The Dodgers would love to pry Felipe Vazquez from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Brad Hand from the Cleveland Indians or Will Smith from the San Francisco Giants before the July 31 trade deadline.
Any of the three left-handed closers would be a huge upgrade for a shaky bullpen that, as currently constructed, is the biggest impediment to the Dodgers winning their first World Series title since 1988.
The problem: The price for those dominant relievers would be steep if their teams were far out of playoff contention. It might be steeper because the Pirates, Indians and Giants were among 19 teams that entered play Saturday either leading their divisions or within five games of a wild-card spot.
“This feels like the strangest [trade] market that I’ve been a part of,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said before Saturday night’s 10-6 victory over the Miami Marlins. “We’re 10 days out, and there have been a lot of conversations — just not as pointed as I remember in years past.
“I think a big part of that is there are roughly 20 teams within five games of a playoff spot, and the number of teams who have said we’re not sure if we’re buying or selling complicates things. I expected over the last few weeks that things would start to sort themselves out. If nothing else, it’s become muddier.”
Friedman is no stranger to big trade-deadline deals. He acquired pitcher Rich Hill and outfielder Josh Reddick in 2016, pitcher Yu Darvish in 2017 and shortstop Manny Machado in 2018. The latter two acquisitions helped push the Dodgers to the World Series in 2017 and 2018.
This Dodgers team has the best record in the National League and entered Saturday with a 14-game division lead. The rotation is deep and dominant, the lineup is potent and balanced, and the defense, despite a spate of errors over the past week, is adequate.
The bullpen is the weak link, as it showed again Saturday night. Clayton Kershaw gave up two singles — a tapper in front of the mound and a slow roller through the vacated second-base hole of a shifted infield — in six shutout innings, striking out a season-high 10 and walking one.
The left-hander used a sharp slider and slow curve to strike out seven of the first nine batters. He has gone six innings or more in all 17 games this season, 14 of which have been quality starts.
The Dodgers built what appeared to be a comfortable 6-0 lead. Joc Pederson led off the first with his 22nd homer, and Austin Barnes, who was batting .120 with a .347 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 18 games since June 21, keyed a three-run fourth with a two-out, two-run double to left.
Kershaw capped the fourth-inning rally with an RBI single to center for a 4-0 lead. Justin Turner hit a solo homer to center, and Max Muncy lined an RBI double off the left-field wall to make it 6-0 in the fifth.
The bullpen couldn’t hold it.
Kershaw left after 97 pitches, then right-hander JT Chargois gave up a solo homer to Starlin Castro in the seventh and a leadoff single to Bryan Holaday in the eighth. Caleb Ferguson replaced Chargois and gave up a double to Curtis Granderson and walked Yadiel Rivera to load the bases.
Right-hander Yimi Garcia replaced Ferguson and gave up a sacrifice fly to Jorge Alfaro to make it 6-2. Garrett Cooper walked to load the bases, and Brian Anderson ripped a two-run double to left-center to make it 6-4. Garcia hit Castro with a pitch to load the bases.
Pedro Baez replaced Garcia and got Harold Ramirez to ground a ball toward second base. Enrique Hernandez fielded the ball and stepped on the bag but bounced his throw past first base for an error. Two runs scored and the score was tied 6-6.
The offense, as it has often this season, bailed out the bullpen. Matt Beaty crushed a three-run homer to right off reliever Elieser Hernandez for a 9-6 lead. Russell Martin’s pinch-hit RBI single pushed the lead to 10-6 for Casey Sadler, who pitched the ninth.
Chargois, Ferguson and Garcia aren’t the front-line relievers the Dodgers are relying on to play deep into October, but the team’s primary bullpen arms haven’t exactly been championship-caliber.
Kenley Jansen has shown flashes of his 2017 form, when he had a 1.32 ERA and 41 saves, but he is not the lock-down closer he was two years ago — he entered Saturday with a 3.63 ERA and 24 saves in 28 opportunities. He has given up six homers after yielding a career-high 13 homers in 2018.
Setup man Joe Kelly, signed to a three-year, $25-million deal, has looked effective at times but mostly struggled. Baez has a 3.40 ERA in 46 appearances, up from the 2.88 ERA in 55 appearances in 2018.
Left-hander Julio Urias is following a strict usage plan that allows him to pitch once every four or five days. Left-hander Scott Alexander is hurt. Right-hander Kenta Maeda could be part of the solution — he is expected to move from the rotation to the bullpen, as he has the past two Octobers.
“I keep saying that whenever me and Joe find it, this bullpen is going to take off,” Jansen said. “Joe’s getting close. I’m getting close. I just want [Baez] to stay what he is, Julio to continue to get better.”
That being said . . .
“It would be awesome to get another arm,” Jansen said. “If we can add one or two arms, we would love to have that.”
Friedman is working on it. There is no shortage of quality relievers available, and the list of second-tier arms that could be acquired includes San Francisco’s Sam Dyson and Tony Watson (a former Dodgers acquisition), Colorado’s Scott Oberg, Texas’ Chris Martin, Miami’s Jarlin Garcia, Arizona’s Greg Holland and Kansas City’s Jake Diekman.
But Friedman appears to be aiming high. In addition to Vazquez, who is signed through 2021, Hand, who is signed through 2020 and Smith, an impending free agent, the Dodgers have been linked to Detroit closer Shane Greene, Toronto closer Ken Giles and San Diego closer Kirby Yates.
“I think someone who matches up well against a good left-handed hitter is a priority,” Friedman said. “We always feel pressure to make a deal and improve our team. We have to balance that with not being stupid.”
A trade for a top-tier reliever, especially one under contract for 2020 or beyond, could cost the Dodgers two of their top five prospects — catchers Will Smith and Keibert Ruiz, pitchers Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin and middle infielder Gavin Lux.
Friedman believes the farm system is deep enough to absorb another trade-deadline acquisition, “but at some point we have to think about ways to replenish it, because the only downside of competing every year is you’re never selling off pieces to get young players,” Friedman said.
“It’s a credit to our scouting staff, our player-development staff, that we still have a deep system. We just have to continue to be mindful of it and not take it for granted or we’ll wake up one day and be in the bottom of the league in farm-system ranking, and it’s really difficult to sustain success when you’re there.”
It’s also difficult to win a World Series, as the Dodgers are acutely aware.