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Manny Machado isn’t the final missing piece to the Dodgers’ puzzle

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Manny Machado gives the Dodgers’ lineup a huge boost, but he alone doesn’t transform them into a World Series favorite.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Baltimore Orioles Photo by Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday evening, the Dodgers finalized the biggest trade of 2018 — and one of the most talked-about mid-season trades in years, really — when they acquired shortstop Manny Machado from the Orioles for a package of five prospects, headlined by Double-A outfielder Yusniel Diaz, who is ranked as the No. 84 prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline. The Machado deal is just the latest in a series of “all-in” deals the Dodgers have made in recent seasons as they desperately attempt to end their 30-year drought without a World Championship.

The interesting thing about the Machado trade is that while trade acquisitions like Rich Hill, Josh Reddick, and Yu Darvish have been “missing pieces” for Dodgers teams that were seemingly one or two players away in recent seasons, it’s far from a sure thing that the 26-year-old shortstop will turn this LA club into a serious World Series contender. The Dodgers have had a so-called “hangover” all season after losing to the Astros in the World Series last October, and while Clayton Kershaw being limited to 13 starts in the first half was a major setback, the biggest blow they’ve been dealt this season was undoubtedly the loss of star shortstop Corey Seager to season-ending Tommy John surgery back in early May.

Despite all the obstacles they’ve dealt with, they head into the second half with a half-game lead in the NL West, and Machado effectively bandages the Seager-sized wound they’ve been playing with for most of the season. Make no mistake, though — there are still plenty of question marks for the Dodgers as they get ready to kick their playoff push into full gear.

First of all, we’ll acknowledge the obvious: the addition of Machado will present a defensive downgrade for the Dodgers. Even after spending much of the last year turning himself into a capable center fielder, Chris Taylor returned to his natural position of shortstop and played quite well over the last two-and-a-half months, posting three defensive runs saved in 513.2 innings. Machado, in contrast, has a majors-worst 19 defensive runs saved and a disastrous -13.0 UZR/150 over 837 innings at short this year. With Taylor likely to return to center as Machado takes over at shortstop, there could be major problems in store for Los Angeles’ infield, especially because Justin Turner hasn’t been his old self at third base this year, while Max Muncy, who has spent the vast majority of his professional career as a corner infielder, is often playing out of position at second. According to GM Farhan Zaidi, the Dodgers plan to occasionally mix Machado in at third base — a move that would make their defense a whole lot better — but if their primary starting infield consists of Bellinger (who is a very good fielder) at first along with Muncy at second, Turner at third, and Machado at short, they’ll be prone to miscues.

Though he’s proven to be somewhat of a streaky hitter throughout his seven-year career, it’s more likely than not that Machado, who hit .315/.387/.575 with 24 homers during the first half, will provide a big boost to the middle of the Dodgers’ lineup. But with Seager — who had been one of the team’s two most consistent hitters along with Turner over the past two seasons — out for the year, it’s still uncertain how effectively the rest of the team’s hitters will be able to complement Machado, as the two guys who carried the offense during the first half essentially came out of nowhere to do so. While Matt Kemp has never been anything less than decent at the plate, he’d regressed to the point where he was no longer a focal point of his teams’ lineups over the past three seasons. But something changed after he was traded back to the Dodgers, his original team, over the winter, as he won a starting job in spring training and posted a stellar .310/.352/.522 slash line with 15 homers in the first half. The Dodgers must be at least somewhat worried about Kemp falling off in the second half, though, especially because he posted a mediocre .243/.272/.418 line after the break last year, including an abysmal .578 OPS from September 1 through the end of the season.

Los Angeles has also gotten great results from the 27-year-old Muncy, who has posted a ridiculous 1.013 OPS with 22 homers (two short of a tie for the league lead) in 279 plate appearances while playing four different positions over the first half. Obviously, there will be some questions about whether he can sustain that production after the All-Star break. After all, he had posted a .195/.290/.321 slash line in 245 major-league plate appearances prior to this season, and he was so off-the-radar this spring that the Dodgers used him in just seven spring-training games before assigning him to minor-league camp on March 12. Of course, the Dodgers have displayed an ability to turn previously unheralded players such as Turner and Taylor into valued contributors for extended periods, so maybe Muncy will end up being the real deal. It just doesn’t seem like they should be throwing a ton of eggs into the Muncy basket if they’re serious about making a World Series push.

While he was very good in June, there also has to be some concern surrounding the fact that the 33-year-old Turner is having his worst season ever in a Dodgers uniform, posting a rather pedestrian .747 OPS and a career-worst -2 defensive runs saved at third base. And while Cody Bellinger was solid during the first half, hitting .245/.327/.481 with 17 homers in 388 plate appearances, he hasn’t been anything close to the game-changer he was last year, when he posted a .267/.352/.581 line with 39 home runs in 548 PAs. Ultimately, the Dodgers’ offense could be great if guys like Machado, Turner, Bellinger, and Taylor play up to their potential while Kemp and Muncy continue to exceed expectations, but it just seems like there are a ton of question marks remaining there as they head into the second half.

