The Bard's Take: The  Bomb(er)

Jeff Gross

Looking at the cost of Mark Trumbo.

The Bomb(er)



The Setup:

The deal which brought Mark Trumbo to the Diamondbacks this past offseason is easily the most difficult to evaluate, especially considering it in anything other than a vacuum. The Diamondbacks had a better than average offense in 2013. The problem was it was inconsistent, going long stretches during which they scored only 1-3 runs per game. These stretches were interrupted by a few games here and there in which the team would have offensive explosions. One of the big culprits in regards to the slumps, as well as one of the big contributors to the peak performances, was the contribution from the Diamondbacks' clean-up hitters. Not surprisingly, as the hitter behind Paul Goldschmidt went, so too did the Diamondback offense (for the most part). As a left-handed hitter, Miguel Montero was often slotted behind Goldschmidt. Unfortunately, Miguel Montero had an abysmal year in 2013. He lost his swing and his defense took a number of steps back. It was just an all-around poor season for the man who, only two seasons ago was seen as sort of the bedrock of the team. This led to some significant lineup shuffling (I suspect even more than Gibson actually appreciated).

About the only hitter to consistently provide production out of the 4-hole was Eric Chavez. Unfortunately for The Diamondbacks, Chavez is a fragile commodity. Though he was used sparingly, the few times he was "hot" he was likely turned to as a starter for more games than he should have been. This became a case of success actually hurting the team. Chavez provided almost exactly what the Diamondbacks were hoping for out of the 4-hole, but they had no one else who seemed able to create similar production, and so the reliance on him was exposed. When Ross went down with a broken hip, the problem became even worse, as that left Aaron Hill as the sole remaining power threat in the lineup that wasn't Paul Goldschmidt.

Kevin Towers recognized this problem, and early in the off-season conceded that the team would be better off with another big bat in the lineup. The most likely candidates were finding a third baseman or a corner outfielder. As in most cases, the Diamondbacks entered the offseason with three possible paths to adding some slugging to the lineup; sign a big bat, promote one from within, or make a trade. Given the lack of quality sluggers not named Robinson Cano on the free agent market, and a desire to go with proven performance over understandably suspect future potential, Kevin Towers elected to go the trade route.

The Move:

In order to bring a power-hitting corner outfielder to insert into the lineup, Kevin Towers went the route of the three team deal. The other teams involved were The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Chicago White Sox. Here is how the deal went down.

Arizona

Departures: Adam Eaton, Tyler Skaggs

Arrivals: Mark Trumbo, Brandon Jacobs, A.J. Schugel

LAA

Departures: Mark Trumbo, A.J. Schugel

Arrivals: Hector Santiago, Tyler Skaggs

Chicago

Departures: Brandon Jacobs, Hector Santiago

Arrivals: Adam Eaton

The Take:

The Diamondbacks entered the 2013-14 offseason with three very clear issues to address in order to improve the chances of breaking the .500 record barrier that it had come up against in both 2012 and 2013. The team needed a legitimate top-of-the-rotation pitcher. The team needed to shore up the back end of the bullpen. The team needed to add some pop to the lineup to try and prevent long stretches of games where the team's offense struggled to score more than 1-3 runs per game. Unfortunately for the Diamondbacks, their identified needs were much the same as nearly every other non-playoff team in baseball. This made trying to address the areas far more difficult. Regardless of the amount of competition though, the one thing that the Diamondbacks absolutely, under any circumstances at all, not allow to happen, was to end the offseason without having addressed any of them.

