The Yankees–Red Sox rivalry of the mid-2000s didn’t enchant the sport just because of the teams’ historic enmity—the fact that the modern-day rosters were full of recognizable names and faces also helped capture fans. Jeter. Ortiz. A-Rod. Manny. Clemens. Pedro. Mussina. Schilling. Even members of the supporting casts—Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams and Gary Sheffield, Jason Varitek and Johnny Damon and Nomar Garciaparra—were multi-time All-Stars and positional cornerstones. And that’s before we get to Mariano Rivera, waiting in the bullpen.
If Dodgers-Padres is slated to become the 2020s’ version of that Yankees–Red Sox rivalry, this factor is a main reason: This new rivalry has plenty of its own star power, including three former MVPs, a potential face of the sport, and more top-of-the-rotation pitchers than there are rotations to top.
To celebrate those stars, and to predict which will shine brightest as the rivalry unfolds, four of The Ringer’s MLB analysts are drafting players from the Dodgers and Padres to each build the core of a championship contender for the next three seasons, from 2021 through 2023. Thus, present production is crucial; so, too, are near-term potential and positional fit and every other consideration that goes into constructing a modern MLB roster.
In snake draft format, we’re picking six players each, because this NL West duel has so many notable players that we can go 24 deep. On to the picks—which start with a closely contested no. 1. —Zach Kram
Round 1, Pick 1 (no. 1): Fernando Tatis Jr.
Michael Baumann: I considered three players with the first pick: Tatis, Mookie Betts, and Cody Bellinger. Tatis is the youngest of the three, the best athlete, and plays the most important defensive position. And even though he’s already one of the biggest stars in the game, he’s played only 143 games in his career. He has growth potential that the 28-year-old Betts simply doesn’t. Right now, Betts is the best ballplayer alive who isn’t named after a fish. Two years from now, however, there’s a very good chance that will no longer be the case.
But more than anything, Tatis has the best vibes. All four of these teams are going to be incredibly talented, and when talent is equal, vibes carry the day.
Round 1, Pick 2 (no. 2): Mookie Betts
Zach Kram: Why, yes, I will take the best non–Mike Trout player in baseball, who will be in his age-28-30 seasons during this span and who, unlike Tatis, is almost never hurt. (The only season that Betts missed more than 20 games, he won the AL MVP.) Betts might not be a shortstop, but he’s won five consecutive Gold Gloves and been, by at least one advanced stat, the majors’ best defender on a per-inning basis since debuting. He doesn’t need any “growth potential” when he’s already a good bet to become the first player since Frank Robinson, and second ever, to win an MVP award in both leagues.
Picking Tatis first here is like when the Rockets took Hakeem Olajuwon no. 1 in the 1984 NBA draft. Olajuwon is an MVP and Hall of Famer—a great pick in a vacuum! But Michael Jordan was also available.
Round 1, Pick 3 (no. 3): Cody Bellinger
Ben Lindbergh: Fine, I guess I’ll settle for the Dodgers’ other Gold Glove–winning outfielder and former MVP. (These teams are so stacked.) I had to mull this over in a way I wouldn’t have a year ago, because Corey Seager had a heck of a small-sample season, while Bellinger’s bat fell from its previous heights. It worries me that Bellinger has a history of shoulder dislocations, that the latest dislocation (caused by an NLCS forearm bash) prompted him to have offseason surgery, and that he showed up to camp with a new, open stance (a possible response to some of his struggles last year). It just doesn’t worry me enough to pass on a player with Bellinger’s combination of speed, power, and early-career accomplishments, whose hitting overshadows how good his glove is. (Last year, Bellinger led all NL outfielders in outs above average.) Right after I picked him, he hit his first homer of the spring in his second Cactus League game, which I’ll choose to take as a sign that the shoulder is fine.
Round 1, Pick 4 (no. 4): Corey Seager
Bobby Wagner: This is what I hate about going last—I came in here ready to make a Big Statement about how fun the Padres were, and now I’m stuck taking two Dodgers whose names sound like they’re the two opening acts for a Luke Bryan concert. There are worse guys to be stuck with at the end of a round, though. By projected three-year WAR, Seager’s the chalk pick after Tatis, Betts, and Bellinger. His 2016 (6.9 FanGraphs WAR, .365 OBP, .512 SLG) is a better season than anyone left on these teams will likely put up for the rest of their careers. He’s above average in almost every category a ball player can be, and given that his best season in the bigs came in a year in which he hit only 26 home runs, there’s less drop-off potential for him surrounding the dejuiced ball than some other guys. Even in his worst year in the majors, post–Tommy John surgery, he got on base over a third of the time. I’ll take it.
