This is the first of a two-part installment analyzing the decisions made by the Diamondbacks organization since hiring Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart.
May 17, 2014: The Arizona Diamondbacks convince legendary Hall of Famer Tony La Russa to come out of retirement and assume the title “Chief Baseball Officer”
Since the position was brand new, nobody really knew what that meant. People were quick to compare it to when the Cubs acquired Theo Epstein to be their President of Baseball Operations, and that was close enough. La Russa was given full control over all baseball operations within the Diamondbacks organization. In other words, no baseball decisions can be made without his “ok”. What this move did was send a message to the league and the fans that the Diamondbacks front office was going to make some noise.
Over the course of La Russa’s 32-year managing career, he collected the third most wins all time with 2,738 and owns 3 World Series titles (1989, 2006, 2011). La Russa was fortunate enough to manage the Oakland A’s “Bash Brothers” (headlined by Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire) of the late ‘80s, as well as Hall of Fame-bound first basemen Albert “The Machine” Pujols with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Shortly after La Russa’s hiring, the Diamondbacks parted ways with Kevin Towers, their incumbent General Manager, and made the shocking decision to replace him with La Russa’s 1989 World Series MVP, former pitcher Dave Stewart. What makes this move stand out to me (besides the fact that Stewart used to play for La Russa on the strongest team of the 1980s) is that Dave Stewart does not have prior experience working in a front office, instead he decided to be an agent after his playing career was over. While it may have seemed questionable to put someone with so little experience in the GM’s chair, the Diamondbacks trusted that La Russa’s guidance would outweigh Stewart’s growing pains. So far, the results of this front office makeover have been jaw-dropping.
The Diamondbacks already had a reasonably solid core of players, highlighted by Paul Goldschmidt, who is unquestionably the best first basemen in the league. Other young and talented players such as David Peralta (LF), Ender Inciarte (RF), AJ Pollock (CF), Jake Lamb (3B), and Patrick Corbin (SP) were also starting to make an impact for the Diamondbacks by the time La Russa and Stewart were brought on board. The point I am making is that the front office wasn’t starting from scratch, they had several pieces already in place.
The D-Backs don’t have any issues scoring runs (their 720 runs scored ranks 2nd in the NL last season), their weakness lies in the pitching staff. Diamondbacks starting pitchers produced an Earned Run Average of 4.37 last season, ranking them 23rd in the league. In fact, the team featured only two starters to post an ERA under 4.00, and they combined to make only 39 starts due to injuries. Aside from the pitching woes, Arizona had some other areas to address. During the 2014-2015 offseason, the D-Backs shipped catcher Miguel Montero to the Cubs, who was replacing Welington Castillo. This left Tuffy Gosewisch (2 home runs and career .212 batting average) as the starting catcher for the team. Another mess for La Russa and Stewart to clean up was the defensively challenged, strikeout-machine of a slugger named Mark Trumbo, whom Kevin Towers had acquired the previous offseason. Trumbo was originally a third baseman that began to spend some time in the outfield, as well as first base. The D-Backs were planning to give Jake Lamb a shot at the starting 3B job, so Trumbo wasn’t going to be playing third. Inciarte, Peralta, and Pollock are all faster, more consistent hitters, and better defenders than Trumbo, so he didn’t have a spot in the outfield either. Of course Paul Goldschmidt is the best first basemen in the league, so that was off the table as well.
Roughly one-third of the way through last season, the Diamondbacks front office wisely found a team in need of power, and traded Trumbo to the Mariners for catcher Welington Castillo (who had actually been replaced by Miguel Montero in Chicago, and flipped to the Mariners since). This move effectively killed two birds with one stone, relieving the Diamondbacks of a player without a position while bringing in an offensively-talented catcher.
Often times a team’s decision to spend money or trade for players is influenced by either having a lack/wealth of funds or a lack/wealth of tradeable talent. For instance, the Yankees are notorious for signing free agents to enormous contracts (3rd highest player salary in 2015) and having a mediocre farm system (ranked 18th-best farm system by Baseball America). Meanwhile the 2015 Diamondbacks had the lowest salary in the league, and had the 6th-best farm system in the league. Having a low salary is the result of a team’s choice not to sign players to big contracts, and having a good farm system is a result of receiving high draft picks (losing a lot of games), and deciding not to trade them.
As more time has gone by with La Russa and Stewart at the helm of the D-Backs’ front office, we can see a clear change of philosophy when compared to the previous regime. The D-Backs spent several years not spending money and stockpiling the farm system prior to La Russa’s hiring, and that changed almost immediately. Since their hiring, we have seen La Russa and Stewart spend a large amount of money in the international market, break records in free-agency, and make a habit out of trading top draft picks.
To start the spending off, the D-Backs signed Cuban hot-shot Yasmany Tomas to a 6-year, $68.5 million contract in December of 2014 (the largest contract in franchise history at the time). After the signings of Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes, and Yasiel Puig proved to be so successful, Tomas was expected to be the next big thing to come out of Cuba, and was said to have “a ton of power”. $68.5 million doesn’t qualify as breaking the bank for an MLB team, but it certainly isn’t chump change either, especially when regarding players that haven’t seen a single pitch of American professional baseball.
Sometimes you have to roll the dice to get ahead, and given the success of other recent Cuban imports, signing Tomas seemed like a decent chance to take. In his first taste of the big leagues this past season, Tomas carried a respectable .273 batting average, but his power was certainly lacking (9 home runs in 118 games). He absolutely still has the chance to prove himself worthy of the big bucks, but so far Tomas has shown similar upside to Mark Trumbo, but with a much lower floor and $68.5 million in guaranteed money.
Along with the signing of Tomas, the Diamondbacks acquired former Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson (SP), then traded away Wade Miley (SP) and Didi Gregorius (SS) over the course of the 2014 offseason. Wade Miley, who began walking more batters and giving up more runs than he used to, was shipped to the Red Sox for Ruby De La Rosa (SP), Allen Webster (RP), and Raymel Flores (SS). De La Rosa was the only player to contribute to the Major League team in 2015, and his production was actually slightly worse than Miley’s (4.67 ERA compared to Miley’s 4.46 ERA). Didi Gregorius, who is a slick-fielding shortstop with little offensive upside, was traded to the Yankees in a 3-way deal that netted them Robbie Ray from the Tigers. This trade actually turned out to be a win-win for the D-Backs and Yankees (the Tigers didn’t come out very successful in the trade, but this article isn’t about the Tigers). Gregorius posted solid defensive and offensive numbers in New York, and Ray was one of those two starters for the D-Backs last year to have an ERA under 4.00. The trade for Jeremy Hellickson with the Rays turned out to have relatively little effect on anything, as Hellickson put up an ERA of 4.62, and has already been shipped to Philadelphia following another a mediocre season.That wrapped up a pretty busy first offseason for La Russa and Stewart, during which they signed the biggest contract in franchise history, acquired a former Rookie of the Year, and picked up several other intriguing pieces along the way. They were poised to look better than the year before, when they had the worst record in the league, but the Diamondbacks were still a ways away from being a contender.
Come back next week for the conclusion in Part Two