The Diamondbacks Grind Justin Upton Out Of Arizona

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The Diamondbacks sought offers from Justin Upton almost immediately upon Kevin Towers taking over as GM and in all that time—two-and-a-half years—they never gave a legitimate reason as to why. Few could formulate an obvious justification to place a 25-year-old outfielder with speed, solid defensive skills and power on the trade block so publicly.

Now that Upton has been traded to the Braves, it’s being said that the Diamondbacks wanted more “grinders,” and that Upton wasn’t that type of player. This would be fine if they were exchanging an easily replaceable player who didn’t fit into the clubhouse dynamic they were trying to create, but Upton isn’t a journeyman player. He’s not even a potential All-Star if all breaks right. He’s an MVP candidate in his mid-20s, signed to a reasonable long-term contract worth $38.5 million through 2015.

The pat excuses—lack of money; clubhouse malcontent; rebuilding—didn’t fit with the desperation to trade Upton, so it appeared as if they were trading him just for the sake of it. This all goes back to the hiring of Towers and the 2011 division title. I doubt that when Towers was hired he expected a few bullpen moves and the pieces that were already in place would result in a stunning NL West title. There was no rebuilding project to undertake because they won immediately with the remnants of what former GMs Josh Byrnes and his interim replacement Jerry Dipoto had left for Towers and manager Kirk Gibson to work with.

That division title might have hypnotized the Diamondbacks into thinking they were better than they actually were; into believing that the edited, simplistic version of Towers’s resume and the four playoff appearances and one pennant he won as GM of the Padres were accurate as a final determinative factor of his quality of work. In reality, the NL West was a weak division that the Padres won in back to back seasons in 2005 and 2006 because they were the best of a rotten bunch. Somehow, Towers garnered a reputation that he never truly earned. He’s a competent executive to be sure, but as for someone whose every word should be adhered to because he has a “track record of success,” it’s highly presumptuous. Towers’s executive accomplishments may be true, but they’re not 100% accurate.

All the speculation that there might have been off-field issues with Upton (because there was no other possible explanation for this obsession to trade him) were rendered moot when it was strategically leaked that he wasn’t intense enough to suit Towers and Gibson. As a response to search for reasons to the publicly inexplicable solicitation of offers for Upton, the Diamondbacks found one that can’t be quantified, therefore not disputed as anything other than an opinion.

Because Gibson was a run through the wall, football-mentality type doesn’t mean that’s what every player has to be in order to be successful. I’m not of the mind that the manager is a faceless, nameless functionary installed to implement front office edicts, but I’m also not of the mind to bend over backwards to adjust the roster to fit what the manager wants to do, especially when it involves trading a player who has the ability to win the MVP. The recent death of Earl Weaver and the accompanying tributes and obituaries discussed his love for the 3-run homer, defense and pitching, but Weaver was also able to adapt when he didn’t have the personnel to play that way. Gibson is not Weaver and sounds as if he’s distancing himself from the implication that he wanted tougher players than Upton.

Here’s the impression I get from the way this entire mess played itself out: Towers arrived as Diamondbacks GM, looked at the prospective 2011 roster and felt there were too many holes to fill through making small trades and affordable free agent signings. He sent feelers out regarding Upton hoping for a massive haul to rebuild the team and contend in perhaps 2012-2013. No massive offer came and they held onto Upton. Things went perfectly in 2011, they won the division with Upton finishing fourth in the MVP voting and they were suddenly viable contenders for the immediate future. After trading for Trevor Cahill and making a bizarre signing in Jason Kubel, they were going for it all in 2012. But they didn’t win it all. The pitching had injuries and the rotation and bullpen weren’t as good in 2012 as they were in 2011. They wound up at .500.

Who was to blame? Judging by what they just did it was Upton and his lack of fire. 2012 and the ongoing saga notwithstanding, the damage was done in late 2010 when Towers tossed Upton out there as a negotiable entity. Upton seemed perplexed and hurt by the trade talk but was great in 2011. In 2012, he played through injuries and his numbers suffered. This didn’t stop Diamondbacks’ Managing General Partner Ken Kendrick from calling out Upton and Stephen Drew for substandard play. Never mind that it’s been revealed that Upton had an injured thumb or that Drew was returning from a ghastly ankle injury, they weren’t playing up to Kendrick’s standards and he tore into them.

The Diamondbacks still had Upton on the table at mid-season 2012 and made their intentions clear when they signed Cody Ross for three-years and a whopping $26 million. There was nowhere for Upton to play. Towers traded for Heath Bell, whose main skill at grinding is grinding on the nerves of teammates, coaches, managers and front office people.

