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If Josh Byrnes Had Not Happened... An Alternative History Of The Diamondbacks

I'm a fan of alternate history fiction. in which writers explore "What if X had happened?", where X is a change in history. Foe example, Fatherland, a book by Robert Harris (and subsequent HBO movie), is set in a world where Germany won World War II. It tends to make me appreciate how a tiny change in circumstances, at the right point, can cause a massive change down the line - the "butterfly effect". Baseball exhibits this often: the difference between a game-winning grand-slam and the final out can be mere millimeters on the bat.

I've been chewing over one particular "what if?" scenario, in regard to the Diamondbacks. What if Josh Byrnes had not been appointed as the team's general manager in November 2005? How might things have unfolded subsequently, and what state would the team be in now? After the jump, we'll take a look. Pack a lunch, this is a long one...

Before we get into this, an important note. None of this is meant to denigrate Byrnes, who is a smart, savvy guy; I had the chance to talk to him on a couple of occasions, and always enjoyed the experience enormously. Hindsight is 20/20, and many of the moves which now seem questionable, were ones I was (and/or most of us were) on board with at the time. Still, those who won't learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. So this is more of an effort to see if we can learn anything, than an exercise in finger-pointing.

The "butterfly" in this case was probably the infamous extension given to Eric Byrnes, which has been deemed responsible at various times for the trade of Carlos Gonzalez, the need to trade Jose Valverde and, in some corners of AZ Central, the election of Barack Obama. There certainly was a knock-on effect from the move, both in terms of outfield positions and resources that could be used elsewhere - though with regard to the latter, as shoewizard mentioned to me, "That 30 million has probably been allocated to cover 100 million worth of holes over the years... " But it's only one of several significant  "mistakes" made ob Byrnes' watch: In chronological order:

  • December 8th 2005: Dan Uggla unprotected in Rule 5 draft
  • August 7, 2007: Eric Byrnes extension
  • December 3, 2007: Carlos Quentin trade:
  • December 14, 2007: Dan Haren trade
  • December 14, 2007: Jose Valverde trade

Analyzing the value of these and the other deals done by Byrnes, in terms of strict WAR, would be a significant undertaking. Fortunately, I don't have to, because Beyond the Box Score's Chris Spurlock has, with effort that can only be mocked as hopelessly nerdy applauded, analyzed every trade in the majors since the start of 2006. He has come up with totals for each team, in terms of WAR sent vs. WAR received, and it's not pretty for the Diamondbacks. Over the time period covered, Arizona's total was worse than every other National League team bar the Cubs - and that doesn't even include the 14.9 WAR Uggla has produced for the Marlins.

This isn't necessarily disastrous. Dead last in the majors are the current AL champion Rangers, at a whopping -60.8.  That's mostly because of trades which sent Adrian Gonzalez to San Diego, and Mark Teixeira to Atlanta. Between them, those two alone have accumulated over 42 WAR since leaving Texas, and one can only speculate whether the Rangers might have won the World Series, if they'd somehow held on to those two. While I've some issues with the method (I'll get into those below), it's worth going through the Diamondbacks results in full, to see what light they shed on the Byrnes era.

Things started brightly enough, with 2006's moves resulting in a +9.7 WAR, the bulk of that coming from acquiring Doug Davis, and dumping Alex Cintron. But as you can imagine, 2007 was a disaster. The trades in that year were a net loss of 28.0 WAR. Obviously, the jewel turned out to be Carlos Gonzalez (7.7 WAR), but you might be surprised to learn that who tied with Brett Anderson as the second most-valuable player we lost, at 4.7 WAR. Not Carlos Quentin or even Jose Valverde, but Alberto Callaspo. Still, we kept the moral high-ground, so that's worth something, eh? All told, we dealt away six players in 2007, who have posted 3.3 or higher WAR since.

2008 was basically flat, but 2009 was another apparently bad season, costing the team 11.2 WAR with Max Scherzer, Felipe Lopez and Jon Garland the main culprits. However, it does show one of the weaknesses in the approach: it punishes teams for trading players in their contract year. The total includes WAR posted by Garland in this season, after he became a free-agent and signed with the Padres; charging us with those wins seems a tad harsh. 2010 was close to flat as well (-2.4, due to the departures of Edwin Jackson and Haren), but those were moves made with an eye on the future. But let's look at one day of deals - December 14, 2007 - in detail.

Dan Haren: Traded by the Oakland Athletics with Connor Robertson to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Brett Anderson, Chris Carter, Aaron Cunningham, Dana Eveland, Carlos Gonzalez and Greg Smith.

