The Trade Speaks:
Though in many ways it feels like it was just yesterday, it was four days ago that the Diamondbacks made what was, politely speaking, one of the most questionable trades in recent baseball memory, when they sent last year's first-round pick (#16) Touki Toussaint to the Atlanta Braves along with Bronson Arroyo and all of Arroyo's contract. In essence the Diamondbacks traded Toussaint for $10 million and an injured replacement level utility infielder in Phil Gosselin.
When the trade went down, I put together a long(ish) post for this installment that covered all the reasons the trade was such a bad idea. However, the Internet has already almost melted from all of the digital ink being spilt on the subject. Besides, while no amount of spin is going to convince me this was a good trade to make, the reality is that we will not know how bad the trade was for at least a handful more years. No, rather than spend yet another entire article lambasting the front office for making the trade, I instead decided to write about what it is that this trade seems to be saying about the ownership of this team, and why it is so disturbing.
There are really two sides to this issue here, and unfortunately for Diamondbacks fans, neither one is terribly encouraging. The first issue is a simple lack of patience. When the trade first went down, and before Diamondbacks Chief of Baseball Operations, Tony LaRussa went on-air to discuss the trade, there was plenty of speculation as to what could possibly motivate the trade, with money being the only thing that most seemed to be able to agree on. Things did not get much better one LaRussa spoke out though.
These are some of the quotes from LaRussa regarding the trade:
"It isn't that Touki (Toussaint) isn't going to be a major leaguer. Really liked his talent. He's got talent, he's got character and he's got willingness to work. It's just that, best case, it's going to be four, five, six years before he's a quality big leaguer and we're more impatient with that.
"We're not pushing a five-year plan, which is what Touki is. Does that mean, just in retrospect, since I was there, should I have told (former scouting director Ray Montgomery), 'Ray, don't draft a Touki?' Maybe I should have, but that was my first draft."
"If I'm a fan, I would be skeptical (of the Toussaint trade)," he said. "'Hey, man, they traded the future away.' Touki has a future, but it's not an immediate future like we need. We think (our future) is sooner rather than later."
"We're advancing, and we're not asking our fans to be patient four or five years from now...we'll be a contender soon, maybe even next year and do it for several years."
There are two things that stand out to me in these quotes. First, Tony LaRussa has already made at least one very expensive rookie mistake and is still learning his job, which has a steep enough learning curve that a second such mistake would usually cost a guy in his position their job. The second takeaway is that this front office, despite any comments made to the contrary, is impatient to win, and to win now. LaRussa said it himself, Touki could still be four years away and they are more impatient than that.
In the world of baseball development, four years is nothing. Even the very best high school players take more than three years to arrive. Some of the best college players even take three years, depending on how many tools they have to refine after they are drafted, and what the team has already in place at the MLB level.
It is not at all unlikely that by 2020, everyone in the Diamondbacks system other than possibly Dansby Swanson and Alex Young will be gone. Those two by themselves will not be enough to build a team around. If indeed trades made today line the team up to be a playoff team (even just the Wild Card), then the team will be selecting in the bottom ten every year from now through 2019. Looking back across the last ten seasons, there have been only 5 solid regular all-star type players drafted between 22 and 32. Granted, one of those was Mike Trout, so at least the very best is represented in the group. But that's 100 draft picks, and not a ton to show for it. That's what the Diamondbacks will be drafting from to add to Swanson and Young. Yet players like Toussaint, represented a strong player already in hand to make a difference both before Goldschmidt leaves and after as well. That caliber of draft pick usually does not fall out of the top 10, and with draft analytics only becoming more refined, the likelihood drops every season. Sure, there are players chosen in supplemental rounds and rounds after the first that make a solid impact. The Diamondbacks have one right now in Paul Goldschmidt. But looking at the window the team is shooting to be drafting in every season, the talent is scarce, and tends to be a hit as much based on luck as it does on any sort of real scouting.
Impatience in baseball is not a virtue. It rarely pays off. Eventually, that price paid from the future comes due. Teams building both for the future and the present stock up on as much future talent as possible, then get bonus success in the present when any of it develops ahead of schedule.
As much as the front office's impatience bothers me, it is a correctable trait. I'm not saying it will be corrected. In fact, if I were a betting man, I would bet against Ken Kendrick and Tony LaRussa suddenly developing patience for winning five years or more out. But that does not change the fact that it can be fixed. The only necessary ingredient is a modicum of will power and a GM willing to tell an owner, "No," when a poor baseball decision for the future is bandied about.
No, it is the second issue with this trade that I find most disturbing, and it is one for which there is essentially no cure. Plain and simple, no bones about it, baseball is a billionaire's game. Mega-millionaires need not apply. It doesn't matter that Phoenix is the fifth largest city and 12th largest media market in the country. The reality is, Ken Kendrick and the partnership do not have the financial muscle to play this game at the highest level.
More from Tony LaRussa:
"The ability to have some payroll flexibility is critical to adding a couple of pieces. I don't think we're going to need a lot of pieces because we're going to develop with this core. But if you can make the right move or two with somebody, that brings a lot to the table. Payroll flexibility is important."
"We were given a budget, and like any responsible front office, you're going to live within that budget. We were in really good shape and then we had an opportunity for Lopez. (But) the Lopez thing has been solved. At this point, (Mark) Trumbo saved us a couple. We had gotten to our budget. The whole point of this is payroll flexibility going forward."
On the surface, these seem like very reasonable quotes that make sense and would apply to any team in the league and, to an extent, they do. But these comments are not being made about mitigating franchise crippling contracts or clearing huge salary to make a run at a top-tier free agent. These comments were made in response to clearing Bronson Arroyo's contract. Between this season and the buyout for next season, the team is going to be able to bank a total of roughly $10 million. To you, me, and almost anyone out there, $10 million is an awful lot of money. To baseball teams, ones positioned to compete year in and year out, that should be the equivalent of re-working one good arbitration-covering contract.
LaRussa has said that the money might be used now, or it could be used later to help improve the team. Exactly how does clearing only $5.5 million from this year's planned expenditures make a difference in acquiring a top talent unless the team was up against a financial wall on payroll imposed by the partnership? Even adding in next season's saving, does that $10 million in total savings make the difference in what sort of free agent the team will be pursuing despite having nearly $90 million in salary space to play with already?
The front office has made it clear that the moving Arroyo's salary was important to building for the future. When playing in a division with the Dodgers and Giants, and bidding for the services of premium free agents in a league with at least ten to twelve other teams spending double what the Diamondbacks will for a season on payroll, Arroyo's pittance of a salary should not be deciding anything. The fac that Arroyo's salary has become such a big issue casts a very dark shadow over the upcoming television revenue and how much it can actually help the Diamondbacks.
If the Diamondbacks really are playing things so close to the acceptable margins that Arroyo's contract is a difference maker, trading away a talent like Toussaint makes even less sense. Homegrown talent is always the cheapest way to go, and Toussaint represented a chance to save serious money (far more than $10 million) in the future, when $10 million will barely cover half of what a qualifying offer is.
This, to me, is the depressing part of what this trade tells us. Can the Diamondbacks honestly be a team that every year is considered a playoff contender if the finances do not improve tremendously? Can this ownership actually compete in the NL West? Or are the Diamondbacks closer to being the Miami Marlins than they are the Houston Astros? Unfortunately, the only cure for this problem is new ownership, and that just isn't in the cards - not now, and quite possibly not in the next 10 years.