As if the offense didn’t provide enough reason for skepticism, there’s even more concern to be had about the Dodgers’ pitching staff. Starters Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, Walker Buehler, and Hyun-jin Ryu all spent time on the disabled list during the first half (with real injuries, as opposed to the primarily rest-related DL stints that several of them took last year). The star of LA’s pitching staff thus far has been swingman Ross Stripling, who joined the rotation full-time in early May and proceeded to make himself an All-Star. He’s been solid throughout his three-year career, but it still feels very risky to rely on Stripling to be a workhorse during the postseason, and it’s legitimately questionable how durable guys like Kershaw, Hill, and Ryu will be. For many contenders, a lack of rotation durability wouldn’t be a massive concern due to the quality innings that so many of today’s relievers provide, but it might be a more pronounced concern for this year’s Dodgers.

That’s because aside from superstar closer Kenley Jansen and versatile lefty Scott Alexander, this Dodgers team has no proven weapons in its current bullpen. Even before you consider the bullpen’s viability in the playoffs, you have to consider that they’re relying on a group of guys like JT Chargois, Caleb Ferguson, Dylan Floro, Erik Goeddel, Daniel Hudson, and Zac Rosscup to help them win an NL West that is far from locked up — and those guys are going to be used a lot with the team needing to protect fragile starters like Kershaw and Hill. Floro has had a very good season between Cincinnati and LA and may have finally figured things out at 27 years old, but for the most part none of those names really inspire a ton of confidence.

Los Angeles has three more experienced and talented relievers on the disabled list in Tony Cingrani, Pedro Baez, and Josh Fields, but it’s difficult to rely on injured relievers to come back and have success late in the season — and on top of that, Baez and Cingrani have both been shaky when healthy this year. Even if they dispatch someone like Stripling, Ryu, Maeda, or Julio Urias to the bullpen for the stretch run, their collection of relievers just doesn’t seem reliable enough to be counted on in October without further additions. Their farm system is still good after the Machado trade, but further culling a stash of prospects that’s already been plucked from quite a bit over the past few years in order to get Machado seemingly will make it even more difficult for them to boost their bullpen via the trade market.

All things considered, the Machado trade seems like an odd attempt to go all-in during a year where LA’s roster still has a lot of question marks and not a lot of obvious ways to answer them. And if the acquisition of Machado doesn’t propel the team to a World Series victory, is it all for naught? After all, they have a franchise player in Seager who is entrenched at shortstop for years to come, a third baseman in Turner who is owed $39 million over the next two seasons, and a free-agent-to-be in Machado who seems intent on playing primarily at shortstop going forward, as evidenced by last week’s declaration that he’s a shortstop who plays shortstop. Things can change quickly, but for now it doesn’t seem exceptionally likely that he’d be motivated to re-sign there — and even if he does, the prospects they dealt for him will end up as a negative sunk cost if they don’t win it all this year, as they could have gone out and signed him as a free agent this winter anyway, regardless of where he finished the 2018 season.

And if the Machado trade doesn’t bear some tasty fruit, it obviously could have a detrimental effect on a Dodgers farm system that has been ripped apart quite a bit in recent years. Los Angeles done a better job than any other team in baseball of continually developing quality prospects without having to tear down and rebuild, and that’s evidenced by the fact that they still have four prospects ranked among MLB Pipeline’s top 100 even after dealing Diaz (outfielder Alex Verdugo, their top prospect, figures to graduate from that list soon, for what it’s worth). It’s undeniable, however, that they have parted with a lot of young talent while trying to add established veterans: Willie Calhoun, A.J. Alexy, Brendon Davis, Trevor Oaks, Oneil Cruz, Chase De Jong, Jharel Cotton, Grant Holmes, Frankie Montas, and Jose de Leon are among the top-30 prospects they’ve included in trades since 2016. Diaz, third baseman Rylan Bannon (ranked No. 27 in the system by MLB Pipeline), and right-handed pitcher Dean Kremer (ranked No. 28) joined that group Wednesday. Perhaps it says something about the wheeling and dealing skills of the Dodgers’ front office that not one of those previously-traded players has gone on to become a star in another uniform yet. But whatever the case, there’s a finite amount of highly-valued prospects, and the Dodgers have traded a lot of them over the last few years.

You could argue that the Dodgers need to do whatever they can to get better at the deadline this year because their World Series window is closing. With Kershaw having the opportunity to opt out this offseason (and experiencing somewhat of a regression), Yasmani Grandal getting set to hit free agency, and Turner and Rich Hill getting up there in years, that’s a reasonable take. But if the powers that be in Los Angeles’ front office truly believed that it was crucial for them to make a World Series run this year, wouldn’t they have been more aggressive over the offseason, adding some much-needed pitching depth rather than relying on scrap-heap pickups to supplement their top five starters and provide key bullpen innings?

Thanks to the unexpected dominance of guys like Kemp, Muncy, and Stripling, the Dodgers have a chance to reach the postseason even as many of their key players have gone down with injuries or struggled at various points. But just as the students who generally do best on tests are the ones who make an honest effort to prepare, rather than just cramming the night before, it’s rare to see a team go to the World Series after slacking in the offseason and then attempting to patch up its holes in July. Adding Machado significantly increases the Dodgers’ chances of winning the NL West, but is this move alone really enough to calm the major uncertainty that surrounds the team’s rotation, bullpen, lineup, and defense and transform this club into one that will rival the Red Sox, Yankees, Astros, and Cubs as a World Series contender? Probably not.