An offseason of unusual activity in the sport has been fueled by a significant number of teams that had a regime change in the front office, and the D-backs are no exception. What originally looked like an offseason of tweaks now looks like something quite different — but what is it, really? Remember, Chief Baseball Officer expressed confidence exactly one month ago that the team would finish with a winning record next year. A winning record in 2015 is an attainable goal, but it’s not something one expects to hear from a rebuilding team. Here’s what Tony La Russa said last month, from an excellent Nick Piecoro article that really addresses the team’s approach to the offseason:
“I don’t think that you give in on the potential that sooner rather than later we could be contenders…We have a nice young nucleus so there’s a lot to build on here. We’ve got some quality veterans.”
“I will be absolutely brokenhearted if we don’t have a winning record next year, which is 82-80. I mean, I really believe that that’s realistic…”
La Russa went on to caution that 82 wins does not a playoff team make, but said the team’s officials “are not a patient bunch” and that a 4-5 rebuild was not going to be the approach the team would take. He’s certainly lived up to that latter promise, but what we’ve seen thus far is something other than what I think we expected.
So are the D-backs rebuilding, retooling, or doing something different? Let’s wade through the evidence and see if we can reach a conclusion. I’ll spare you most of the minor league signings and procedural moves.
- Expose/lose Will Harris: Neutral. Harris was a great part of the bullpen in 2013, but a lot less than that in 2014 — and he didn’t have the pedigree to let us trust 2013 more than 2014. He’s a major leaguer, at least for one season. But rebuilding or no, he doesn’t belong with a major league team with the D-backs’ relief depth, which was almost as good six weeks ago as it is today. At the time, Stewart said he preferred keeping Mike Bolsinger, but couldn’t keep both.
- Outright Jordan Pacheco: Neutral. The team has expressed a desire to keep Pacheco in the fold, but he was an obvious non-tender candidate. He’s in limbo now, and it may be a couple of months before his situation is resolved. He had no value in 2014 and at the time of the outright, it didn’t seem like there’d be any way he could have value in 2015. That’s no longer true with the acquisition of Oscar Hernandez, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
- Trade Justin Williams and Andrew Velazquez to Rays for Jeremy Hellickson: Win Now (more on the trade). This is one of the few puzzle pieces that seems hardest to fit. Both prospects are legit guys who made Jeff’s Top 10 List, with Williams not doing much to hurt or help his stock and Velazquez having a breakout three steps away from the majors. The acquisition of Hellickson is clearly a win-now move, since he comes with only two years of club control (the expensive ones). He’s not a sure thing, but there are probably only a few teams for whom he wouldn’t make a rotation. This could have been a value proposition, a matter of seizing an opportunity: the D-backs clearly like Hellickson (and there are things about him to like). Maybe the team thought it was selling high on Velazquez, which seems very plausible. I’m not sure we can say the same thing about Williams, but as Jeff and I were discussing recently, moving Williams may have had a lot to do with Socrates Brito. This move doesn’t tell us a ton on its own, although it would fit in a retooling plan as well as a “win now” one.
- Protect A.J. Schugel, Kevin Munson, Enrique Burgos, Will Locante: Neutral. The D-backs also added Brandon Drury and Brito to the 40-man to protect them from the Rule 5, but it’s the pitchers that matter for this exercise. The first three of these men almost definitely would have been plucked in the Rule 5 if left unprotected, as guys who could conceivably contribute in a major league bullpen next year, or at least hang. Locante was a savvy move, as LOOGY types like Patrick Schuster last year have often been promoted way ahead of schedule through the Rule 5. All we really learned here is that the D-backs prize pitching depth, and even drawing that conclusion is tough. Basically, the only guy they really exposed was Zach Borenstein, and he wasn’t selected (the D-backs didn’t lose anyone). This is just a case of the D-backs playing a situation very well (I really am impressed).
- Trade Mike Bolsinger (Dodgers) and Charles Brewer (Indians) for cash: Neutral. Housekeeping. Bolsinger and Brewer were priorities over the likes of Harris not long before this, but the Hellickson trade made both expendable. There is no chance that a Mike Bolsinger call up — or a call up of a Bolsinger type — would happen in late April or May or anytime in 2015. The D-backs’ rotation depth now is just silly, and maybe even a little stupid. The depth forced the D-backs’ hand with respect to these trades, meaning we can draw no conclusions from them.
- Tender contract to Cliff Pennington: Win Now. There were legitimate arguments both ways for Pennington and the next guy on this list, meaning finally we have more to work with. At the time, Pennington was on a depth chart with three other shortstops, all four of whom had little chance of playing any second base. He is also not free, expected to make a non-trivial $3.3M in his final year of arbitration. We can now infer that the team was probably confident that they’d move a shortstop, although we don’t know they were sure it would be Gregorius. Even then, and even knowing that Chris Owings needs to prove his shoulder is healthy, this is some evidence that the D-backs have been particularly concerned with 2015. If money is an issue, you don’t invest this much in a backup or a backup plan.
