This is the second of a two-part installment analyzing the decisions made by the Diamondbacks organization since hiring Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart. You can find Part One here.
The 2015 D-Backs were a major improvement, going 79-83 on the year and placing third in the NL West, but they made one serious head-scratcher of a move along the way. On June 20th, the D-Backs traded Bronson Arroyo (SP), who was recovering from Tommy John Surgery, along with the 16th overall pick in the 2014 draft, Touki Toussaint (SP), to the Braves for a utility infielder by the name of Phil Gosselin. Arroyo was owed about $14 million (including a $4.5 million 2016 buyout) last season, and didn’t throw a single pitch all season due to undergoing Tommy John Surgery several months prior, so this move qualifies as a salary dump for the D-Backs. Often times salary dumps are made by trading a valuable, Major League player along with the player the team is trying to unload, but it is very unheard-of to trade top picks for salary relief, especially a first-round pitcher.
This isn’t the first time a team’s GM has left common fans and baseball junkies like myself confused. However, it’s Stewart’s comments following the trade that make this decision so puzzling:
“The truth is we did not know what Touki’s value would be if we shopped him. There is a lot of speculation on that. People are assuming it would have been better, but we don’t know.”
If Stewart really didn’t know Toussaint’s value, that hardly seems like something a newly-minted GM would want to admit to the media. Analysts and fans alike were quick to question why a team would trade a top prospect without first establishing his value. Then to top things off, Stewart went on to express how much less-valuable Toussaint actually was in his opinion:
“To this point, he has pitched OK, he has pitched well. But guys are mentioning that he throws 96 mph. He hasn’t thrown 96 mph since he’s been here. We haven’t seen 96 once. There is some inflation of what people think Touki is.”
Quotes are courtesy of Fangraphs, via Ken Rosenthal
This explains why Stewart felt it was okay to trade Toussaint: because other teams think he is better than the Diamondbacks do. It still doesn’t give rationale as to why the D-Backs didn’t offer him in trades to any other team before trading him along with Arroyo in a salary dump. The only benefit they gained from this trade was a moderate amount of payroll flexibility, there was no serious talent acquired.
The next move by the Diamondbacks actually makes a ton of sense, although it carries a great deal of risk. Zack Greinke (SP), who had been tearing it up in Los Angeles with the Dodgers since 2011, became a free agent this winter. His 1.66 ERA last season is the lowest in baseball in 20 years, since Greg Maddux posted a 1.63 ERA back in 1995, and Arizona was in desperate need of pitching help. By December 1st, just one month into free agency, Greinke was expected to sign imminently. Reports emerged that the Dodgers and Giants were in a bidding war over the ace, then the Diamondbacks swooped in last minute out of nowhere, and snagged him. On Friday, December 4th it was announced that the Diamondbacks reached an agreement with Zack Greinke for 6 years and $206.5 million. This was a huge move for the team, as they more than doubled the size of their largest contract in history ($68.5 million to Tomas), which they signed just a year ago.
Signing Greinke immediately gave the D-Backs an undisputed ace, and directly weakened the rival Dodgers’ pitching rotation. The Diamondbacks finished last season 13 games behind the first place Dodgers, so adding Greinke, who was worth 9.1 Wins Above Replacement last year, should greatly improve their chances at upsetting the Hollywood faithful. While this deal could certainly pay huge dividends for the Diamondbacks, it comes with its share of risks. For one, Greinke is already 32, which means they will be paying him handsomely through his age-38 season. It’s no secret that a pitcher’s risk of injury goes up once he’s 30 years old, and his chances get even worse at 35. There is no guarantee that Greinke will maintain his elite status for the duration of this contract, or even for the next 3 years. The second risk that comes with Greinke is that of his salary. The Diamondbacks may find that once some of their younger, cheaper players start to get expensive, that committing $31-$32 million per year to only one player leaves them with limited options. This situation is dependant on how the team allocates its resources, so Greinke has no control over this situation. Overall this was a good signing, that has the potential to be great, or a hamstring to the team’s finances. Either way, this signing could have a major impact on the landscape of NL West.
The final move I will discuss, which is where things get questionable, is the Diamondbacks’ acquisition of Shelby Miller (SP) from the Atlanta Braves. Shelby Miller came up through the Cardinals organization before being traded to Atlanta for the defensively-gifted outfielder Jason Heyward last year. The names exchanged in this deal are so unthought of, that even the professionals could only attempt to rationalize it. In this trade, the Diamondbacks received a relief-pitching prospect named Gabe Speier along with Shelby Miller, but surrendered their starting right fielder, Ender Inciarte, as well as a 2013 first-round pitcher named Aaron Blair, and last year’s No. 1 overall pick in the draft, shortstop Dansby Swanson. In 2015, Miller produced an ERA of 3.02 with a losing record of 10-11 (not that that matters in the slightest, but people still like to know the numbers), but there’s more to the story than that. Miller looked like an ace in his first 10 starts, when he produced a 1.48 ERA. However from his 11th start on, he pitched to the tune of a 3.77 ERA, more than two full runs higher than before.
