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J.D. Martinez vs. Yu Darvish showdown should determine true trade deadline winner

PHOENIX -- During the course of Monday's National League Division Series Game 3 between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks, there will be a batter-pitcher matchup that signifies a little more than you might think.

During the bottom of the first or the second, Diamondbacks slugger J.D. Martinez will step to the plate at Chase Field against Dodgers right-hander Yu Darvish. They've squared off against each other for their current teams before. On Aug. 10, Martinez homered off Darvish during an 8-6 L.A. win in Phoenix.

Before that, Martinez had done nothing against Darvish, having managed a lone single in 10 at-bats and striking out six times. Martinez had three at-bats against Darvish on May 21, striking out twice and flying out to the wall in center. Martinez played for the Detroit Tigers then, while Darvish was toiling for the Texas Rangers.

It's funny how things criss-cross and intersect over the course of the long baseball season. The Tigers and Rangers both ended up as sellers at the deadline, though with the Rangers hanging in the American League wild-card race until late in the season, maybe they shouldn't have been.

The Tigers dealt Martinez to Arizona on July 18 for prospects Dawel Lugo, Jose King and Sergio Alcantara. The deal puzzled analysts, including ESPN's Keith Law, who had ranked the Diamondbacks' system last in his organizational ratings over the winter. While many were critical of the Tigers' haul for Martinez, especially because it came nearly two weeks before the trade deadline, it was reflective of one thing: There wasn't a great in-season market for rental position players.

"We had isolated out a number of players that we were going to go scout and do work on," Diamondback GM Mike Hazen said last week. "It came together over the course of about a week with Detroit. We set the lineup up how we had envisioned. I think he's protected [Paul Goldschmidt] quite a bit."

Meanwhile, the Dodgers landed Darvish very near the non-waiver trade deadline at the end of July. The prospects going to Texas were more alluring: Willie Calhoun, A.J. Alexy and Brendon Davis. Calhoun went on to hit .310/.345/.566 for Texas' Triple-A affiliate and finished the season in the major leagues.

These two deals were microcosms of what seems to always be the case of what we see around the deadline, which is that teams are just more aggressive when it comes to adding pitching. The question here when you look at what Martinez did for the Diamondbacks: Are we getting the trade deadline wrong?

Granted, what Martinez did was so off the charts, no team can reasonably expect his kind of impact from a deadline deal. Martinez hit 29 homers and posted a ridiculous 1.107 OPS in 62 games for the Diamondbacks, posting 2.6 WAR after the trade. Still, he had an OPS over 1.000 for Detroit too, and in hindsight, it's amazing that teams weren't blowing up Detroit GM Al Avila's phone.

"He's had a phenomenal run with us, and we're happy he's here," Hazen said. "He's definitely added a different element both for right-handed and left-handed pitching."

As for Darvish, his time in Los Angeles has gone well. He went 4-3 with a 3.44 ERA after his trade, though he spent time on the DL with back trouble. And his trend line is pointing up. Darvish has allowed just one earned run over his past 19⅓ innings entering the postseason.

Darvish's uptick may be another case of the Dodgers helping a veteran player improve on the fly. After a stretch in which Darvish struggled -- back-to-back games when he gave up five runs and failed to reach the fifth -- he began to see results from new tweaks to pitch sequences, arm slots and delivery -- all based on advice from his new team.

"When we first got him, he was a guy with a bunch of different toys and didn't really know what to do with them," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "So with [pitching coach Rick Honeycutt] and the information that we've given him, I think that he's found a nice little rhythm, and how to attack guys. It starts with his confidence. I think he's comfortable now with the guys."

Still, at the bottom line, Darvish put up 0.6 WAR as a Dodger, a full two wins shy of what Arizona got from Martinez. That's not to say definitely that Arizona won the deadline in comparison to their arch rival. In many ways, that will be determined Monday.

For one thing, the respective aims of the teams were different. The Diamondbacks got Martinez to plug a hole and aid their push for inclusion in a playoff derby the Dodgers already knew they would be a part of. Darvish was brought in for October. The final evaluation on him begins in earnest on Monday.

"In talks with our guys and knowing baseball and building to win 11 games in October," Roberts said. "To have that front-line guy to win a playoff game, certainly that's why you acquire a guy like Yu."

Don't tell that to Darvish. When asked Sunday about his thoughts on the gravity of Monday's game, he said, "I don't want to think about it too much. I try to take it as a regular outing. Hopefully that I go deep in the game like I normally do and just prepare as much as I can and just be ready to go."

When we get to the offseason and do our forensic review of the season just completed, it may be time to rethink how teams approach in-season acquisitions. After all, a run is a run is a run, whether you give it up or allow it. Most good teams have good players across the roster and, unless they are trying to patch a major hole opened up by an injury, a lot of these upgrades are more marginal than we like to admit.

Perhaps instead of overpaying for every free-agent-pitcher-to-be on the market, teams needs to be more open-minded about simply targeting the best players available, with obvious exceptions where a player wouldn't have a lineup spot on the new team.

Hazen was certainly targeting a need -- Arizona needed help against lefty pitching -- but adding Martinez for that micro-reason is kind of like hiring Albert Einstein to help you with your arithmetic homework.

Of course, if you can get Einstein to do the job -- you get him. Hazen added another foundation player to a team that was winning anyway, and it sent a jolt through the organization. Martinez fit right in, on and off the field.

"I kind of heard it from the guys on the Tigers, but definitely [Martinez] just shows up every day and every single pitch of every at-bat, taking it like it could be his last," Diamondbacks cornerstone Goldschmidt said. "I think it's motivated me and probably every one of our teammates as well. You see a guy who is going to give it 100 percent every day no matter what. If we're winning, if we're losing, tie game, doesn't matter."

The paths of Darvish and Martinez have run parallel course for much of this season. With both in contract years, they were featured in countless rumors that eventually led to actual trades. Their paths took them both to the same division in the National League. After the season, those paths will lead them into high-level free agency, where they may be the best pitcher and hitter available, respectively.

On Monday, those paths will intersect in Phoenix. When it does, we can ask the question -- the slugger or the stopper? -- that a lot of teams should have asked a couple of months ago.