April 13, 2015
Un-Giving Up on the Diamondbacks Front Office
On Friday night, the Diamondbacks beat the Dodgers on a walk-off single by Ender Inciarte. On Saturday, they knocked around Clayton Kershaw and shut Los Angeles out, 6-0, behind the debut performance of Archie Bradley—who was exactly as advertised, for better and for worse. That came on the heels of a season-opening series in which they stayed right with the Giants, losing two out of three, but competing in each game. Jake Lamb had seven RBI in the first two games of the season. Still, they woke up Sunday with lower Playoff Odds than any National League team this side of the Phillies. The Dodgers remain the overwhelming favorites to win the NL West, not just in 2015, but for years to come. The Playoff Odds Report, PECOTA, your Monday morning power rankings list of choice, no one is any higher on the Diamondbacks than they were a week ago. Nor should they be.
Well. Actually, yes, maybe they should be. I am. Two weeks ago, I tweeted this:
And man, I meant it. There have been a series of miserable decisions coming out of Arizona for so long that it’s hard to remind oneself that they have a decent set of core pieces between the majors and minors, let alone that there has been a change in management. In fact, that might be the biggest thing. Until very recently, it didn’t really feel like there was a change in management. Dave Stewart and Tony La Russa were doing what appeared to be a good impression of Kevin Towers and Kirk Gibson, just in slightly different roles. The organization was valuing players radically differently than the rest of the industry; using ignorance of forward-thinking analysis as a selling point; and talking way too much about grit.
There was the Yasmany Tomas signing, which was for a whole lot of money, and which the team then needlessly complicated by trying to squeeze a third baseman out of the left fielder they actually acquired. There was the Yoan Lopez signing, which takes the team out of the market for two years’ worth of high-level amateur international free agents. There was even, perhaps most infuriatingly, the stubborn refusal to trade for catching help, when it was clearly available cheaply and the team was (and is) almost unprecedentedly weak there. It was a weird, ugly offseason, and not even a TV deal that promises to triple their previous take for local broadcast rights can totally erase that. Nor can it wash away the fact that Arizona is suddenly competing with a trio of rich, well-run teams starting at a higher base performance level.
Still, the week leading up to the season started to offer hope, and the team’s decisions about how to move forward as they broke camp showed me the potential for real progress. I’m not sure I can be bullish on the Diamondbacks, but their demise is being greatly exaggerated. Six major choices they made have me wondering if they just turned a corner, without anyone noticing.
Getting Trevor Cahill out of Archie Bradley’s way allowed the team to call up its top pitching prospect, and he began to prove his readiness Saturday night. Bradley almost made the team last year (his agent made a stink when he didn’t, as a matter of fact), but ended up having a mostly lost season: flexor strain, diminished velocity, fading command of his curve, a lower arm slot during the Arizona Fall League. This spring, he was so good that sending him down would have been wasteful. He struck out six Dodgers and allowed only five baserunners on Saturday night. He still has plenty on which to work, like harnessing his mechanics and commanding the (inherently tricky) knuckle-curve better, but there was no weakness left in his game so glaring as to make more time in Reno profitable for anyone. Thus, the Diamondbacks jettisoned Cahill, even though they had to eat roughly half his $12 million salary to do it.
Sticking Andrew Chafin in the bullpen to round out the pitching staff fit not only the needs of the parent club, but the player’s profile. Next to Chafin’s entry in this year’s Baseball America Prospect Handbook, I recently scribbled: “A lefty with two average secondaries and a funky delivery? Move him to the bullpen!” It’s not that his repertoire can’t withstand a starting role; it can. It’s just that Chafin was a 2011 college draftee. His velocity already sags into the high 80s at times, and he’s past any age at which it’s likely he could gain some back. He’s able to work in the low 90s in relief, though, and his fastball-slider-changeup combination is hard to read. Working almost exclusively with the heater and slider, Chafin swept through the Dodgers’ lineup once during Friday night’s win, retiring all nine batters he faced, on a strikeout and eight groundouts. With Chafin, Randall Delgado, and Daniel Hudson, Arizona has three relievers who can give Chip Hale more than one inning’s work on a regular basis. It remains to be seen whether they’ll end up truly filling those roles, but if they do, it’s an extra gold star for both front office and field staff.
