The Dodgers are unkillable. On Sunday night they came back from one-run deficits in the ninth and 11th innings to beat the Giants on a walk-off double by a 26-year-old third-string catcher making his first big league plate appearance. That win brought them to 74–31, and 7–0 since Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher since Pedro Martínez, hurt his back. The Dodgers are on pace to win 114 games, the most in the National League in 111 years, and at 4 p.m. ET, it looked like ex-Pirates closer Tony Watson was the Dodgers’ big deadline-day move. That was fine; L.A. is going to win this division no matter what, and the left-handed Watson was a nice balance to an improved but still righty-heavy bullpen.
Then they traded three minor leaguers for Yu Darvish.
Darvish is a 30-year-old right-handed pitcher who’s made four All-Star appearances in five MLB seasons. He’s the 2013 AL Cy Young runner-up, and among starting pitchers with a minimum of 500 career innings pitched, the all-time leader in K% and K/9 ratio.
The Dodgers rotation feels a little unsteady because all of their top-seven starting pitchers have been on the DL at some point this season, but in reality it’s quite deep. Assuming Kershaw’s healthy by season’s end, they’ll be able to toss out a playoff rotation of the best pitcher of his generation, the all-time strikeout rate leader, Rich Hill (the top pitcher traded at last year’s deadline), and Alex Wood, who’d be third in the NL in ERA if he had enough innings to qualify.
If everyone’s healthy, Brandon McCarthy, Kenta Maeda, and Hyun-Jin Ryu — all veteran pitchers on multiyear deals with above-average ERAs this year — don’t even factor into the picture. Darvish was one of maybe three pitchers traded this month, along with José Quintana and Sonny Gray, who’d represent anything more than a marginal upgrade to the Dodgers’ playoff rotation.
At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Darvish is the best American-style power pitcher Japan has ever produced. Brooks Baseball registered an incredible eight distinct pitches from Darvish this year, most frequent among them a mid-90s fastball that he can fade or sink, plus a high-80s cutter and a sweeping low-80s slider. The difference in horizontal movement from Darvish’s sinker to his slider can be as much as 20 inches.
Two years removed from Tommy John surgery and in his last year before free agency, Darvish isn’t putting up the same numbers as in 2013, when he had the most strikeouts and fewest hits per nine innings in the American League. But Darvish’s numbers are inflated by his last start, in which he allowed 10 runs after the Marlins found out he was tipping his pitches. The issue’s since been resolved.
Even so, Darvish has been worth about three wins so far, and is still capable of jaw-dropping single-game performances the likes of which only Kershaw and Max Scherzer can match with any regularity.
Since the Dodgers will get only two months of Darvish, plus the postseason, they were able to get him without trading hot-hitting rookie catcher Austin Barnes or top prospects Walker Buehler, Alex Verdugo, and Yadier Alvarez. The Darvish rental cost second baseman Willie Calhoun (no. 4 in the Dodgers’ system, according to MLB Pipeline), right-hander A.J. Alexy (no. 17), and infielder Brendon Davis (no. 27). Alexy and Davis aren’t much more than what the Dodgers gave up for Watson, but Calhoun’s a nice prospect.
The 22-year-old is currently hitting .298/.357/.574 in Triple-A and is 69th in MLB Pipeline’s global midseason top 100. The left-handed-hitting Calhoun can “fuckin’ hit,” in the words of Craig Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, but since he’s only 5-foot-8 with the body of an emperor penguin, he doesn’t get the hype his numbers would otherwise warrant. The Rangers have no problem with undersized lefty second basemen (see: Rougned Odor, but don’t see him for so long that he’ll think you want to fight him), but Calhoun could also end up in the outfield. Calhoun’s a nice get for a rental, and given their position in the standings and their prospect depth, the Dodgers can well afford to pay it.
Adding a no. 1 starter to a team on a 114-win pace without removing anything from the big league roster is as close to guaranteeing a World Series title as you get in baseball. The downside is that in baseball guarantees don’t mean much at this point in the season. Despite their .705 winning percentage, the Dodgers still had just a 1–4 chance of winning the World Series before the Darvish trade, according to BP.
Even for the Dodgers, taking a best-of-seven series from a Washington Nationals team with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg or an Astros team with Dallas Keuchel and a lineup that goes 11 players deep won’t be easy. And that’s assuming they take the NLDS from the wild-card winner. The Dodgers have lost three in a row three times this season; they’re not invulnerable.
But if the Dodgers don’t make it to the World Series this year, it won’t be because they left some option unexplored. Heading into August, this is as complete a baseball team as we’ve seen in the 21st century. We’ll see how much that counts for in October.