The most impactful move that could be made was for the Diamondbacks to address the starting rotation by adding an ace pitcher. The problem is, those sorts of pitchers are rare commodities. As such TOR pitchers do not usually make it to the free agent market, and those with more than one year of team control are even more rarely available via trade. Such was the case in the 2013-14 offseason where the trade market was understandably devoid of any TOR arms and the best pitcher available through free agency was Masahiro Tanaka. Despite the popular grumblings among devoted fans of the Diamondbacks franchise, Kevin Towers is not dumb. He looked over the pitchers available through trade and realized there was nothing available worth pursuing. The Chicago Cubs' Jeff Samardzija was dangled as available, but the asking cost was exorbitant, especially for an arm that on most playoff teams is not the best arm on the staff and was still going to need to be extended. As far as free agents go, Towers rightly identified Tanaka as the only potential TOR arm. The problem with Tanaka was two-fold though. First, Tanaka profiled closer to Hidoki Kuroda than Hisashi Iwakuma or Yu Darvish. Second, most every team in baseball wanted in on Tanaka, including the deeper-pocketed Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees. With the Yankees making their intent to do everything possible to grab Tanaka, the chances of the Diamondbacks actually landing the young and talented import were likely never better than 20%. With such small odds of landing a TOR arm in the offseason, it was incumbent upon Towers to devote time and resources to addressing the other areas of need.

The easiest need to address was the need for a potent bat. Unlike pitchers, there are always big bats available. While there were no reasonable targets on the free agent market, there were a number of slugging bats potentially available via trade. One of the most readily available bats on the trade market was that of Mark Trumbo.

From the beginning of 2011 through the end of 2013:

Player / HR

1. Miguel Cabrera 118

2. Jose Bautista 98

3. Adrian Beltre 98

4. Jay Bruce 96

5. Edwin Encarnacion 95

6. Giancarlo Stanton 95

7. Mark Trumbo 95

8. Prince Fielder 93

9. Alfonso Soriano 92

10. Chris Davis 91

Of the top 10 home run hitters in the previous three seasons, two were relatively young, pre-arbitration, and under team control for more than 2 more years; Stanton and Trumbo, both tied with Toronto's Encarnacion for the fifth-most long balls over that span.

Given Trumbo's obvious power, and how readily available he was to acquire, pursuing Trumbo as an option made sense on the surface. But as most readers of this site know, there is more to being a power hitter than hitting the long ball. A much better indicator of what sort of pop a hitter is going to add to the lineup comes through OPS. While Trumbo hits a ton of home runs, his on-base percentage over that time was .300, leading to an OPS of .773, good for 91st in all of baseball over that span. Suddenly, Trumbo is significantly less impressive. Additionally, Mark Trumbo is a 1B/DH by trade. Trumbo's outfield experience at the professional level is rather sparse, and none of it has been pretty. This is why it was generally assumed that Trumbo would be traded within the AL, not to a NL team, much less a NL team that has Paul Goldschmidt locking down first for the next five-plus years.

This is where the Trumbo trade gets complicated. There are certain things that can generally be agreed upon as criteria to be met or at least considered when adding an impact bat to any lineup. When looking for one that adds "pop" the list is actually pretty clear.

  • Raw power (obviously)
  • High OBP/OPS
  • A strikeout rate preferably not much higher than 20%
  • Batting opposite-handed of other power in the lineup (not necessary, but always nice)
  • The ability to field a position (absolutely vital in the NL only, though still a factor in the AL)

So how does Mark Trumbo sit using the above criteria?

As already shown, Trumbo was tied for 5th in MLB over a three season span in home runs. When you are mentioned in the same breath as elite hitting talents like Miguel Cabrera and have more pop than Mike Trout, you're doing just peachy. Trumbo's OBP/OPS at 77th in the league is far less spectacular, especially since it is the OBP bringing down the score. An OBP of .300 ranked 208th in baseball out of hitters with over 1,000 ABs. That's far below what an acceptable cut-off should be when looking for high value. Added to the mix is Tumbo's 26.83% strikeout rate. The debate will long rage about whether or not strikeouts are any worse than other outs, but one thing is certain, when a player's primary reason for being on the team is to provide serious batting power, the preference is for the outs to be made through contact, especially since contact likely comes in the form of pitches getting scalded whether they leave the park or not. Bats that add pop to a lineup need to be lifting flies to the outfield for sacrifices, not flailing away. On the less important not of handedness, Trumbo bats from the right side. As the only other power threats on the team (Goldschmidt and to a lesser extent Hill and Ross) are right-handed, Trumbo brings nothing to the table in that department. Lastly, Mark Trumbo was an adequate defender at first base. His ability to play the outfield ranks down in the Manny Ramirez category though. With Paul Goldschmidt entrenched at first, and no DH available in the NL, Mark Trumbo's defensive liability in left field proves problematic.

