As promised last week, we are delighted to announce that on Monday, we got to sit down with Arizona General Manager Josh Byrnes for an interview, and the first part of that discussion is published here. The second section will follow here next Wednesday, and I'll have a piece analyzing both parts, a little after that. Why, yes, I am going to get as many stories out of this as possible, thank you for asking...
It was a fascinating discussion, covering a wide range of areas and after the jump, we'll get things started with topics including last season's under-par performance by the Diamondbacks, the firing of Bob Melvin, and some of the signings and trades made by Arizona during the winter.
AZ SnakePit: It's been a year since we last spoke, with a good bit of water under the bridge for the team. It's fair to say 2009 was disappointing,. Clearly, the loss of Brandon Webb and Conor Jackson were significant factors in that, but what other reasons do you think were responsible for the team not performing up to expectations?
Josh Byrnes: Those were two big issues, losing Webb and Jackson, but we hadn't played particularly well going back into the 2008 season. I felt that, relative to our talent-level, we should have been better than an 82-win team in 2008. So I was curious how we were going to look in spring training, how we started the year, both in terms of results and how we looked, and it just wasn't there - it wasn't a very crisp spring.
You take a longer view of our teams than most teams. I think we have enough talent to give us a chance, but I don't think that we have so much talent, that we can be sloppy and win. Taking a longer view over 2009, we made too many errors, which led to too many unearned runs, our situational hitting with runners in scoring position, at various times our bullpen - the things you need to do to win games, to win close games, we just weren't very good at it.
AZ: It wasn't long into the season before Bob Melvin was fired. Does this tie into what you said about us underachieving in 2008? Or what changed between Opening Day and 29 games in, that led to the release of Bob Melvin?
JB: Certainly Bob deserves a lot of credit for all the success we had here in 2007 - our success that year probably took people by surprise. And how we won, it's ironic, because some of those attributes that lead to winning close games, one of which you could argue is luck, just didn't repeat in 2008 and 2009. I think 2008 was disappointing. Internally, both with Bob and me, and with others, we had a lot of discussion, what went wrong and why. Not only was the division more winnable than we would have expected, but to win 82 and play the way we did was disappointing.
There were no ultimatums going into 2009, but there was certainly an expectation that we needed to reverse this trend of how we were playing. And I didn't sense that it was reversing, so felt that it was necessary to make a change.
AZ: Were you prepared for the criticism that followed your hiring of AJ Hinch?
JB: I think the degree was maybe a little more than I expected, the "nastiness" of it. I didn't expect it to be a popular move, but maybe it's the era were in. Guys like Joe Torre and Jim Fregosi, how they entered into the manager's chair wasn't totally different, but it was a different era, a different age of scrutiny. And then there's the timing of it. I just felt that at that point we'd played about a calendar year of sub-standard baseball.
To the extent that one of the things AJ lacked was experience, it would 'throw him into the fire', and learn a lot of lessons, in the context of a season that was borderline unsalvageable at the point we made the change. The silver lining in it all is that you need to deal with, obviously, 25 players, but more constituents than that to be an effective manager, and in his first go-around, he was very battle-tested.
AZ: I think it was clear AJ did "grow into" the position as the season went on. From your viewpoint, what did you see him learning, and what are you expecting from him, going into his first full season as a manager?
JB: In any job, you want to have a certain skill-set. I think AJ is very bright, very fair, and tough - I think those who want to test his resolve will generally not be very successful. He's competitive, but not a high-ego type of person. Ultimately, the players are the ones mostly responsible for winning, but as I've said many times with hiring AJ, it's not just his interaction with the players - it's his coaches, it's the front-office, medical staff, fans and media, etc. He's driving the performance of the players, but he's involved with a lot of people, to do his job at the maximum level. It's a bit of a cliche, but I think AJ is very effective at building relationships, building trust, and the job he has been asked to do, building a sense of accountability and high standards. That process is ongoing: we're anxious to see 2010, and to see if we have made any progress. I think we have.
AZ: Arizona had a important draft in June, with a lot of high picks. Now that you've had a chance to see them in action, which of those picks are you happiest with so far?
