On Friday, CEO Derrick Hall, CBO Tony La Russa, Randy Johnson and Luis Gonzalez are flying to Japan for a six-day  “goodwill trip.” On their journey, might they stop in with members of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, fishing for a new starting pitcher? When Steve Gilbert reported in early July that the trip would happen, he quoted Hall on the purpose of the trip, and what the team hoped to accomplish there:

“The relationships that we have built in Japan since our last trip in 2012 have been very beneficial, and we believe it is important to continue to cultivate those friendships and grow our brand globally,” said Hall. “Not only will we get the opportunity to see several players firsthand, but visiting alongside two Hall of Famers [Johnson and La Russa] and our franchise’s most popular player ever will create an impact in that country for generations to come.”

See several players firsthand, you say? Trip exactly as long as it would need to be to guarantee you can see a Kenta Maeda start, you say? Hmm.

This is a blueprint that the D-backs have followed previously. In this 2012 New York Times article, Ken Belson wrote how the team’s experience in signing Takashi Saito kicked off the idea that Japan was one way that Arizona could add talent without necessarily competing with big market teams. Not the best of the best, necessarily; Belson wrote that former GM Kevin Towers and Hall were “eager to find underappreciated talent at a reasonable price.”

On their last goodwill trip, the D-backs were scouting in hopes of finding “diamonds in the rough because of [the D-backs’] market size,” according to Towers. The posting fees that had climbed into the $50M range were an impediment for a team like Arizona, so they were looking at players who might command a smaller posting fee. Under new rules, however, posting fees are capped at $20M — that’s probably affordable for the D-backs, and that’s part of why the team was so strongly connected to the Maeda rumors last winter.

This season, the D-backs saved about $4M in trading Mark Trumbo to Seattle, and about $10M in the infamous Touki Toussaint sale. Add in some savings by moving Oliver Perez and Cliff Pennington, and we’re not too far from the cost of a posting fee. It fits. And call the D-backs’ impending goodwill trip Exhibit A.

Because we do know that the D-backs like Maeda, who is having an even finer season this year (2.36 ERA in 137.1 innings, 4.6 strikeout to walk ratio) than he had wrapped up last year before the posting rumors began. We know this, because they’ve been weirdly specific about it. From another Gilbert piece, this time last winter:

“I love Maeda,” Stewart said. “I love him. We have a lot of video and film and we have people who have seen him. We think that he’s got a chance to be very successful in Major League Baseball. We’re going to try to be in on the market when he does post, if he does post.”

Hugs. Call those comments Exhibit B. I happen to like this idea quite a lot as a dicey but promising proposition, no more or less than I did at the end of last season, after seeing a Maeda start against a team of MLB All-Stars. It’s still a good idea, in the same ways and to the same extent that going after Yasmany Tomas was a good idea. But let’s still work on whether or not it’s an idea they actually have and are working on.

As Jeff and I discussed on the last episode of The Pool Shot, there’s not a lot that can be done in terms of upgrading the roster. Short of adding Buster Posey behind the plate, the complement of position players is pretty set… everywhere. As things currently stand, the team is disgustingly great defensively, 2nd in baseball in DRS (50) and 4th in UZR (20.4). They are also first in the NL and third in all of baseball in runs scored (508). Yes, as Jeff pointed out on the podcast, second base has been kind of a weak spot this season — but that’s not really a “let’s spend our money there” problem, that’s a “do we just roll the dice with Brandon Drury right now” problem.

Let’s be nice and call the team’s recent track record spending money in the bullpen “poor,” and just kind of assume the team agrees. Sure, if you can add Zeus’s lightning bolts by adding Aroldis Chapman, it’s not like 105 mph fastballs can slump, and that is, at minimum, a significant upgrade for a team that seems very difficult to upgrade. Short of Chapman, or Kimbrel, or Carter Capps, the bullpen isn’t the place to upgrade, either, because other upgrades are not so significant that they measure up with the cost required. Some are not panning out the way we might have hoped, but the D-backs do still have a bevy of relief prospects from which a standout may stand up. And you never know, maybe Matt Stites is learning a Capps Leap down with Reno. That would be nice.

So it’s the rotation that offers the chance for an upgrade, and that’s Exhibit C. Because if Patrick Corbin is a near-ace at the top of the rotation, and if Robbie Ray can continue to pitch like a #2 (with or without, but hopefully with, a Warthen slider next year), and if Rubby De La Rosa continues to offer more good starts than bad — that’s a pretty good base for a rotation. And while Chase Anderson is, I believe, a solid #4 starter or better, neither he nor Jeremy Hellickson nor Zack Godley nor Aaron Blair are likely to pitch as top-of-the-rotation options next year. Helpful, absolutely, probably without exception. And injury and other unforeseen circumstances mean that all four are likely to be counted on at some point next year.

