Money. It makes the world go ’round. But not all dollars are equal — we’ve seen some baseball teams with top payrolls spend extra when not restricted, like paying a posting fee for Daisuke Matsuzaka or Masahiro Tanaka because it’s not money that could impact luxury tax, like ignoring the old slot system for the Rule 4 draft before the current CBA fixed some severe penalties. There’s coloring as close to the lines as possible, like the Cubs just did in timing Kris Bryant‘s promotion. There’s the Astros extension with Jonathan Singleton, playing within the rules while trying to take advantage of them.
The odd thing is that the restrictions affecting big market teams have made them more like the small market teams: you need to act like the Athletics or Rays with your money in some instances in order to stay as efficient as possible within your means. Everyone is thrifty, now. Not every team can fight over expensive free agents, and while that was always true for players like Max Scherzer, maybe it wasn’t always true for players like Brandon McCarthy. The walls are closing in. It’s not the NFL or the NBA — with talent coming from so many corners, far away in distance and time and through so many procedures, a system that uniform isn’t in the cards. But no longer can the Yankees simply outbid everyone just because he’s the best player available for a hole they could fill. No longer can the Red Sox thumb their nose at slotting recommendations in the draft. The playing field is much more even, enough that there may no longer be a strong distinction between players’ market rates in one echelon or the other.
That seems to be the common thread in reaction to the Touki Toussaint trade, which has been overwhelmingly negative for the D-backs. So negative, in fact, that few are heaping the credit for the deal on John Hart; it seems to me like people are acting like Hart found a stack of money in a parking lot, a thing so lucky that few have the instinct to ascribe that luck to skill. Which is not to lessen Hart’s accomplishment — plenty have pointed out that he has managed to build what is now one of baseball’s best groups of young pitching talent. Seems like a pretty great priority to have in a tear down project, committing to a rebuild.
The D-backs aren’t rebuilding; they’re doing whatever you want to call this doubling down on the near term despite finishing with the majors’ worst record last year. That, too, seemed like a question of priorities. “Futures” have current market rates, and a few things like the Yoan Lopez signing seemed to cash out those “futures” under what seemed to be the current market rates. Even that: a question of priorities, maybe. But after last weekend, after this trade, it seems more like they think 2018 and beyond “futures” have little to no value for this team, at all. We haven’t seen them negotiate extensions, because why put liabilities on the books? We haven’t seen them hold the line in arbitrations, because the biggest part of the payoff there — lowering future salaries as well — isn’t a priority. We’ve seen them backload money, in the Yasmany Tomas deal (and, I suppose, the Bronson Arroyo deal), because that’s exactly what you would do if the “back” was not relevant to you. We’ve seen them draft players out of college — 36 of 40 players, coin flip odds of that in the 1:800,000,000 range — because high school players have no chance of being relevant in the part of the team’s future that exists. Alex Young is in the picture. Touki Toussaint is not.
With all three of players involved in that trade not actually playing in the majors right now, the biggest news for the MLB team was the demotion of Addison Reed, who was optioned to Reno with Enrique Burgos activated from the DL (Piecoro). This seems like it was a long time coming, and yet the timing is not remarkable — were the D-backs motivated to try to move him in a trade next month, they had the opportunity to repackage or rebrand him first, and see if that worked. One reason that might have upped his trade value, noted in this space in mid-May:
We’ve seen some long fly balls from Reed — like the one in San Francisco that was his other blown save — but this was actually his first home run allowed of the season. And as strange as this sounds, if Reed gets “right” this bump in the road could actually make him more attractive to other teams in trade in July. Long fly balls have always been a risk with Reed and that would have been a known risk in July either way, but if Reed’s arbitration case this offseason has taken a significant hit, he might still be considered a 2016 asset.
Three weeks ago, Reed was fixed, we were told (Piecoro). They had to try selling him as New Coke — that was smart, and if it had worked, they might have found some takers. Alas, no luck. Like with Coke II, it did a lot better in taste tests than it did when we drank the whole can.
I don’t regret the trade that brought Reed to Arizona for Matt Davidson. The D-backs had a similar prospect on a similar timeline in Jake Lamb, and Davidson was a worthy but not urgent experiment. It doesn’t really matter now that Davidson seems to have stalled out, but Reed is not a terrible pitcher. What I lament is committing to him as a closer, for quite a few reasons.
Part of it was that he has never been a good fit in the role from a profile perspective. That seemed pretty clear over a year ago, in part because by being homer-prone and allowing his runs in bunches, his success rate wasn’t going to be as high as his overall stats would have had us guess. Putting a fly ball pitcher in Chase Field was another imperfect fit. After 2014 played out, it seemed likely that Reed would be a better fit for a different team, and as such, he probably had more value in trade than he did in Arizona environs.