Round 2, Pick 1 (no. 5): Walker Buehler
Wagner: It’s a testament to the Dodgers’ unbelievable player development how many of the guys that are about to be taken in the coming rounds are home-grown success stories. It’s less interesting than Tatis Jr. (whom the White Sox traded to the Padres before they realized his transcendent potential), or even Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, Blake Snell, and Yu Darvish (who, mostly through cheap ownership, ended up on different teams than they started with), but it really is shocking how much of the Dodgers core was drafted and developed. It’s easy to look at individual players taken in the first round, like Seager and Buehler, and expect this. But in the aggregate, I can’t help but marvel. Anyway, Buehler is the best pitcher in this series and it’s not that close, especially when you factor in his age, trajectory, and the fact that his teammate seemingly refuses to open both eyes while pitching so he can get more subscribers on YouTube.
Round 2, Pick 2 (no. 6): Manny Machado
Lindbergh: Machado is not the new hotness on the left side of San Diego’s infield, but he was probably the Padres’ best player last year, and MVP voters rewarded him on their ballots by bumping him ahead of Tatis. Machado flips (and heaves) his bats too, and he’s been impressing some people and pissing off others at the highest level of the sport since Tatis was 13. I’m making it sound as if Manny is old, but he doesn’t turn 29 for a few more months, and his skills at third are strong enough that he should have little trouble sticking at the position and providing defensive value throughout the next three seasons. Even in Machado’s worst years, he’s been above average. In his best ones—and he’s had so many standout seasons that it’s tough to pick a career year—he’s an all-around superstar, a 30-plus-homer metronome with improving plate discipline. He’s also a virtual lock to stay on the field: With the exception of his surgically shortened 2014 and last year’s 60-game season, Machado hasn’t played fewer than 156 games since he was an 18-year-old in A-ball, and last year was his third season without a single unscheduled day off.
Round 2, Pick 3 (no. 7): Will Smith
Kram: Fun with small samples: Smith has the best career batting line for any catcher in MLB history (minimum 200 plate appearances), pushing ahead of previous leader Mike Piazza. He won’t maintain a .268/.363/.574 line long term, but his underlying batted-ball metrics support his production to this point. Even in just two partial seasons, it’s clear that Smith is a terrific player at a terrifically weak position—and a young one, too, as Smith is entering his age-26 season. For comparison, J.T. Realmuto is 30, Yasmani Grandal 32. ZiPS projects that Smith will be the majors’ most valuable catcher by 2023.
I can find other pitchers or infielders when I’m building my team; unless I’m the Orioles with top prospect Adley Rutschman, I can’t find another catcher with this much promise. Smith’s biggest statistical weakness right now is his framing, but that’s a teachable skill—plus we might have robot umps by 2023 anyway.
Round 2, Pick 4 (no. 8): Clayton Kershaw
Baumann: No longer the best pitcher in the world, Kershaw is still an elite left-handed starter. In 2020, he posted a 2.16 ERA and struck out 28.1 percent of the batters he faced while walking 3.6 percent, bringing a close to a disappointing two-year run and heralding the start of an exciting second act in his career.
Actually, you know how we know Kershaw’s good? Because in 2018 and 2019 he averaged 27 starts a year with a 139 ERA+ and everyone started talking about him like he was, if not completely washed, then at least soaking in the sink after dinner.
And I’m optimistic about him going forward. After throwing 200 innings a year for most of the 2010s, Kershaw’s 89-inning workload in 2020 (between regular season and playoffs) must have been a relief for his ailing back. And then there’s the figurative weight off his shoulders: He finally won a title and can now slot in as a co-ace with Walker Buehler and Trevor Bauer instead of toting around the entire millstone of competitive expectations by himself.
Round 3, Pick 1 (no. 9): Yu Darvish
Baumann: Bauer blew Darvish out in NL Cy Young voting last year, but the 34-year-old was comically good in his last season in Chicago. On a five-year timeline, maybe it’d be worth reaching for MacKenzie Gore or hoping that Chris Paddack’s 2020 struggles were a blip and Dustin May will start striking people out. But based on Darvish’s work the past two seasons, he should be able to keep pitching effectively for at least the next three seasons.
