“Where were you when you heard the news?” you probably won’t ask a friend or baseball-talking colleague some indeterminate chunk of time from now. “You know, the news that Big Pete got traded and Rubby’s coming back as a reliever?” The odds of one remembering that time and place are slim to none. That’s because most of us lead lives busy enough to keep this kind of ephemera from being forever-logged in our minds. That’s also because the Peter O’Brien Era ended with a whimper and Rubby De La Rosa‘s move to the bullpen was about as predictable as… well, let’s just say it’s been predicted. I tried to break this news to a good friend of mine, Ryan P. Morrison, and the conversation went something like this:
JW: Dude, did you see that O’Brien got traded for a 25-year old who’s never pitched out of A-ball and Rubby’s coming back on a minor league deal as a reliever?
RPM: LOL. We’re going to have, like, nothing to write about this season.
“Nothing to write about this season” is surely hyperbole, but there’s some truth in Ryan’s statement. There was once a time when you could make the hottest takes out of the smallest news. That was called “The Dave Stewart Era.” But with Mike Hazen running the show now, it seems that the thinking of this blog and the thinking of the front office seem to be in lock-step thus far. That will, indeed, cool the hot takes. Hopefully it will also lead to a better product on the field.
And on that note, it’s worth noting that O’Brien’s time on the roster ended quietly rather than with a boom. This seemed predictable and during our writing of The Offseason Plan, he was the first player I’d have removed from the 40-man roster. With 80-grade power and literally nothing else of use, it seemed like O’Brien just wasn’t ever going to be the force for the D-backs that Dave Stewart and Company prognosticated. Brought over as part of the return for Martin Prado, along with Vidal Nuno, it was readily apparent to everyone with eyes that he was not going to stick as a catcher, having been moved behind the plate when third base didn’t work out. Arizona went back and forth on their decision to again move O’Brien, but he ultimately landed in LF where his UZR/150 -17.4 in 122 innings of work proved what everyone knew: he wasn’t an outfielder. With first base as his only remaining option with an NL club, it was no surprise to see him moved to the AL where he can DH on occasion should his bat get back up to speed after his disappointing MLB work in 2016 and subsequent crash-and-burn in the PCL.
While the Old Regime seemed to value O’Brien highly, it was clear that other teams did not. For their trouble, the Royals parted with 25-year old right hander Sam Lewis who went undrafted out of Indiana Wesleyan and signed as a minor league free agent in 2012. In five minor league seasons, Lewis has thrown just 122.1 innings, most of which have come in relief. He missed all of 2015 with Tommy John, but made it out of rookie ball last year to end the season in High-A Wilmington. Well behind the age curve, it’s unclear what the D-back have in their new but old toy. One gets the feeling, however, that Lewis represents your typical lottery ticket with little upside. With O’Brien destined to toil in the minors with nowhere to go, getting anything for him seems like a mild win. Put bluntly, O’Brien was never going to make it with the Diamondbacks and Lewis at least has a chance, though it’s of the slimmest odds.
In the case of De La Rosa, he was non-tendered back in November, making him a free agent. The D-back brought him back just last week on a minor league deal worth $750,000 and $3.5 million in incentives. For a guy that seemed to turn a corner in 2016, that might seem paltry, but don’t forget about the elbow woes that took Rubby out of the rotation in late May, then relegated him to just three innings in September before he was put back on the shelf. His stuff was still sharp in September, but he experienced more pain in the elbow and began receiving PRP injections to try to heal the injury. Given his small guaranteed deal and the circumstances surrounding the situation, I think it’s pretty safe to bet that De La Rosa’s elbow is in pretty poor shape. There’s not much in the way of an update, but it’s clear that the team and the pitcher are trying to avoid the second Tommy John surgery for De La Rosa’s right elbow (he had the procedure performed in 2011 before joining the D-backs). It’ll be no surprise to see him open the season on the DL after his 28th birthday, dimming his immediate horizons.
Long-term, the move to the bullpen makes all of the sense in the world. Blessed with a heater that can run up in the mid 90’s with some reasonable arm-side fade, a slider with two-plane break, and some nasty platoon splits, it seems De La Rosa was destined for the bullpen. Dave Stewart tried to teach him a splitter, which had some promise, but the lack of a consistent third pitch held De La Rosa back for the most part. A move to the bullpen should shelter his arm and play into his strengths. Considering he’s lost a bevy of time to the DL for a myriad of arm issues, it’s surprising in a sense that the move wasn’t made sooner, but then again, Stewart’s stubbornness should never come as a surprise. If and when we see De La Rosa in 2017, it’ll come in a new capacity, one that should suit him better. With too many rotation options already, clearing Rubby from the logjam and placing him in a more tailored role is welcomed news, even it came later than you might have liked.
These are small moves. This is a “small moves” time of the offseason. The biggest free agents remaining on the board are old middle relievers and flawed position players. Mike Hazen will keep making moves, but don’t expect any of them to be of the truly shocking variety. The team could still add another catcher. They could look for cheap bullpen candidates. Aging veterans position players that will take a minor league deal could be in the works soon. I doubt we’ll see much in the way of major headlines. But it should be noted that the team continues to follow some of the principles we’ve previously set forth. Yes, O’Brien had massive raw power, but his other flaws made that power unplayable by and large. De La Rosa’s had his issues, too, and while it’s good to see him come back, it’s better to know it’ll happen in the bullpen if he’s able to avoid another elbow surgery. The smarter, more tactical rebuild continues here, even if the events to achieve that end result are mostly uneventful.
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