Panic is a popular sentiment during April baseball, and that’s understandable. Things can and do go wrong, and while few teams see things fall apart as quickly as the 1988 Orioles, it’s tempting if not easy to overreact when your season consists of no more than 30 games. But talent wins out in the end, and even when the good teams get off to bad starts, they can reassure themselves that it’s early, and things can and should turn around.
The problem with stumbling early, though, is that it quickly reduces your margin for error. Consider the Dodgers, muddling along at 12–16 after Monday’s loss and already trailing in the NL West by eight games. Los Angeles, last seen winning its first pennant in 30 years before falling in a wild World Series to Houston, is more than capable of erasing that kind of deficit in a week. For proof, recall the 60–19 stretch these same Dodgers ripped off from May through July last year, helping them erase a similarly mediocre April (14–12) and vaporize the rest of the league en route to a fifth straight division crown. But rallying to win a sixth consecutive NL West title won’t be as easy.
On Monday evening, right before the start of a crucial four-game set with the division-leading Diamondbacks, the Dodgers announced that All-Star shortstop Corey Seager will miss the rest of the year due to a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow that will require Tommy John surgery. To call this a big loss is a massive understatement. The 24-year-old Seager hit a scalding .295/.375/.479 with 22 home runs and a 125 OPS+ last year, the latter of which was good for third-best among the team’s regular hitters. His 5.6 WAR was second only to Justin Turner (who has yet to play this year due to a broken wrist suffered in spring training), and since his first full season in 2016, Seager has been worth 12.0 WAR, making him the 15th most valuable position player in the league over that span. His injury, in short, robs the Dodgers of one of the game’s best hitters at a premium defensive position, and one for which they don’t have a great in-house replacement.
For now, Los Angeles will move centerfielder Chris Taylor, a converted infielder, back to his old position, and hand Taylor’s job in the outfield to Kiké Hernandez. Taylor is coming off a dynamite 2017, in which the ex-Mariners prospect broke out to a .288/.354/.496 line, 21 homers, a 122 OPS+, and 4.8 WAR. But he hasn’t replicated that success in 2018, slashing a meager .233/.273/.425 so far. Hernandez, meanwhile, is more of a super-sub, having played seven different positions last year (including shortstop), and while he’s hitting a respectable .254/.347/.476 this season, he’s better used as a depth piece, particularly as the righthanded side of a platoon. It’s certainly a possibility that the duo of Taylor and Hernandez (and possibly Logan Forsythe, who’s currently on the disabled list) could be productive enough to make up for Seager’s loss, but the odds are against it.
So where does that leave the Dodgers? The trade market happens to feature a superstar shortstop whose team is going nowhere at light speed: Manny Machado. The 25-year-old is hitting a terrific .361/.448/.676 with nine homers in 125 plate appearances for the Orioles, but at 8–20, Baltimore is already dead last in the AL East by 12 ½ games entering play on Monday; any and all hopes for contention in the Charm City have already disappeared. That makes moving Machado—a free agent at season’s end and priced far beyond the Orioles’ means—less a possibility than an inevitability for a franchise that needs to start tearing things down as soon as possible.
On paper, it’s a perfect matchup: The Dodgers have a superb farm system and need a shortstop, and the Orioles have a shortstop and need of prospects to rebuild their depleted farm system. But there are two complications. The first is that Machado’s price in terms of players will be deservedly astronomical. The second is that his cost in terms of literal dollars may be too high for the Dodgers to stomach as well. Los Angeles’ payroll for 2018 currently sits at $187 million—$10 million under the $197 million luxury tax threshold that the team strove so hard to get below this winter. If the Dodgers can keep from going above that figure, their luxury tax penalty will reset this winter, saving them tens of millions. Machado, however, will cost just south of $16 million for the rest of the year. Unless the O’s eat some of his remaining contract—an unlikely proposition for owner Peter Angelos—Los Angeles may not have the fiscal fortitude to acquire him.
The richest team in the game getting tight-fisted about a superb player who could be the difference between a wasted year and the franchise’s first championship since 1988 may seem silly. But before the Dodgers can think about whether Machado will help them win in October, they have to make sure they get there first, and their rough start has hurt their chances in that regard by a fair amount. By FanGraphs’ calculations, Los Angeles’ postseason odds have gone from 94% before the season to 75% as the calendar turns to May. That’s not a disaster by any stretch; only five other teams are above that figure. But the Dodgers have already put themselves into a huge hole in terms of securing the division versus having to brave the peril of the wild-card game. FanGraphs still has Los Angeles as the NL West favorite at 55.4% odds, but that’s down a whopping 30 points from this spring. Worse, the Dodgers are now projected to finish two wins below the Diamondbacks, 87 to 89, and Arizona now boasts a massive eight-game advantage after stomping Los Angeles, 8-5, on Monday night.
Seager’s injury will only dampen those chances further, particularly given that the Dodgers’ biggest issue so far has been an inconsistent and sluggish offense. Los Angeles’ team OPS+ was a mere 102 entering play on Monday, and while a smattering of players are hitting—Yasmani Grandal, Cody Bellinger, Matt Kemp, and Joc Pederson, as well as Hernandez and Chase Utley in reserve roles—the lineup as a whole isn’t producing on the regular. Seager was among that struggling group, as he was hitting only .267/.348/.396 (likely due in part to the elbow injury, which developed late last year and was supposed to be in the past but ended up getting worse). Injuries to Forsythe and Yasiel Puig haven’t helped, though; nor has the loss of Rich Hill, or a terrible start to the season by Kenley Jansen.
An uneven lineup, a thin rotation with some struggling arms (including ace Clayton Kershaw), a bullpen whose anchor isn’t right: All of these are big issues to resolve, and the Dodgers have to get them figured out quickly. And worse, they’ll have to do it without their former Rookie of the Year shortstop. You can’t win a season in April, but you sure can lose it, and while Los Angeles’ chances haven’t cratered, the last day of the month has left the team with a lot of ground to make up.