Plus, he’s a great fit on Team Vibes.
Round 3, Pick 2 (no. 10): Blake Snell
Kram: Snell’s ERA has bounced around a bit, but he’s basically been the same underlying pitcher in each of the past three seasons, starting with his Cy Young campaign:
- Strikeout rate: 32 percent, then 33 percent, then 31 percent
- Walk rate: 9 percent, then 9 percent, then 9 percent
Assuming Snell doesn’t allow a mind-boggling 29 percent homer-per-fly-ball ratio again, as he did last season, he has the floor of a solid no. 2 starter. I’d rather have Kershaw and Darvish right now, but over three seasons, give me the 28-year-old over two pitchers in their mid-30s. And definitely give me a pitcher now, period, because I’m afraid all the top-tier arms will be taken by the time I pick again.
Round 3, Pick 3 (no. 11): Trevor Bauer
Lindbergh: When your competitors prioritize vibes, Bauer becomes the problematic steal of the draft. He’s toxic on Twitter, his quest for attention is tiresome, and his spin rates since September 2019 should have set off sirens in an MLB foreign substances CSI unit. He’s also the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner and the highest-paid player in the sport. That’s not to say that he’s one of the best players in the sport, or even that he was the best pitcher in the NL last year. But we’re 11 picks into a draft of players from two teams, and no matter how talented those two teams are, it’s somewhat surprising, WAR-wise, that Bauer is still on the board.
Say what you will about Bauer’s inconsistent career and his inflated profile relative to comparable pitchers with fewer Twitter followers, but the righty ranks sixth among all pitchers in FanGraphs WAR over the past three seasons and ninth over the past four, despite a comebacker breaking his leg late in 2018 and (according to Bauer) multiple nagging injuries hampering him in 2019. He hasn’t had any known arm issues, he misses more bats than all but a few other starters, and what he lacks in efficiency he makes up for in bulk. (Over the past two seasons, Bauer has made more than twice as many starts with at least 115 pitches as any other pitcher.) What better way to honor Andrew Friedman’s past than by picking up a player who was undervalued because of character concerns?
Round 3, Pick 4 (no. 12): MacKenzie Gore
Wagner: My heart was telling me Dinelson Lamet. But my gut is telling me MacKenzie Gore. Gore is probably the toughest player to project of anyone taken so far. He’s a young pitcher who can touch mid-90s with his fastball and has the potential for plus-plus command. He hasn’t seen the bigs yet, so I figure to take a hit in the first year of this three-year hypothetical window. But predicting Lamet’s health after some alarming elbow concerns shut him down in 2020 seems like a fool’s errand.
Round 4, Pick 1 (no. 13): Gavin Lux
Wagner: The Lux pick is the spiritual successor to the Corey Seager pick—a first-rounder churned through the Dodgers farm system and spit out with plus power and big Baseball Dude energy. The only reason he’s still on the board is because he’s lost a bit of shine since showing some fielding struggles in the majors. Granted, it’s only 42 games (and the 2020 postseason), but his bat doesn’t look quite as formidable if the Dodgers can’t play him at second and have to convert him to a left fielder. But positional flexibility is one of the things the Dodgers do better than almost any team in baseball. In the fourth round of this draft, I’m more than willing to die on the hill of a top-five prospect who had small-sample-size struggles, and who also has the potential to hit 40 homers in a season while playing second base.
Round 4, Pick 2 (no. 14): Trent Grisham
Lindbergh: I mentioned earlier that Bellinger led all NL outfielders in outs above average last season. Grisham ranked second, and he did it while having a better year with the bat. I’m not equating the two left-handed-hitting outfielders, but I am juxtaposing them to point out that Grisham is good. The 24-year-old ranked 21st in the majors in sprint speed last season, trailing only Tatis on these two teams. He has power and patience, too: He was one of six players to reach double digits in dingers and steals in 2020, and he had a higher walk rate than the other five. (He swung more than three times as often at pitches inside the strike zone as he did at probable balls, putting him near the 90th percentile in “selective aggression” among qualified hitters.) Grisham whiffs a lot against lefties and won’t sustain the .378 BABIP that propped up his line against southpaws last season, but it’s hard to bench a glove this good. The first-year returns in the Padres’ trade for Grisham couldn’t have been a bigger coup for A.J. Preller.