JB: It's funny. We had eight of the first 95 and are certainly happy with who we got and their initial performance. But like a lot of drafts, maybe you have someone deeper down, who turns out to be a guy who carries the torch for that draft. I think Ryan Wheeler deserves a lot of credit, for coming out as a fifth-rounder and performing as he did. He certainly has a good swing, good approach, very good makeup, so we're excited about what he has shown so far. 2003 in Boston, we had a lot of extra picks - and our fourth-rounder was Jonathan Papelbon. So maybe that premium pick isn't one of your first. In Colorado, we went through the Matt Harrington ordeal - then took (Clint) Barmes in the 10th round, (Brad) Hawpe in the 11th round and (Garrett) Atkins in the 5th round. So, who knows? But Wheeler certainly showed quite a bit in his first summer.
AZ: Last season, the team struggled against left-handed starters, going 17-30. Given the offensive arrivals this year, like LaRoche, are left-handed bats, do you expect that to improve next year?
JB: That's an interesting one. I think Upton led major-league baseball in OPS against left-handed pitching; Conor Jackson has a long history of that and we'll have him; Ryan Roberts showed it can be one of his strengths; Mark Reynolds; Chris Young still hits lefties at a very high rate. So one of our issues was, our left-handed hitters were pretty defenseless against left-handed pitching last year, with the exception of Montero.
We talked a lot about our left-right balance. LaRoche, his 09 wasn't great, but his history is not an exaggerated platoon split. Kelly Johnson has hit left and right equally well, Tony Abreu is a switch-hitter. That allows us to mix and match Roberts, Parra, those kind of guys, into favorable match-ups - Chris Snyder will be back healthy too. It's one of those things: it shouldn't be a vulnerability, in fact it could be a strength, because our right-handed hitters are so good against left-handed pitching. Even the in-game match-ups, we might have a guy or two on the bench who can concern the other manager, maybe a right-handed bat who could step in and match up. I'd like to think that what was a weakness, will turn into a strength.
AZ: So is platooning something we'll see more of in 2010? Will we have one standard line-up against LHP and a different standard lineup against RHP?
JB: Probably, just because we have 12-13 position players we want to play, and I don't know if it's going to be easy to have a standard line-up. It's probably easier to conceptualize one against right-handers, right now. But take Stephen Drew. He broke in and hit left-handed pitching very well, but in recent years, he has struggled. Certainly, there's a case to be made, he should hit lead-off against right-handed pitching, but you can't go sub-.600 OPS and lead-off against left-handed pitching. We'll have to get a feel for it - and, a lot of times, when creating a line-up, you want to see what kind of bench does that leaves you with, and how you can match-up in-game.
AZ: This time last year, we were in a free-agent market that was seriously hit by the economic downturn. What's your take on this winter's market? Do you think it recovered?
JB: At a macro level, the 30 clubs' payrolls in 2008 was pretty close to 2009, and it appears that might be the same in 2010. Historically, the market is built on inflation and free-agency as drivers and there hasn't been inflation, so it has shifted back to supply and demand being a huge determining factor in outcomes. Added with that, a lot of clubs are not afraid to give young players jobs - it's certainly economic, but it's also philosophical, and it's how the market has evolved in the last two years. We want to be adaptable. We didn't sign free-agents for a couple of off-seasons, but we signed several, to short contracts in the last two. It's probably something that's a little more attractive to us than it was a couple of years ago.
AZ: It's interesting you talking about younger players. There was an article at Fangraohs.com where David Cameron said older players might be the new market inefficiency, because "everyone" is trending young. Any thoughts as to whether that might be the case?
JB: Maybe - I think there's always a pendulum in the game. There was probably an exaggerated taste for college players in the draft a few years ago, and when that happens, it makes high-school players more valuable. The fifth high-school player drafted or tenth high-school player drafted, maybe "should" go in the twenties, and now he was getting pushed to the second-round. That's really the story of this whole decade. People chasing defensive metrics now, or young players. Is there a point at which the pendulum swings too far? It's why, as information-savvy as we think we are, we're generally not the organization espousing the newest philosophy and going, "Dammit, we'll show you how smart we are." We'll probably take a longer view, and understand where our opportunities are in the marketplace to get the right players.
AZ: Some people think the off-season moves the Diamondbacks made mean the team is in "Win Now" mode. Is that the case, and if so, is the organization concerned the fans won't support the team if they fail to deliver this season?
