Where were you when you heard the D-backs signed Zack Greinke? What were you doing when you found out about the Shelby Miller trade? A year ago, we were assessing the D-backs’ choices and execution in blowing up part of the roster to try a whole bunch of experiments. Only part of the roster stayed intact: Paul Goldschmidt and a small wave of young players that cemented their status in 2013 and 2014. With Aaron Hill now gone, Goldy is the only of the team’s top 10 players in 2012 to be with the D-backs this spring.
Everything looks different now, and we’re not referring to very different uniforms. The D-backs stepped back, gathered themselves, and then sprinted at full speed this offseason. That was the mission, and as we wrote in our Offseason Plan, we were on board. Just like with our suggestions then, our scores now assume generally that the all-in plan is a workable one.
This offseason, they did make it a workable plan. As we’ve explored here in the last few months, there are many reasons to think that projections are more down on the D-backs than they should be, with A.J. Pollock‘s performance greatly regressed to the mean, David Peralta‘s development on an unconventional calendar, the reinvention of Shelby Miller and a few freakish but freakishly consistent bullpen arms. It was a good team, and a better one than showed up on paper. The addition of Zack Greinke may have been enough to make it a very good team.
As in past years, we each scored the offseason’s significant transactions from -10 to 10 for overall quality, taking into account our understanding of players’ value and the context of the offseason. We tried to stay away from the benefits of hindsight, except to the extent that it’s become clear the team knew something important at the time of a transaction that the rest of us did not. To get a good overall picture, we also gave each transaction an “impact” score from 0 to 10 so we could weight each quality score properly.
The result: a 3.7 overall quality score, not as favorable as the 6.4 score we ended up with a year ago, but well ahead of the barely positive 1.2 we doled out the year before that. In the last two winters, the weight of very good smaller transactions helped to prop up bigger moves we viewed less favorably. This year, things were a little different.
We discussed this report card in the big picture in Episode 53 of The Pool Shot. Our final takes on specific deals are below.
Traded 1B/OF Daniel Palka to the Twins for C/OF Chris Herrmann
- Quality: -3
- Impact: 2.5
Context is really important in understanding this swap. For one, this move was pulled off in the final hours before 40-man rosters were set for the Rule 5 draft; Herrmann was looking like a non-tender candidate, and the D-backs swooped in to get the lefty-hitting catcher before he hit the market. The price was 23-year old first baseman/outfielder Daniel Palka, the D-backs’ #17 prospect this winter. Old for never having played above High-A, Palka has been an all-around contributor at the plate, with strong hit and walk rates, helpful power (29 bombs in 129 games this year) and baseball smarts on the basepaths. Prospects like Palka are not a dime a dozen—and yet, should Palka need full seasons at Double- and Triple-A, he’d only be around to help after the surest part of the Contention Window is no longer open. He’d also be a 25-year old rookie.
He’d also play first base. If the D-backs need a first basemen, it’d be because something went terribly wrong with Paul Goldschmidt—and at that point, their playoffs hopes would not be in great shape anyway. Meanwhile, Herrmann has a chance to be a helpful part for the D-backs now, when contributions matter most—if he can handle catching, where he has graded poorly in the majors, he could end up being a good complement to right-handed-hitting Welington Castillo. This was not a bad trade, but it wasn’t a good one, either. It is also yet another ripple of a problem we flagged in last year’s report card: the move of Miguel Montero with no catcher waiting in the wings.
Traded RHP Jeremy Hellickson to the Phillies for RHP Sam McWilliams
- Quality: 4.5
- Impact: 2.5
It was the Jeremy Hellickson trade that probably most set the tone for this offseason, although like the swap for Herrmann, this one was made shortly before non-tender decisions. Faced with an arbitration salary projected at $6.6M for a pitcher who had sputtered to a 4.62 ERA in 146 innings in 2015, the D-backs were in a position similar to that of the Twins with Herrmann: look for a way to get some value for their club control, despite the obvious implication at the time that pushing for a trade meant that tendering a contract was unlikely. Ultimately, it was the Phillies who decided that one arbitration season of Hellickson was worth more than nothing. The return for the D-backs was not significant, but in Sam McWilliams, the D-backs added to a growing stable of minor league pitchers with extremely high ground ball rates. McWilliams does it with an unconventional delivery and he might not light up the radar gun, but in Arizona, we’ve seen that work.