Clamoring for a shortstop, Towers traded his own former top draft pick Trevor Bauer to the Indians in a three-team trade that brought them Didi Gregorius from the Reds. Towers immediately compared to Gregorius to Derek Jeter. Then he agreed upon a trade of Upton to the Mariners knowing that the Mariners were one of the teams on Upton’s no-trade list and having been told beforehand that Upton was not going to okay the move under any circumstances. Like an undaunted explorer, Towers was formulating new ways to venture to the point of no return.

In the trade with the Braves, he sent Upton and Chris Johnson to Atlanta and acquired another shortstop Nick Ahmed along with Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and Zeke Spruill.

He’s got the young Jeter in Gregorius, I’m waiting for him to compare Ahmed to Nomar Garciaparra to have his very own late-1990s, inter-organizational war as to who’s better, Nomar or Derek.

The Diamondbacks finished off their Upton gaffe and obviously didn’t learn the error of their ways when, with Prado, they announced that they planned to sign him to a long-term contract to prevent his free agency after 2013. How about talking to his agent first and seeing what he wants before boxing oneself and making Prado’s contract extension a necessity rather than a desire?

Then it became public that they were going to try and trade for Rick Porcello of the Tigers. The Diamondbacks are a club that operates under the pretext of going beyond full disclosure to overexposure without understanding what kind of damage they’re doing to their plans (if they have any).

There’s been no acknowledgement of what got them in this situation in the first place: The Upton rumors that started when Towers first took the job. If there’s no accepting and admitting of the problem, then the problem can’t be solved. Towers wanted a shortstop in exchange for Upton and was trying to get Jurickson Profar from the Rangers. When the Rangers said no, he turned his attention to minor leaguers like the ones listed above. His current big league shortstops are Cliff Pennington, Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald—none of whom are any good.

Are they rebuilding? Are they trying to win now? Is Towers undoing what was there when he arrived and trying to tailor a club to fit his manager even though the manager is the first one to go when things come undone?

The Diamondbacks put themselves in this position and rather than climb out of the hole they’ve dug, they’re continuing to dig hoping that digging deeper yields an escape route. Logic dictates that it won’t and they’ll keep making things worse until it won’t matter what kind of team they want because the players they have aren’t good enough.

Upton was good enough. He’ll be showing that with the Braves in 2013 and beyond as the Diamondbacks grind themselves into the ground.

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Why Are the Diamondbacks So Desperate to Deal Justin Upton?

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The proposed trade of Justin Upton to the Mariners was rejected by Upton because the Mariners are one of four clubs on his no-trade list. With a heavy return consisting of a situational lefty (Charlie Furbush), a young middle infield prospect (Nick Franklin), a young righty reliever with closer potential (Stephen Pryor), and one of the following young starters: Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen or James Paxton, in theory the trade made sense for the Diamondbacks. Given their overflow of outfielders, someone (or two) has to go.

It has seemed at times that Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers is collecting outfielders just for the sake of it. Apart from the Upton trade talks a year ago, there was no reason for him to pay $16 million last winter to sign Jason Kubel when Kubel was replacing Gerardo Parra who had a career year offensively and defensively—winning a Gold Glove—in 2011. He signed Kubel anyway. Kubel had a hot start to the season making the signing look like the work of a genius, but once the National League figured out Kubel’s weaknesses (he has a slow bat and doesn’t hit lefties), he had a dreadful second half.

This winter, Towers replicated the Kubel signing more expensively from the opposite side of the plate by signing Cody Ross to a 3-year, $26 million contract. Ross can hit both lefties and righties and can crush a fastball, so he’s more of an everyday player than Kubel, but there’s a glaring redundancy of the flawed outfielders that Towers insists on signing to fill holes that didn’t exist.

Compounded by the trade of Chris Young to the Athletics for a no-hit shortstop Cliff Pennington, the Diamondbacks now have three no-hit shortstops with Pennington, Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald. In addition, they traded their top young pitching prospect Trevor Bauer in a three-way trade to bring in a young shortstop, Didi Gregorius, who Towers ridiculously compared to Derek Jeter. Bauer had made no friends in the organization with his mouth and unwillingness to listen to suggestions from anyone and didn’t hesitate to make that known publicly. But Towers drafted Bauer. Shouldn’t he have been aware of his personality before the fact?

Interestingly, one of the reasons the Diamondbacks—under former GM Josh Byrnes—were able to acquire Ian Kennedy was because the Yankees had tired of his mouth and he didn’t listen.

