From a distance, you can convince yourself of almost anything. That person, way over there, looks like my brother. The dimensions are about right. Ball cap, easy body language, an effortless smile. Inching closer, some of those details begin to be called into question. The size is still about right, but the clothes aren’t quite. The smile is there, but its a different laugh. Closer still and, well, that’s definitely not my brother. Here we thought we’d spotted J.D. Martinez, but it was just Steven Souza. As the Diamondbacks’ outfield has come into full focus now, the particulars are a bit askew from the hopes, but the expectations were met. The unit appears complete.
When the D-backs were eliminated by some team last October, it seemed certain that Martinez would walk. He’d left his mark — no doubt — but the idea of retaining him seemed impossible. Here was a team facing an escalating payroll situation with acknowledged holes to fill while being on a strict financial diet. As it so often does in baseball, however, weirdness prevailed. The market for free agents, including Just Dingers, seemed stagnant and the team seemed increasingly willing to loosen the purse strings. With Archie Bradley and Jake Lamb serving as recruiters, the D-backs wouldn’t go away and the market kept them in the mix for Martinez.
And then they weren’t in the mix anymore. Boston did what was long expected and signed Martinez. While most mourned, Mike Hazen kept the pedal to the metal and swung a deal for Souza. Jarrod Dyson was already in the mix and the outfield, which looked for a short while to be back in purgatory, was exalted. Things are settled now and now we can get to work.
The Diamondbacks were outsiders when it came to J.D. Martinez for several reasons. The most obvious was the expectations of Scott Boras’ most-prized offseason client. It didn’t seem feasible that they could sign a player, even one as good as Martinez, to a contract worth $20 or $25 or $30 million a season. Perhaps even more prohibitive was the length of the deal sought. Being locked into a player in his 30’s for five or six or eight years just wasn’t in the cards.
Yet Arizona hung around because ownership became willing to spend. That opened the door to possibilities that were once off-limits. Rumors of the team getting “creative” in their pitch to Martinez began to swirl. In this sense, “creative” almost certainly involved opt-outs that would give Martinez contractual flexibility in lieu of guaranteed dollars. Arizona could have offered a higher AAV than the Red Sox ultimately did — but for a shorter duration — with opt-outs built in. Instead, Martinez took the longer guarantee and, presumably, the safer bet. For a guy betting on his body in a sport where injuries are commonplace, it’s hard to blame him. It wasn’t because of the humidor. He’s worked his whole life for this contract and I know at least one person who’ll be rooting for him in Boston. Okay, maybe two.
If there’s something we can assume about Mike Hazen, it’s that he’ll show up to his media appearances in a 1/4-zip, long-sleeved team tee with excellent moisture-wicking properties. If there’s one other thing we can assume, it’s that he and his squad aren’t going to be easily deterred and are as prepared for every possible situation as they can be. Landing Martinez was always a long shot and of course they had some backup plans. At first, that backup plan looked like the signing of Dyson, but details would soon emerge that that deal was in place prior to Martinez’s decision. In reality, they pivoted back to an old conversation with the Rays to trade for Souza, with the Yankees added to the equation to complete the deal. This is Hazen’s grind and he’s proving himself more and more capable all the time. It’s no wonder the team is willing to spend more than ever before. They’re in the right place at the right time with the right people doing the navigating.
A New Twenty-Eight
Steven Souza is a big get for the Diamondbacks. That’s not just because his presence allows them to banish Yasmany Tomas from regular playing time, but because Souza is a dynamic talent. He’s capable of being a plus defensive right fielder, a plus base runner and a power bat all wrapped up in one neat package. Offensively, he might fit somewhere between the outputs of Paul Goldschmidt and David Peralta. That’s the kind of bat you want in your lineup, and though he’ll strike out plenty, he’ll walk a bunch, too. Souza is coming off of a season where he set career highs in games played, home runs, doubles, steals, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. ZiPS and Steamer are split on him, thanks in part to a bit of an auspicious start to his career. But if you believe the current Steven Souza is roughly the same as the one that all ten Rays fans watched last season, well, that’s a pretty good player. Perhaps best of all, the D-backs will control him as an arb-eligible player for the next three seasons where he should earn something like $17-$20 million total.
Certainly Not Fifty Shades of Grey, but Grey Nonetheless
Here comes the complicated part, or in this case, parts.
There’s a narrative out there that this deal doesn’t make the Diamondbacks better, and that narrative is predicated on one huge assumption: the D-backs chose Souza over Martinez. That’s driven by the idea that this is Arizona’s window and they should have done everything in their power to sign Just Dingers, the costs be damned. By not doing so, the team was forced into Plan B or C or whatever Souza was. The notion is that they could have had Martinez, and should have had Martinez, but let a golden opportunity slip away and settled for a less.
This idea is fraught with complications.