Archie Bradley is still a wild card in all of this, but if you could add a #2/#3 starter type to this mix,  you’d be upgrading the team’s fortunes next year. As for whether they can accomplish that via trade — the D-backs don’t seem to have the currency for that without subtracting from their major league team. So we’re talking about free agency. A quick list of all of the pitchers slated to reach free agency this winter who fit that bill:

  • A.J. Burnett (yeah, no, although I’ve wished they’d tried that before)
  • Johnny Cueto (yeah, probably not affordable in salary, and objectionable in length of contract)
  • Doug Fister (dicey but intriguing)
  • Zack Greinke (you have a better chance of creating a national lottery and then also winning that lottery)
  • Hisashi Iwakuma (Jeff raised this possibility on the podcast, seems fairly promising)
  • Scott Kazmir (terrifying but affordable for that reason)
  • Ian Kennedy (hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha)
  • John Lackey (Bronson Arroyo redux, and yet nothing like him)
  • Mat Latos (the flawed good results of Cueto, mixed with the inexplicable loss of stuff of Kazmir, mixed with the personality traits of Greinke. That’s a hard pass)
  • Mike Leake (not sure he’s actually on that #3 cusp, but he will look like it after this year, especially once his time with the Giants is complete)
  • Brandon Morrow (probably won’t be pitching, but if the price drops very low might be worth a flier)
  • David Price (yeah, not going to happen)
  • Jeff Samardzija (can’t rule it out but I hate spelling his name so much)
  • Jordan Zimmermann (a popular link at this point)

This looks like a long list, but a handful of the names that you actually like the best will probably be re-signed by their current clubs. If we rule out Cueto, Greinke and Price for cost reasons (and Cueto because he dated one of La Russa’s girlfriends…?), it’s really just Fister, Kazmir, Samardzija and Zimmerman that offer the needed upside while still seeming to be affordable in some way.

A gamble on Kazmir actually does seem like a good play for the team, since they have to take some chances and have them pay off in order to win it all — and Kazmir does have ace upside even next year. Fister has really faded this year, so while I think it would be interesting to get both major pieces of the most-maligned trade to not involve the D-backs over the last few years, the vectors aren’t pointing in the right direction.

Drop Fister, and the three of the guys with a “z” in their name could command $100M contracts this winter, anything from 4/$88M to 6/$120. It really could happen, and I doubt any of them sign for less than $60M even if one of them (probably Kazmir) signed for as few as three years. Just not that likely.

That’s why Exhibit C brings us to Maeda, potentially, who will be negotiating with a somewhat restricted market of teams, and who might sign for a contract more in the 6/$80M range or 4/$60M range. It would be a stretch, but the D-backs could do that — even after footing a $20M bill for a posting fee.

Wasn’t it a little strange to be getting those guarantees about the Toussaint money being re-spent? At the time, we were confused: did that mean this season? If it meant payroll for next season, then why not wait to sell Toussaint later? That’s Exhibit D as far as I’m concerned: a posting fee is a one-time payment that would be due this winter, well before the checks for next year’s payroll start rolling out. It just fits, doesn’t it? I think that’s what the team may be thinking.

Ok, how about how the team seems to be obsessed with 26-28 year old pitchers? Maeda will be 28 next year. It fits, and I’m calling that Exhibit E. You still expect some projection, but it’s not like you’d have to wait for him, either; he fits the Contention Window Exactly. He fits exactly what the team likes almost exactly, not necessarily a fireballer profile but a much more enticing version of the Hellickson profile that was attractive enough for a move.

Really, overall, it fits perfectly. I think it’s time we start acting like Maeda is this front office’s top priority this winter — let’s see if they can lay some of the groundwork for his posting in this Japan trip.

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11 Responses to The D-backs May Be Gearing Up for a Run at Kenta Maeda

  1. Ben says:

    If the Dbacks do get Maeda, and only because they had the cash from the Touki trade, does it make that trade better in perspective. Or is it still terrible?

    • Ryan P. Morrison says:

      Still terrible. Outcome-based analysis is kind of weak, I think — sometimes it’s clear that the guys making the decisions knew things we didn’t at the time, but there’s no way that they know for sure that they can land Maeda, just like you and I aren’t able to know it’s a sure thing right now. If it’s what enabled them to take a run at Maeda, and call it a 10% chance…

      No way. This is just my opinion, but there’s no way that none of the other 28 teams would have offered more money for Toussaint. Adding talent is so damned hard that when there’s a way to do it without subtracting, like paying $20M posting fees, teams will line up to do it. We live in that same world, where $20M gets you nothing but the right to negotiate with a player you really want, without giving up a draft pick.