Round 4, Pick 3 (no. 15): Max Muncy
Kram: Over the past three seasons, his entire Dodgers tenure, Muncy has the exact same wOBA as Bellinger. Granted, Bellinger has advantages over Muncy in youth and defense and athleticism—that’s why he was a first-round pick in this exercise, while Muncy fell to the fourth—but if hitting is the most important tool, then Muncy, with a strong combination of patience and power, is in a fine place to start. I’m not too concerned about Muncy’s 2020 slump for two reasons: First, he raked in the playoffs (.250/.438/.467), which matters more than usual in a small-sample season; and second, in the regular season, he underperformed his “expected” batting line, based on batted-ball data, by 48 points, one of the largest gaps in the majors. I’ll happily slot him second in my lineup, behind Betts.
Round 4, Pick 4 (no. 16): Justin Turner
Baumann: Sure, the last time we saw Turner he was running around Globe Life Park after having just tested positive for COVID-19. Sure, he’s 36 years old. But despite hitting in the middle of the order for the best team in baseball for the past seven years, Turner remains one of the most underrated offensive players in the sport.
Turner has never won a major award or led the league in a major statistical category, and he’s made just one All-Star team. But since joining the Dodgers in 2014, he’s hit .302/.382/.503 and produced 28.9 bWAR in the regular season. He’s also featured in 72 postseason games, in which he hit .295/.392/.507. I’m not sure anyone outside of Los Angeles is going to particularly remember Turner 20 years from now, but I’m certain he’ll continue to rake for the next three seasons.
Round 5, Pick 1 (no. 17): Dinelson Lamet
Baumann: Lamet might have been the best pitcher in the National League last year. Sure, he got hurt and missed the playoffs, but he’s already back on the mound and headed for regular-season action soon. I’m worried about his injury history too, but we’re deep enough in the draft that Bobby’s picking a guy with zero MLB experience. I love reaching for prospects as much as the next guy, but on a relatively short timeline, give me the guy we know can do this:
Dinelson Lamet, Filthy 88mph Slider. pic.twitter.com/UVUpS8mJdb— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 8, 2020
Round 5, Pick 2 (no. 18): Jake Cronenworth
Kram: I thought I was doing Mike a favor by leaving him Cronenworth, but he didn’t accept the offer, so the Michigan man is mine. (I considered pitcher Dustin May as well, but I’m worried about his minuscule whiff rate.) An unheralded prospect who arrived from Tampa in the Tommy Pham trade, Cronenworth did everything well in his rookie season. He hit in both the regular season (125 wRC+) and playoffs (.389/.542/.667!), even as he underperformed his batted-ball expectation by almost as much as Muncy. He walked a fair amount and rarely struck out. He ranked in the top 10 percent of players in sprint speed. And he played every infield position—and could expand to the outfield this season, as well—and tied for the fifth-most outs above average for any fielder. There’s no better encapsulation of the Dodgers’ recent run of success than a positionally flexible youngster who came out of nowhere—so it’s ironic that Cronenworth plays for the Padres, and now for my team, too. He can even pitch in a pinch, if necessary.
Round 5, Pick 3 (no. 19): Dustin May
Lindbergh: May has amassed a sub-3.00 regular-season ERA in 14 starts and 12 relief appearances over his rookie and sophomore seasons, in addition to holding his own in nine October appearances. That the 23-year-old did all that while still falling far short of fully harnessing his potential is a testament to the nearly unparalleled nastiness of his stuff. May finished neck and neck with Jacob deGrom and Sixto Sánchez on the list of most blistering fastballs by starters last season, but his whiff and strikeout rates were well below average.
The next name on the velocity leaderboard, Nathan Eovaldi, could provide a vision of May’s future: Eovaldi was prone to contact in his 20s, but he’s struck out more than a batter per inning over the past two seasons, an uptick that’s coincided with increased use of his curveball. The mismatch between May’s top-of-the-scale pitch speeds and spin rates and bottom-of-the-barrel whiff rates is perplexing, but it leaves him with a lot of room to improve. I don’t know whether this will be the season that May’s strikeout rate starts matching his stuff, but I’m betting Bauer and/or the Dodgers will help him put the finishing touches on his emerging breaking ball and unlock his lights-out stuff sometime soon.
