There has been considerable discussion over the last year or so regarding the Diamondbacks GM, Kevin Towers. Until this offseason however, KT managed to mostly get a pass as his moves, some questionable, some genius, some lucky, produced results.
Towers was further insulated from much in the way of criticism because the Diamondbacks were a team loaded with young, projectable talent. Some of the talent, like Justin Upton, was young, but already a bit veteran savvy. The farm system was stacked with highly regarded pitching prospects, many knocking on the door to the bigs. The future of the franchise looked stunningly bright. By 2014 the Diamondbacks would be fielding a team headlined by all-stars Upton, Montero, Goldschmidt, and Young. The rotation was going to have a potent 1-2 punch of Bauer and Skaggs, with Hudson, Miley, and Cahill filling out trotation. The bullpen was going to be a shut-down bullpen that could shorten any game to 6 innings by relying on Ziegler, Hernandez, and Putz. In short, the D'backs were to be the powerhouse NL West team of the future.
But then somewhere in late July or early August of the 2012 season, KT's grace period came to an end. Not only had the Diamondbacks begun to struggle, but they very rapidly dropped from fringe contender for the NL West to an outsider looking in. Granted, because of the second wild card, they were not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs until mid-September, but it was as early as the second week in August that the season began to look as though it was over.
To be fair to Towers, it was not entirely his doing. Injuries plagued the Diamondbacks in 2012. Chris Young, who had started off on an absolute tear was injured early in the season. He would wind up missing more than a third of the season due to injury, and was still hurt when he first came back. Justin Upton suffered an injury to his thumb which altered his swing and sapped his power. Henry Blanco broke his thumb against the San Francisco Giants. Daniel Hudson went down in the first month, and was lost to Tommy John surgery. Joe Saunders was hurt. Takashi Saito never seemed to be able to get his entire body healthy all at once.
But, all good teams are equipped to weather injury. In this department, the Diamondbacks did not fare so well. With the bloom off the rose, Kevin Towers entered the 2012-13 offseason a bit exposed. Minor tweaks to a last place finishing, 65-win 2010 team had resulted in a 94 wins NL West Division Champion 2011. A few more tweaks, including spending money on questionable acquisition Jason Kubel to play left field, and the trade of highly-regarded prospect Jarrod Parker along with flame-throwing youngster Ryan Cook to Oakland for young inning-eating (but substantially more expensive) Trevor Cahill created a 2012 team that was older, more experienced, substantially more expensive, with a larger Kevin Towers thumbprint that very meekly limped to an 81-81 record, finishing 3rd in the NL West after having been out of meaningful contention the final 6 weeks of the season.
Where the 2011-12 offseason was headlined by a marquis first baseman and closers, the 2012-13 offseason was headlined by top-flight outfield talent including Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, and Torii Hunter. There was no secret that this crop of outfielders was going to command top dollar as four of the five had turned down qualifying offers of approximately $13.5 million and were thus tied to draft pick compensation. Starting pitching also lined up as a premium target with Zack Greinke considered the only elite pitcher before a significant drop-off to Annibal Sanchez and Kyle Lohse, followed by high-risk/high-reward candidates like Jeremy Guthrie and Dan Haren. The Diamondbacks have rarely been in a position where the elite free agent market directly affected the team. With the exception of Miguel Montero's extension after the 2011 season, the D'backs by-and-large have developed or traded for premium talent, and thus, have been able to do business within the confines of the second or third tier of talent during the offseason.
Player performances, escalating contracts, the Diamondbacks' financial model, and young talent developing into big league-ready talent ensured that, while the Diamondbacks would not be shopping for top tier talent in the offseason, they would have talent to leverage in some of the more lucrative categories, namely the outfield and young, controllable starting pitching. With high leverage talent, and a need to create immediate improvement, it was more important than ever that Kevin Towers enter the winter meetings with a clear road map to maximize the return on assets. He would need to decide whether or not to continue with the "win now" approach taken going into 2012, or to take a step back and realign the team to compete in the future. Adding to the difficulties, the San Francisco Giants had just come off winning the 2012 World Series, and the Los Angeles Dodgers were on a mission to become the biggest spenders in baseball, throwing excessive money at any talent that was even a marginal upgrade to any position on their roster.
Less than one week into the offseason, Kevin Towers had thrown the world of baseball a curve so nasty that analysts and other GMs all over the country screwed themselves into the ground trying to figure it out. In fairness, this is not the first time that the GM of a sports franchise has done something incredibly odd that threw everyone for a loop. Often times, such moves, when combined with a host of others, create a new dynamic that, once completed, has the GM looking like a genius. It was with that philosophy I sat back and watched Kevin Towers continue his offseason work.
