Analysis of the Braves-Diamondbacks Trade, Part II: For the Diamondbacks

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The avalanche of circumstances that necessitated the trade of Justin Upton began when Kevin Towers was hired as Diamondbacks GM. After a 65-97 season in 2010 during which longtime GM Josh Byrnes and manager A.J. Hinch were fired; interim GM Jerry Dipoto made several housecleaning trades by dispatching Dan Haren, Edwin Jackson, Conor Jackson, Chris Snyder, and Chad Qualls for prospects or salary relief; and years of mediocre drafts and failed trades had left the organization in retooling mode, it’s understandable that Towers arrived and made it clear that he’d be willing to discuss his best asset—Upton—to speed the refurbishment.

The Diamondbacks weren’t in the position of the Astros or Cubs in that the whole thing had to be gutted, but they certainly weren’t a trendy pick to rebound from 65 wins to 94 and the 2011 NL West title. Any realistic assessment of their roster in 2011 would have said, “We’re not as bad as we were last year. If everything breaks right with Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders pitching well; the new bullpen performing; a huge year from Upton; unexpected contributions from Gerardo Parra and Ryan Roberts; and youngsters like Paul Goldschmidt stepping up, we can hang around the periphery of contention and maybe—maybe—be in the Wild Card hunt.”

Stunningly, the club took to the fiery style of manager Kirk Gibson and overcame their limitations with teamwork, intensity and more than a little luck. Gibson himself was only there because Towers bought into the passionate presentation he gave when the interim manager was interviewed for the fulltime job.

Sometimes the planets align perfectly and that’s what happened with the 2011 Diamondbacks. After that season, there was no need to slowly build. Instead of seeing a team that needed time to develop and required significant changes, they were suddenly legitimate contenders and looking to bolster what was already there by trading for Trevor Cahill and surrendering a large chunk of the few prospects—Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, Collin Cowgill—they’d accumulated in the draft. Parker and Cook were significant factors to the Athletics’ stunning run to the AL West title in 2012. Cahill was, at best, inconsistent for the Diamondbacks.

What went right for the Diamondbacks in 2011 went wrong in 2012. It would probably have been wise to realize that Roberts would fall back from his career year; that Kennedy wouldn’t be as lucky on balls in play; that the number of times they said, “I don’t believe this is happening,” was a warning sign not to believe that it was going to happen again the next year.

There’s nothing wrong with being lucky, but when that luck is translated into design and the original blueprint is ripped to shreds midstream and replaced with a new one, it’s easy to miss things and set traps for oneself. That’s what happened with Towers and Upton. When the team made that wondrous leap from last place to first place, Towers made the same mistake that Mariners’ GM Jack Zduriencik did in 2009-2010 when the Mariners overachieved to rise from 101 losses to 85 wins: he believed the hype that the team was better than it was and made decisions accordingly. These were decisions he might not have otherwise made if he’d adhered to the original plan.

What Towers was stuck with, through his own doing, was an excess of outfielders, a hole at shortstop, a sensitive player in Upton who was letting the trade talk affect his play, and the public shouting from loquacious managing general partner Ken Kendrick that Upton wasn’t living up to his contract.

Right after he was hired, Towers took offers for Upton. There was never a need to get Upton out of town because he was a malcontent, overrated or lazy. They were performing due diligence by seeing what they could get for him and if some club offered a Herschel Walker package, they’d trade him. It snowballed to the degree that they not only had to move Upton, but they had to formulate an excuse to justify it while simultaneously explaining their overpay for Cody Ross by saying that Upton wasn’t the grinding type of player they wanted their version of the Diamondbacks to exemplify. Gibson quickly ran away from the idea that he didn’t want Upton, leaving Towers and Kendrick as the likely culprits in the move and, as I said before, Towers didn’t want to trade Upton as a matter of course, he was simply seeing what was out there.

So now what?

The return for Upton is haphazard and odd. When they initially tossed his name out as negotiable, they wanted a huge package for their future. The trade they made with the Braves is a now-and-later deal. They received Martin Prado, who will fill a hole at third base, but is a free agent at the end of the season and wants a lot of money. The Diamondbacks have said they want to sign Prado and hope to get an extension done quickly, putting themselves in another precarious position similar to the one they dove headfirst into with Upton. Prado is a fine, versatile player with speed, power and defense and will help them in 2013.

They also received shortstop Nick Ahmed, third baseman Brandon Drury, righty pitcher Zeke Spruill, and righty pitcher Randall Delgado. It’s a solid return. Delgado, with his deceptive shotgun windup, has the stuff to be a big winner. You can read about the young players here on Baseball America.

There is a “but” and it’s a big one.

It’s a good trade, BUT what was the point? The problem for the Diamondbacks is that this increases the perception of ambiguity. Are they building for the future with the young players? Are they trying to win now? If Prado doesn’t sign, are they going to see where they are at mid-season and spin him off in a trade if they’re not contending or if they are, will they use this excess of young shortstops with Ahmed and Didi Gregorius to get veteran help?

A lack of definition is the hallmark of an absence of planning. The Diamondbacks may have had a plan when Towers was hired. One would assume he presented said plan to get the job. There’s no evident plan anymore. It’s an unsustainable tapdance to adapt to the on-the-fly alterations. The intention was to build slowly while being competitive. The new construct was rushed and adjusted due to situational concerns. The structure has become a box without a sufficient escape route. They’d better learn to live in it, because they have nowhere else to go. It might be good. Then again, it might not.