The main reasons are financial, however. With saves being factored into arbitration awards, it made little sense to go year to year with Reed given the saves he racked up in Chicago and the role the D-backs were content to leave him in. Avoiding the expense of those needless millions is not all that difficult, as Jeff has written. Not doing so isn’t old school at this point; it looks pretty bad, although we don’t know whether or not the sides had extension talks.
Except we kind of do. Maybe it was getting sucked into extension talks and allowing Reed’s agent to frame the debate, or maybe it was a large miscalculation of Reed’s value, but when they exchanged figures with him, their figure was an enormous outlier. Say what you will about Matt Swartz’s arbitration projections at MLBTradeRumors (I say they’re great!), but he has an excellent track record with them. It’s not often he’s off by much. One was with Gerardo Parra — the team’s figure was $100k over that projection. That was highly unusual, but explainable; Parra was an extremely unusual case.
Closers going to arbitration is not unusual at all, and yet the D-backs whiffed badly with their figure, going $900k over the projected final result. The projection was $3.8M; the arbitration panel was asked to pick between the D-backs’ $4.7M or Reed’s $5.6M. Basically, the D-backs made truly bizarre math error; with the benefit of hindsight, we know that had the D-backs used a figure of $2.5M, they actually would have been closer to the projection than Reed with a victory more likely than 50/50. They probably should have gone with something like $3.5M, and stuck to it, confident in victory. These figures were not unrelated; I’m sure Reed’s was only so high because of the negotiations that had been performed up to that point. $4.7M was awful. But at the very least, they pretty much assured themselves of victory if they went to trial.
Believe or not, our baseline here is being objective; I don’t think we really care what priorities the team chooses, just how they try to accomplish them. It’s not size of impact that causes us to change our tone; it’s whether or not something is clear or not, which is not all that common, and most frequently small. In terms of prospective pieces about what the team should or should not do in the future, we’re especially loathe to issue pronouncements, I think. The Reed arbitration situation was an exception to that; it seemed extremely clear that the D-backs needed to take Reed to trial, because they were nearly assured of victory if they didn’t screw it up, and because taking a case to trial might help keep agents honest in the future.
The D-backs didn’t take him to trial, but it seemed that minds met on how badly the D-backs’ figure was bungled. Between $4.7M and $5.6M, the midpoint would have been $5.15M, and we would have expected the midpoint if both sides thought the decision would be 50/50. Instead, Reed signed for $4.875M with $50k in incentives, a sign that both sides expected him to win.
The second the team committed to Reed at closer, he seemed like a possible non-tender candidate down the road after the 2016 season, before he was eligible for arbitration a third time in 2017. Now, what started as a suspicion seems much more likely: Reed might be non-tendered at the end of this year. His performance has a lot to do with it, but that’s not the only thing. The front office frittered away the value of one or two more years of club control over Reed — teams will not be tripping over themselves for the right to pay him about $6.5M next year. Now, Reed is just more dead money ballast on the roster — thanks in large part to the D-backs’ bizarre mismanagement of payroll funds in his arbitration case this spring.
- The D-backs created payroll flexibility by trading Toussaint, Tony La Russa told Nick Piecoro. Especially great work from the routinely outstanding Piecoro here, and given the importance of the trade, you owe it to yourself to go read this. I have only one quibble — I’m not sure it’s shown or clear that Tony La Russa understands the criticism of the trade. It doesn’t seem that way to me, unless he’s saying things he doesn’t believe. It might be more accurate to say that Tony La Russa understands that there is criticism of the trade.
- Highly recommend the transaction analysis of the Toussaint trade at Baseball Prospectus ($) by R.J. Anderson and Mark Anderson. I hesitate to go too much into a paywalled piece, but there are several great connections there, including the point that had the trade not been motivated only by money, it may have come a little bit later — when, say, Arroyo was on the mend. Also important: the note that Touki Toussaint hasn’t been throwing his plus curveball so much, instead working on developing his change and command of the change and fastball. In other words: Toussaint’s minor league numbers require an enormous grain of salt, as the damage he can do with his curve has been limited, and he’d never be trying to get by as a starter with just his fastball and changeup.
- At FanGraphs, Dave Cameron weighed in on the Toussaint trade with a focus on the remarkable part of it: that a legitimate prospect was traded. I think that given the curveball note, Toussaint’s numbers are a more wobbly data point than this. Also, considering the Braves took on the entirety of the remaining commitment to Bronson Arroyo, $10M is an imperfect example of what the market says about Toussaint’s value — it says that the market did not value him at less than $10M, but we can be less sure on the higher end. If Arroyo had been owed $11M, would the Braves have eaten all of it still? $12M? It’s not that the answer is definitely yes, but that we don’t know. Still, Cameron crushed it here, and you need to read it. The point about the trends on prospects that change hands is an important reminder. Oh, and while you’re there — Cameron’s piece today was about the White Sox, and you should read that, too. Remember, we used the White Sox as a measuring stick last winter in trying to figure out what the D-backs were doing; the White Sox are an example of a team that tried to retool quickly, rather than commit to a full rebuild. That hasn’t worked out too well.
