January 18, 2017
Dozier and the Doyers
Last week I attended SportCon, a day-long convention on analytics in sports put on by an organization called MinneAnalytics. There were six seminar sessions throughout the day at the enclosed downtown campus of St. Thomas University in Minneapolis. I was sitting in an auditorium/lecture hall early in the afternoon, waiting for new Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey to walk in for a panel on how teams use analytical information in coaching and advance scouting, when Ken Rosenthal’s Twitter feed told me what business Falvey had concluded prior to making the short trip from Target Field to the conference: The Dodgers and Twins had reached a semi-official impasse, and Brian Dozier was (however flimsily) assured of remaining in Minnesota for a while.
That "news" is sorry succor for the news-starved fans of the baseball offseason and it rippled through the room like word that the keg has run dry at a wedding reception. If the convention were at Loyola Marymount instead of St. Thomas, it’s fair to guess that the tone would have been the same. Twins fans have wanted this deal for most of the winter. Dodgers fans have approached it cautiously, hugging their prospects tightly but with a measure of anticipation, too. Neither front office will endear themselves to large swaths of their fan base by walking away from the bargaining table. The Twins are still likely to be a losing team in 2017 and the aggressive rebuild Falvey and general manager Thad Levine have hinted at seems on hold until Dozier is dealt.
Andrew Friedman’s team, meanwhile, must wrestle with constant, empty-headed hand-wringing over whether they will have wasted Clayton Kershaw’s prime if they don’t hurry up and win a World Series, or at least reach one. The Dodgers have four straight division titles, all with 90-plus wins, and they’ve suffered just three losing seasons since the 1994 strike, but they're saddled with persistent and unfair expectations because of their payroll and the Yankees’ four-title binge nearly 20 years ago. Dozier would fit perfectly into their lineup, which wants both a proven second baseman and right-handed thump.
For my money, however, this is a knot better left untied, at least for now. To show why, I’m going to fall back on a construct I’ve used in the past: Non-Transaction Analysis.
This is all we know to have been agreed upon between the teams. It seems likely, though it was never specifically reported, that the Dodgers would have been willing to include more than De Leon to get the deal done, but they were pretty apparently unwilling to pair another prospect truly on his level. (BP's analysis of Los Angeles' farm system, released today, has De Leon ranked third.)
In my opinion, it would not have made sense for the Twins to make that trade right now. For one thing, De Leon remains an unknown commodity, not because we don’t know how he will perform against even advanced hitters (we do, at least as well as we know that about any rookie), but because it’s not at all clear that he can hold up physically as a full-time starter. His command is imperfect, but his stuff could carry him easily to that level. The problem is that he’s battled persistent arm trouble. Last season a shoulder injury limited him. If he’s forced into relief in the long run, or if he breaks down altogether, his value will obviously crater and the risk of that in his case is far too significant to tolerate in a trade for someone with Dozier’s combination of durability, talent, and below-market salaries over the next two years.
For another thing, not making a trade right now does not mean never making that trade. The Twins gain something (however infinitesimal an edge it might be, especially when it’s Friedman playing the other side of the chess board) by showing their willingness to walk away from that potential move. They also in all likelihood hang onto their opportunity to make the same deal this summer. The Dodgers will be in contention when that time comes and they might well remain in need of a slugging second baseman. If they are, only a disastrous first half from Dozier could make him unworthy of De Leon. The lost half-season of control won’t make a difference.
I have one more reason for appraising Minnesota’s choice as the right one, if the dilemma they faced was really what it seemed to be. It’s a bit more controversial, perhaps, but here it goes: The Twins may not have a bright future. At this moment, they have a below-average farm system. That will change, both with whatever trades they make as a likely seller this summer and when they pick first in the draft this June, and they will benefit from the restructured rules governing spending on international free agents. Still, the path from where they are to fielding a competitive team, if they choose the path of the full rebuild, is several more years long. That’s on top of the six straight poor seasons (we can’t say “losing” here because the Twins won 83 games in 2015, but they’ve been a losing-caliber club based on true talent for six straight seasons) to which they’ve already subjected an increasingly indifferent fan base.
By the time they circle the wagons they might even find that they’ve nearly exhausted their control over Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, and Jose Berrios, who form the young core of the franchise right now. Those four players are crucial to the future of the team, however you figure it, and yet it’s striking how little we know about each right now. Sano has shown the ability to draw walks and obliterate baseballs, but he’s also racked up strikeouts faster than any player in history and it’s still unclear whether he’ll make it as a third baseman. Buxton’s struggles at the plate have been mystifying and deeply concerning. He’s still quite young. He plays elite defense and adds value on the bases. He even flashed his plus power potential late last year. Still, the superstar collection of tools has so far not come together and his slow, stiff adjustments at the plate aren’t encouraging. Kepler had an eye-opening summer hot streak, bookended by long periods of struggle. Berrios opens eyes with his stuff, his work ethic, and his general poise, but his results last season were disastrous.
