On Friday, Ryan and I shared some thoughts on the trade deadline and the Diamondbacks’ and potential deals that ultimately didn’t go down. That’s mostly fine, but it does leave Arizona in a very familiar position: they’re still a team without an “ace.” Now, Patrick Corbin has been nothing but stellar since coming back from Tommy John surgery as we discussed on the latest episode of The Pool Shot. That’s surely a relief. But even as the team talked about making another run at a frontline arm prior to the deadline, something has become clear: the Diamondbacks don’t have the trade assets needed to get the pitcher they want.
The minor leagues and minor league players are something of a niche interest. There’s an entire community of scouts, evaluators and those that crave information on the next wave of major league talent. Whether that’s of interest to you or not, prospects play an important role. Well, I should say roles:
- Prospects are future players, obviously. They can be developed and incorporated into the major league squad.
- Prospects can serve as currency. They can be developed and traded to fill major league needs.
The first of these roles is obvious and the way most tend to view minor leaguers. But the second role is an important one, and when you’re a team like the Diamondbacks that can’t generally compete in total dollars on the free agent market, this second role is extremely important. Arizona isn’t a franchise that can buy an ace on the open market. The closest they come in recent years is getting outbid for Masahiro Tanaka and James Shields. Those two aren’t really aces, but that just goes to show what the D-backs are up against. As we know, they’ll have some extra money to spend this winter and a lot of extra money to spend the following winter, but in the meantime, they’re at a financial disadvantage. David Price will be a free agent this winter, but no one expects Arizona to be able to outspend other clubs on him. Zack Greinke might opt out of his deal with Dodgers and Johnny Cueto will be a free agent, too, but their prices will be sky high. Hisashi Iwakuma and Jeff Samardzija will be available but they’re not aces. In reality, the D-backs will have to spend a ton of money just to acquire another Patrick Corbin-level arm. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good pitcher, but it’s not the frontline starter that’s eluded them for a few years now.
To trade for a number one, Arizona would need to put together a substantial package. Fans, however, tend to overvalue their own prospects. What sounds like a great package of prospects to fans might sound paltry to other clubs. Archie Bradley is kind of a mess right now and can’t be traded anyways as he’s injured. Braden Shipley is a high-upside mystery. Aaron Blair still profiles as more good than excellent. Brandon Drury is most likely a league average player, nothing more. From there, it’s all downhill. As I spoke to Mauricio Rubio of baseball prospectus a while back, the Diamondbacks’ system is in the bottom half of baseball. Many other teams can put together packages that far exceed what Arizona can and they don’t have to gut the entire farm to do it.
Let’s take a look at the group of prospects that netted David Price. He’s a rental as he’ll be a free agent this winter and Toronto will not get a compensation pick if he turns down a Qualifying Offer per rules around players traded midseason. Here’s what it took to pry Price away from a non-contending Detroit squad (with the Baseball Prospectus Midseason Top 50 Rankings included):
- Daniel Norris (#9): a nearly MLB-ready lefty with big stuff and some command struggles. Projects as a number two starter.
- Matt Boyd (n/a): a pop-up lefty that’s made big strides in the upper minors. More solid than impact, probably a number four starter.
- Jairo Labourt (n/a): a projectable lefty with big time velocity. Has three pitches and depending on how the secondaries play, he could be a number three or an eighth or ninth inning arm.
Okay, so we have one impact starter with some questions who’s still very young, a safe back-end starter and a high upside arm with a long way to go but a track record of success. All of that was surrendered for two months, plus the playoffs, of David Price. Yes, Price is damn near elite, but that’s not a lot of time to secure him. If the Diamondbacks wanted to match that package, they could have offered Braden Shipley, Aaron Blair and maybe Jimmie Sherfy. Shipley isn’t Norris but Blair may be better than Boyd and Sherfy is a reliever all the way but he’s closer to contributing than Labourt. In my opinion, Toronto’s offer was probably better.
But a rental isn’t really what the Diamondbacks are after. They want a controllable asset that will be with them when the team is competitive in 2016, 2017 and, most likely, 2018. Cole Hamels fit that mold precisely. He’s owed $22.5 million per season through 2018 with a vesting option for 2019. That’s a lot of money, but these days, $22.5 million per season for a bona fide number one is by no means an overpay, and in three years, well, that might just be a bargain. The Rangers ultimately got a deal done for him (and reliever Jake Diekman) in exchange for the following (again, with the BP Midseason Top 50 included):
- Nick Williams (#21): a left fielder with immense tools, Williams is finally starting to grow into his game. His upside remains insane, and even if he never reaches it, he’s still a very talented player.
- Jorge Alfaro (#34): catchers with massive raw power don’t grow no trees and Alfaro had really started to refine his game before he went down with an ankle injury.
- Jake Thompson (#30): with power stuff, Thompson has been traded multiple times as a key asset. He projects as a number three starter with a move to closer also in the mix.
- Jerad Eickhoff: although his upside is limited, Eickhoff projects as a number three or four starter, but could be effective in the back end of a bullpen.
- Alec Asher: Asher was a effectively a throw in who projects as middle relief prospect.
This was the guy Arizona wanted, but they couldn’t come close to competing. Texas was able to include three top-50 guys and still keep their two best prospects. Arizona would have to include Shipley, Blair, Brandon Drury, Gabby Guerrero and Touki Toussaint to even join the conversation. Of course, they don’t have Toussaint any more and the package above wouldn’t compare to what the Rangers offered. The Diamondbacks would have had to have cleaned house completely and it still would have been light. Texas, meanwhile, got an ace and kept their two best prospects with a bevy of other impact guys still in the fold. When comparing the two systems, the difference is stark – it’s the talent equivalent of a $95 million payroll and the $220-plus million the Dodgers have at their disposal.
So, let’s take stock of the situation. The Diamondbacks can’t afford to buy an ace and they don’t have the resources to trade for one. They’ll have to hope to get Archie Bradley back up to speed whenever he’s done with his thing and hopefully smooth out the inconsistencies in Braden Shipley’s game. Shoot, they can trade Dansby Swanson this winter if they want, but I don’t think that’ll go over very well. And, it sure seems like having Toussaint to deal, if that were in fact the right thing to do, would be pretty useful right about now, but I digress.
So while it’s easy to look at the farm and see a couple of guys that you want to pencil into the 2017 starting lineup, keep in mind that it’s not just light in terms of future stars, it’s also light in terms of currency. By the time you get to #6 on The D-backs 2015 Midseason Top 10, you’re into bench player territory. Meanwhile, teams like the Rangers, Twins, Cubs and Dodgers are deep organizations, ones that can wheel and deal without stripping themselves bare. Sure, lots of minor leaguers don’t work out in the end, but they still have value long before they make it to the majors. Arizona has dealt from the system frequently in the past and the cupboard is thin, even after the 2015 draft. That’s part of why I argued that they should have taken more chances, but again, I digress.
Maybe a year from now, Archie Bradley and Patrick Corbin are a hell of a one-two punch with Aaron Blair and Chase Anderson following them up. That might put Arizona on the edge of contention. At that time, will they make a Price-like trade? Will they be able to do that? Will they have enough to push themselves into contention, not just for the playoffs, but for the World Series? Or, will they still find themselves needing another front of the rotation arm but without the financial or prospect resources to get the deal done? They’d probably better hope they get lucky from within because at this stage, it appears their working at a deficit in terms of currency in every sense of the word.
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