We’ve seen this new front office be a little all over the place at times, but the trait that emerged at the end of spring training was ruthlessness. In trading Mark Trumbo in early June and in receiving a fringy receiver in return, ruthlessness may just have become the front office’s defining characteristic. The promise of moonshots did not end up with the D-backs getting the moon for Trumbo, and on some level, you have to wonder if the return for him and Vidal Nuño could have been higher, especially later in the trade season. But perfect is the enemy of good — and in this case, Trumbo and Jarrod Saltalamacchia may have been enemies of good, too.
When the D-backs moved Adam Eaton and Tyler Skaggs for Trumbo, Brandon Jacobs and A.J. Schugel, it did seem to signal a terrible turn for the organization. It did not make the team better — Eaton alone was a better production bet for 2014. It was also a symbol, that the Kevin Towers front office was not valuing the right things. That seems like an opinion, and I guess it is, but even with the human element in the mix, there are some skills that simply do not blossom overnight, like walk rate and raw tools. “Valuing the right things” means “valuing the things in the ways in which they have value on the field” — and we happen to know a lot about how to value what happens on the field. Home runs are fantastic. They do not make for an above-average player, though, not alone.
At the time the D-backs acquired Trumbo from the Angels, locking up the roster while losing a trade made it look like subtraction by addition. And while it’s not a complete coincidence, as the rhetorical device fates would have it, this move is all about addition by subtraction. Times two. Or three. Or four.
Because while I am among the billons of people who can’t really guess what Tony La Russa, Dave Stewart and/or De Jon Watson were thinking, this move only makes sense if they grasped reality with two hands. This trade was about getting real, in all or most of several ways.
Reality #1: Mark Trumbo is Not a Great Player
Mark Trumbo is a good player, and would be a good player for the D-backs this year. In the right spot (somewhere where he can play first or DH), he may even be a very good player. But he is not a great player, and especially since he wasn’t going to be an answer for the Big Target Season of 2017, he didn’t fit the D-backs’ current model.
Mark Trumbo is also not the worst defensive outfielder in baseball, but he is pretty bad. For his career, he has a -9.3 UZR/150 in the outfield, meaning he’s nearly ten runs worse than the average outfielder (in the same corners). If you give runs away on defense, you have to get them back on offense, and the other way around. And although Trumbo is an above-average hitter, he’s not so far above average that he even makes up that gap — and that leaves him as a slightly below-average position player. Average players have real value, and they’re hard to find — that’s why when we talk about overall player value, we talk through WAR. Replacement level is worlds away from average.
There is something to lose in losing Trumbo. His platoon splits have been very large in recent seasons, and as the short side of a platoon with Ender Inciarte (see?) or with David Peralta (see?), he could have been a real force (especially in a Peralta platoon!). He would have been at least as good a regular pinch hitter as Erubiel Durazo, right? It’s not that he brings nothing to the table, because he does. It’s that the act of bringing what he can bring involves bringing a bunch of other stuff that just isn’t as helpful — that’s why trading him has been a good idea for a while now.
I don’t see how this trade could have happened if it weren’t at least partly a matter of the front office recognizing that Trumbo represented a step backward for nearly every step forward. Castillo isn’t worth a ton and Gabby Guerrero is a fine but flawed prospect. Even if you were motivated by other realities and the changes they necessitated, and even though the D-backs have proven how ruthless they’re willing to be in, say, dealing Trevor Cahill and installing Archie Bradley and Nick Ahmed… this has to be one piece of the puzzle. Trumbo was worth more to some other clubs, and part of that is because he wasn’t worth a ton to the D-backs.
With Trumbo out of the outfield rotation, we’ll get a heaping helping of Yasmany Tomas in the outfield now, it looks like. Tomas may have a bat worth as much as Trumbo, but he might end up being a bit above average defensively — and he won’t be a big negative. A.J. Pollock will go from starting 80%-85% of games to starting 90%-95% of games, and Ender Inciarte may, too. David Peralta will start against RHP almost every opportunity, instead of him starting a bit less than a straight platoon would have predicted. And one of the best outfields in baseball (currently ranked #4 in fWAR) will get better. This is what addition by subtraction looks like.
Unless, of course, Peter O’Brien is Trumbo-esque in the outfield, and this was about clearing a spot for O’Brien. Which is a distinct possibility. It’s not that that would make this a bad trade; I’d feel exactly the same way, in terms of value and whether it’s smart. If that happens, we’ll embrace it — this is a season of experiments, after all, and O’Brien in the major league outfield is about as worthy an experiment as any.
Reality #2: Any Catcher is Better than Jarrod Saltalamacchia
To briefly paraphrase myself from Monday, thinking of catchers as “defensive” or “offensive” is an understandable but potentially catastrophic thought-trap. Because liabilities and strengths are not binary, they’re all relative. And just the way that, say, Mike Trout is a cut above other very good outfielders with similar tools, some defensive liabilities at catcher are something a team can live with, and Salty’s are not. If he were truly a great hitter, the answer would be to move Salty to another position. His defense back there is that bad.