Dan Haren 4.8
Connor Robertson 0.0

Brett Anderson
Chris Carter

Aaron Cunningham 0.0
Dana Eveland 1.6
Carlos Gonzalez 1.1
Greg Smith 2.0


Haren's WAR total for 2010 includes what he achieved after being traded to the Angels, but this is a trade that didn't really live up to the belief that it would help us "win now". While we knew the long-term prognosis, the 2008-2010 years were when we expected it to be in our favor - but over those three seasons, the net benefit to Arizona was just 0.6 WAR, nowhere near enough to offset the far-greater cost of Haren. Even in the first year, the trade was close to a wash; while Haren's strong 2009 tilted things in Arizona's direction, the arrival of CarGon last year wiped out most of that advantage. From here on, it's only going to get uglier, folks.

Jose Valverde: Traded by the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Houston Astros for Chris Burke, Juan Gutierrez and Chad Qualls.

Jose Valverde
Chris Burke

Juan Gutierrez

Chad Qualls

This was a different kind of trade, dealing away someone whose price was about to get high, for players who were younger, cheaper and collectively, potentially better. Didn't work out that way, did it? While Jose has continued being more or less Jose [albeit for an increasing salary], the players we obtained have gone South like meth-crazed geese. Last season, one didn't play in the majors and the other two were worse than replacement for the Diamondbacks. Even discounting Burke's negative contribution to the Padres in 2009, the three players we received have combined, to date, for -0.5 WAR. We migh have been better off just giving Valverde to the Astros.

What kind of a roster might the 2010 Diamondbacks have had? We're now getting into the seriously-hypothetical, but let's see what could have happened. Here are the rules of the game: players either were on the Diamondbacks' roster at some point in 2005, or were drafted by the team subsequently. No-one acquired in a trade by Josh Byrnes can be included. 

Name 2010 ERA+/OPS+ 2010 WAR 2010 Salary
C Miguel Montero
103 1.4 $2m
2B Dan Uggla
130 3.7 $7.8m
SS Stephen Drew
113 3.3 $3.4m
3B Mark Reynolds
98 0.8 $833K
CF Carlos Gonzalez
143 4.5 $406K
RF Justin Upton
111 3.8 $3.8m
SP1 Brett Anderson
148 2.3 $410K
SP2 Max Scherzer
120 3.3 $1.5m
SP3 Ross Ohlendorf 100 2.0 $439K
SP4 Barry Enright
109 1.4 $400K
Closer Jose Valverde
140 1.2 $6.9m
SU1 Brandon Lyon
125 2.0 $4.25m
SU2 Darren Oliver
175 1.7 $3m
MR Javier Lopez
176 0.9 $775K
MR Sergio Santos
148 1.4 $400K*
LOOGY Doug Slaten
131 0.3 $450K**
Long Dustin Nippert
101 0.4 $665K

* Santos was an infielder when with us, but was converted to a pitcher
** Approximate 2010 salary

Obviously, it's not complete. We're short a 1B, a LF, the bench and a starter [in case you're wondering. He Who Shall Not Be Named wasn't worth including, at only 0.1 WAR last year for the White Sox, after a -0.5 WAR season in 2009] But as a core, that seems a very solid bunch of players, at a low cost and with a lot of future control. All told, the position players cost $18.2 million and produced 17.5 WAR; the pitchers, $19.15 million (the vast majority of it going to the bullpen), for 17.1 WAR. Even if you assume the remaining eight roster spots were minimum cost and replacement level, that's an overall total of about $40.6 million in payroll, for 34.6 WAR.

It's certainly a lot better than the team actually managed [16.9 WAR], and roughly in line with the Padres, who accumulated 35.4 WAR, and almost made it to the playoffs. Interesting to speculate on how things might have progressed for Arizona, had we not outperformed Pythagoras and won the division in 2007, despite getting out-scored by the opposition that year. Say, if we'd performed as expected going 79-83 - a little better than the previous year, but only good enough for fourth-place. No Sedona Red Kool-Aid, thinking we were on the verge of a dynasty, with 2008-10 a golden window of opportunity for multiple championships. Turned out that was a mirage.

Nice though 2007 was, there seems little doubt that the moves made in the wake of that success were massive failures. They did not deliver subsequent success, and decimated a farm system, the 2006 version of which was recently ranked the best of the entire decade. If we had simply stood pat, with what we had, it seems certain the franchise would be in a much stronger position now. Based on the numbers above, the D-backs 2010 win total would likely have been somewhere around the mid-80's,.at least, rather than going 67-95 and as a result, facing an up-hill struggle to reach .500 this year.