I can see the argument DeadmanG was making. There's absolutely no point in having the best Triple-A team in baseball: the aim is to win games at the major-league level. So, prospects are useless if they're not capable of helping you do that - either directly, by playing in the majors, or by being traded for other pieces which will help. My philosophy would be, that you take areas where you are deeply-stocked, and trade those prospects to help improve the team in places where you are week. However, I'm not certain that's what the Diamondbacks' front-office has done.this off-season.
Let's rewind to the end of last season. What were the areas of concern which needed to be addressed? Looking at the numbers, and comparing the division-winning 2011 team to the 2013 one, pitching seemed to be the area most in need of help: our ERA+ was 11th of 15, compared to 6th of 16 when we won the West. Our offense also declined, but was still better than league average, so didn't seem so much of a priority. Kevin Towers seemed to realize this, with much of the early hot stove talk being around the team's quest for a "top of the rotation" starting pitcher. Four months later, that somehow turned into Bronson Arroyo: likely, a bigger impact is hiring Dave Duncan as a coach.
Skaggs/Eaton for Trumbo
And the major trade executed by the Diamondbacks this winter didn't even address pitching at all. Instead, we swapped two of our most promising prospects (#1 and #3 on John Sickels pre-season list) for Mark Trumbo. Now, having endured the trauma that was Jason Kubel 2013, you might be forgiven for thinking that left-field certainly needed to be improved. However, the Kubel issue solved itself with his departure, and without the worst season in franchise history to worry about, the team was already significantly better - per fWAR, close to two wins, simply by putting someone of replacement level there.
We had no shortage of competence above that. An outfield of Gerardo Parra, A.J. Pollock and Cody Ross or Adam Eaton would have worked. We could even - and I've touted this idea for a while - have moved Martin Prado to LF. That suggestion would have had two big benefits this season: opening up the third-base spot for Matt Davidson, and keeping our prospect stockpile intact for a significantly more meaningful move. Instead, simply looking at Eaton vs. Trumbo, we dealt one kind of outfielder (good defense and speed, no power) for a different kind of outfielder (slugger with poor plate discipline).
One (if long) sentence summary? We got older, more expensive, and not necessarily very much better, if at all, while cashing in two of our best trading chips, to fill a hole where we had credible in-house alternatives, and address an issue of doubtful relevance, not hitting enough homers. Indeed, by dealing Tyler Skaggs, there's an argument that it helped deplete our pitching depth, to the point where spending $23 million for two years of Bronson Arroyo became a necessary move.
Davidson for Reed
Once we had got our man in Trumbo, there was a domino effect, like the one we saw with Arroyo. Prado was now locked in at 3B, without even the ability to give us an occasional platoon edge in LF, as he could with Kubel. That meant Davidson became surplus to requirements, so trading him certainly made sense, since he was effectively blocked at any potential position. My problem here is not so much the trade,as what we got in return. Not so much the "position player for reliever" thing - done right, that can work out perfectly well, as we saw with the deal of a previous Arizona 3B with defensive issues, Mark Reynolds.
No, my concern was more trading for an established closer, with the resulting overpay. My approach would be to trade for very good relievers who aren't closers, because I don't tend to think, in most cases, that closing is a different skill-set. This is what we did with J.J. Putz: he had five saves combined over 2009-10, before we signed him as a free-agent, made him the Arizona closer, and he promptly saved a career-high 45 games. We also saw this, on a smaller scale, with Brad Ziegler in the latter half of the season. Brad got one save from 2010 through June 2013: after notching his first on July 4, he had a 1.60 ERA during 33 games the rest of the way.
If we needed bullpen help (and as we've seen, the current log-jam there makes that kinda questionable), we'd have got higher value by going for an equally-good young reliever who wasn't pitching in the ninth. Among young relievers with a minimum of 40 IP, Reed was only 10th by ERA+ and 5th by FIP last season, behind less-heralded (and consequently, likely less expensive) names like Drew Smyly, Cody Allen and Paco Rodriguez. Not that Reed is likely to be a bad player, of course. But with Davidson a top 100 prospect - #64 on MLB.com's year-end rankings - I sense we should have got more for him.
Bell + Holmberg for prospects
How much credit do you deserve, for solving a problem you created yourself? Philosophical questions aside, as a fan, I can't say I am sorry to see the Heath Bell Experience in Arizona be decommissioned. I doubt many are. Maybe the prospects we received in exchange will amount to something, though with 16 pro relief appearances for Justin Choate and a career .718 OPS for outfielder Todd Glaesmann, relying on that would seem... optimistic, shall we say.. But it's having to sweeten the deal with David Holmberg which sticks in my throat, as that diluted our pitching depth even more.
Sure, there's perhaps only a 10% chance (number courtesy of Pulled Out of Your Ass Productions) of Holmberg becoming a significant contributor. But you keep rolling that die long enough, and eventually it's going to happen. As mentioned before, the two week period in early December saw us deal away four of our five top prospects: even if each has only that 10% chance, you're now looking at better than a one-in-three chance, that you just gave away a valuable piece. That's my main concern with the moves this winter: we significantly depleted the farm system and, to be honest, didn't seem to get much better as a result.
Not moving the needle
Discounting the Bell salary dump, the other two trades were more in line with what appears to be Towers' general philosophy: future ceiling is dealt away for current certainty. He seems to like "proven" players with consistency, and there's certainly a place for those. However, this is a team which needs to improve markedly on its 2013 performance, if it's to reach the post-season in 2014: we were nine games back of the second wild-card. Are the moves listed above, along with the Arroyo signing, enough to give us those nine additional victories? I really don't think they are: if we're to compete, it'll come from existing players performing better.
That isn't without historical precedent, certainly: a very significant chunk of the last-for-first turnaround in 2011 was the result of the improvements by Ian Kennedy, Miguel Montero and Justin Upton (2010 bWAR = 5.8; 2011 bWAR = 15.0). But only the volatility of Montero remains, replaced by more reliable, but likely lower ceiling performers. I'd rather have seen Towers make bolder moves. A mid-budget franchise like Arizona should probably either be in "win now" or "rebuild" mode, but either way, needs to commit whole-heartedly to the chosen approach. Right now, what we have seen tastes like a vanilla-flavored mixture., and I wouldn't bet against another .500 season.