Round 5, Pick 4 (no. 20): Joe Musgrove
Wagner: Musgrove is coming off a strong 2020 that was cut short by a lingering ankle injury and triceps stiffness. From a strikeouts perspective (12.5 per nine) and a run-prevention perspective (his first season with a sub-4.00 ERA), the shortened season was the best of his career, even if it was only 40 innings. In the fifth round, small sample be damned! He’s still only 28, and he’s leaving Pittsburgh, an organization whose reputation for getting the most out of pitchers has done a 180. It’s not hard to imagine a world where Musgrove discovers a better version of himself—one that leverages his dazzling slider into getting more whiffs on his low-90s fastball up in the zone. At the very worst, with Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. on the left side of the infield, he’s a high-floor ground ball pitcher. His 48.4 percent ground ball rate would’ve tied with Cy Young winner Shane Bieber for the 14th-best ground ball rate in baseball last year.
Round 6, Pick 1 (no. 21): Chris Taylor
Wagner: After three straight rounds of drafting a pitcher and a Dodgers infielder, I’m starting to feel like a broken record. I’m also starting to feel boring. Chris Taylor’s hit tool since coming to the Dodgers has been one of the most reliable things in baseball, even if it usually results in him hitting near the bottom of the order because of how loaded their lineup has been. Since 2017, Taylor’s first full season with Los Angeles, he’s posted 11.1 fWAR (fourth among hitters on the team), and a 118 wRC+ (sixth among hitters on the team). He has the same positional flexibility of Lux, with way less downside. He’ll turn just 31 this year, which means he’s still got a shot to have similar production throughout the three-year timespan of this exercise.
Round 6, Pick 2 (no. 22): Ha-seong Kim
Lindbergh: There’s too much uncertainty surrounding statistical translations from the KBO for me to count on Kim matching his rosy ZiPS projections, but he could come up short of his projected 12 WAR over the next three seasons and still deliver a lot of late-round value. Kim compiled a 142 wRC+ in South Korea over the past two seasons while starting at shortstop for the Kiwoom Heroes, ranking sixth in the league with 49 homers and third with 56 steals (against only six times caught stealing), and walking roughly as often as he struck out. The path to playing time may be a bigger concern for the compact Kim than the doubts about his bat, which have been exacerbated by the 25-year-old’s slow start in spring training. He’ll have to be versatile to break into a killer lineup on a team with two other rovers in Cronenworth and Jurickson Profar. Based on his history, he should be up to the task: Kim may not be an elite glove guy, but he can play all over the infield, and the Padres are trying him in the pasture, too.
Round 6, Pick 3 (no. 23): Drew Pomeranz
Kram: Throughout this whole exercise, I’ve had two names in mind for my final pick, Kim and Pomeranz, and Ben made my choice easy by taking the former. So far, I have a starter, a catcher, two infielders, and the best outfielder in the National League, and I’ll round out that group with the first relief pitcher off the board.
Pomeranz moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen on July 22, 2019. Since then, among 212 pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings, Pomeranz ranks:
- Second in ERA (1.79)
- Second in strikeout rate (43.4 percent)
- Second in batting average against (.153)
I believe in his talent in the bullpen, and I also believe that modern pitching strategy means a truly great reliever is worth just as much as a mid-rotation starter—especially in the postseason. Pomeranz has now proved his worth in three separate bullpens over the past year and a half, and he’s not chained to a pure ninth-inning closer role, either: Over that span, he’s entered games as early as the sixth inning, collecting 21 holds and six saves. You don’t need to squint to see a whole lot of Andrew Miller in him, as a failed southpaw starter who turned into a dynamite multi-inning relief option around age 30.
Pomeranz probably won’t produce as much WAR over the next three seasons as, say, Chris Paddack or Tommy Pham—but he’ll contend for the Relief Pitcher Championship Belt, and pitch the most important innings for my team.
Round 6, Pick 4 (no. 24): Austin Nola
Baumann: I tried to float Cronenworth through but Zach wouldn’t have any of it. I feel a little uneasy taking a 31-year-old with a broken finger and just 451 big league plate appearances anywhere on this draft, but at least for the moment, he’s a catcher who can hit and those are tougher than ever to find.
One factor that swayed me is that the Padres, a team that’s done plenty of good business in the trade market the past few years, gave up four players, including top-100 prospect and perpetual Futures Game star Taylor Trammell, for Nola and two relievers they didn’t really use. They were sold on his all-around game based on less than a full season at the big league level. This deep in the draft, any player represents some form of risk, but if the Padres are sold on Nola, I guess that’s good enough for me.