Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you have heard by now that the Diamondbacks acquired starting pitcher, Shelby Miller from the Braves in exchange for outfielder Ender Inciarte, top pitching prospect Aaron Blair, and overall top prospect and last season's 1-1 pick in the draft, Dansby Swanson. The Braves also included 20-year-old A-ball reliever Gabe Speier, a former TJ recipient with some intriguing, though not spectacular upside. If you've been around the site for the last 2 days, it is no secret that I avidly disliked this trade when it went down on Tuesday afternoon.
Now that I have had time to reflect on the deal, nothing has changed. I hate this deal, and I hate it in spades. I'm fairly certain that I am not experiencing mild indigestion, but that the burning sensation I feel is the fire of hatred I have for this deal that I wish would leap forth and consume it whole. Simply put, I feel the Diamondbacks gave up far too much in exchange for a player that I am not certain makes this team any better after the trade than before.
Listen, I know this team is all-in, going broke to contend for the World Series in 2016 and 2017. Even after the shocking Zack Greinke signing, it was fairly clear to just about everyone that the best thing the Diamondbacks could do to bolster their chances was to add another high quality pitcher to their rotation. Miller is young (only 25) and is under control for three more seasons at arbitration wages. For the last 3 seasons, he has been among the better pitchers not in the "established ace" conversation. He fits the Diamondbacks competitive window like a glove. It is easy to see plenty to like going on there. The team needed a second rotation boost, and Miller unquestionably adds wins to the rotation that was slated to open 2016 before the trade. What's more, he's adding marginal wins, the kind harder and more expensive to come by. There are definitely times to be all-in and in a dedicated win-now mentality. Goldschmidt, Pollock, Greinke, and a healthy Corbin make this one of those times. Shelby Miller was certainly not a bad target. In fact, he may have been the only target pitcher the team could afford at the price they paid. It is that price paid for the likely return that bothers me the most.
There is the mantra that strong farms do not themselves win a World Series. This is undeniable. In the end, it is only the major league roster that can take a team across the finish line, Raul Adalberto Mondesi notwithstanding. Hoarding prospects but never winning does the team no good, better to spend the prospects and win. The problem here is that it is hardly clear that this was the choice in front of the Diamondbacks. The only players involved in the deal that will not be playing in the majors in 2016 are Gabe Speier and Dansby Swanson. This is where this deal begins to fall apart for me, and why I am not sold that it was anything resembling a good idea. Despite the trade being officially for Inciarte and two prospects, it was really for what was projected to be 2 members of the 25-man roster and the team's best prospect by a wide margin. Even projecting entirely modest results out of Aaron Blair, say something like
That is essentially Trevor Bauer of the Cleveland Indians, otherwise known as a 1.5 WAR pitcher with tons of room for growth. Now, Blair doesn't have Bauer's upside, so don't think I'm calling Blair a budding ace - I'm not. I do think he improves into the range of a solid #3 pitcher capable of eating up 200 IP though, perhaps as soon as this upcoming season. The reason this matter to me is those marginal wins I am liking out of Miller. To get those wins, one usually replace the weakest link. In the case of the Diamondbacks' rotation, that link was Rubby De La Rosa, not Aaron Blair. Given Miller's age, make-up, and the fact that he is coming to a winning team, I am willing to concede that he will improve slightly and have the best year of his career in 2016 and pencil in 4.0 WAR. Subtracting the WAR lost by displacing a marginal Blair, and the team improves by only 2.5 wins. That isn't quite as spiffy. However, it still is something, and it is still in the realm of those hard to get wins.
The loss of Blair is not the only change in the 125-man dynamic though. The team also lost Ender Inciarte. Because so much of Inciarte's value is tied to his exceptional any-field outfield defense, his value moving forward is difficult to pin down. Regardless of the metric used though, it is no stretch to pencil him in as being good for 2.5+ WAR, bringing great defense and a high batting average. The team has a potential replacement for Inciarte in Socrates Brito. Brito has shown the potential to be a 2 WAR player in his rookie campaign, but it is still hardly a certainty. It is only quite possible. The team isn't turning to Brito though. No, the team is once again turning its gaze to Yasmany Tomás. Tomás is a downgrade in every facet of the game from Inciarte. He hits for a substantially lower average, strikes out more, walks less, and currently demonstrates only a touch more home run power than Inciarte. All of this is packaged with substantially negative value on the defensive side of things. All told, unless he improves not just a little, but a great deal, he provides negative team value. Even a full game improvement would still leave about a three-win difference between Tomás and Inciarte. Uh-oh. That is a substantial downgrade. It also eats the entirety of the wins added by Miller over Blair. Even getting a bit more bullish all-around, the team will be doing well to break even.