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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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2012 National League West Predicted Standings

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Wins Losses GB
1. Colorado Rockies 92 70
2. San Francisco Giants 85 77 7
3. Arizona Diamondbacks 84 78 8
4. San Diego Padres 80 82 12
5. Los Angeles Dodgers 69 93 23

Colorado Rockies

I don’t understand the criticism of the maneuvers the Rockies made this past winter or of the decision to trade Ubaldo Jimenez last summer.

They filled their needs by clearing Jimenez when they were going to have to pay a lot of money to re-sign him after 2013 and got two young starting pitchers, one of whom looks like he’s going to be a big winner in Drew Pomeranz; they signed high quality people and grinder type players who are versatile and play the game the right way with Michael Cuddyer and Casey Blake; they signed a good part-time catcher, Ramon Hernandez, to play semi-regularly and tutor young Wilin Rosario; they dispatched a mediocre closer, Huston Street in favor of someone cheaper and probably better with Rafael Betancourt; and they traded a journeyman righty for an underrated all around player Marco Scutaro.

Here’s the simple truth with the Rockies: they can pitch; they can hit; they can catch the ball; they can run; they have one of baseball’s best managers in Jim Tracy and one of its best players in Troy Tulowitzki.

It’s not that hard to do the math if you can add and subtract.

San Francisco Giants

Much is made of their vaunted starting rotation, but after Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, do you trust Ryan Vogelsong to repeat his amazing work from 2011? Work that was achieved at age 34 after being the epitome of a journeyman?

The bullpen is solid and deep. Their lineup is still shaky and counting on youth (Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford); rockheads (Angel Pagan); and those with questionable work ethic when they think they have a job sewn up (Melky Cabrera). Buster Posey is returning from a ghastly ankle injury.

They made changes, but I don’t see this club as having improved from the 86-76 team they were last season.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Many are in love with the Diamondbacks because of the season they had in 2011 and that they “improved” over the winter.

But did they improve?

I don’t understand the Jason Kubel signing to replace Gerardo Parra once Parra finally began fulfilling his potential offensively and won a Gold Glove defensively.

They acquired a top arm in Trevor Cahill and are hoping for a repeat of the stellar work their bullpen gave them last season.

How much of what happened in 2011 is realistically repeatable? They were good, but they were also lucky.

It’s a stretch to think it’s going to happen again.

San Diego Padres

One thing you can say about new GM Josh Byrnes: he’s fearless.

It took major courage to trade away a young, contractually controlled arm with Mat Latos going to the Reds and Byrnes got a load of young talent for him.

They dealt away another young bat Anthony Rizzo to get a flamethrower with closer potential, Andrew Cashner; they took Carlos Quentin off the hands of the White Sox for two negligible prospects hoping that Quentin would stay healthy in his free agent year and provide them with the pop they need.

Quentin just had knee surgery and will miss the beginning of the season.

The Padres have a load of starting pitching and their offense will be better than it was. They could sneak up on people and jump into the playoff race.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Are the Dodgers prototypically “bad”?

No.

But they’re in the process of being sold and with Matt Kemp having a 2011 season that should’ve won him the MVP and Clayton Kershaw winning the Cy Young Award, it took a major hot streak late in the season for them to finish above .500.

Their starting pitching is okay; their bullpen is okay; but their lineup is not and they’re in a tough division and league. Many structural changes are possible not only in the ownership suite, but in baseball operations as well.

Far more in depth analysis is in my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide, now available.

Click here for a full sample of team predictions/projections. (This sample is of the Rangers.) My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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Diamondbacks Sign Jason Kubel—Is There a Reason?

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This is either overkill; an impulse buy; or a precursor to other deals.

Unless the Diamondbacks are going to make a trade including Gerardo Parra, I’m not understanding what they need with Jason Kubel.

Kubel’s a useful ancillary piece; he has some pop and should feel liberated to have gained freedom from the cavernous Twins home park Target Field that robbed him of his home field production; he’s not costing a fortune nor is his deal long-term (2-years, $15 million with an option for 2014); but the Diamondbacks don’t need him…unless GM Kevin Towers has something cooking with Parra going somewhere in a trade.

Parra won a Gold Glove for his play in left field in 2011 and he had a fine year at the plate with a .784 OPS and 15 stolen bases; Kubel isn’t a very good outfielder; not only is Towers failing to improve his offense to any great degree other than Kubel having more power than Parra—mitigated by his lack of speed and that he doesn’t hit lefties—he’s also weakened his outfield defense.

Is Towers disbelieving Parra’s breakout year? I don’t see why since Parra put up similar numbers in the minors and is only 24, but that’s a scouting determination that needs to be made.

Towers has been looking for pitching and the White Sox are willing to clean house; Parra is the type of player that White Sox GM Kenny Williams might have interest in to take over in left field for Juan Pierre; perhaps Towers has his eye on John Danks or Gavin Floyd and Parra would be part of that trade.

Other than that, this was a redundant maneuver that makes no sense at all.

Then again, as much as Towers is lauded for being a “great” GM, he’s done some stupid things in his time. One came in 1998 when, as Padres GM, he claimed Randy Myers on waivers to prevent him from going to the Braves (who didn’t want Myers) and nearly got fired because of it.

I don’t know why he would give nearly $4 million guaranteed to Willie Bloomquist.

So it’s not as if there’s always a logical explanation for what Towers does.

Does the Kubel signing and benching of Parra fall into the former category as part of a plan or the latter of just “doing stuff”?

I’m not sure.

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