In the final analysis, I am hard-pressed to see a coherent pattern. Front office explanations for decisions made, fly in the face of evidence. Meanwhile, the identity of the franchise has been completely overhauled, yet the Arizona Diamondbacks neither look to be a tougher competitor in 2013, nor do they look to be a better organization moving forward through 2014 and 2015.
It is easier to quickly list the various moves and give a brief description than it is to go through and try to show any sort of coherent team development. That, such as it is, does not really appear until the end.
Chris Young entered the offseason as the obvious trade candidate. An injury plagued season, combined with the emergence of Adam Eaton, and Young's escalating contract assured that he was going to be a hard-shopped commodity. Despite hitting for mediocre average, Chris Young had surprising pop for a center fielder, stole bases at a good clip, and played defense at a level that set him apart as one of the most elite.
Below are two sets of numbers to consider.
A: .239 BA .318 OBP 24HR .437 SLG 21 SB 95 OPS+ 66 BB 149 SO
B: .255 BA .336 OBP 20 HR .422 SLG 39 SB 105 OPS+ 72 BB 171 SO
On the face of things, the second set of numbers is the better set, despite the insanely high strikeout total. But on closer inspection, the two are not very far from each other. Add to the mix that player A is a far superior defender and things look even closer.
Of course, the top player is Chris Young over 7 years. The second player is B.J. Upton over 8 years. If you'll recall, I listed B.J. Upton in that list of premium free agent outfielders. B.J. Upton was one of the outfielders to receive a qualifying offer. That meant two things. Firstly, a team signing Upton could be expected to have to pay out in excess on $13 million annually on a multi-year contract. Secondly, they would also forfeit their first round draft pick.
By comparison, Chris Young earned $8.5 million in 2013 with a team option for $11 million in 2014 with a $1.5 million buyout. Furthermore, as Young was a trade piece, no draft compensation (and thus total draft dollars) would be tied to Young. At worst, Young costs a team $9.5 million for 2013 and costs no draft compensation. That's a $4 million dollar savings on the expected minimum for Upton. It might also be noted that 2 of the top ten comparisons for Young through age 28 (the age of Young's 2012 campaign) are Torii Hunter and Nick Swisher, two other players on that list of top-flight free agent outfielders.
Those are the kind of numbers that raise eyebrows and bring significant trade packages to the table. However, capitalizing on that sort of value requires patience. It requires a team to allow the market to develop so that other teams can see just how big a savings they can expect to realize. So what did Kevin Towers and Company do to maximize the return on Chris Young, the team's longest tenured current player? On October 20th, four days before the 2012 World Series was even started, the Diamondbacks shipped Chris Young and $500k off to Oakland in exchange for Cliff Pennington and Heath Bell + $8 million (from Miami via 3-team deal).
Cliff Pennington was well known as a glove-first/no bat shortstop. He was also the player that was performing so poorly that he lost his job to the underperforming Stephen Drew in August of 2012. Heath Bell, after the $8 million will still cost the Diamondbacks $13 million through 2014, coming off a season in which he lost his job as a closer on a horrifically bad team, while posting a full season career-worst 5.09 ERA with a fastball exhibiting declining velocity, an increasing walk rate, and a decreasing K rate. With the Diamondbacks going into 2013 with J.J. Putz, David Hernandez, Matt Albers, and Brad Ziegler anchoring the bullpen, this amounted to trading for a $6.5 million (AAV) declining middle reliever.
The argument going into the trade was that the Diamondbacks needed to clear some salary room and also wanted to address their second largest 2012 deficiency - shortstop. While money was indeed saved, the amount was negligible, and the shortstop acquired was one that would struggle to make the 25-man roster for many big league clubs while the middle reliever was on pace to be one of the most expensive in the game.
Even so, since this was the first move of the off-season, there remained the chance that the larger picture would make much more sense. Alas, if anything, the overall picture got even cloudier as the off-season continued. Then once the season started and the injuries and ineffectiveness started to mount, things really got ugly. However, that is a topic for a different article. Here, we will examine what the move of Chris Young accomplished for the Diamondbacks.
There is no way to spin it. Chris Young had a terrible 2013 season. As a severe fly ball hitter moving from the hitter-friendly confines of Chase Field to the pitching paradise of Oakland's Coliseum, Chris Young struggled mightily, finishing the season with a very pathetic final line that included a .200 batting average, a .280 OBP, and an OPS+ of 85. IT was far and away his worst season ever at the plate. Known for playing top-caliber defense in CF, Chris Young also spent the majority of the season platooning all over the outfield, and his defensive numbers show it, as he had what would seem to be his worst-ever year with the glove too. Did the change in stadiums, combined with the change in leagues (and thus losing established pitcher-familiarity) and his demotion to part-time player create this fiasco of a season? Perhaps. But the reality is, we will never know what sort of season he would have had if he had stayed in Arizona. In hind-sight, one can assume that he would have started the season as the Diamondbacks' regular center fielder, getting regular playing time, in a hitter's park, against pitchers he knew. There is also a legitimate argument to be made that, if Young were still on the roster, that Cody Ross is never signed. But once again, that is speculation.
