On Thursday afternoon, about 24 hours before the 2021 MLB trade deadline, national reporters suggested that Max Scherzer was headed to San Diego. The prospective trade, which was reportedly “close,” made sense: With the sub-.500 Nationals fading out of the playoff race, Scherzer was the best starting pitcher available, and Padres GM A.J. Preller loves a blockbuster.
By Thursday night, however, Scherzer was reportedly headed to a different NL West contender, and he was bringing a friend, too: The Dodgers are poised to add Scherzer and All-Star shortstop Trea Turner in exchange for four prospects. Essentially, the best pitcher and the best position player likely to change teams at this deadline are both going to the arguable best team in baseball, a defending champion with the most loaded roster in the sport.
“Blockbuster” doesn’t even begin to describe L.A.’s move. This was a trade of Netflix-sized proportions, which sends potentially commensurate ripples through the sport.
Scherzer celebrated his 37th birthday this week, and while his fastball has maybe lost a tick since his prime, he is largely the same ludicrously effective pitcher he’s been while winning three Cy Young awards over the past decade. Compare Scherzer’s statistics through his first six seasons in Washington to 2021, and the only slight difference is a few more home runs surrendered this year:
- Scherzer, 2015-20: 2.80 ERA, 2.86 FIP, 33% K, 6% BB, 1.05 HR/9
- Scherzer, 2021: 2.76 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 34% K, 7% BB, 1.46 HR/9
Among all pitchers with at least 90 innings pitched this season, Scherzer ranks fifth in strikeout-minus-walk rate, behind only Jacob deGrom, Corbin Burnes, Gerrit Cole, and Carlos Rodón—one spot ahead of new teammate Clayton Kershaw. He’s not quite the Scherzer of the mid-2010s—he misses starts due to injury now; he won’t win this year’s Cy Young. But he’s just about as close as any pitcher this side of deGrom.
L.A. could have used another starter: Dustin May is out for the season following Tommy John surgery, and Trevor Bauer is possibly out for the season as well, as he is on MLB’s administrative list while the league and the Pasadena Police Department investigate a woman’s account that he sexually assaulted her.
In Scherzer, the Dodgers landed the best starter available, a proven playoff ace with ample experience. He is a free agent after this season, so he may not wear Dodger blue for long. But while he does, he’ll slot into a rotation with Walker Buehler and Kershaw—once the latter returns from injury, expected to be early next month—to form an indomitable top three. In both present talent and track record, it’s hard for any rival trio to match the Dodgers’ top arms.
At the same time, the Dodgers also landed the best position player available, because how else is the team supposed to exert its multifaceted dominance of the sport? Already, the Dodgers’ lineup is the best in the National League; take out pitchers and only the Astros have a better park-adjusted offense this season. Even with pitchers hitting, in fact, the Dodgers rank second in the majors in runs per game.
And now they add Turner, for both the rest of this season and 2022. The 28-year-old shortstop is one of the league’s fastest players and now one of its most productive hitters too: Since the start of last season, Turner ranks second among shortstops in wRC+, with a batting line 45 percent better than average. New teammate Corey Seager is third, at 37 percent above average. (Division-rival Fernando Tatis Jr. is first, all the way up at 59 percent above average.)
Seager hasn’t played since mid-May due to a broken hand, but he should return as early as this weekend, which would give the Dodgers an overflow of quality infielders. (Seager is also a free agent after this season, so if he signs elsewhere, the Dodgers now boast a built-in replacement for next season already.) All-Star Chris Taylor has been covering for Seager at shortstop—but as a good flexible Dodger, he can play in the outfield as well, giving L.A. one possible lineup configuration of:
- Catcher: Will Smith (132 wRC+ this season)
- First base: Max Muncy (164)
- Second base: Turner (137)
- Shortstop: Seager (118)
- Third base: Justin Turner (144)
- Left field: A.J. Pollock (134)
- Center field: Chris Taylor (139)
- Right field: Mookie Betts (138)
To be clear, the worst of those eight hitters this season has been Seager, in limited playing time; the second worst has been Smith, who just so happens to be one of the two most valuable catchers in the sport.
As befits a team with the Dodgers’ depth, that is just one possible lineup configuration—their best collection of eight hitters based on this season’s performance. But it notably does not include Cody Bellinger, currently mired in a hellacious slump; among 274 players with at least 180 plate appearances this season, Bellinger ranks 261st in wRC+, as his .165/.272/.297 line registers as 39 percent below average.