- Tender contract to David Hernandez: Win Now. Like Pennington, Hernandez was up for arbitration a final time, which points strongly in the direction of “win now.” Unlike Pennington, Hernandez still has some major work to do to return from a major injury, which means he really can’t be traded this winter. That makes him a more explicit investment in 2015, though he may only make $2M-$2.2M in arbitration. I suppose he could be an extension candidate, but that seems highly unlikely to me. As I explored last week, the D-backs have the equivalent of two major league bullpens. As with the Pennington tender, this is an investment to make sure the team is never scraping the bottom of the barrel in depth if something bad happens. That’s win now.
- Trade Didi Gregorius to Yankees; receive Domingo Leyba and Robbie Ray from Tigers: Retooling (more on the trade). Leyba makes this look like a rebuilding move and both prospects are interesting, but we know the front office viewed Ray as the “key” to this deal, in a foreshadowing of the Miley move to come. You could legitimately say that the D-backs had to move a shortstop, and if you believe that, you could view this as simply cashing out, without broader conclusions to be drawn. I don’t happen to believe that, because if you were going to have one too many infielders, Gregorius would be the one you’d want to keep, as he can partner with the other players much more easily and effectively. No, this move was about Robbie Ray, and about the front office remaking the team in its image. Shane Greene was turned down, but Ray fit what the D-backs wanted, apparently: someone with talent, “stuff” and upside who can be in the rotation picture as soon as next year. That’s a hefty point in favor of “retooling.”
- Attempt to trade Miguel Montero to Dodgers for Andre Ethier: Neutral. This one was pretty bizarre, and I discussed it in some depth on Monday. Just bizarre. Would have subtracted from a position of need and added to a position at which good players are already at high risk of losing playing time. Ethier might be slightly better at the plate in 2015 than Montero, but the gap between Ethier and who would otherwise play — let’s say David Peralta — is almost definitely microscopic compared to the gap between Montero and his replacement. In terms of the D-backs’ offseason plan, however, this doesn’t tell us much, except factor into the analysis of the actual Montero trade.
- DFA Zeke Spruill: Neutral. This move happened because the next one got finalized, and I only include it to point out a theme. The entire 40-man pitching staff is being upgraded by this front office. In Arizona, no mercy, and no room for the likes of Zeke Spruill.
- Sign Yasmany Tomas: Retooling (more on the signing). A lot like the 40-man decisions referenced in #4 above, the fact that this particular move was just really damned smart means we can’t bank on it for this exercise. What I mean is: it’s when a team makes bad moves or inefficient ones when you know you’re finding out exactly what the team is trying to do (remember those days?). The D-backs made a fantastic deal here, committing just $36M to Tomas over the first four years, and $32.5M for the last two, which may or may not happen. It’s a little frontloaded with a signing bonus ($14M of the $36M is paid up front), but a lot backloaded, which is fantastic for the team. I’ll pat myself on the back a bit for making the connection in early September before any public report connected player to team, but the fact that the team actually followed through with interest is something we can draw conclusions from. Tomas is the perfect “retooling” acquisition: no draft pick compensation is/was required, and unlike with the vast majority of free agents, Tomas’s peak won’t be at the very beginning of the deal. It’s a lot like making up for the fact that the team didn’t already have a Tomas with zero-to-two years of service time playing for the team. Again, if this was a bad deal, it would tell us more. But it’s still very heavy evidence of retooling.
- Trade Miguel Montero to Cubs for Jeferson Mejia and Zach Godley: Rebuilding (more on the trade). Another move good enough that it arguably doesn’t tell us much about the front office’s intentions. Chances are (but that’s not certain) that Montero is already in the decline phase of his career, and his best seasons are both already behind him — in that sense, the move makes a boatload of sense. But this is a 2017 move, unless it’s a payroll-mandated move (and the Tomas signing really undercuts that proposition). For the love of Pete, the D-backs were not hurting for relief prospects. Neither of these pitchers are trivial assets, but neither really matter in the big picture, either. This was about deleting Montero from the ledger. If the prospects were more likely to matter, this would be a huge road sign that said “rebuilding.” As it is, it’s just, I don’t know, a store awning or something. The D-backs will almost certainly get a lot less production out of their catchers in 2015 now, so at the very least, this is risking 2015 for benefits down the road. That’s rebuilding, even if the D-backs later acquire a replacement left-handed “middle of the order” guy.