What we do know is this, the Diamondbacks were spared being front-and-center for the worst and most expensive season of Chris Young's career.
But what about the rest of the deal? Let's start with Cliff Pennington.
Cliff Pennington profiled from the beginning as a glove-first, switch-hitter, that could provide defensive value anywhere on the infield. The first part held true. The switch-hitting part, on the other hand, turned out to be mostly a mirage. Oh, certainly, he did climb into the batter's box on both sides of the plate. However, his performance against LHP was so bad as to make his splits against LHP only marginally better than those of the young defensive phenom, Didi Gregorius. Batting .202 with an OPS+ of 65 against LHP on the season, it's safe to say that nothing much was gained by having Pennington as a switch-hitting threat. Sadly, these numbers were technically better than those Gregorius ended the season with against LHP, but only marginally, and quite frankly, to such a small degree at to be nearly the same. Cliff Pennington had two more hits over 13 fewer at-bats. He also walked two more times in 10 less plate appearances. The biggest difference wound up being in the strikeout department. Pennington had only 15, while Gregorius racked up 30.Why all the comparisons? Simple. The Diamondbacks needed a starting short stop and traded a potentially valuable piece for Cliff Pennington. Then they traded another potentially valuable piece and obtained Didi Gregorius. Gregorius was immediately crowned the short stop of the future for the team. Willie Bloomquist was already in the fold, and Chris Owings was doing everything in his power to prove he deserved a chance in the majors.
In the final analysis, Cliff Pennington was exactly what many expected he would be; a no-bat utility infielder that could pick the ball, but had no place starting on a playoff-caliber team. His biggest contribution may have been not in how the team benefitted from his presence, but in what his presence cost the team. When Didi Gregorius started to have trouble with LHP, Cliff Pennington was looked to as a platoon for Didi Gregorius, a young, developing player in his first full season of big league ball. But, given the exceptionally marginal difference in performance between the two against LHP, the only thing the Diamondbacks can say for certain is that a developing talent got 108 fewer plate appearances to work on his approach against LHP. The short stop of the future for a franchise should probably not be a strictly platoon player, especially not after less than one full season. If Gregorius is indeed going to be the future at short stop for the franchise, he is going to need to start getting more ABs.
I did mention that Cliff Pennington was considered a very good fielder. It would not be fair to evaluate him on his performance at the plate alone. In addition to putting up a .4 fWAR, and a 65 wRC+, Cliff Pennington also provided a 6.1 UZR and a 20.4 UZR/150 rating. Didi Gregorius, on the other hand, was not so fortunate with the defensive metrics, putting up a -.6 UZR and a -1.4 UZR/150 rating. This would seem to indicate that Cliff Pennigton was actually better in the field than Gregorius. However, the eyeball test would sorely disagree and, as stats would have it, this is played out by the out-of-zone (OOZ) numbers for each player, with Gregorius clocking in at 43, compared to Pennington's 27.
In short (no pun intended), it would seem that Diamondbacks received little appreciable overall value from Cliff Pennington in 2013.
There was more to this than just Cliff Pennington though. In addition to Pennington, the Diamondbacks also acquired the Heath Bell Experience TM. At the time, the move seemed oddly curious, that is, until one looks at the history. Heath Bell had already been a Kevin Towers target once before, one that paid off in spades. It's no big secret that Kevin Towers, like many GMs, has players that he likes to keep around for one reason or another. After an epic failure of a season in Miami, the Marlins were ready to cut ties with Bell and his 3-year $24 million contract. The numbers in 2012 for Heath Bell were as mind-boggling bad as his numbers for 2010-11 were eye-popping good. However, despite his poor overall numbers in 2012, he actually settled in after his horrific start and had a relatively strong four month run as a middle reliever and set-up man. Perhaps this is the Heath Bell that Kevin Towers was hoping to get when he helped Miami to unload him (with Miami picking up $8 million of the tab). Or maybe, Kevin Towers thought that a return to the NL West and an organization that wanted him (i.e. Towers) would help to rehabilitate Bell's career. Certainly, it was unlikely that Bell could be as bad in 2013 as he was in 2012. The problem was, The Diamondbacks already had J.J. Putz and David Hernandez in the system as easily one of the best one-two combinations of set-up man and closer in the game. With those two holding down the 8th and 9th innings, that made Bell a $5 million middle-reliever coming off of his career-worst season.