If most teams endured a sub-Mendoza season from a recent MVP, they’d miss the playoffs. But the Dodgers are still title favorites with Bellinger batting like Jeff Mathis, and now they don’t even have to start him if he continues to struggle. They have eight superb hitters to fill out a lineup regardless.
Even with all those roster plaudits, the Dodgers are in precarious playoff position. For the past month, they have been within three games of first place in the NL West every day, but haven’t yet managed to close the gap to the surprising Giants. After another loss in San Francisco on Thursday afternoon—their fifth in seven games against the Giants in the past week and a half—the Dodgers trail by three games with just 58 left. They’re running out of time to avoid a wild-card berth.
Scherzer and Turner should help move toward that goal, as well as pressure the Giants and Padres to keep pace with the dealing Dodgers by making roster upgrades of their own before Friday’s deadline. The division race’s stakes are incredibly high: One team will advance straight to the divisional round of the playoffs, while the other two will have to battle in the one-game coin flip called the wild-card round.
Given that reality, it’s possible that Scherzer will never even pitch a playoff game for L.A.: The Dodgers could finish second in the division, start Buehler in the wild-card game, and lose that early. But Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman isn’t afraid to go stargazing with a team he thinks can win the title: The Dodgers traded for Yu Darvish in 2017 and Manny Machado in 2018, both near the deadline, en route to World Series berths, then took a year off before landing Mookie Betts in the offseason before their 2020 title. Clearly, and rightly, Friedman believes the 2021 group has just as much potential.
The Nationals, meanwhile, lose a franchise icon—always a disheartening turn, even if it’s as expected as a Scherzer trade. As a National, Scherzer won two Cy Young awards and finished second and third in the vote in separate seasons, made six All-Star teams, and won a World Series, making him by all accounts one of the most spectacular free-agent success stories ever—quite a turn for a contract derided as one of the worst of the winter when Scherzer signed his seven-year, $210 million deal. Since 2015, Scherzer has been worth 38.5 bWAR and 36.9 fWAR—both figures tops in the majors for any pitcher in that span.
But his departure signals a retrenchment for the organization. The franchise won the title in 2019, in most satisfying fashion, with comeback after comeback after comeback in the playoffs. But since then, Anthony Rendon left in free agency; Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin suffered injury and skill collapse, respectively; and now Scherzer and Trea Turner are flying across the country. Of the half-dozen best players on the 2019 title team, now only Juan Soto is still playing well in D.C.
With Soto—the best young talent in the sport, per The Ringer MLB Show—on the roster, though, the Nationals shouldn’t embark on a full, long rebuild, and their prospect return in this trade signals more of a short-term retreat. Both of the top prospects in the trade should be ready to contribute as early as this season.
Catcher Keibert Ruiz has been a global top-100 prospect four seasons in a row at this point, ranking as high as no. 20 before the 2019 season at Baseball America, but Smith had clearly surpassed him in the Dodgers’ pecking order. Ruiz’s greatest value for the Dodgers, with Smith in his way, was as a trade chip, and they finally cashed in—but he’s slashing .311/.381/.631 at Triple-A this season and should be Washington’s catcher of the future too.
Pitcher Josiah Gray should also be able to step onto the Nationals’ roster right away; he’d already made two appearances for the big league Dodgers this month, after all. The 6-foot-1 right-hander inspires some divergent opinions around the sport—as is the case for any pitching prospect who’s recently missed two months with a shoulder injury—but those who believe in his talent really, really believe: FanGraphs ranks him fourth among pitching prospects at all levels.
Pitcher Gerardo Carrillo and outfielder Donovan Casey are the other two minor leaguers going to Washington; both are lesser prospects with intriguing statistics in Double-A this season.
The Nationals might have expected to fetch a better return by combining both Scherzer and Turner in a single trade, perhaps landing a third higher-quality prospect. But neither player headed to L.A. has much team control left, so by the apparent going rate for such players, this seems about the best they could do. Either way, the organization’s youth ranks receive a much-needed jolt: Before the deal, Washington’s farm system ranked 29th in the majors, per FanGraphs, with just one top-100 prospect. They tripled that latter number in a single trade.
But this trade is ultimately about the Dodgers and their quest to become the first team since the 2000 Yankees to repeat as champions. The Dodgers aren’t in the best position to do so—not with the specter of the wild-card game still hanging awfully close overhead. But with Scherzer and Turner, the best team in the league got much, much better Thursday. Once again, it will be hard to pick against a group with this combination of depth and top-tier talent.