That's Trumbo meeting one out of the five criteria listed for those counting at home. Though the overly prodigious power is nice, alone it is less than useful. Plenty of names were available for equal or less cost that could have hit each of the missed criteria much better without sacrificing too much of the power. Those looking for specific examples need look no farther than Domonic Brown of the Philadelphia Phillies. Other examples exist as well with only a cursory examination of the league.

Another consideration in trades of this sort is the prospect and money cost. Arbitration panels, like chicks, dig the long ball. Salary arbitration hearings are not about advanced metrics and player intangibles. They are about batting average, home runs, wins, saves, ERA, and the like. Mark Trumbo came to the team entering his first year of salary arbitration eligibility. Despite his unspectacular peripheral numbers and his lack of natural position in the field, he was still expected to bring in roughly $4.7 million through the arbitration process. As fate would have it, the Diamondbacks settled with Trumbo without going to arbitration for $4.8 million. Should Trumbo continue remain exactly the same player in 2014 as he was from 2011-2013, he's likely to reach an estimated arbitration salary close to $10 million, with still one more year of arbitration eligibility/team control left afterwards. While such a salary is hardly prohibitive, it is an extreme salary to pay for a one-dimensional talent, especially when that one talent is power.

Mark Trumbo's deficiencies on defense will further hurt how much value he actually brings to the team for that salary. It will be a continual struggle for Trumbo to create runs with his bats at a pace greater than the number of runs he costs the team as a fielder.

As if the reasons just listed weren't enough to complicate the Trumbo value issue, the reality is that Trumbo came at a very steep cost in terms of prospects as well (quite a feat by Jerry DiPoto given Trumbo's and the Angels' situation at the time of the trade). Adam Eaton was a defensively gifted left-handed bat with high OBP numbers. What he lacked was the light-tower power. But Eaton was also pre-arbitration. Tyler Skaggs was a highly regarded left-handed pitching prospect that many talent evaluators (despite his poor SSS of outings) still evaluated as a strong candidate to be a #2 pitcher. At 22, knocking on the door to the majors, there was real reason to be excited. By acquiring Trumbo, Martin Prado was also forced from playing part-time in left field to playing third base almost exclusively. This had the ripple effect of displacing another highly regarded power-hitting prospect in Matt Davidson.

The end-result? The Diamondbacks moved three highly regarded prospects that combined would have cost the team $1.5 million in 2014, in order to slot Trumbo into left field while paying him $4.8 million. In terms of defense and OBP, the team is clearly worse off. In terms of slugging, the team may or may not be better. It is unlikely that Matt Davidson was destined to put up as many as or more than 25 HR during the course of 2014. Mark Trumbo has averaged almost 32 for the past three years. However, it was not unreasonable to expect a similar batting average hovering around .250 out of Davidson, a prospect the team had long been grooming and even spent time from 2011-2013 doing roster acrobatics to accommodate eventually promoting.

While paying the steep opportunity cost of Davidson, the team also cut ties with one of the most highly-regarded left-handed pitching prospects in the game. Though Skaggs' small handful of MLB outings have been mostly a mixed bag, rediscovering three miles per hour on his fastball and learning to locate his stellar curve ball a bit has made him a contender to make the Angels' rotation out of Spring Training. There are still mixed opinions about the lefty to be sure. But at 22-years of age, Skaggs remains two full years ahead of the development curve and has a considerable ceiling. Now, while the Diamondbacks are an organization flush with pitching prospects, the reality is that only Bradley and Skaggs are the only prospects above Visalia projected to be anything more than middle of the rotation starters. Moving Skaggs, combined with the departure of Holmberg, leaves the organization suddenly quite thin in terms of MLB-ready pitching. Should any injuries occur above and beyond McCarthy's seemingly annual DL-stint, the team could find themselves stretched thin to field a competitive rotation. Things could get even tighter if the organization decides to conserve Bradley's service clock by holding him in AAA until he finds a truly dominant form.

