The Los Angeles Dodgers made two major deals in a matter of minutes on Monday, trading for top closer Aroldis Chapman and signing former Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma to a three-year, $45 million deal, according to sources.
According to ESPN's Mark Saxon, the Dodgers will send two prospects to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for Chapman. The 27-year-old left-hander retained his crown as the hardest-throwing pitcher in baseball last season, firing an amazing 42.2 percent of his pitches at 100 mph or faster, by far the highest percentage in the majors. That gas translated into stellar results, with Chapman striking out 41.7 percent of the batters he faced in 2015 (116 in 66⅓ innings), with a 1.63 ERA and similarly strong fielding-independent results.
The Dodgers have held firm on not trading any of their top prospects, including shortstop Corey Seager, left-hander Julio Urias and right-hander Jose De Leon. With Chapman just a year away from free agency and thus a less valuable trade chip for Cincinnati, the Dodgers were able to acquire an elite bullpen arm without sacrificing any of those premium talents. Chapman will pair with Kenley Jansen and form the best lefty-righty bullpen duo in the National League. The success of the Kansas City Royals and other bullpen-reliant teams, combined with the Dodgers' recent history of high-profile seventh-inning meltdowns, made the Chapman trade a logical fit. If Clayton Kershaw or another starter tires in the seventh inning of a playoff game again next fall, the Dodgers could turn the game over to Chapman and Jansen for seven to nine outs without much of a sweat.
Meanwhile, Iwakuma slides into the rotation slot vacated by Zack Greinke. The 34-year-old right-hander has quietly been one of the best and most consistent starters in the American League since his 2012 MLB debut, posting a 3.17 ERA, a 50 percent groundball rate and a strikeout-to-walk rate of better than 4-to-1 over those four seasons. The lone strike against him has been injuries: Iwakuma struggled at times with shoulder problems while pitching in Japan, and he's had an assortment of ailments (including shoulder, finger and other issues) curb his workload in the majors; he made only 20 starts and tossed just 129⅔
innings in 2015. Still, Iwakuma's price tag comes in far lower than Greinke's or next-tier starters such as Jordan Zimmermann, even after accounting for the draft pick the Dodgers surrendered to sign him.
The Dodgers' rotation could now become one of the deepest in the NL. After Kershaw and Iwakuma, the Dodgers will feature:
27-year-old left-hander Brett Anderson, coming off a season in which he posted a 3.69 ERA over 31 starts.
24-year-old lefty Alex Wood, who posted a 3.84 ERA and 3.69 FIP in 32 starts last season.
28-year-old lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, a year removed from a stellar season in which he put up a 3.38 ERA and a 2.62 FIP.
32-year-old right-hander Brandon McCarthy, a year removed from firing 200 innings with a 3.55 FIP.
The big concern here is health. Aside from Iwakuma's own history of maladies, Anderson hasn't made more than 19 starts in any season between 2010 and 2014; Ryu missed all of last season with a shoulder injury; and McCarthy isn't due back until next summer after undergoing Tommy John surgery in April. It's quite possible the Dodgers find themselves shorthanded again next summer, prompting them to make another deal for a starting pitcher at the trade deadline. The other possibility is that one of the Dodgers' highly touted prospects, like Urias, De Leon or right-hander Jharel Cotton could be ready by the summer.
All of this might seem like a lot of unnecessary risk for a team that cleared $300 million in payroll last season. But let's remember why the Dodgers hired Andrew Friedman to run their baseball operations division in the first place. Before coming to L.A., Friedman made his bones with the penny-pinching Tampa Bay Rays, who spent a fraction what their American League East rivals did and still racked up four playoff berths in a span of six seasons, including a trip to the 2008 World Series. When Friedman and Dodgers president Stan Kasten talk up the importance of prospects, they're talking about both ensuring that the team has dynamic, young talent coming up to bolster the roster and that the Dodgers can win games while spending less money than they have in the past.
Though Dodgers principal owner Mark Walter has billions at his disposal thanks to his global investment firm Guggenheim Partners, he's shown a lot more restraint since the team's August 2012 blockbuster trade with the Boston Red Sox. That meant not overextending himself for Greinke or David Price, given the high risk of breakdown or simple skills erosion that comes with signing any pitcher to a long-term deal. Very quietly, the Dodgers have built a roster that fits perfectly with the baseball buzz phrase of "payroll flexibility." With Kershaw holding an opt-out option on his contract after the 2018 season, the Dodgers could end up owing exactly zero players any money beyond that point.
If you're looking for a team that's quietly making plans to go after, say, Bryce Harper three years from now, the Dodgers are it.