Unlike 2015, 2016 is not a season for experimentation at the major league level. Experimentation at the minor league level, however? We saw Zack Godley step right in and help last year. Even if it’s not McWilliams specifically, there’s good reason to think that by midyear, one of these high GB% minor leaguers could step in and help. The D-backs did well here. They did well by ripping off the Hellickson band-aid, despite the significant price paid for him a year prior. In addition, they did well by getting a potentially helpful spare part, when many signs pointed to a non-tender. The impact may not be great, but this Hellickson trade was an important part of the offseason.
Signed RHP Zack Greinke to six year, $206.5M contract
- Quality: 7
- Impact: 10
This is the one—the missing piece, the second cornerstone, the point at which it all changed. The manner by which the team acquired Greinke—reportedly, in a span of several hours, from idea to agreement on terms—doesn’t matter. We knew the D-backs were looking to upgrade their pitching, and there was an enormous opportunity to improve the team that way, what with an underwhelming back end of the rotation. In the Offseason Plan, we tried to staple together some reasonably priced ways to accomplish that kind of upgrade. We didn’t think big enough.
It’s a staggering deal, and the D-backs will be shelling out deferred salaries on it through 2026 in installments bigger than any current salary for 2016 for any player not named Zack Greinke. Maybe that’s why we didn’t imagine this possibility: tons of deferred money has recently come off the books, and although the cost is enormous, the immediate cost is actually less than it cost for the Dodgers to sign Kenta Maeda, even though Maeda is guaranteed only one ninth of the money owed Greinke.
Greinke is far from a sure thing, but what the D-backs desperately needed was front of the rotation pitching, and pitching is never a sure thing. They set a new market rate, but they got their man. Through this one move, the D-backs went from being a surprisingly good team that was unlikely to make the playoffs even if things went well to becoming a team that absolutely can make the playoffs. It’s not often a team is sitting right on that line. Given the performance we expect from Greinke, it’s a high cost per additional win. But the marginal value of those wins look like they’re sky high. Greinke makes adjustments. The chances that he remains a top of the rotation pitcher through the entire Contention Window—whether 2, or 3, or 4 years—more than justify the move. It’s easy to say the team did great by acquiring an ace. Over and above that, the team still did very well to make this happen.
Traded OF Ender Inciarte, RHP Aaron Blair and SS Dansby Swanson to Braves for RHP Shelby Miller and LHP Gabe Speier
- Quality: 2.5
- Impact: 9.5
It’s hard to remember a trade more divisive than this one, and if you disagree with that statement, it’s probably because you think the consensus was “strongly against.” The D-backs gave up an unfathomably large haul for Miller, a pitcher who at his very best has been “very good,” and who seemed to be traded for on the strength of an especially pleasant 3.02 ERA over 33 starts with the Braves. It doesn’t help that it seems like the team undervalued Inciarte in this analysis, although they may have loved Socrates Brito. It doesn’t help that this trade would not have been possible a year earlier because trade rules were different; prior to this offseason, teams couldn’t trade draft picks like Swanson until they’d been in the organization for a year. It also really, really doesn’t help that it seemed like the Braves picked the D-backs’ pockets in the Bronson Arroyo trade just months before, and that the D-backs had sent them a supplemental draft selection in exchange for some relief from Trevor Cahill‘s salary just months before that.
Maybe Greinke would have been enough of an upgrade to guarantee a chance of competing for the playoffs throughout the summer, but even after that signing, the rotation still offered the best opportunity to improve those chances, especially with a non-existent market for catchers. We have no illusions about the fact that it seems like the D-backs cashed in three players for what seems like fifty cents on the dollar, but we also think the trade’s critics have had the wrong impression of what three years of a probably very good pitcher actually costs. Moreover, while Inciarte was great for the D-backs, Arizona makes hitters look better, just as it makes pitchers look worse. And most importantly, we think many were led astray by mainstream tools that suggest Miller was lucky in 2015. He wasn’t; he earned that ERA by managing contact very effectively. He’s not the same pitcher he was in St. Louis.
