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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National League East—Buy, Sell or Stand Pat?

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Washington Nationals

They have the minor league system to do something significant, but looking at their roster and the players they’re due to have eventually returning from injury, they don’t need anything.

Their offense has been somewhat disappointing as they’re 10th in the NL in runs scored. They’re not particularly patient at the plate, but they spent a large chunk of the first half of the season without Michael Morse and Jayson Werth; they lost Wilson Ramos and were playing Rick Ankiel in centerfield.

When they have their regular, everyday lineup out there and put either Bryce Harper or Werth in center to replace Ankiel, they’ll be fine in the run-scoring department.

Their bullpen has been lights out and Drew Storen will be back. In regards to Storen, I wouldn’t put much stock in his rehab results—he got blasted yesterday; as long as his velocity and movement are there, let him get back in shape without worrying about how he pitches.

What do they need? Some bench help? Okay. That’s something that can be acquired after the trading deadline when more teams are willing to clear out some players. Marco Scutaro, Ty Wigginton, Mike Aviles, Justin Turner are names to consider, but the Nats will be perfectly fine if they simply stay where they are and move forward with who they have.

Atlanta Braves

They need to buy but I don’t know if they will.

The Braves could use a big time starting pitcher but as has been the situation in the past, are they going to add payroll to get it?

GM Frank Wren made a big show of looking for a shortstop after Andrelton Simmons got hurt and then was forced to act when Jack Wilson got hurt as well. He traded for Paul Janish.

That’s not a big, bold maneuver.

They’ve been linked to Zack Greinke but I’m not getting the sense that the Brewers are ready to sell. Recently the suggestion was made that they were looking at Jason Vargas. Vargas and the words “impact starter” were used in the same sentence. Vargas is not an impact starter, but if I were a Braves’ fan, Vargas or someone similarly meh is what I’d expect them to obtain.

New York Mets

The three game sweep at the hands of the Braves is being taken as a calamity, but the Mets have been resilient all season long. They’re not buyers and nor are they sellers. They’ll look to improve within reason and not give up a chunk of the farm system to do it. Can they add payroll? No one seems to know. I’d guess that they can add a modest amount in the $5-10 million region and that’s only if it’s a player that the front office believes can make a significant difference and/or they’ll have past this season.

I’d avidly pursue Luke Gregerson for the bullpen and inquire about Joe Thatcher, both of the Padres.

Here’s one thing I would seriously consider: crafting an offer for Justin Upton centered around Ike Davis and Jordany Valdespin. The big time pitching prospects in the minors—Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler—are off the table. The Mets could move Lucas Duda to his natural position of first base and get a 25-year-old, cost-controlled, potential MVP in Upton.

The Diamondbacks can consider moving Paul Goldschmidt for pitching.

Miami Marlins

They should probably just stay where they are and hope, but they have little choice but to be buyers.

Carlos Lee was acquired from the Astros to try and fill an offensive void and he hasn’t done much so far. Would they think about including Logan Morrison in a trade to shake things up? Justin Ruggiano is killing the ball in his first legitimate opportunity to play regularly in the Majors and his numbers mirror what he posted in the minors as a regular. But he’s 30. They have to determine its legitimacy.

The bottom line is this: they need pitching in the rotation and bullpen and are running out of time. Francisco Liriano is a target as is Grant Balfour, Jonathan Broxton, Huston Street and any of the other suspects.

Philadelphia Phillies

Here’s the situation: In spite of winning the last two games of their series against the Rockies, the Phillies are still 39-51 and 14 games out of 1st place in the division. They’re 7 ½ games back in the Wild Card race. Some of the teams still in the Wild Card race are going to fade. Realistically it’s going to take around 88 wins to take the last Wild Card spot. In order for the Phillies to reach that number they’re going to have to go 49-23 the rest of the way. Even with Roy Halladay returning tomorrow night, it is an almost impossible feat for them to pull off. If they were playing reasonably well, I’d say, “Okay, maybe they can do it.” But they’re not.