Every team has young, untested players, but few teams’ long-term outlook revolves so much around such guys and perhaps none have players who have played so much in the majors without answering any questions. Enter Dozier, whose contract expires in two years. The Twins might benefit, given just how little information they have right now, from waiting until the summer to decide on their plan of action. If the Core Four (sorry) blossom into the players they all seem relatively close to becoming, the Twins could be contenders (at least in a fringy way) by the All-Star break and would obviously hold onto Dozier. If the four implode and seem further than ever from figuring things out, it will free up Falvey and Levine to listen much more freely on Dozier (holding themselves open, perhaps, to a higher-upside or higher-quantity package at the expense of the proximity to the big leagues).
If stasis holds they can approach the possibility of trading Dozier at the deadline just about the same way they have done it this winter. Remember, this new front office was hired fairly late in the fall, so they might need the time we’re talking about to evaluate their own outlook at all levels, anyway. The risk in retaining Dozier is clear. He could back up. He could struggle the way he did late in 2015 and early in 2016. He could pull a hamstring, or show up to spring training a step slower and worse at second base. Still, in the Twins’ situation I view that risk as one worth taking, at least unless and until they’re blown away by an offer that includes a higher-level asset—or multiple pieces with real trade value.
Los Angeles Dodgers did not trade RHP Jose De Leon and [RHP Yadier Alvarez, OF/1B-L Cody Bellinger, OF-L Alex Verdugo, OF-R Yusniel Diaz, or RHP Walker Buehler] to Minnesota Twins in exchange for 2B-R Brian Dozier. [1/10]
The Twins tried to create a bidding war around Dozier, but it didn’t really work. The Mets (perhaps accidentally) retained Neil Walker. The Pirates thought more seriously about trading away a franchise cornerstone than about adding to their competitive core for the short run. The Giants and Cardinals got mentioned as potential landing spots for Dozier, but both teams had young second basemen on hand and more pressing needs. The Blue Jays seemed a good fit in a couple of ways, but acted early in the winter on other fronts and rumors never even percolated. That left Falvey and Levine in a staring contest with Friedman, Farhan Zaidi, and the myriad other former and current sabermetric darlings who populate the Dodgers' front office. The Twins wanted a second meaningful piece in exchange for Dozier. They couldn’t pry one loose, for a few perfectly good reasons.
First, the Dodgers had other options if they felt they needed to add a second baseman. Incumbent second baseman Chase Utley is a free agent even now. Cuban emigre Jose Miguel Fernandez lurked on the market and the Dodgers finally signed him about the time that they stopped trying to shake Dozier loose. The Tigers still haven’t shed significant payroll obligations this winter, but rumors persist that they will and Ian Kinsler would be a prime trade candidate. Brandon Phillips keeps turning down trades, but maybe the Dodgers are the team for whom he’s saving himself. Rumors earlier this winter connected the Dodgers to Logan Forsythe, whom Friedman acquired when he still ran the Rays. And that’s not to mention in-house options like Enrique Hernandez, Austin Barnes, and (by midseason, if things go well) Willie Calhoun.
Second, De Leon provides valuable depth for a rotation that might need it. The Dodgers continue to build injury-prone pitching staffs, trusting that a combination of their work on the cutting edge of injury prevention and the depth they’re able to amass because of their resources will allow them to mitigate the inevitable attrition. Their projected rotation includes Kershaw, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, Scott Kazmir, and Julio Urias. That’s a phenomenal group of pitchers, but 120 starts from the five of them would be a victory. After them, Los Angeles will look to Brandon McCarthy, Brock Stewart, Ross Stripling, and De Leon to fill the holes. The same is true, generally, of Bellinger, Verdugo, and other could-be complementary pieces in the would-be deal: the Dodgers’ outfield depth chart is exciting but risky.
Finally, there’s the general lack of urgency that is Friedman’s trademark. He’s always trying to build a sustainable, long-term winner. In the Dodgers he has a team that's already there and he’s been able to add to significant inherited depth on the farm. He’ll undo some of that if the right tradeoff of future for present value presents itself, but he’s not one to lunge after a ring. He’s wise enough to know that, with this group and the money to which he has access, a ring will eventually come to him.