Like the line from the film The Town, “You need a Venn diagram for these people.”

When Towers was hired, the Diamondbacks were an organization in apparent disarray. In the midst of a 2010 season in which they’d lose 97 games, they fired their longtime GM Byrnes at mid-season along with his hand-picked, inexperienced manager A.J. Hinch and replaced them with Jerry Dipoto and Kirk Gibson. Dipoto made several housecleaning trades that set the stage for the club’s stunning division title in 2011. Towers rebuilt the bullpen. The one thing Towers is good at is building a bullpen. Apart from that, his history has been one of haphazard, lateral maneuvers and a significant amount of luck.

No one has come up with an acceptable reason that Upton is on the block to begin with.

Is it attitude? There’s never been a report of Upton causing problems and he’s certainly got a better reputation than his brother B.J. Upton. The same B.J. Upton to whom the notoriously prickly and behavior-oriented Braves just gave $75 million. Any off-field problems and desire for “good guys” is counteracted by the Diamondbacks trading for Heath Bell. When compiling a list of players with bad reputations, Bell will be in everyone’s top 10.

Playing ability? Upton was the first overall pick in the 2005 MLB Draft, is a power hitter with speed and is a good defensive right fielder.

Age? He’ll be 26 in August.

Money? He’s signed at a comparatively cheap $38.5 million through 2015.

A better replacement? They don’t have a better replacement.

I suppose you can make the argument that he’s their biggest asset and would yield the largest return, but the team is trying to win. Doesn’t Upton help them in that goal better than replacing him with some conglomeration of a Furbush, Ross, Kubel and a mass of young players that may or may not make it?

In looking for a “why?” of Towers’s frantic attempts to trade Upton that seemingly were in place immediately upon getting the job, his accompanying decisions have made clear that there may not be a reason and if there is, the public doesn’t know about it. But we can only judge by what’s known and via that metric, combined with the other things Towers has done in his time on the job, Upton’s availability not as a “we’ll listen,” but as a “we have to get this guy outta here,” simply doesn’t pass the smell test.

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The 2012 Athletics Are A Great Story That Has Nothing To Do With Moneyball

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Going to Michael Lewis for a quote about the 2012 Oakland Athletics because he wrote Moneyball as the author does in this NY Times article is like going to Stephen King for a quote on time travel and the Kennedy assassination because he wrote a novel about time travel and the Kennedy assassination. Lewis’s book was technically non-fiction and King’s is decidedly fiction, but the “facts” in Lewis’s book were designed to take everything Billy Beane was doing to take advantage of market inefficiencies and magnify them into an infallibility and new template that only a fool wouldn’t follow.

Lewis had an end in mind and crafted his story about the 2002 Athletics and baseball sabermetrics to meet that end. It’s not journalism, it’s creative non-fiction. Beane went along with it, became famous, and very rich. None of that validates the genesis of the puffery.

The intervening years from Moneyball’s publication to today were not kind to Beane or to the story…until 2012. The movie’s success notwithstanding, it was rife with inaccuracies, omissions, and outright fabrications such as:

  • Art Howe’s casual dismissal of Beane’s demands as if it was Howe who was in charge and not Beane
  • The portrayal of Jeremy Brown not as a chunky catcher, but an individual so close to morbidly obese that he needed to visit Richard Simmons, pronto
  • The failure to mention the three pitchers Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito
  • That Scott Hatteberg’s playing time was a point of contention and Beane traded Carlos Pena to force Howe’s hand to play Hatteberg—Hatteberg was still learning first base and wasn’t playing defense, but he was in the lineup almost every day as the DH from day one

There are other examples and it wasn’t a mistake. The book was absurd, the movie was exponentially absurd, and there are still people who refuse to look at the facts before replacing the genius hat on Beane’s head as “proof” of the veracity of Lewis’s tale.

This 2012 version of the Athletics is Beane’s rebuild/retool number five (by my count) since 2003. The Moneyball club was blown apart and quickly returned to contention by 2006 when they lost in the ALCS. That team too was ripped to shreds and the A’s traded for youngsters, signed veterans, traded veterans, signed veterans, traded for youngsters and finished far out of the money in the American League from 2007-2011.

Then they cleared out the house again and are now in the playoffs. It has no connection with Moneyball nor the concept of Beane finding undervalued talent. It has to do with the young players succeeding, as the article linked above says, and winning “in a hurry”.

