Well, no one saw that coming. Saturday evening, while the Diamondbacks were taking part in their arduous journey to reach .500, they completed a trade with the Braves, sending Bronson Arroyo and Touki Toussaint to Atlanta for infielder Phil Gosselin. The idea was obviously to clear the remaining salary owed to Arroyo, which at this juncture was somewhere between $9-$10 million dollars. They had to ship Toussaint, one of the game’s best young pitching prospects, to get Atlanta to take on the remaining money. The deal was discussed over a month ago, and once Toussaint had cleared one calendar year from his draft date, it was completed. Atlanta essentially bought Touki for $10 million and gave away a piece they didn’t need in the process. Arizona cleared some salary and lost its third-best prospect. And while that may sound troubling on the surface, let me assure you that it’s a whole lot worse when you start digging deeper.
The Diamondbacks signed Arroyo back in the winter of 2013. When he got two years and $23.5 million, it seemed like a lot for a rotation-filling arm that was 36-years old. But when the breakdown of the contract was announced, things got murkier. He was only going to earn $9.5 in each of 2014 and 2015, then had a team option for a third. The buyout of that option was a staggering $4.5 million, far more than we usually see in baseball, at least proportionally. If Arroyo wasn’t going to be part of the plan in 2016, it was going to be expensive to get rid of him. Paying a guy $4.5 million to go play for someone else is a lot to swallow, especially with an additional poison pill that increased Arroyo’s 2016 option by $2 million in the event of a trade. Of course, this was Kevin Towers’ mess, but Ryan and I had speculated that his option year was going to be an issue moving forward. Apparently it was a more immediate one.
This deal stood out and shocked the astute baseball community for one reason: teams don’t do this. Moves of this variety rarely happen because people around the game are smart enough to know that first round picks don’t grow on trees. Toussaint has as high of a ceiling as any current minor league pitcher outside of perhaps Lucas Giolito and Julio Urias. For a team short on impact prospects, he was easily the player with the highest potential impact. The team obviously agreed with that assessment when they gave him $2.7 million as a signing bonus, about 15% over his slot allotment. That did happen under La Russa. So when you consider that the team already sunk $2.7 million into the guy they sold for $10 million, it’s not nearly the savings that it might sound like. Baseball budgets generally work year-to-year, but it’s worth noting that Toussaint wasn’t free, although that’s the way prospects are generally discussed.
With salary relief the return, the D-backs settled for virtually no talent back in moving Toussaint. Phil Gosselin is a throw-in to complete this deal, nothing more. He’s 26 and has 70 professional games under his belt over three seasons. He’s replacement level and he’ll take Arroyo’s spot on the 40-man roster. The team clearly wanted the financial flexibility as maybe they want to take a run at the playoffs this year, which isn’t the best idea. This was the year to grow your assets, not trade them away for a half-hearted attempt to reach a play-in game. But is the flexibility worth tossing aside Toussaint? I don’t’ think so, and neither does just about anyone else around the game. This is the most one-sided trade in recent history and the Diamondbacks are on the short side.
And this, unfortunately, has been a trend:
- The team acquired Jeremy Hellickson for two low minors prospects in Justin Williams and Andrew Velazquez, Dave Stewart offering their distant timeline as reasoning for the deal (more).
- They moved Miguel Montero to the Cubs to free itself of a hefty financial commitment, receiving little talent in return despite a lack of backup backstop plans (more).
- To land Yasmany Tomas, the D-backs backloaded their franchise-record commitment to the final two years of the six-year pact, essentially guaranteeing they’d only pay the full amount if Tomas wasn’t providing surplus value on the field (more).
- The tailspin continued shortly thereafter with the Yoan Lopez signing, paying $8 million in tax for the privilege of signing him to a $8 million deal and blowing their bonus pool for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 international amateur signing periods (more).
- The team promoted Archie Bradley to the major league rotation to start the year, putting him in a position to become a free agent at the end of the 2020 season.
All four of these decisions pointed in one direction: prioritizing the not-too-distant future over the longer-term future. And each was defensible. The price for Hellickson was probably an overpay for a guy who was down on his luck and had seen his stock drop thanks to his true talent level catching up with him. Hellickson’s contact-management skills were a risky proposition to bet on in the first place and they’ve come and gone this season, as expected. He’s the 93rd-best starter in baseball with at least 50 innings pitched. His ERA of 4.94 and FIP of 4.47 aren’t any more inspiring. If anything, Hellickson’s main contribution so far may be in blocking younger experiments — reasoning also offered for moving Arroyo. An iffy trade for Stewart, and when soon after the front office expressed confidence in the availability of other catchers, we were relatively pleased with his ability to deal Montero without having to eat any part of his salary, even if the return was merely an org player and a total project arm. when moving Williams and Velazquez were and are valuable commodities in their own right.