- At Snake Pit, Jim McLennan dug in on the Toussaint trade, making a case that the criticism may be too harsh. He followed up with a study on the success of mid-first-round high school pitcher draftees. This is normally where I’d say there’s another way to look at this thing. There is, surely. And our perspective on the move will change, and the organization’s level of information is greater than ours. McLennan also does a great job with both pieces, and what reading them inspires me to say here is related, but not a response. Other than the faith-based arguments in favor of the trade to be found elsewhere, every argument I’ve seen has been outcome-based. Looking at a move like this from an outcome perspective is definitely misleading even if it is sometimes correct — it’s not a “agree to disagree” thing. We often give front offices a kind of report card, like there are two categories of moves, good and bad. Better than 50/50 seems good. But proportions matter. What are the chances that Toussaint becomes a good MLB starting pitcher? They are definitely low. If you look at this trade 5 years from now, I’ll guess there’s an 80% chance that the D-backs will seem to “win” this one — but only from an outcome-based perspective. Use the actual lottery as an example. I buy a megabucks ticket for $1. Maybe its market value is more like $0.80; they do make some money off of the whole thing, after all. But if I were to sell that lottery ticket for $0.20, I am almost guaranteed to look like I “won” the transaction. Why the flying blue hell would we use that metric, when what it would tell you is that you should always sell your megabucks ticket for $0.20? It would tell you that you should always sell it for $0.01 if that was the deal on the table. The point is that lottery tickets have current value. Market rate may be $0.80. If you’re the one motivated to make the deal, maybe you can only get $0.70, or $0.60, or $0.50. I think — but don’t know — that the D-backs dipped below that with this trade. They did pay some kind of transaction cost, though, and so I think the most severe criticism of this trade has to do with why they were motivated to do it in the first place. McLennan’s pieces are great, and I’m not trying to pin this stuff on him — it was just an entry point. The good thing about a piece like his study of other pitchers is that it helps us figure out what the market rate for Toussaint maybe should have been. The part we don’t know is how the difficulty of finding ways to buy talent changes the math — as it did when the D-backs paid $16M plus the international amateur signing penalties to sign Yoan Lopez for $8M.
- At Fox Sports Arizona, Kevin Zimmerman offers another justification for the Toussaint trade: respect for Arroyo, for whom there was no spot in the rotation. I was and am pretty impressed by Arroyo pitching through pain last year. Be nice to him. Of course, trading a prospect to move him and his contract wasn’t actually motivated by making sure Arroyo could pitch. The D-backs have little control over what the Braves do next, anyway (maybe they do pitch him, then see if someone else will pick him up in an August waiver deal). Faith-based, outcome-based, and imagination- or honor- or truebaseball-based, I guess. No, these aren’t real things, just like they aren’t real things in trading on the stock market. Anyone taking that side, including Ken Rosenthal, seem to be doing so just to stand out and be read, to add something different to a torrent of analysis. That’s fine — that’s smart, and there are things to add, and devil’s advocate is also an important form of analysis that fleshes out where there may be weaknesses in what seems like an obvious conclusion. We should take it for what it is, though, just as the words of the front office on this should not be treated as substantive.
- If you aren’t done feeling pain on purpose with this trade, head on over to Talking Chop for a digest of writers panning it on Twitter. Keith Law’s response was more accurate than it was articulate.
- The Aces announced today that Brandon Drury has been promoted to Triple-A — another great position player experiment to be run soon, maybe the last one in a long time. Yesterday, Jon Morosi reported that the Nats have inquired on D-backs middle infielders. These events may be related. Jake Lamb was promoted after a week at Triple-A, and Drury might have gotten the bump up to be ready. Chances are that it’s Cliff Pennington who gets moved, if anyone does; Phil Gosselin is not too far off. What with the D-backs fresh out of high ceiling prospects more than two years away from the majors, if Hill is traded, chances are pretty good that the D-backs will eat a very hefty portion of it. With all of the D-backs’ depth in the Reno and Mobile bullpens, it’s also likely that the Nats would pick up a reliever in exchange for more money. But that’s all speculation.
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FanGraphs Stats Glossary
Nick Piecoro Author Page
Cot's Baseball Contracts
BP Base Running Stats
Previously on The Pool Shot, the guys explained some of their favorite advanced stats. Hitting, including wRC+, HHAV and batted ball; pitching (38:00), including FIP, xFIP and SIERA; and baserunning and defense, including UBR, UZR and DRS (58:00).