JB: I read somewhere where someone made that point, in a very questioning manner, and I guess I'd respond, I don't think you win by accident. You have to make an attempt to win. That being said, again, there are some major responsibilities: one, is a budget, two, is having a talent-base available for future years. I think we've always tried to balance that; I don't think we've ever gone into a season hedging our bets, "Well, if nine out of ten things work in our favor, then we might win." I do think you have to operate in the off-season as if you are trying to win, but being responsible to your longer-term interests, and your financial decisions along the way. So, if we're trying to win - guilty as charged!
With any market, winning is important. You and I have talked about it: there's been a lot more winning baseball than not in this market. But nobody - none of those who worked here, me included, or the fans - enjoyed 2009 very much, so we are determined to have that be the exception, not the rule.
AZ: Do the signings of Johnson and LaRoche indicate that too, or just a belief that Abreu and Allen are not yet ready for the majors?
JB: It was tough with both those guys. You think of some of those off-season choices at first- or second-base, we had a lot of trade ideas or free-agents knocking on our door. We felt like we had to get enough of an upgrade to justify, what's very important to us, which is letting our young players finish their development to the major-league level.
Talking about Brandon Allen and Tony Abreu - yes, we think they're talented, we think they're future major-league starting players, and they've sort of done everything that you can do at Triple-A. That should deliver them an opportunity, but we felt that getting Adam LaRoche and Kelly Johnson obviously do help us win more now, and in turn, give us quite a bit of depth, which is important to deal with things that might go wrong in a season - injury or performance.
It was not something we took lightly. We think a lot of Brandon Allen and Tony Abreu. So in order to sign free-agents at those positions, we really felt it had to be the right player at the right value, in order for it to make sense.
AZ: Both LaRoche and Johnson mentioned that one of the things attracting them to Arizona was its reputation as a good hitting park. Is this something you pitch to free agent hitters?
JB: Yes, but not necessarily in that respect. It's funny, we're aware of the ballpark, park factors, how it affects the outcomes of OPS+ or ERA+. On the other hand, there's also watching how it turns out. I think it's a good offensive ballpark: I don't think it's a bandbox, it does help singles, doubles, triples and homers, but it's not an exaggerated park as some are.
The flip side is, our road environment is very, very difficult on our hitters. We play in a division that's had great pitching, we play nine series a year in California, at least, so it's going to create a divide. Playing for the Diamondbacks, yes, home games, perfect weather, good ballpark to hit in. That's great - but our road schedule is difficult or an offensive player.
Talking to those two guys, we talked much more about our team, our environment, and we felt like our capabilities of winning. Those were the points we were trying to make and I think those factored into their decisions too.
AZ: In the three-way deal with the Tigers and Yankees, the general opinion is that we got the short end of the trade. Presumably, you don't think so. Why was this a good move for the Diamondbacks and how much did concern over Scherzer's shoulder factor into his decision?
JB: I think I said on the radio at the time, when we drafted Max and gave him a pretty aggressive bonus, people thought we were nuts - and then, when we traded him, people thought we were nuts. He's a unique talent. He's a great make-up guy, got a lot better during his time here and has a unique fastball that makes major-league hitters swing and miss. But the ingredients of being a starting pitcher - the pitch development, the pitch efficiency, the projected durability - were questions that are somewhat unanswered at this point. There's a chance he can clear these hurdles, there's a chance he can't. I don't think it's unique to Max: it is hard to be a major-league starter, and go 200+ innings with quality, and do so consistently. Not many guys do that.
It's no real knock on Max. He's at a point in his career where to get to that next level, would be something he'd have to go out and prove. Edwin Jackson has gotten there and, again, Ian Kennedy, we feel like we got six years of a very solid starting pitcher. Not a decision we took lightly, but I think we've shown, ever since we've been here, that we put a lot of resources, trade and financial, into starting pitchers' innings, and the quality associated with that. It certainly guided this deal too.
AZ: How does a complex three-way trade like that come together?
JB: I was on the phone with (Tigers GM) Dave Dombrowski and then, probably a day later with (Yankees GM) Brian Cashman. Hatching the idea, the fundamentals of the idea - we probably got 90% of the way there, quickly. Then it was about a month of staring at each other and seeing if there were another deal, improvements or alternatives out there either club liked. I think it's like a lot of trades. You can probably create an idea that makes sense very quickly - but then, will someone actually do it? There's usually some patience involved with that.
[Part two will follow next week, with topics including our starting rotation, the rest of the West, and what remains to be addressed in Spring Training]