, and he’s done nothing but produce in the Texas League since. As the centerpiece of this deal, a lot is riding on his development as a player. He’s got four above average tools right now, with his power as the only exclusion. He’s a line drive oriented hitter who makes hard contact consistently, which some scouts believe will allow him to add power at the major league level. He also impressively has more walks than strikeouts as a 21 year old in Double-A, and he’ll likely hit in the top of the Orioles lineup whenever he reaches the majors. He can play a passable center field, but he’s much better in right field, where his strong arm would put him in play for Gold Gloves from year to year. Diaz has a wide range of opinions from the scouting community, with some believing he’ll grow into power and/or be able to play good enough center field to stay there early in his career, making his offense more valuable regardless of a potential power boost. Others think his ceiling is a 2-3 WAR player, who’s solid, but certainly not a star. The Dodgers have done well with improving their players’ swings to add more power, and they possibly could’ve done so with Diaz as well. However, he was blocked not just at the major league level by Kemp, Pederson, Puig, etc., but also at the minor league level by Alex Verdugo and Andrew Toles. Furthermore, the Dodgers also have DJ Peters, Jeren Kendall, and Starling Heredia at equal or lower levels of the minors, so Diaz wasn’t necessarily a piece they needed to keep, especially if the Dodgers believed he’ll wind up closer to his floor than his ceiling.

Dean Kremer has the accolade of being the first Israeli citizen drafted into the MLB (he holds dual citizenship), but more impressively, he was second in the minor leagues in strikeouts before the trade. Kremer works as a fastball/curveball pitcher, which is a new shift for him after the Dodgers tried to remake his arsenal; so far, it’s worked quite well. His fastball usually sits 92-95, but it generates high spin rates that allows him to use it as a strikeout pitch as well. He throws a slider and a changeup but both are fringy for now, with his over-the-top curveball being his best off-speed pitch. Kremer has broken out this year in a big way, and he looks like he’s got a really good shot at making some kind of major league impact, either as a back-end rotation guy or a reliever. If he can develop another pitch into an average or above offering, he’ll almost certainly remain a starter.

Rylan Bannon was drafted last year as a glove-first third baseman, and while he was the reigning Big East Player of the Year, not much was expected from him, even after he raked in the offense-friendly confines of Ogden and the Pioneer League. However, he started off hot in Rancho and continued that hot start throughout the year, with an OPS above .900 for basically the entire season. Bannon is smaller than most would like a third baseman to be, at 5’10’’, but is able to use a load that looks somewhat similar to Justin Turner’s to leverage considerable power, and he led the Cal League in homers before being traded. While he does strike out quite a bit (25.6% before the trade), he also walks a ton (14.6%), and his approach at the plate was among the best in the Dodgers’ system. Defensively, he’s athletic and provides plus defense at third base, and that athleticism drove the Dodgers to give him reps at second base this year as well. It was too small of a sample size to accurately determine whether second base could be a potential home for him in the future, but if it can, it would certainly improve his long-term outlook, as second basemen with his combo of power and patience aren’t too common. For now, he looks like a major league bench player, with the chance for more if he can keep his power stroke going.

Zach Pop is one of the rare prospects who actually holds some value despite being strictly a reliever now and in the future. Pop’s fastball sits in the mid-90s and has tons of sink, and it’s absolutely his best pitch right now. His slider sits in the lower-80s and varies in effectiveness, but evaluators think it could end up as a plus pitch also. His unconventional arm can be tricky for hitters to pick up, and it complements his pitches’ movement well. He does have somewhat of an injury history, but the Dodgers were aggressive with him before the trade, promoting him from Single-A to High-A to Double-A, where Baltimore assigned him. Pop might be able to reach the majors as soon as next year as a relief arm, and one who has back-of-the-bullpen potential with more consistency and refinement.

Breyvic Valera was acquired for Johan Mieses, once highly regarded as a boom-or-bust prospect, who is now a 23 year old with a career wRC+ of under 65 in over a hundred Double-A games. His once-promising ceiling looks farther away than ever, as do the major leagues. Flipping him for Valera was a classic example of trading high ceiling for high floor, and while Valera probably isn’t going to be a major league starter any time soon, he’s a useful utility player who’s ready for the majors right now. He can play decent defense at both middle infield positions, and is one of the rare hitters who strikes out less than he walks. He won’t provide much power, but his contact rates and positional value should keep him on a major league bench somewhere.

The trade represents somewhat of a culmination of the depth-building process the team has gone through over the past several years. Friedman and Zaidi set out to build up depth at every level of the organization, and have certainly accomplished that goal. Of course, for some, their work making the Dodgers a more cost-efficient and sustainable franchise will always be slighted, because they’re nerds, and analytics are stupid. I truly do pity those whose fandom requires them to needlessly critique every move of a front office much smarter than them, because they’d rather wallow in their own misery because of their first-place team not being run how they prefer than adapt to a changing game. Regardless of whether Machado stays with the team beyond this year, it’s extremely difficult to argue the Dodgers didn’t do well in prying one of the best players in baseball for only one of their top prospects. And once again, it’s not a suggestion that the Orioles didn’t do well; I think they did quite well given the current market for rentals. It’s just that the Dodgers were able to pull off a trade that most (including myself) didn’t think they could make without suffering bigger losses to their farm system. Credit should be given where credit is due, and the front office should be lauded for bringing MannyWood back to Los Angeles at a more than reasonable cost.

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