It wasn’t always that way, and maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. He’s still a young guy, and it can’t all be his fault, either. He’s a hulking 6′ 3″ and 235 lbs, and this year and last, he’s played catcher like an incredible hulk (so long as we use the literal meaning of “incredible,” as in, “I find this hard to believe”). Maybe other teams were unwilling to pay that price, even to plug up a hole at catcher, and even to do so for the major league minimum salary. But there’s really no way that Salty could hit enough to justify using him over, say, Blake Lalli or a Bobby Wilson type.
Offensive and defensive runs are all on one spectrum, and both matter in evaluating any player. You can’t settle on Tuffy Gosewisch, saying you don’t need the offense since you’ll get it from other lineup spots — it still depends on how bad “bad” actually is. It’s all the same. It’s all fungible.
Except when it’s not. Because right now, the D-backs aren’t just about winning games in 2015 — they’re about winning games in 2016, and in 2017. And to do that, they need to know what they have in their pitchers. They need guys like Rubby De La Rosa and Archie Bradley to take a step forward. There’s a point at which you get traction and get the good Trevor Cahill, and a point at which the wheels completely come off, and you get the bad Cahill. The D-backs can’t accomplish what they want to accomplish this year with their pitching experiments if the only grit they give them is the oily kind.
There’s a lot more to this catcher part of this puzzle (and there will be more in this space tomorrow), and it does depend on what they actually do once Welington Castillo is in uniform. It’s possible that the front office is wrong about Castillo, and they think of him as something he isn’t. But I’m taking the optimist’s route here — if they thought Castillo was something he isn’t, they probably would have included him in the Miguel Montero trade. Castillo is like the Rubby De La Rosa of catchers; we’ve seen the right kind of success before, but things would need to really come together for him to be a true asset. I think this is a matter of the front office getting real about what Salty is, and for that, they deserve some applause. If they part ways with him soon, we’ll have our answer. If they wait to part ways until Oscar Hernandez is ready to play, well then that’s probably soon enough, too.
Reality #3: Yasmany Tomas is Not a Third Baseman
They tried it in spring training, maybe because they didn’t fully appreciate their alternatives at the position. Maybe it set Tomas back a bit, as he may not have headed to Triple-A Reno otherwise (maybe). But maybe it was a worthwhile experiment, at least for a time; and if they said in advance that they were going to let the experiment play out for a certain period of time and then stuck to that, well then I can get behind it (after all, how great is it that they gave so long an opportunity to Nick Ahmed, when it ended up taking nearly two months for him to prove that he can hit at this level?). Sometimes the experiments don’t work; O’Brien at catcher comes to mind. But maybe sometimes they do — we’ll see if Brandon Drury sticks at second (and whether he should).
This has probably played out longer than it needed to, and I think the front office might agree. We know about as much as we need to know. Tomas has a -3.4 UZR right now, playing 29 games at third base. That’s a -31.4 UZR/150. And although these advanced defensive stats always come with the caveat that we need a ton of data — maybe three years’ worth — to get an idea of true talent level (by which time the idea may already be out of date), they are still a fairly faithful record of what actually happened, and Tomas’s Defensive Runs Saved total (-7) is actually worse than his UZR. You’re free to think that Tomas is better than his -31.4 UZR/150 says. I don’t, and I’m not a scout, but in terms of Tomas’s range, the eggs he’s laid out there can’t be labeled “cage free.”
The fact that things have lasted this long is probably just because Jake Lamb is on the shelf. So this isn’t a total shock, the way that I am flat-out surprised that the D-backs appear to have grasped the first two Realities above. They nonetheless deserve credit for allowing a conclusion that Tomas is not a third baseman to help motivate a trade that is probably mediocre from a value perspective. Oh, and while we’re at it, we might as well give the team more credit for Tomas in the first place. He did seem like a particularly good opportunity for the front office way back when, but what Tomas has done at the plate is solid vindication for this group’s baseball chops. Sometimes when you go against the grain, you end up with something broken (cough Trumbo cough Salty cough). But sometimes, a little bit of thinking that is just plain different sets you apart from the field just enough to catch something good.
Bonus Reality: Jake Lamb Deserves a Chance
Do you know how difficult it was for me to hold off on mentioning Lamb until the paragraph before this one? My first draft was just “Jake Lamb” over and over again. I will accept any kind of congratulations. Just FYI. But this is a “bonus reality” because it isn’t quite as clear that this trade is about Lamb. Are they as enamored of Lamb as I am? Probably not. And yet this trade is on some level a love letter of their own.
If last year you looked at Lamb’s minor league BABIPs, you might have been just as excited as I was all through the end of last year and throughout the winter. Is that a thing? I think it might be. It certainly looks like that was the sign that was there for the looking with respect to Kole Calhoun, and yet we ignore it, we write it off. When BABIP is a skill, it doesn’t look like what we think of when we think of, say, Ichiro Suzuki. In a bizarre twist, it looks like Tomas might be precisely that kind of unicorn. But usually it’s a matter of foot speed — and beating out infield singles — or it’s about how hard the ball is hit, and how often. Hit the ball hard, and good things happen.