Common logic is that it always helps to stack as much WAR in one player as possible. This makes other upgrades easier and cheaper. The problem presented here is that Miller does not represent a huge upgrade over Inciarte and Inciarte's replacement is not a neutral or replacement level player. At least, he isn't yet. None of this addresses salary or the elephant in the room that is Dansby Swanson. It is estimated that Miller will earn $4.5 million in 2016. That is 4.5 times as much as Inciarte and Blair. In 2017 the disparity becomes even worse, nearing something approaching 10 times the cost. Ender Inciarte does not reach arbitration until 2017. Aaron Blair gets there in 2019. During the team's competitive window of 2016-2017, Shelby Miller will cost the team an additional $12.5 million.
What about that third year of Miller you say? Why not look for a three-year window? If Shelby Miller meets the modest and entirely achievable expectation of being a 4.0 WAR pitcher in 2016 and 2017 and can manage to remain healthy the entire time, things get very dicey for the team moving into 2018. It will be the last season of control for Miller. It will also mean that if Miller can continue, he will be on pace to land a 6-year/$150 million contract without a problem when he hits free agency. Given the team's commitments, there is simply no way they can afford that. So the Diamondbacks will be left with a choice, letting Miller reach free agency and potentially getting a qualifying offer draft pick for him (assuming those are still around). Or they can trade him prior to the 2018 season. The return for trading Miller before his final arbitration season of 2018 would blow away any single return the team is likely to find with a comp round pick in the low-to-mid-thirties overall. What they are not getting though, is another 4-win pitcher for 2018 (though they may get one for somewhere down the road). 2018 also happens to be the final year of arbitration for Patrick Corbin, assuming he is not signed to a friendly extension before then. It is also the final year of A.J. Pollock. These departures make it difficult to project the window to an additional, third season, barring some break-out campaigns from the likes of Shipley sometime in 2016/17 and some other pitching prospect (there are some candidates, but 2018 looks stronger for rookie seasons than developed seasons).
What about Swanson? He is an unproven commodity. Sure, he was last year's 1-1 pick. Yes, he plays a premium position, and represents a substantial future upgrade over anyone currently on the roster. Therein is the key though, he is not contributing in 2016. It is possible he could be up late in 2017. That means he isn't contributing much at all before the window comes to a close, unless the window is extended out to three years, the maximum amount of time the Diamondbacks can keep Miller. By the third season, Swanson should, at a minimum, be another replacement level player. A conservative estimate for Blair + Swanson between now and the end of the 2018 season is 6.5-7 wins at a cost of $2.5 million. A bullish but achievable estimate for Miller is 12 wins at a cost of $28-30 million. That's an awful steep price for 5 wins over two seasons. With Inciarte figured into the equation, the Diamondbacks achieve 15-16 wins for a cost of $4 million. What's more, going with the younger, cheaper alternative, the team's window does not come to a hard close in either 2018 or 2019 (though a Pollock departure could still make that a close thing).
Sticking with the youth movement is all fine and dandy, but that doesn't address the fact that the team was in real need of a second pitcher of Corbin or better quality. Aaron Blair's steady but unspectacular 200 innings pitched were not going to be the difference in a playoff series facing off against deGrom and Syndergaard. The team needed a second reliable stopper. The thing is, the trade market (where the team may have indeed maximized their return on investment) was not the only option. Free agency still has a number of candidates that could have stepped in. At least one of those candidates, Scott Kazmir, is a three or four-year contract candidate. At four years and $60 million, he only needs to generate a bit over 2 wins per season to earn the contract. All of those wins can be directly applied to replacing the weakest link in the rotation, not the second-weakest. That increase the value of his wins even more. The really nice part is; the team gets to keep all of those youth movement wins as well. For the somewhat risky outlay of a Scott Kazmir contract, the team could add around 10 wins over the next three years on top of the 15 from Inciarte, Blair, and Swanson. When the contract is up, the team still has those three in place (or upgrades to Inciarte and Blair if things go well). The team is still in a position to continue riding the wave to future seasons of success. It is then that the farm becomes a place of strength again with guys like Westbrook, Huang, Keller, Lopez, Diaz, and Young all knocking on the door. (At least, we hope they all pan out so nicely.)
The Take: The team is focused on winning right now. In order to do so, they needed another pitcher. They paid the steep price necessary to get that pitcher in acquiring Shelby Miller. But, will Miller bring enough to the table to offset the cost of dodging a free agent alternative that costs "only money" (and not a heaping pile more)? Only time is going to tell, I'm of the mind that three to four years from now, while the team is trying to re-tool, it winds up not being even close. Of course, a Commissioner's Trophy could change all that in a hurry.