If Miller was at all expected to repeat his performance from the first 10 starts, this deal would make sense. A 3.02 ERA is good, but it’s not 1.48. Heck, even a 3.77 ERA is acceptable, but it’s pretty average. Acquiring a pitcher of this caliber is a wise thing to do for a team attempting to make the playoffs, however the talent they surrendered in this trade makes the salary dump involving Toussaint pale in comparison. Even a straight up trade of Inciarte for Miller may have been slightly in the Braves’ favor, because Ender Inciarte is an incredibly valuable player. He is an excellent outfielder, and has developed a decent bat to compliment his speed. Arizona’s decision to include Dansby Swanson, the No. 1 overall pick from just a year prior, hardly seems like a reasonable thing to do, especially considering they didn’t acquire top-tier talent in return. Swanson has been described as a mature hitter for his age, and is expected to contribute at the Major League level in the near-future. This trade has the potential to be a big mistake, that the team will remember in two or three years, and sorely regret.
If the trade alone wasn’t enough to draw attention, Dave Stewart’s comments following the deal, much like the Touki Toussaint trade, did not provide a satisfactory explanation. During an interview with Tim Brown at Yahoo! Sports, Stewart is told that he gave up an excessive amount for Shelby Miller, but doesn’t agree. After mentioning that Miller had been traded for All-Star outfielder Jason Heyward a year ago, Stewart explains: “…right now Jason Heyward is looking for $200 million. So we got a guy, quite frankly, if you value it that way, we got great value.” Anyone looking at the last sentence objectively would see an “if A, then B” logical fallacy in Stewart’s reasoning. Pitchers are not valued the same as outfielders, and it can be argued that both Heyward and Miller had less value at the time that they were traded simply because they had less experience at their respective positions. Comparing a trade that includes this level of prospect talent to a straight up, to a 1-for-1 trade of Heyward for Miller does not explain anything. After thinking about it for too long, I’ve found it best to just move past Stewart’s comments, because there is no satisfying answer in sight.
While I cannot find a reason for a team giving up what the Diamondbacks just did for Shelby Miller, the rest of their moves make a lot of sense, and I have a theory that might explain Dave Stewart’s continued decision to make questionable comments. The fact of the matter is that teams do not want other teams knowing what they are up to, not at all. This is the reason a former Cardinals executive named Chris Correa recently pleaded guilty to criminal charges for hacking into the Astros player-database and emails: a team’s information is incredibly valuable to their competition. Following this train of thought, I find it plausible that Dave Stewart is basically “winging it” during interviews, and using his best poker face to give teams a misleading trail to follow. Whenever a team’s General Manager holds a press conference, it is essentially to convey to the fans, “Don’t worry, we know what we’re doing. Decision A will get us Benefit B, so just trust us, everything is going to be okay.” I think Stewart is taking a slightly different approach, and his message to people has been “Don’t worry about what we are doing, it’s going to work. It makes no difference what I tell the media, because that doesn’t affect our process at all. Just trust us, everything is going to be okay.” In other words, the Diamondbacks are utilizing the doubt people have in Stewart as an inexperienced GM to their advantage, and encouraging him to take things a step further, and play along. The benefit to this tactic is simple: teams will leap at the opportunity to make trades with the Diamondbacks, because it seems like they would do anything right now. This gives Arizona the advantage of being the underdog in negotiations, and opposing teams may just assume they’re coming out ahead in trades, no matter what.
Some of the comments that Stewart has made publicly are slightly difficult to believe. On the other hand, I do not believe the Diamondbacks owners, and Tony La Russa, would entrust the General Manager’s position to an idiot, even if he’s a popular ex-player. The team’s ownership hasn’t expressed any displeasure with the moves made so far, so it can be inferred that both Tony La Russa and the owners have been involved in these acquisitions. All of the credit does not go to Dave Stewart, because he does not make the final call. D-Backs fans shouldn’t have to worry as much as Fangraphs keeps telling them to, because Tony La Russa’s expertise is just as much a part of this team as Dave Stewart’s comments. Tony La Russa has always been a name attached to a winning team, and people can expect that to continue.