Whether you like this trade has entirely to do with whether you’re sold on the D-backs’ approach to winning in the short term. If you’re not, nothing justifies a value proposition this poor. If you are, a higher than expected price makes this move much less than a resounding win, but much more than a mistake. The D-backs held two pair when betting started, and the price of poker went way up. Folding wasn’t an option, not with playoff contention winnable in the pot in a very real way. We will be feeling the consequences of this one for a very long time. But ask yourself: if the alternative was no other move for a pitcher, would you really reverse this trade if you could?
Handling of Arbitration Cases
- Quality: 8
- Impact: 7
The present-looking D-backs had a forward-looking problem this winter: an unusual number of players hitting their first year of arbitration at the same time. Why was that a problem? Because while the reality of the Contention Window is certain, its length is not. Even without counting the deferred portion of Greinke’s salary, the D-backs have $48.5M committed to just three players in 2018 already, more than half of last year’s payroll. Add in some needs likely to crop up along the way, and third-year arbitration salaries for Shelby Miller, Patrick Corbin, and A.J. Pollock could cause a serious crunch and threaten the team’s ability to keep the Window propped open. Because previous year’s salary is one of the most important considerations for the arbitration panel, the team was under some pressure this winter—one year after botching its arbitration cases badly.
The D-backs settled with Matt Reynolds early in the winter, and veered toward the date of exchanging figures without deals for a whopping seven other arbitration players. What they pulled off was nothing short of remarkable. Miller and Rubby De La Rosa each came in well below MLBTradeRumors’ tried and true projections. Randall Delgado and Corbin settled modestly above projection, and both of those were also strong wins, considering Delgado’s demonstrable value as a reliever and the strange nature of Corbin’s case. The team nearly held the line with Welington Castillo. It went significantly above projection for Daniel Hudson, but as we had noted in advance, that was in the face of a clear and obvious strategy for Hudson of aiming very, very high and credibly threatening a hearing (and since it was a third-year case, it won’t stack). Setting the stage for an extension to come shortly thereafter, the D-backs also induced Pollock to come in with what looks like a bizarrely low player figure, and we gave the D-backs credit for that, as well.
Give the team credit. The people responsible for their handling of these arbitration cases deserve tons of credit. They were artists. Overall, it’s not necessarily going to alter the trajectory of the franchise the way the offseason’s two biggest moves have. This was especially critical this winter, however, and the D-backs did a tremendous job of it.
Signed RHP Tyler Clippard to two year, $12.25M contract
- Quality: 3.5
- Impact: 5
The D-backs were vocal this offseason about a desire to upgrade the bullpen, as well as the rotation. Top prices for relievers skyrocketed, however, and so it was only in early February that the D-backs made a match. Tyler Clippard’s success is as unusual as Brad Ziegler‘s, even if his pitching is not. An extreme fly ball pitcher, he was an unexpected choice for a team so focused on ground balls in the last year. There’s also a reason why Clippard remained a free agent despite his excellent track record. He doesn’t seem very trustworthy because he’s so strange a pitcher, and we don’t have data enough to tell us whether a rising-fastball over-used reliever with less than plus velocity when his fastball inevitably slows down more. There’s also an operations management cost: Clippard cannot be sent to the minors without his consent. In the context of a bullpen, where performance is volatile and there is little to no chance for side work, that can become problematic. Now that we know the team has made it a priority to spend most of the season with just 12 pitchers on the 25-man, that’s slightly more problematic.
Clippard is a good to very good reliever on a reasonably priced deal; there’s a lot to like. Given the team’s ruthlessness with building the Contention Window, as well, there’s every reason to believe that they would actually cut ties rather than suffer through a fourth month of bad performance, if that’s where the team finds itself in July. Still, Clippard becomes the fifth entrenched right-handed veteran in the bullpen, and if Andrew Chafin‘s spot is also all but guaranteed, it could mean that the very promising Silvino Bracho is not actually on the Opening Day roster. The D-backs have a dozen other arms that could impress this spring, including Evan Marshall, who set the world on fire in 2014, and a handful of candidates to be a second lefty. We like the Clippard deal, but in context, the risk that it limits some of the team’s best young relievers tempers our enthusiasm somewhat.