I have no idea what’s going to happen with Cole Hamels as the new talk is that they’re preparing a substantial offer to keep him. Maybe it’s true. But they need to get rid of Placido Polanco and Shane Victorino; see what they can get for Wigginton.

It’s not their year and if they sign Hamels that will probably assuage the angry fans—to a point—if Ruben Amaro Jr. concedes the season and gets what he can for the veterans who definitely won’t be back.

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Ken Kendrick Channels His Inner Steinbrenner

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Part of being the best and highest paid player on a team is taking the brunt when the team isn’t playing well. It’s with that in mind that Justin Upton can’t complain when Diamondbacks’ managing general partner Ken Kendrick calls him out on his slow start—Arizona Republic Story.

Upton has MVP potential and at 24, he should be putting up better numbers than a .243/.340/.365 slash line with 5 homers. It’s June. The Diamondbacks had high hopes for 2012 after a stunning 2011 NL West title and near miss of going to the NLCS. They traded for Trevor Cahill and signed Jason Kubel. These moves were made for a World Series run.

Of course it was absurd to expect Ryan Roberts to repeat his 2011 breakout/career season; Paul Goldschmidt isn’t fully established at first base; and Chris Young was injured after a hot start. Although he’s pitched better of late, if anyone needs to be called out for performance, it’s closer J.J. Putz.

But Upton is the main main in Arizona, so he has to take the hits for his teammates. That’s how it works. Publicly Upton put up a brave front in response to the Kendrick comments. Whether or not he’s upset or insulted by them privately is irrelevant. There’s a simple solution: start hitting.

As for the Kendrick negativity heaped on Stephen Drew, it’s illogical to think that Drew doesn’t want to play even though that same criticism was often levied against his brother J.D. Drew. Is it possible that Stephen Drew is thinking about the future and looking to other venues when he becomes a free agent? Yes. Is it the family history and that he’s represented by Scott Boras that adds to the perception? Yes. But he’s got a contract option with the Diamondbacks for 2013 at $10 million. If he’s looking forward to free agency or wants a contract extension, wouldn’t it make more sense that he get out and play well rather than sit on the sidelines and wait for the Diamondbacks to decline his option after this season, which they’re obviously going to do? No one’s paying him big money after this year. In fact, as a free agent he’ll get a Major League contract, but it will be incentive-laden and short-term.

Kendrick’s frustration is not an excuse for these comments. It’s irresponsible and foolish for any front office person to question a player’s commitment when he’s returning from injury. There’s a difference between being injured and being a malingerer and Drew’s ankle was seriously injured. It’s hard to believe he’s sitting out purposefully.

Kendrick and many observers were expecting more than 27-30 and 9 games out of first place from these Diamondbacks; but it may be that the team had very high hopes and isn’t good enough to achieve them. If that’s the case, castigating the players isn’t going to help Kendrick or anyone in the organization. In fact, it’s probably going to make things worse.

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Believe It Or Don’t—The Bad (National League)

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In recent days, I’ve looked at teams that were either underachieving or overachieving based on expectations. Let’s check the National League underachievers (or achievers as the case may be).

  • Miami Marlins

What they’re doing.

The Marlins are 23-19 and in 3rd place in the NL East, 2 1/2 games behind the Braves.

How they’re doing it.

Their starting pitching has helped them overcome Heath Bell’s rancid first two months, a shaky overall bullpen and struggling lineup.

Bell’s been better in his last several outings, but no one, nowhere in Miami is going to feel comfortable with him closing an important late season game against any contender.

The lineup, which was supposed to be a strength, is 13th in the NL in runs scored. Jose Reyes hasn’t been the sparkplug they thought they were getting and his defense is drastically declining. Emilio Bonifacio is on the disabled list; John Buck and Gaby Sanchez are both hitting under .200 with Sanchez just having been sent to the minors; Logan Morrison has 2 homers; most glaringly and concerning (not counting last night’s game), Hanley Ramirez has played in a combined 133 games in 2011-2012 and hit 17 homers with a slash line of .259/.323/.412.