That’s who Lamb is, I truly believe. That’s enough to keep a path clear for Lamb, to let him show us in the majors what that looks like at this level. I think we caught a glimpse of that in April. The man is still fourth on the team in fWAR despite playing in just 10 games before succombing to a stress reaction in his foot. Lamb is strong defensively, quite possibly above average — which means that to be an average third baseman, he doesn’t even necessarily need to be an above-average hitter for his position. Even in a disastrous 2014 cameo, Lamb was within spitting distance of average. This has a real chance of working.
And so maybe the D-backs agree. Maybe they think nearly as high of Lamb as I do, and this is about letting him become the man he can be. Or maybe they think he might be a good player, and that the chances of that are strong enough that he warrants the opportunity. It doesn’t matter; the result is the same. I can’t prove right now that Lamb needing playing time is a “Reality” but it sure as hell comes close — the opportunity version of this is something we can point to on paper. Free Jake Lamb. Jake Lamb is free. Long live Jake Lamb!
An Improved Team
The mish-mash of playing time at several positions (likely to continue now with Tomas still playing third occasionally) makes charting out the team pretty challenging. But work with me here. This hedges on the optimistic side of reality, but I do think it’s possible. All numbers are for 150 games (except for Peralta), in keeping with UZR/150, and are as compared to average for the particular positions.
|Position||Before — Off||Before — Def||After — Off||After — Def|
|Outfield||Pollock +20||Pollock +25||Pollock +20||Pollock +25|
|Outfield||Inciarte +5||Inciarte +30||Inciarte +5||Inciarte +30|
|Outfield||Trumbo +5||Trumbo -20||Tomas +10||Tomas -10|
|Outfield (half)||Peralta +10||Peralta -5||Peralta +10||Peralta -5|
|Third||Tomas +10||Tomas -30||Lamb +10||Lamb +10|
|Catcher||Salty -10||Salty -30||Castillo -10||Castillo -10|
Lamb was coming back one way or another, although him playing on a pace for 150 games probably wasn’t going to happen (and still may not; he may pley 4-5 games a week for the foreseeable future, just to avoid running into a foot problem again). But all of the other changes are mainly defensive. Switching Lamb in for Tomas at third could be a swing of forty runs. Switching Tomas in for Trumbo could be a swing of another ten. And even though Castillo has not been a defensive whiz, there is a strong possibility that the team will pick up another twenty runs just through a combination of general defense and catcher framing/blocking.
That’s seventy runs. That’s six wins, over the course of a season. I don’t even need to be half right for this trade to look amazing, just through the addition-by-subtraction lens. It solves four problems simultaneously: improves an iffy right field situation, makes some gains on a horrific catcher situation, and in replacing horrific defense with good defense at third, it also gets Lamb playing time.
As for the other players in the trade… if Castillo is kind of like the RDLR of catchers, then Dominic Leone is the RDLR of relievers (although that makes him one of like, what, 50 relievers?). Some real value in Leone as a “boom or bust” type, which is, again, exactly the type of player you want to acquire when depth is not an issue and a dearth of above-average talent is. Gabby Guerrero also fits the D-backs’ new model of going after tools and proximity, which is not easy, and it means overlooking flaws at times (a la Robbie Ray, RDLR, Allen Webster). In Double-A now, he’s not in the picture in the immediate future — and yet he’s still in the picture potentially for the Big Target Season in 2017. #4 in the Mariners system according to Baseball Prospectus, he’s a legitimate addition to the farm system, perhaps a better version of an outfield prospect than Justin Williams, with a higher ceiling. Not one of the game’s best prospects, and yet good enough to be the type of player that is hard to acquire. Jack Reinheimer… I have no idea, but maybe having someone like him in the system is better than trying to piece things together with the Jamie Romaks of the world. If Nick Ahmed was once the “utility infielder of the future” in the organization but is no longer that, it doesn’t hurt to have a club-controlled replacement.
Dollar for dollar, this Trumbo trade is no one’s idea of a sure win. And it’s worth keeping in mind that this is probably the only team for which Castillo would represent an upgrade — he doesn’t have much value in the marketplace for that reason. Guerrero could be anything, and Reinheimer could be nothing. Vidal Nuño is worth quite a bit more than nothing, but as I wrote yesterday, he may have been fairly valued by the D-backs as one of the best seventh starters in baseball. Heck, the truths that Nuño is useful and yet not so useful to this squad is another set of truths the team appears to have embraced.
But the D-backs didn’t wait for the perfect deal — they pulled the trigger, because that’s what the situation dictated. It required a ruthlessness that we typically see only in highly saber-friendly front offices, such as Oakland and Tampa Bay and Houston. Sure, you want the right decisions being made, but the fact that the team is clearly capable of the ruthlessness to make constant, consequential decisions is a great thing all by itself — it’s how small market teams survive. It required job security, mainly — someone less secure in their position than Tony La Russa might not have tried something like this, let alone pulled it off. That’s something to celebrate. And that’s why this is a good trade.
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