With less than a week remaining until the trade deadline — the one and only trade deadline for the first time in recent baseball history — the Dodgers aren’t waiting around to make moves. Catcher Austin Barnes was optioned to triple-A Oklahoma City on Thursday and rookie catcher Will Smith will be promoted to patch the only glaring hole in their lineup. Earlier in the day, first baseman Tyler White was acquired from the Houston Astros for minor league pitcher Andre Scrubb.
Andrew Friedman’s message is that the Dodgers will aggressively explore ways to improve. They will scout many players and make countless calls and concoct trade offers like they have since he took over as the organization’s president of baseball operations. And there’s a line he’ll refuse to cross.
“I think the best way to frame it is our mindset in previous Julys has been to be really aggressive,” Friedman said. “That continues to be our mindset. We’re just going to stop if it reaches the point of stupid. And I would hope that’s what our fans would want us to do.”
Demoting Barnes, 29, is a start. His batting average had fallen to .196, the fifth-lowest among major leaguers with at least 230 plate appearances. His .616 on-base-plus-slugging percentage is the sixth-worst mark. Smith, 24, hit .263 with three home runs in 26 at-bats during short stints with the Dodgers earlier this season. He was named a Pacific League All-Star and has 20 home runs in triple-A.
Trying to improve production behind the plate internally is a low-risk move. Risk comes closer to the deadline. Foolish trades, of course, are often impossible to determine for years when dealing with young players. Sometimes hyped prospects traded or held onto don’t reach their projections. Other times, overlooked minor leaguers become hot commodities (see: Yordan Alvarez). It’s a floating boundary Friedman’s front office strives to straddle to field a club that can win a World Series now and contend in the future.
This year, it means the Dodgers probably won’t unload a heap of top-tier talent from their highly regarded farm system — recently ranked third in baseball by FanGraphs and fifth by Baseball America — before 1 p.m. PDT on July 31. But they are in business for bullpen help. That is a certainty.
On Thursday, they made a minor deal. White is a slugger with minimal positional versatility. He batted .276 with 12 home runs and an .888 OPS last season, but is batting .225 with three home runs and a .650 OPS when the Astros designated him for assignment Saturday. Scrubb had a 2.45 earned-run average in 29 appearances for double-A Tulsa and can touch the high 90s with his fastball, but there were concerns about his makeup.
White is out of options so he must be placed on the 25-man roster. Enrique Hernandez left Wednesday’s game with a left hand injury so he could end up on the injured list. David Freese, who has battled knee tendinitis and a hamstring strain, could also land there.
But White doesn’t fill the Dodgers’ glaring need. Bolstering the relief corps with elite back-end relievers, whom the Dodgers seek, would. Someone who can shut down left-handed batters is atop the list after the three left-handers they counted on entering the season — Tony Cingrani, Scott Alexander and Caleb Ferguson — succumbed to injuries and poor performance. But Los Angeles may not stop there — earlier this season, the Dodgers tried signing Craig Kimbrel, a right-hander, but he wanted to close and they weren’t willing to give him the role.
The market could brim with possibilities by July 31, but six days out the market hasn’t been fully established because so many teams remain in contention for a wild-card spot. In the National League, four teams are within three games of the second wild-card berth entering Thursday. In the American League, three teams are within four games. There were more just a few days ago.
The Dodgers have been linked to various relievers, ranging from very expensive to less so. Elite relievers with team control beyond this season — such as left-handers Felipe Vazquez and Brad Hand — will carry a high price tag, if their teams are willing to move them at all. The San Francisco Giants’ recent scorching stretch has left the industry wondering how they will proceed after playing most of the season under the assumption they’d be sellers. They have two left-handed relievers — Will Smith and Tony Watson, a Dodgers midseason acquisition in 2017 — who would draw considerable interest.
The Cincinnati Reds have fallen eight games out of the wild-card race, a slide that could make left-hander Amir Garrett available. Garrett has a 1.85 ERA in 45 appearances, and the Dodgers have interest. Jake Diekman of the Kansas City Royals has a 4.75 ERA in 48 games but has held left-handed hitters to a .617 OPS and wouldn’t require much prospect capital.
In the right-handed aisle, Chris Martin of the Texas Rangers has a 1.53 ERA and 22 strikeouts to no walks in his last 18 outings. The Rangers also could move Jose Leclerc, but Martin seems a likelier possibility for the Dodgers. The Baltimore Orioles’ Mychal Givens, who has struck out 12.2 batters per nine innings in 33 games, is another option.
“Pitching is something you can never have enough of,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “So I think any team would say you can always add, but there’s always a cost to it. So I think, yeah, we’re kind of canvassing everything, every opportunity, and if we line up on something that moves the needle, great. If we don’t, then we’re prepared to go forward with this club.”
As Friedman has pointed out, the Dodgers have not shied away from executing midseason transactions for a playoff push under his watch. He acquired Rich Hill, Josh Reddick and Josh Fields in 2016; Yu Darvish, Watson and Cingrani in 2017; and Manny Machado, Brian Dozier, John Axford, Ryan Madson and David Freese in 2018. In some instances, those players were the best available at their position. In others, they were the best the Dodgers could acquire for the price they were willing to pay. None led to a World Series title.
His front office built a championship-caliber bullpen in 2017. Kenley Jansen was at the peak, perhaps the best reliever in the sport. Brandon Morrow surfaced from obscurity to become a dominant set-up man. The bridge to them was sturdy and the group recorded 28 consecutive scoreless innings in the postseason before fatigue fueled a couple of letdowns.
Jansen has regressed since. Joe Kelly was signed to a $25-million contract to stabilize the bridge to him, but he’s struggled to find consistency while Pedro Baez has scuffled lately. Julio Urias has been the Dodgers’ most dominant reliever, but he isn’t regularly available and could end up in the starting rotation in October. So for the next week, Friedman and his staff will attempt to infuse the relief corps with reinforcements. But he won’t be stupid about it.
“We would be stupid if it guaranteed we would win a World Series,” Friedman said. “But it doesn’t. That’s the problem.”