Extended A.J. Pollock on two year, $10.25M extension
- Quality: 7.5
- Impact: 2.5
The A.J. Pollock extension wasn’t all that special, and the D-backs’ handling of his arbitration case before that point is part of the overall picture. We’ve thought the window for a real extension (one that added additional years of club control) has been closed with Pollock for quite some time now. But, conscious of the 2018 pressures that made all of the arbitration cases so important, we thought there was an additional thing the D-backs could do with Pollock, specifically. We explained the strategy of working out a two-year deal in the Offseason Plan, and where the D-backs ended up is almost identical to that suggestion.
The point: unlike with the pitchers, there really was no benefit to the D-backs for going year to year with Pollock. We saw the value of year to year for pitchers with Daniel Hudson; instead of paying Hudson as a good starter over two years of surgery and two years of work as a reliever, the team ended up paying modest salaries for two of those years, and an appropriately priced one this year. That’s a huge savings, and a risk worth guarding against. For Pollock, though? Even a fairly significant injury this year would probably not lead the D-backs to non-tender him. Essentially, they were on the hook for a second-year arb salary in 2017 anyway. There was every reason to add some cost control to the equation, especially when keeping his 2017 reasonable (it’s $6.75M, now) means they are almost sure to not end up paying him over $12M in 2018, an outcome that was very possible. Kudos.
Traded RHP Chase Anderson, 2B/3B Aaron Hill, OF Isan Diaz and $5.5M to Brewers for SS Jean Segura and RHP Tyler Wagner
- Quality: -5.5
- Impact: 5.5
This move was the only significant one to receive negative scores from us (did you forget the scale was from -10 to 10, even?). It wasn’t crazy; after other acquisitions, Chase Anderson was one of a handful of pitchers who would have competed for a back-end rotation slot, and there was reason to think he wouldn’t play up in relief, and there was a good chance he was worth more to another team. We also flagged the Brewers as a trade partner this offseason, not just because they were one of a very few teams in sell mode, but because former scouting director Ray Montgomery is still in the fold over there. The D-backs have not been high on low-minors prospects of late, and Montgomery left recently enough that he knows several of those players intimately. Isan Diaz was one of them. The D-backs also had good reason to move Aaron Hill out of the way, and may have had a very real need for cash that we are not holding against them. It’s also true that if the D-backs had begun to lack confidence in Chris Owings as a major leaguer, a player other than Nick Ahmed who could play shortstop was one of the few pieces of depth the D-backs did not have.
The trade is nonetheless bizarre, even if we give ourselves the benefit of hindsight. There is little reason to think that Segura is a very good player, although his defense is strong enough that his floor is not particularly low. They also sold very low on Anderson, who did fairly well in 2014, but who did not do fairly after the D-backs got him to throw sinkers to lefties in 2015, inexplicably and despite the fact that it got completely torched. Anderson could be better than he was last year just by making decisions; he doesn’t necessarily need to actually improve in order to be a very solid #4 starter. An overpriced shortstop, salary relief and a pitcher who happens to fit the D-backs’ model is a very poor return for Anderson once Diaz is included.
In some ways, the Miller trade was a worse value proposition than this one—and yet we gave that trade a modestly positive score, and this one a solidly negative one. Why? Because context did not favor this trade. The benefit of having a third player who can play shortstop is marginal. If Segura is a better option than Brandon Drury at second right now, it’s not by much. And while Anderson was a luxury the team didn’t really need and clearly didn’t want, the D-backs didn’t need something specific in return; there could have been a better deal at a better time. This trade was not part of the price of going for broke. In addition, the trend of trading away young talent in return for salary relief has become disturbing.
Everything else: departing free agents, minors deals, minor trades
- Quality: 3
- Impact: 10.5
Lots of other decisions figured into our overall score for the offseason, although none had an impact score above 1.5. Among them were trades of Allen Webster (for cash) and for Cody Hall (for a player to be named later), and minors deals for a boatload of notable players.
