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Assessing the Dodgers’ Dreadful Trade for Bud Norris

Via AllinOne Sports

Yesterday the Dodgers traded for Bud Norris to fill the massive hole in the rotation left by Clayton Kershaw’s trip to the disabled list.  A 31 year old starter, who has had stints in the past with the Astros and Orioles, comes with the profile of a back of the rotation starter with the flexibility to return to the bullpen once some of the Dodgers’ numerous starters on the DL return from injury.  The Dodgers also acquired Dian Toscano, a 27 year old minor league outfielder with minimal upside.  With the incomprehensible number of injuries currently plaguing the Dodgers’ rotation, GM Farhan Zaidi and company were desperate to add a starter from outside the organization as all of the Dodgers’ major league ready minor leaguers are already at the big league level; however, this trade turned out to be a woeful overpay for a 31 year old starter coming off the worst season of his career.  Down the road, this will probably be a trade the Dodgers’ front office will come to regret.

 

After a string of six consecutive solid seasons as a back of the rotation starter, Norris completely imploded in 2015.  Norris had a 6.72 ERA over 83 innings split between 11 starts and 27 relief appearances.  This year, Norris has bounced back to record a 4.22 ERA in 70.1 innings for the Braves, although he was also demoted from the rotation earlier in the season on the worst team in baseball.  Since the demotion, Norris has been reinserted into the starting rotation where he has been far more effective with a 2.15 ERA in 29.1 innings.  Much of this success, according to FangraphsJeff Sullivan, has been attributed to him switching from a changeup to a cutter as his third secondary offering after his fastball and slider.  Norris has increased his cutter usage from 1.5% of his pitches in 2015 to 6.8% this year, while decreasing his changeup usage from 5.7% to 3.5% over the same time period.  This change has been very valuable for the former Houston Astro as Norris’ cutter has been 2.45 runs above average this year, vastly superior to his changeup that has averaged -1.04 runs below average over the course of his career.  Although this tactical change may enable Norris to regain the form that helped him to a 3.65 ERA and 15 wins with the Orioles in 2014, he was still awful for the vast majority of the past two seasons.  Expecting Norris to continue his strong form purely because of a nice 29.1 inning run and small adjustment is very optimistic.

Norris was the main player switching hands in this deal, but the Dodgers also acquired OF Dian Toscano in what amounts to a total salary dump by the Braves.  Toscano was signed last year out of Cuba as an under the radar acquisition to bolster the Braves’ young team, but he has been a complete bust in Atlanta.  This year in AA, Toscano has put up a measly slash line of .226/.310/.271 despite being almost three years older than the average player at that level.  Plus, he is owed $4.3 million over the next three seasons with a $200,000 buyout on a $1.7 million option for 2019.  These may not be very large numbers especially for a team with the financial might of the Dodgers, but players such as Pedro Baez and Louis Coleman combined are earning less than Toscano this year and both are important contributors to the big league bullpen whereas Toscano is unlikely to ever see time at the major league level.  For a small market team like the Braves that are in a complete rebuild, the money saved from dumping Toscano’s contract can now be allocated towards things such as international signings or paying for future competitive balance picks in the MLB draft (selections after the first few rounds that can now be traded).

The players dealt by the Dodgers are two under the radar pitchers in their extremely deep farm system, but both have the ability to become major league contributors at some point.  Caleb Dirks had been serving as a closer for the Dodgers’ AA affiliate, posting a 1.44 ERA with 35 strikeouts and just seven walks in 31.1 innings.  Dirks was actually acquired by the Dodgers last season from the Braves as part of a package for an international bonus pool slot.  Dirks has been a fast riser through the minor league systems of both teams to the point where he may actually contribute to the Braves’ big league club as soon as this season despite being in A ball at the start of last season.  Dirks uses a fastball that can get as high as 94 mph that he uses with an above average slider.  He also has a changeup in his arsenal, but his fastball/slider combination is utilized most often.  Dirks has been successful at each level of the minors and should be placed in the Braves’ AAA affiliate upon arriving in Atlanta.  Although his upside is likely only a middle relief spot, this is still a valuable player who has a much higher floor than a lot of prospects.  Dirks could have even been available for a promotion to the majors as early as this season for the Dodgers, and with how often the starting rotation has forced Dave Roberts to overuse his bullpen, Dirks could have definitely have been of use.

In addition to Dirks, the Braves also acquired left hander Philip Pfeifer.  Drafted in the third round last season out of Vanderbilt, Pfeifer has accumulated a 2.67 ERA over 30.1 innings with 42 strikeouts.  At 23 years old and currently at High-A Rancho Cucamonga, Pfeifer is slightly less advanced than many prospects his age.  However, he has been very successful and could become an effective lefty specialist for the Braves.  Pfeifer has shown a good propensity for strikeouts while minimizing walks—a very valuable trait.  Although he has had some injury issues that caused him to be shut down for much of last season after being drafted due to elbow soreness, Pfeifer definitely has the potential and ability to become a major leaguer.  He throws his fastball, changeup, and slider all for strikes, but none of them are more than average offerings.  That is the key reason behind his status as a reliever, but a left handed specialist is an important piece to have on a contending team. If Pfeifer is able to continue his ascension, this may be a role he can fill for the Braves down the road.

The Dodgers likely chose Norris over other starting options due to his ability to relieve once other starters return from the DL, but surrendering two prospects with high floors while also receiving a salary dump player was a steep price to pay.  If the Dodgers wanted to acquire Norris a few weeks ago, they probably could have paid the Braves a minimal sum of cash to take him off their hands.  Now, the Dodgers were forced to surrender two relatively valuable prospects in return for a player that is far from a sure thing in terms of effectiveness.  If this past 29 inning stretch is more than a flash in the pan for Norris, the deal could be deemed a success for the Dodgers, but that is a highly optimistic outcome.  Especially with Brandon McCarthy slated to return from Tommy John surgery this Sunday and the All-Star break fast approaching, the need for a starter over the coming weeks appears to be temporary.  Unfortunately, rather than promoting Chase de Jong (2.45 ERA at AA) or Jharel Cotton (4.30 ERA with 69 strikeouts in 58.2 innings as a starter at AAA) for one or two starts, the Dodgers opted to give up two potentially valuable relief prospects for a 27 year old outfielder failing to make the grade at AA and a starter that may not even be on the big league roster past July.

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