Demoting Yasmany Tomas ensured that Jake Lamb would get the primary playing time at third base, in addition to helping clarify the outfield picture. Lamb needs the chance to work on things at the big-league level. He struck out nearly 30 percent of the time after being called up in 2014, but destroyed the upper minors before that promotion. Tomas was never going to stick at third base; that was clear within a few days of the start of Diamondbacks camp. Give the team credit not only for making sure he didn’t interfere with Lamb’s development, but for moving Tomas back to full-time outfield work in Reno. The bat is the meal ticket for Tomas. He needs to be able to hone his offensive skill set, without the pressure of fighting to stick at a position that doesn’t suit him.
Releasing Cody Ross was the other half of the process of setting the final outfield. It was an uncommon move, for a mid-market team, happily eating Ross’s $9 million salary (but for the morsel the A’s will pay him, now), but it was the best solution to a tricky dilemma. Whatever loss the team will realize on Ross’s contract, that cost was sunk, and anyway, they have David Peralta (undrafted free agent) and Inciarte (returned Rule 5 pick) taking the places Ross might have had on the roster. Any good thing those two produce is pure, unadulterated profit, and they’ve each done plenty of good things lately.
Benching Aaron Hill was a similarly nimble, fearless way to resolve a sticky situation. The veteran Hill did some heavy lifting for the team for a few years, and has been a good soldier as things have turned sour. Taking away his starting job could have ruffled feathers and divided a clubhouse that will already have to withstand the difficulties every losing team encounters as the year drags on. Whether because of excellent communication between team and player, or because Hill is just the nicest guy on Earth, it doesn’t appear that those possible problems are going to graduate into real ones. Chris Owings and Nick Ahmed are an interesting present and future infield. Owings, with an aggressive approach and an all-hit tool profile, has drawn some skepticism, but this is the 2013 PCL MVP, the 28th-best prospect in baseball heading into 2014, and (if you buy the promising statistical returns on his defense at short) a two-win player last year. Ahmed’s bat is light, so light that he has to prove his glove is elite even in the majors to make an impact. There are some signs that it is, though, and the only way to test his leather against the speed of the game at the highest level is to let him play there. I also like that the organization is having Brandon Drury, who hasn’t stopped hitting since Arizona got him in the Upton trade, try a little more second base this spring in Double A. Normally a third baseman, Drury can move right back there if things don’t work out, and he’d even make a very nice platoon mate for Lamb if that’s where the chips fall. If he can hack it at second, though, he gains some versatility, and the team can either trade the lesser of Ahmed and Owings next winter, or slide Drury into a flexible bench role.
Moving Peter O’Brien to the outfield took the most courage of all. After a spring during which Stewart so boldly resisted trading for a backstop, and so insistently repeated that O’Brien was very possibly the catcher of the future, it had to be an embarrassing, difficult call to make. Yet, the team has made it. O’Brien has played each of his first four games in the outfield in Reno, and is expected to stay there. It’s not as though not being a catcher is the only weakness in O’Brien’s game; he has a strikeout rate just shy of 30 percent and has walked less than a quarter that often as a professional. He has tremendous power, though, and is probably as good a bet to be Mark Trumbo as Trumbo himself is. That makes Trumbo an easier trade chip with whom to part in July, and means that the team can plan on more or less maintaining whatever production Trumbo provides in the meantime.
There’s still a tough road ahead. Unless 2012 first-round pick Stryker Trahan gets his development back on track and takes off, they’re multiple years from any sort of in-house solution to the catching problem. They have, in my opinion, the deepest and most interesting collection of young arms in baseball, but there are two major problems with that:
1. My opinion on these matters is inexpert, and almost certainly wrong; and
2. TINSTAAPP. TINSTAAPP is going to be on my headstone, and people will think it’s some Roman inscription or a code or something, but it’s just going to be because I think everyone should see that as often as possible, and maybe, because the way broadcasters prattle on about the immense value of young pitchers is going to give me a fatal coronary.
Still, a lot of winning and losing lives in the choices teams make. Who to draft, who (and for whom) to trade, who to play, where to play them. Who to sign, who to cut. If I’m trying to predict a team’s future three years out, I use the following model to grade them:
· Present talent – 20 percent
· Projected payroll flexibility – 30 percent
· Farm system/future talent – 20 percent
· Front office – 30 percent
You can’t evaluate a team without knowing how much to trust its front office. Now, you still have to develop your own, objective opinions about each choice they make, but it should both inform and be informed by your perception of how that executive team works. With the current Diamondbacks, we have a galling lack of data in this area. We know plenty about Stewart and La Russa, but nothing about them as executives, really. That’s what makes the last two weeks so encouraging. This front office might be better than we thought.