First, it’s no guarantee that they truly could have outbid Boston if they’d chosen to. We don’t know what he would have demanded from the Diamondbacks and we don’t even know that if the dollars and opt-outs were equal that he would have chosen Sedona Red. Boston will put him on a national stage that Arizona just can’t match — sold out games, national television and perhaps even greater endorsement dollars. He’ll pay more in taxes, but being a marquee player for one of the game’s most popular franchises has its benefits.
For the fun of it, let’s just make our own assumption that he’d have taken the same deal from the D-backs had they offered it. In one scenario, he could have opted out after the 2019 season if he’d continued to mash baseballs like normal people mash potatoes (such tasty obliteration). That would, in theory, let the D-backs off the hook right at the time that Paul Goldschmidt’s deal expires. Sure, it’d have cost the team $50 million, but that’s all. If, however, Martinez faltered, they’d be stuck with a mid-30’s player slated to make north of $60 million over his final three years. And if he wasn’t in a position to opt-out in the first place, that’d be because his performance hadn’t boosted his value. Sinking performance, becoming less athletic, expensive. Those are not the characteristics the Diamondbacks can afford to employ. They’ve got one of these situations on their hands already and another one, well, you get it. Boston’s revenue machine can manage this (Jacoby Ellsbury), but Arizona cannot. The importance of risk-mitigation is amplified for teams with less financial might.
The Diamondbacks are going to run out a baseball team in April with the highest payroll in team history. They might still be in the shallow end when you consider the league as a whole, but they are spending while the Contention Window is open. With that said, adding Martinez would have pushed them even further into unexplored financial territory. That, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. But if that push would would have resulted in a reduced ability to, say, add at the trade deadline or even make another move this spring, then perhaps that extra spending would have been truly prohibitive.
For a long, long time, the Diamondbacks didn’t give themselves much wiggle room. They had bullpens full of guys with no options. They had rosters clogged with players on bad deals that they couldn’t get rid of without hemorrhaging value. In an effort to secure players, they reduced their flexibility. Mike Hazen sees the value in flexibility and being able to turn on a dime. Perhaps going the direction they have allows them to maintain more flexibility. Baseball really is weird and you never know what you might suddenly need. This isn’t to say that signing Martinez was the wrong move all along, but by not doing it, perhaps there’s some extra wiggle room that will be useful going forward (in addition to possibly aiding in the retention of Goldy).
If I Hear the Word “Value” One More Time…
It’s played out, but value runs the show and there’s no escaping it. Steven Souza didn’t come to Arizona for free. Brandon Drury and Anthony Banda have new homes (New York and Tampa, respectively), plus there are two players to be named later in the deal that the organization will lose. The D-backs did get right-handed prospect Taylor Widener in the deal, however. That’s a lot of moving parts, but we can look at this from the Diamondbacks’ perspective and make some kind of assessment without too much hassle.
First and foremost, Souza is an above-average everyday player. He’s relatively cheap and under team control for three years. Brandon Drury hasn’t taken the steps forward that most would have liked to have seen and scouts have long pegged his upside as that of a solid everyday player. He’s been playing out of position and will now have the chance to play his natural third base. Even if Drury fulfills his prophecy, there’s an overwhelming case that Souza is both better-suited for this current club and a better player. He has one less year of team control, but Drury is one more year of underwhelming performance from finding himself squarely on the outside looking in.
On the pitching side, lefty Anthony Banda has been one of the team’s best prospects for a couple of seasons now, but that title doesn’t mean for Arizona what it would mean for the Braves given that the D-backs’ farm system is considered so weak. The fastball is plus, the changeup can be plus, but the curve is just okay. His command still lags some, but there’s a number four starter in there if all breaks right and a decent lefty reliever in there if they don’t. Righty Taylor Widener has moved to the rotation in pro ball and has also seen his velocity increase as he’s taken to his craft. His changeup has improved, though his long term outlook hedges more towards reliever than starter. He should start 2018 in AA as a 23-year old.
Put this all together and the Diamondbacks got better offensively and defensively but sacrificed some pitching depth. That depth is mitigated to a degree by the fact that Widener could be a useful piece. We don’t know who the PTBNLs are yet, so that could change the math, but as of now, the ledger seems suggest that the Diamondbacks gave up a fair value for what they received. It would be hard to argue they vastly underpaid. It would be hard to argue the vastly overpaid. As of now, this feels pretty fair with the gap between Banda and Widener being taken up by the gap between Souza and Drury. As long as the PTBNLs are relatively insignificant, fans should feel good from a value standpoint.
Shaking It Out
It’s hard not to wonder what could have been. I won’t try to argue that Steven Souza is J.D. Martinez. Both are upgrades over the alternative of doing nothing to shore up the corner outfield situation. The D-backs knew they couldn’t give Yasmany Tomas regular starts and went in an different direction, despite the sunk costs. They got better and presumably kept some flexibility. The time to win is now, but the future still exists. Mike Hazen and company are doing their best to maximize the former without totally sacrificing the latter. That’s a worthwhile strategy, so now we’re left to see how it works out. Luckily, we won’t have to wait long.
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