      If the $20M is a substitute for relinquishing a draft pick and that sounds enticing to teams, how is a pretty good pick with one extra year of development not worth more than that?

      • Ben says:

        I’m with you. Still terrible. I have another question. I don’t actually know how good Maeda is. Theoretically, would you do a Touki for Maeda trade if Maeda was getting paid what he’ll probably get on the FA market? Also what’s his MLB potential?

    • James says:

      Does it mediate things somewhat? Sure it does. Does it change the reality that the Diamondbacks were so gung-ho to save money they gave up on a promising prospect? No. Even if Touki never becomes the ace-level pitcher some think he could be, all he needs to do is make it to the majors to make the trade a bad deal, even waiting on results-based evaluation.

  2. Eddie says:

    Great essay. Well done. Makes sense to me.

  3. Dave-Phoenix says:

    Take off the rose colored glasses when looking at the D-Backs rotation.

    Corbin, Ray and Rubby would be the 3-4-5 pitchers on a good team. Sure they all have upside. So do about 100 other starting pitchers in the major leagues. Edwin Jackson had the same potential for 10 years, but never took it to the next level.

    Picking up more 3-4-5 pitchers (even if they are at a discount) will not significantly improve the D-Backs win-loss record year on year. In that context, Japan may not be the answer this year as there are no big high end Japanese players looking to move this year. Maeda, may end up being more of what we already have.

    Overall assessment of 2015 D-Backs and new Management…..

    I do give Dave Stewart credit for improving the team from last year. Even though we don’t have a legit 1-2 starter, the total package of starting pitchers is better than last year, and we did not give up the farm to get those guys. Getting rid of Montero/Trumbo/Ross were also good moves. The D-Backs saved a lot of money on Montero and improved the team simply by not having Trumbo/Ross in the lineup. Not having a legit catcher at the start of the season was a bad idea, but at least the D-Backs made up for it getting Castillo (hope his hot streak lasts 3 years!).

    Its not all good though….

    The Tomas’ deal might not prove to be worth it. Tomas’ is like a 5th wheel. Lamb is better at 3rd base and Inciarte/Peralta are better in the outfield. Tomas adds quality depth to that lineup, but is that going to be worth the salary we are paying him? Could that money have been better spent on a TOR starting pitcher?

    Yuan Lopez might also have been a reach, especially since it locked the D-Backs out of future International signings for the next period.

    The Touki trade still sucks, no matter how you slice it. Rebuilding teams simply don’t trade away top prospects for cash. The D-Backs could have saved more money simply by not signing Tomas’ and Lopez.

    So give kudos to TLR and Stewart. They undid a lot of the damage that Kevin Towers did over the last couple years and improved the team year on year. They turned a last place team back into a .500 team. I give them a grade of C+. They would get a higher grade but the negative deals offset some of the positive ones.

    Now lets see what kind of magic the new management has in adding a legitimate ace to the staff and taking the team to the next level.

    They also need to trade O’Brien to an American league team where he would be more valuable. There is no room on National league teams for big hitters who play poor defense. If this doesn’t yield a pitcher, use him to add depth.

    • Rizz says:

      Very good analysis Dave

    • Ryan P. Morrison says:

      I’m on board with just about all of this, and if you add in that even the best aren’t going to hit everything right, yeah, that’s a pretty good case for this FO.

      On the rotation thing, and optimism and such — part of my thinking is that few teams actually have an ideal rotation 1-5. I know Keith Law’s rule of thumb on aces is that there are generally only 15. That seems about right to me, some years it looks like 10, this year it happens to look more like 20 (although some may not survive the season). I’m not sure Corbin is a true #1, but I like his chances to at least scrape up into the top 30 — he’s done that before. If Ray had enough innings, he’d be top 30 right now too, although I agree that to repeat this level, he needs to sort a few things out, breaking ball included.

      I can’t include Corbin and Ray, though, without including a whole bunch of other guys who just don’t happen to have enough innings to be qualified starters at this point this year. So it’s an interesting q.

      I like this question, though, about where these guys would actually line up as compared to the league, and the staff in general. Part of it may be whether there’s something lost in translation re: D-backs pitching numbers. I’m going to kick it around, see if it turns into a post.

      Digging these comments, big time. More stuff to think about. Thanks, everyone!

      • Dave-Phoenix says:

        With the odds of getting a true ace being very small, the D-Backs may have to resort to upgrading the back end of the rotation.

        Four or five #3 starters in the rotation may end up being the answer. That may not be a formula to win the World Series, but it may be a formula to improve your record by 10-15 wins and make you a playoff contender.

  4. Frank Permuy says:

    Will I guess they are to win the LOTTERY GREINKE

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