Let’s look at the facts and assertions from the book/movie followed by the truth:

The A’s, under Beane, were “card-counters” in the draft

The only players on this Athletics’ team that were acquired via the draft and have helped the club are Jemile Weeks, Cliff Pennington, Sean Doolittle (drafted as a first baseman and converted to the mound), Dan Straily, and A.J. Griffin. The A’s drafts since Moneyball have been mediocre at best and terrible at worst, so bad that Grady Fuson—along with Howe, one of the old-school “villains” in Moneyball—was brought back to the organization as special assistant to the GM.

The hidden truth about the draft is that the boss of the organization probably pays attention to the first 8-10 rounds at most. After that, it’s the scouts and cross-checkers who make the decisions and any player taken past the 10th round who becomes a success is a matter of being lucky with late development, a position switch, a quirky pitch, or some other unquantifiable factor. Beane’s “new age” picks like Brown, Steve Stanley, and Ben Fritz, didn’t make it. The conventional selections Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton did make it, were paid normal bonuses of over $1 million, in line with what other players drafted in their slot area received. Brown received $350,000 as the 35th pick in the first round and his signing was contingent on accepting it.

Beane “fleeced” other clubs in trades

In retrospect, he took advantage of the Red Sox desperation to have a “proven” closer, Andrew Bailey, to replace the departed Jonathan Papelbon. Bailey got hurt and, last night, showed why it wasn’t his injury that ruined the Red Sox season. He’s not particularly good. Josh Reddick has 32 homers—power and inexpensive youthful exuberance the Red Sox could have used in 2012.

The other deals he made last winter? They were of mutual benefit. The A’s were looking to restart their rebuild and slash salary waiting out the decision on whether they’re going to get permission to build a new park in San Jose. They sent their erstwhile ace Trevor Cahill to the Diamondbacks for a large package of young talent with Collin Cowgill, Ryan Cook, and Jarrod Parker. They also traded Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals for even more young talent including Tommy Milone and Derek Norris. The Diamondbacks got 200 innings and good work (that hasn’t shown up in his 13-12 record) from Cahill and are also-rans; the Nationals got brilliance from Gonzalez and won their division. The A’s slashed payroll and their young players, as the article says, developed rapidly.

Sometimes it works as it did with this series of trades, sometimes it doesn’t as with the failed return on the Hudson trade to the Braves in 2004.

They found undervalued talent

Yes. We know that Moneyball wasn’t strictly about on-base percentage. It was about “undervalued talent” and opportunity due to holes in the market. That argument has come and gone. Was Yoenis Cespedes “undervalued”? He was paid like a free agent and joined the A’s because they offered the most money and the longest contract. He was a supremely gifted risk whose raw skills have helped the A’s greatly and bode well for a bright future. The other signings/trades—Jonny Gomes, Bartolo Colon, Seth Smith, Brandon Inge, Brandon Moss—were prayerful maneuvers based on what was available for money the A’s could afford. They contributed to this club on and off the field.

Grant Balfour was signed before 2011 because the A’s again thought they were ready to contend and all they needed was to bolster the bullpen. They’d also signed Brian Fuentes to close. Fuentes was an expensive disaster whom they released earlier this year; Balfour was inconsistent, lost his closer’s job, wanted to be traded, regained the job, and is pitching well.

The manager is an irrelevant figurehead

Howe was slandered in Moneyball the book as an incompetent buffoon along for the ride and slaughtered in the movie as an arrogant, insubordinate jerk. What’s ironic is that the manager hired at mid-season 2011, Bob Melvin, is essentially the same personality as Howe!!! An experienced manager who’d had success in his past, Melvin replaced the overmatched Bob Geren, who just so happened to be one of Beane’s closest friends and was fired, according to Beane, not because of poor results, managing and communication skills, but because speculation about his job security had become a distraction.

Melvin and Howe share the common trait of a laid back, easygoing personality that won’t scare young players into making mistakes. Melvin’s calm demeanor and solid skills of handling players and game situations was exactly what the A’s needed and precisely what Moneyball said was meaningless.

The 2012 Athletics are a great story; Moneyball was an interesting story, but they only intersect when Beane’s “genius” from the book and movie melds with this season’s confluence of events and produces another convenient storyline that, in fact, has nothing at all to do with reality.

The A’s are going to the playoffs and might win the division over the Rangers and Angels, two teams that spent a combined $170 million more in player salaries than the A’s did. It’s a terrific life-lesson that it’s not always about money, but it has zero to do with Moneyball and Michael Lewis is an unwanted interloper as the Beane chronicler since he knows nothing about baseball and is a callous opportunist who took advantage of a situation for his own benefit.

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