One thing I do agree with Towers and other GMs on is that pitching and defense win games. Adam Eaton was a defensively gifted bat moved in the deal for Trumbo. Considered by many to be the first real lead-off man the team has ever had, Eaton represents a different kind of lost opportunity cost. With Prado, Eaton, Pollock, Parra, and Ross all vying for outfield playing time, the Diamondbacks were highly motivated to move one of their younger outfielders. While a savvier move may have been to move the very similar, but less economic Gerardo Parra instead of Eaton, there are very clear reasons why Eaton was a target for trade. Following the various threads of the trade, it turns out that Adam Eaton was essentially traded straight-up for another young, talented left-handed starter in Hector Santiago. Santiago's possible ceiling is as a #2 starter if he puts it all together. Only one year older than Skaggs, he already has slightly over a year of pitching success already under his belt. With a higher ceiling than Delgado, Cahill, Arroyo, or McCarthy, it's difficult to see that the return for Adam Eaton wound up in an organization other than Arizona.

It is entirely possible (though not overly likely) that Skaggs, Eaton, and Davidson all fail to pan out in 2014 or beyond. More reasonably at least one enjoys the expected success, one is very average, and the last spends more time in AAA fixing some sort of developmental flaw. Even so, the Diamondbacks have sacrificed pitching upside and security, the opportunity cost of a young, power-hitting third baseman that a great deal of resources had been spent on, and a defensively gifted, high OBP corner outfielder all for a one-dimensional power bat. The dollar cost for Trumbo far exceeds the combined cost of the young talents. Meanwhile the overall performance increase would appear to be entirely negligible, especially once one factors in the number of runs lost to poor defense in the spacious expanse of Chase Field.

The Post-Mortem

A large majority of this article was written shortly before word came around that the team was to lose Patrick Corbin for the season. Obviously team dynamics have changed since then. There also now exists a small sample size by which to at least re-evaluate the trade at first blush.

Defensively, Mark Trumbo has been absolutely as bad as many feared he would be. Only 14 games into the season, Trumbo stands at -5 defensive runs saved on the season. At his current pace, Trumbo is estimated to have a combined defensive contribution of -45 runs on the season. That would be historically bad, and it entirely unlikely to occur. However, there is no denying that Trumbo has thus far proven to be a significant liability in left field, with a reasonable expectation being that he might possibly be able to improve to the level of just plain-bad.

On the other hand, Trumbo has been even more than was hoped for offensively. Though his batting average is down a bit, it is still quite early. He leads the league in home runs and RBIs with 6 and 18 respectively. Even more encouraging, he is hitting the ball to all fields, something he rarely did during his time in Anaheim where he really needed to pull the ball in order to produce power numbers. It remains to be seen if he can continue the trend, or if he will suffer from playing the outfield every day and eventually tire down the stretch.

As exciting as it has been to watch Trumbo, unless he raises his batting average 100 points, or figures out how to become a league average left fielder, it's going to be very difficult for his contributions at the plate to out-strip his deficiencies with the glove.

In regards to the talent parted with, Adam Eaton is off to a relatively strong start in Chicago with an OBP over .400. He is also playing some solid defense. Matt Davidson has been tinkered with some and sent back to AAA by the White Sox. Tyler Skaggs has had one strong and one mediocre start so far this season, making it as the #5 starter in the Angels' rotation. With the loss of Corbin and the collective failure of the Diamondbacks pitching staff, the team clearly misses Skaggs at this point. Skaggs at his worst was still better than the vast majority of performances turned in thus far by Diamondback pitchers this year. Now, with a depleted system, the team is scrambling to find answers.

Lost in all of the Trumbo evaluation is A.J. Schugel, a minor leaguer sent over from the Angels in the trade. Another middle-of-the-rotation type arm, Schugel could potentially be MLB-ready by early 2015, but more than likely winds up not appearing until late in the season if he can hang on. He will be an interesting one to watch, especially if the Diamondbacks find themselves forced to cut ties with Mark Trumbo for any reason, be it his escalating salary or the fact that he simply needs to play the game as a 1B/DH.

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