- Reject Dodgers’ offer of Matt Kemp for A.J. Pollock; offer Archie Bradley to Dodgers for Matt Kemp: Retooling. Big, if true. And that’s what USA Today’s Bob Nightengale tweeted. Once again there’s a confounding factor here: you can’t blame Dave Stewart for going after former client Kemp, even if that meant stretching the D-backs’ plan a bit. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t — but I think we can derive less information from this exchange than you might think at first blush. It doesn’t seem like Stewart and the FO crew like Ender Inciarte enough to give him a full time job, so trading Pollock would mean there’d have to be a follow-on move here — which could have been fantastically difficult for the team financially if it had just taken on a hefty portion of the money owed Kemp (off topic: the Dodgers kicking in money to trade Kemp to Stewart would have been hilarious). Conversely, no follow-on acquisition would be made necessary by trading Bradley, given the ridiculous number of starters the D-backs have in the majors and on the way. Nonetheless: turning down the Pollock offer points away from “win now,” and offering Bradley points toward it. Retooling is the common thread.
- Select C Oscar Hernandez in the Rule 5 draft from Rays: Rebuilding. Or not. The D-backs had the first overall pick in the Rule 5; it would have been stupid to not use it at all, especially since selections can immediately be traded (with the same caveat that if they aren’t on the Active Roster long enough to get a service year, they have to be offered back to the original club for half the draft fee). The D-backs did something very useful here. Your classic Rule 5 selections are outfielders who can hang as fifth guys for a full season and relievers, especially lefty relievers. The D-backs are quite full in those departments, thank you. But Hernandez? That’s pretty cool. After the Montero trade, Stewart said it wasn’t something they would have done if they didn’t know there were things they could do to replace him. I guess part of that certainty was having the #1 pick. How Hernandez actually fits is a tough question, because his bat is a very long way away and regardless of whether he looks like he can hang once he plays in spring training, he’s not going to be the starter. This can still work, either by starting a different catcher for 140+ games (not easy), or by having three guys on the Active Roster who can play catcher. That latter thing? That makes me wonder if Jordan Pacheco is still in the plans. Alas, Pacheco is not a guy the D-backs will want to carry all year, and there aren’t many part time catchers with good bats out on the market. This would be fun, and if the D-backs stick with Hernandez, it would be nice to see him set up with some kind of extended spring training regimen to continue his hitting development (that’s an advantage Arizona has that many teams don’t have). This is a rebuilding move, though. It’s possible that the D-backs will only keep Hernandez if they think he can handle significant duties right away, and that would point toward retooling — but that seems like a pipe dream.
- Trade Wade Miley to Red Sox for Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, and probably a minor leaguer: Retooling. This is the hardest one to fathom, and it’s what prompted this piece. I covered this not-quite-deal in depth yesterday. Basically: this really doesn’t make sense as an integral part of any of strategies we’re trying to pick from. Either it was a matter of the D-backs taking advantage of Miley’s value being higher than they thought it should be, or there are moves coming that will help this make sense. It most closely resembles retooling, even though that’s being pretty liberal.
Ok. Only a couple of things that look like rebuilding. A few look like “win now,” but not the more recent ones. Many look like retooling. So are they retooling?
I think the answer is similar to the answer for the Miley trade. It’s hard to escape the impression that the new front office is breaking up the team to rebuild it in their own image. They want to be competitive in 2015, enough to sell tickets and keep everyone engaged — and if the team is within striking distance in July, we might see the team push in chips for a title run next season. The eyes are on a 2016 prize, maybe, but the team is not waiting.
I think we can also safely conclude that the team is not done. If it’s about re-making the team, there’s work left to do. But even more than that, the decisions above may not make a whole lot of sense right now because we’re only up to, say, step 5 of a 15-step process. There was a full rotation already, and there were four pitchers (Archie Bradley, Patrick Corbin, Daniel Hudson, Bronson Arroyo) poised as reinforcements throughout the season. Now we have three new additions in Webster, De La Rosa, and Ray; this is so much depth it’s ridiculous. Trading one or more of these almost-starters would make everything make sense. And the team won’t have any patience for guys who don’t second as long-term assets, meaning Trevor Cahill is probably out.
Things like the Pennington tender and the accumulation of rotation and bullpen pieces are what championship teams do. They’re what the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers do in order to make sure that when the inevitable bad things happen (injury, big-time slumps), they’re poised to handle it without skipping a beat. The Orioles did this in a different way in 2014, and it paid off: they didn’t lose wins in the margins with crappy players. Maybe this team will be the Orioles. Maybe stacking up this depth is about competition, about La Russa and/or others thinking that by making their players compete, the cream will rise.
No matter what, though, it doesn’t give the team a look of a rebuilding or even retooling club. It’s like cooking three promising dinners simultaneously: you’ve got a much greater chance of one of them turning out well, and you only have to eat one of them. But no one does that, because it doesn’t make sense to do it every night. More moves may be coming. If not, we’ll just have to see if the D-backs’ recipe is a recipe for 2015 success.
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