Heath Bell's time in the desert did not start off very well. In fact, he picked up pretty much where he left off in Miami. After only one-third of an inning (and only 20 pitches), Heath Bell had an ERA of 81.00, having surrendered three earned runs on four hits, a walk, and two home runs. Fortunately for the Diamondbacks, the rest of the season was not quite so awful.
Do to the ineffectiveness and injury to J.J. Putz, Bell was the team's closer by the end of April, Hernandez being left in the role of set-up man. Though it seemed odd at the time to not allow Hernandez the chance to step in as closer (after all, he had done so quite nicely the previous two years) it turned out that Hernandez was just as woefully ineffective as anyone could be in high leverage situations. Thus, it seemed that Kevin Towers' big-money gamble on Heath Bell was going to pay off - sort of. Through the end of June, Heath Bell would pitch 30.2 innings, have a 4.70 ERA, a .302 BA against, a .360 BAbip, and a .906 SLG against. Yet, Heath Bell would also record 34 strikeouts in those innings, to go with 14 saves. He would also have three of the team's blown saves to that point. This was the HBE - never, ever pretty, but often getting the job done.
Bell's luck did not hold out however, and by the middle of July, he would be replaced by Brad Ziegler as the team's new closer. Despite Putz and Hernandez simultaneously imploding, Bell was unable to seize the opportunity and re-establish himself as a pitcher to be reckoned with. Heath Bell ended his 2013 campaign with a 4.11 ERA, 15 saves, and 7 blown saves to go along with his 93 ERA+ and his abysmal overall performance in high leverage situations.
It's fair to say that Kevin Towers is known for building excellent bullpens, and often doing so on the cheap. So one would think that Kevin Towers would recognize just how expensive Heath Bell was to the team. Though he spent time closing games, he did so ineffectively, and was eventually replaced by someone who really should have never been shoe-horned into the role. Brad Ziegler's value to the team was much greater as a fireman, than as a closer. Bell's inability to cover for the failings of Putz and Hernandez did indeed make him a $5 million middle reliever, and a mediocre one at that.
Looking back at the season, and how it played out, it's difficult to say how the Diamondbacks fared from the trade that started it all. From a performance stand-point, the deal could be considered a marginal win for the Diamondbacks. But, as already discussed, that's assuming that without the trade, all factors would still have been equal. As we do not have the technology to go back and undo the trade to see how everyone would perform, we must go by the performances turned in though. So, kudos to the Diamondbacks for not keeping Chris Young around to play poorly, blocking the semi-breakout advancement of the phenomenally gifted fielder that is A.J. Pollock. However, this trade wasn't entirely about performance. In fact, it was almost entirely about money, and not performance. In that regard, things look far worse for the Diamondbacks. Given that all three players in the deal performed poorly, the real issue is the monetary commitment.
With Chris Young, the Diamondbacks would have been on the hook for $10 million, assuming they did not trade him during the season and exercised his buyout. Going into 2014, that would leave the Diamondbacks with zero monetary obligation, and a roster spot ripe and ready for an Eaton/Pollock tandem if such had not already occurred.
In 2013, the Diamondbacks paid Bell and Pennington a combined $6.75 million. So financially, there was savings. Yet the Diamondbacks also went out and signed Cody Ross, a talent that, like B.J. Upton, was eerily comparable to Chris Young. With Young still on the roster, it is unlikely that Ross is signed to a three-year deal by the Diamondbacks. In 2013 Ross was paid $6 million. Suddenly, the small savings have disappeared, meanwhile Pennington is blocking development time for Gregorius and Bell is hand-cuffing the team in regards to bullpen options.
Instead of zero obligation to anyone for 2014, the Diamondbacks will be paying Heath Bell and Cliff Pennington a combined $8.25 million to be marginal bench talent. Cody Ross will add an additional $9.5 million to that total, and yet an additional $9.5 million in 2015. For a team now looking for a substantial corner bat or a TOR pitcher, that is an awful lot of money tied up on three players with marginal roles on the team. Even if Cody Ross is not taken into account (though since he will occupy space on the 25-man he almost must be), $8.25 million, in addition to any payroll increase approved by the likes of Ken Kendrick would be a hearty sum that could go towards addressing at least one of the Diamondbacks' needs.
A full season has gone by since the Chris Young trade. Yet, depending on Young's performance in 2014, and how this year's off-season acquisitions go for the Arizona Diamondbacks, it could be 2015 before the trade can be fully appreciated. One thing is certain regardless - the Diamondbacks have less money to work with during a time of need than they would have if they had kept Young. It remains to be seen how much (if any) that impacts the team moving forward.
[If this story perhaps looks familiar, due to a scheduling error, it was briefly published on Tuesday. Since it also got buried in all the coaching news, it's now being republished and given time to breathe!]