Then there’s the Ozzie Guillen-Fidel Castro controversy that, luckily for the Marlins, died down.

In addition to all of that, there’s the new ballpark and newly remodeled club and a still-underwhelming attendance that’s 8th in the National League.

Believe it or don’t?

I’d be very worried about Ramirez. With their starting pitching and Josh Johnson finding his form, they’ll have enough to loiter around contention, but their hitting and bullpen are so problematic that being barely over .500 is pretty much it for the Marlins.

Believe it.

  • Philadelphia Phillies

What they’re doing.

The Phillies are 21-22, in last place in the NL East and 5 games behind the Braves.

How they’re doing it.

They’re without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard; Jimmy Rollins is hitting around .230; they’re carrying hitters like Freddy Galvis who’s not ready for the big leagues; and playing role players Ty Wigginton and John Mayberry Jr. regularly.

Roy Halladay hasn’t been his normal, machine-like self. Cliff Lee was on the disabled list and Vance Worley is on the disabled list. Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton have picked up the slack and helped the Phillies stay competitive through their injuries and offensive malaise.

Believe it or don’t?

Don’t believe it and don’t listen to Jim Bowden/schlocky websites/trolling columnists when they suggest that the Phillies are going to be sellers at the trading deadline. They’re not selling anything unless they’re 20 games under .500, and that’s not going to happen.

The Phillies will be back at or near the top of the NL East by the time the season is over.

  • Milwaukee Brewers

What they’re doing.

The Brewers are 17-25 and 6 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central.

How they’re doing it.

Losing Prince Fielder was bad enough, but his designated kindasorta replacement in the lineup, Aramis Ramirez, is hitting .218 with 3 homers; his actual replacement at first base, Mat Gamel, blew out his knee; and for good (or bad) measure, shortstop Alex Gonzalez blew his knee out as well.

The starting pitching has been good and the bullpen hasn’t.

Ryan Braun has picked up where he left off from his MVP season in 2011 and—presumably—he’s not going to be stupid enough to do anything that might cause a failed PED test.

Believe it or don’t?

This team is flawed and short-handed offensively. They have the pitching to get back within striking distance of a playoff spot, but unless they hit, they’re a .500 team at best.

Believe it.

  • San Francisco Giants

What they’re doing.

The Giants are 22-20, 7 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West.

How they’re doing it.

They’ve lost closer Brian Wilson for the season, but their bullpen is still deep enough even without their horse. Starting pitching is carrying them and that’s with Tim Lincecum carting around an ERA over six.

Their hitting has been better than the popgun it was in the past, but pitching is what carries the Giants.

Believe it or don’t?

Don’t believe it. The Giants are better than a .500 team and once Lincecum gets straightened out and Pablo Sandoval is back healthy, they’ll be in the thick of the playoff race.

  • Arizona Diamondbacks

What they’re doing.

The Diamondbacks are 19-24 and 10 1/2 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West.

How they’re doing it.

A lot went right for the Diamondbacks in 2011, especially in the bullpen. The lineup has black spots. Chris Young is just off the disabled list and they’re waiting for Stephen Drew.

Paul Goldschmidt and Ryan Roberts have a combined 4 homers. You can’t win with Willie Bloomquist playing every day and your first and third basemen not hitting the ball out of the park.

Trevor Cahill is 2-4 and that’s with a .262 BAbip. Imagine if he wasn’t as lucky as he’s been. Ian Kennedy has an ERA of nearly 4.5 and is leading the National League in hits allowed.

J.J. Putz has been a calamity as the closer.

Believe it or don’t?

Believe it. Their luck from 2011 has abandoned them and they’re plainly and simply not that good.

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