Column: Andrew Friedman’s uncharacteristic restraint could haunt Dodgers in October
They played it safe. They checked their swing. They held the ball.
It’s strange to say that about a Dodgers organization that has been so fearlessly bold in winning six consecutive division championships and advancing to consecutive World Series, but Wednesday was the strangest of days.
Given a chance to take a trade deadline leap that could have added the final championship piece to their best team in three decades, the Dodgers stayed on the ledge, feet rooted to the precipice, looking down, shaking their heads.
They could have significantly upgraded their wildly inconsistent bullpen, but didn’t. They could have fixed their biggest need and the one thing that has consistently haunted them in recent Octobers, but wouldn’t.
They could have traded for Pittsburgh’s superb closer Felipe Vazquez, but were unwilling to pay a price that included triple-A prospect Gavin Lux. They could have bet the future for the sake of increasing the current chances of a first title since 1988, but refused to go all in.
Andrew Friedman, the front-office mastermind who has directed this team to greatness by always going for it, wouldn’t go for it.
Rookie catcher Will Smith broke a scoreless tie in the ninth inning with a three-run home run that led to a 5-1 Dodgers’ victory over the Colorado Rockies.
The Dodgers, a franchise that has spared no expense in building baseball’s best team, found something that cost too much.
By risking nothing, they risked everything, the seventh inning of a division series, the eighth inning of a championship series, the final nine outs of a World Series.
They played it safe. The guess here is that they played it wrong. For the next three months it will all play out, Friedman and the bullpen and their championship hopes working on a tightrope constructed strangely not by aggression but apprehension.
”We feel we’ve got a team and depth in place to win a championship,” Friedman said in a conference call, but you know he gulped hard when he said it.
He knows they desperately needed bullpen help. He knows relievers were directly involved in five World Series losses over the last two years. He knows the difference that one impact player can make.
This is the man who had owned the trade deadline by bringing in those kinds of players. In the past three years, with the clock ticking, Friedman traded two handfuls of mostly forgettable prospects for the likes of Rich Hill, Josh Reddick, Yu Darvish and Manny Machado.
Friedman gets it. But he didn’t get Vazquez, the only true impact closer available, because he couldn’t bring himself to trade Lux, a middle infielder batting .465 at triple-A Oklahoma City who is projected as next year’s starting second baseman.
Dodgers fans who envisioned Yasiel Puig returning to L.A. with the Cleveland Indians in October must have done a double-take when the Houston Astros traded for Zack Greinke.
It appears Friedman couldn’t stomach trading a prospect so valuable who was so close to the major leagues at such a position of need. In the end, he didn’t think another potential Cody Bellinger or Corey Seager was worth giving up for one reliever, even a proven one such as Vazquez, with his 1.87 ERA and 68 strikeouts and 11 walks in 43 1/3 innings.
Friedman knows this is not the NBA, where one player can change everything, and he apparently decided it wasn’t worth it to bet so much on one bullpen arm. Fair enough.
But it was a legacy-defining gamble. It will be tough to face Dodgers fans in October if their team falls short again for the sake of some 21-year-old who isn’t even in uniform. Lux could be the greatest young player ever, but Friedman could be asking fans to endure an increase in the 31-year drought for the sake of someone who has not yet spent one moment as a Dodger.
If the Dodgers win the World Series with a makeshift bullpen, this decision will be canonized. But if the bullpen blows it again, it’s coming back on Friedman, and he knows it.
The phrase “trade deadline” could lead every Dodgers tribute . . . or every Dodgers obit.
The Los Angeles Angels acquired backup catcher Max Stassi in a trade with the Houston Astros on Wednesday but failed to improve their thin starting rotation.
“I feel confident we will get to a point where a ‘pen is an additive to our pursuit of winning a championship,” Friedman said.
And just how is that going to happen? Well, expect two minor leaguers, top prospect Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, to get a shot there. Expect Friedman’s only bullpen trade deadline acquisition, left-hander Adam Kolarek from Tampa Bay, to fit in somewhere. And of course, also receiving bullpen work will be Julio Urias, Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling. Throw in Pedro Baez, Joe Kelly and Kenley Jansen and cross your fingers.
“As we spend time kind of laying out what the prospective bullpen looks like in October, we feel good about the talent we have in-house. Now it’s all about synching it up and putting together the unit in a way that is a real asset for us,” Friedman said. “Now we’ve got to figure out the right combination of guys and we’ve got two months and lot of really talented arms.”
Are you buying it? It feels a little desperate. Are the Dodgers veterans buying it? They have been openly overjoyed in past Julys when Friedman handed them those great additions. One can only wonder how they will feel now when Friedman shows up with only Kolarek and injured utility man Jedd Gyorko as deadline additions.
You know what Wednesday also felt like? It felt like Nov. 1, 2017, Game 7, George Springer’s gut punch of a home run.
In the final moments before the trade deadline, with the baseball world waiting for Friedman’s trademark last-second magic, the Houston Astros barged in by acquiring pitcher Zack Greinke from Arizona for four kids, including three of their top five prospects.
The deadline passed, and, once again, the Dodgers had lost.
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