Among the more positive scores were the decisions to let David Hernandez and Jarrod Saltalamacchia walk. Simply put, Hernandez was not particularly good last year, and even at his best, he was inconsistent. Moreover, signing Hernandez to a guaranteed deal would have caused some of the same roster problems that loom with the Tyler Clippard signing, as noted above, without the upside. Salty could have been helpful, but if the team were inclined to use a bat-first catcher to complement Welington Castillo, it could be meaningfully better to find Castillo a platoon mate (even though that’s not necessarily what happened). One of our most negative quality scores was for the decision to let Jhoulys Chacin walk; given his demonstrated success in the unkind environment of Coors Field, strong innings total and success for the team last year—the team could have done a lot worse in terms of keeping a starter waiting in the wings in the minors. It appears he was content to sign a minor league deal, and it only took an opt-out less favorable to Chacin than the one the D-backs gave Salty last year to get the deal done.
We liked the Allen Webster trade for many of the same reasons we liked the Jeremy Hellickson trade: it was a positive decision to part ways in the first place, although the cash the team got from Pittsburgh was probably not significant. The Cody Hall trade was hard to score, since we don’t know who the player to be named later can be; nonetheless, our impact score for that trade was a mere 1.
The bulk of the score above came from all of the minor league signings. By definition, these kinds of deals are very low risk. Worst case scenario is probably what happened with the minor league deal for Gerald Laird last year: little production, but a year’s worth of major league salary due to injury. Few of these players were guys we thought could have commanded major league deals, even in a best case scenario for them this winter. The crew is also lacking in upside, with Adam Loewen fun to think about but unlikely to help, Joaquin Arias offering little more than a warm body for a team that doesn’t have a true utility player capable of playing short, and Rickie Weeks and Jason Bourgeois little more than outfield equivalents of Arias. Wesley Wright didn’t catch our eye, but Kyle Drabek and Scott Rice were at least intriguing, given the ground ball friendly system the D-backs have created. Sam LeCure and Tim Stauffer seem especially likely to contribute above-replacement production this year for the major league club, but neither one is likely to pitch much unless quite a few bad things have happened (and that’s why a team would sign them).
With the minor league deals, though, it’s important to remember: comparing them to no deals is a lot less fair than it is for some of the other kinds of decisions this offseason. Because of the low, low risk, there was no one that stood out as an actual mistake or negative addition, the way Laird did immediately a year ago. Compared to some other teams’ hauls and past groups, this one seemed uninspiring; at the same time, part of why they may not have gotten some of the more attractive minor league deals is that they didn’t need them. We can hardly hold the D-backs’ depth in bench candidates (like Peter O’Brien) against the team. In the end, we settled on scores that were fairly positive but that had very low impact marks.
This was a wild offseason, and this exercise was about looking at each decision individually, albeit in their own contexts. There’s some risk in that situation of beancounting, and had we looked at everything from a purely value standpoint, our work suggested that we would have ended up with a significantly negative score for the offseason overall, mostly because the Shelby Miller trade dwarfs so many other decisions on impact, and because signing Zack Greinke to a contract with an average annual value almost 10% higher than the then-record-setting David Price deal earlier this offseason could hardly be called a bargain. That’s not really the point, though.
Being flexible has lots of value, and while that’s never more clear than in building a bullpen, it’s true in the big picture, as well. It would be great to be able to throttle up and down on individual seasons as the Yankees and Red Sox have seemed to do in the last 5 or 8 years. That’s not how factors like Paul Goldschmidt work for a team like this one, though. Might we have done things differently? Certainly. But we respect the decision to double down on the short term, even when we’ve quibbled with execution, and even though it was not immediately apparent just how serious the team was about playing a smaller number of hands at a table with higher stakes.
Part of why “going for it” as the D-backs are is problematic is because you lose flexibility, but once you’re in it, we’d be foolish not to factor in that lack of flexibility. We note that no other team added a pitcher via trade like the D-backs did with Shelby Miller, not this offseason. That’s the price of poker, and the shortcomings of a few of this offseason’s decisions do not change that the team had a strong and strongly positive winter overall.
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