The unusual Tomas contract was also defensible. Initially, we were pleased that the team landed Tomas. We believed that the front office deserved a lot of credit for acquiring a potentially impact talent without sacrificing other talent to do so, and for accomplishing that by being very creative with the opt-out. It’s possible that the opt-out wasn’t the difference maker for Tomas — his agent indicated that he picked the D-backs because he wanted to join them — but it was a way in which the D-backs were able to make a competitive offer without as many dollars as other clubs. By structuring the deal with an opt-out, the D-backs put themselves in a position in which they’d only pay his backloaded 2019 and 2020 salaries if it looked like he’d be worth a fair bit less than that. Prioritizing the near-term made that a justifiable risk.
Things soon took a different turn. The team’s decision to sign Yoan Lopez required the D-backs to pay $8 million in tax, but also a potentially larger price: an inability to sign any international amateurs over $300,000 in the next two signing periods. They failed to capitalize on the window with more signings in the current period. And because they had the worst record in baseball in 2014, they had the biggest international signing pool to use in the period that starts next month — until they put themselves in a voluntary time-out to sign a guy who’s generally regarded as a #4 starter type who could be ready at some point in late 2016 (he’s been injured in most of his debut season).
The Bradley promotion was more cut and dried: although the cost analysis favored waiting a couple of weeks, a commitment to the near term is an easy sell. But we have to reconcile all this with Toussaint. If they thought Toussaint was worth $10 million in trading him to the Braves, but thought Lopez was worth $16 million up front, plus the inability to sign a single player internationally for more than $50,000 over the next two years, they’re wildly mistaken. Those two things just do not mesh. Toussaint had legitimate impact upside, as much as Archie Bradley ever did, and nearly as much as any minor league hurler in the game. Lopez does not, and just about anyone in baseball will guarantee as much. Yes, Toussaint has a long way to go and may have more risk than other high-ceilinged prospects, but the payout has the potential to be franchise-changing in a land short on upside. And if there’s any team that’s benefited from franchise-changing players in recent years, it’s the Diamondbacks (#VoteGoldy).
The trade of Mark Trumbo was beneficial in a bunch of ways, but there’s no denying that the return for the slugger was a bit on the light side. Trumbo is a no-doubt major leaguer even when playing out of position, but Welington Castillo is a fringy starting catcher. Sure, Jarrod Saltalmacchia is worse than fringy, but the two prospects they acquired with Castillo are on down years and they definitely didn’t get back equal value. That goes overlooked because of the drastic need for catching help, but the team had created its own reality in the catching department. When Dave Stewart neglected to improve the team’s depth at the position, they were begging for a disaster without answer, and when Tuffy Gosewisch went down, they got one. This left them with no leverage and they had to take the short side of a deal again just to get functional.
These are all problems with the process. The process by which the Diamondbacks are operating is a problem. It was a problem under Kevin Towers, and now under Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart, it’s still present. They work in a unique and puzzling way. There’s nothing wrong with trying to gain an edge on the league, but this doesn’t seem to be that. Instead, they seem to be getting shortchanged at nearly every junction and either don’t see it or don’t really care. These moves are acceptable to them, but probably not to any other team in baseball. The industry is left scratching its head for good reason.
Like many of you, I’m a member of the FanGraphs and greater advanced baseball community. When sites like FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus and others make light of the Diamondbacks, fans are quick to retort that the team is younger and doing better than they were in the past. But correlation does not equal causation, which is to say even though these moves have been made, the team’s performance is not necessarily a direct result. Just because the team is close to being .500 again does not mean we should lay off the organization for the process they’re employing. They are making poor baseball decisions left and right, with a few acceptable ones mixed in, and the troubles are yet to be felt. Look no further than this year’s draft, which is just another example of a short-sighted process that will lead to deferred consequences.
The $10 million saved by selling Toussaint might be used this season. Maybe the Diamondbacks will make a run at Johnny Cueto or someone else. That’ll cost them more prospects. Maybe they’ll look for someone with more team control, which may cost even more. The peak of the team’s window for contending is 2017 and Toussaint wasn’t going to help with that. Neither was Bronson Arroyo. Neither will Phil Gosselin. Maybe the team is trying to speed up that window, but doing so will come at a significant cost. Most that cost will be deferred to the future, because if Toussaint wasn’t off limits, one has to wonder who is.
This organization is failing to make smart baseball decisions with any kind of consistency. Giving Nick Ahmed a chance was great. Making room to grow Jake Lamb was, too. But locking themselves out of the international market when they had a financial upper hand, trading Toussaint, dealing promising players for Jeremy Hellickson and they giving themselves no wiggle room in the catching department, causing them to sell short on Trumbo, are all troubling signs. This will catch up with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and just because they’re playing better now does not mean it’ll last. Shooting for 2017 made sense but it required patience, patience that the front office and/or ownership just wasn’t willing to exercise. They’ll pay the price eventually and even with an influx of television money in 18 months, they’ll still have a long hole to climb out of to remain relevant. Meanwhile, we’ll have to sit back and watch this front office tear the team’s future down, one transaction at a time, unless they get their acts together quickly. And even then, it may be too late because you can’t fix a problem you don’t even acknowledge exists.
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