In many ways, 2015 was the “Year of the Prospect”. The rookie position player class of Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and others provided arguably the best rookie class in 100 years, according to Fangraphs. On the pitching end, Noah Syndergaard and Lance McCullers also had great seasons and helped lead their respective teams to the playoffs. Yet in a time where a huge movement of young talent seems to be rising in the MLB and fan/front-office obsession with prospects, there is one team that has refused to go with the trend.
The Arizona Diamondbacks have developed an extremely contrarian strategy that has made them the talk of the league in this offseason. The Diamondbacks’ front-office is preparing to go all-in for the short-term, a strategy sanctioned by President of Baseball Operations Tony La Russa and GM Dave Stewart. In an age where teams like the Astros and Cubs ditched their mediocre teams in order spent years tanking for the future, the Diamondbacks have gone in the complete opposite direction. With the Shelby Miller deal, Arizona has now gone completely all-in for short-term success. But is that really the right decision?
Three of the four teams that made the Championship Series in the playoffs were the result of carefully designed rebuilding plans that took years to develop. The front offices of the Cubs, Mets, and Royals all instituted long-term plans to develop their squads. This year, it finally all paid off. And if you include the improbable rise of the Houston Astros and the homegrown Pittsburgh Pirates as well, most of the best teams in baseball this season were homegrown operations with meticulous long-term planning (the Cardinals also count).
In all of these cases, front offices viciously protected their blue-chip young prospects and also developed young assets whenever possible. The Royals did not give up on Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and they developed players like Lorenzo Cain. The one blue-chip prospect they gave up, Wil Myers, has been, frankly, a massive disappointment. The Royals also got Wade Davis in that deal, which turned out to be a World Series-winning decision. The Mets also held onto their elite pitching prospects even as the fanbase demanded for a powerful bat. The Cubs spent years waiting for the next generation of Bryant, Soler, and Russell to take over.
And then you have the Diamondbacks. This summer, Diamondbacks basically sold its No. 16 overall pick, starting pitcher Touki Toussaint, for $9.5m to the Braves. Last week, they also gave up a selection in next year’s draft by signing Zack Greinke, which admittedly is a small price to pay for a bona fide ace. Now they have traded the number one overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, Dansby Swanson, a good pitching prospect in Aaron Blair and a productive young outfielder in Ender Inciarte for three arbitration-controlled years of Shelby Miller.
Again, all this activity is completely opposed to the prevailing wisdom amongst MLB front offices these days. While you get the occasional Addison Russell trade or Wil Myers deal, teams are remarkably stingy with prospects. Even big-money teams like the Yankees and Dodgers have been unwilling to trade their hotshot prospects. And as this season has shown, teams that make the right draft decisions and develop talent can be wildly successful in the regular season and the postseason. Does Dave Stewart think that he’s selling high on Swanson and Blair? You’d think he’d have a sizable investment in Swanson considering they spent the number one overall pick on him seven months ago.
Part of the Diamondbacks reasoning has to be the team’s well-stocked farm system coming into this offseason. Baseball America had the Diamondbacks sixth in farm system strength in 2015, and I’d imagine that the front office believes that they have enough young talent to spare. The Diamondbacks will have an excellent front end rotation next season with Greinke, Miller and Patrick Corbin. The Diamondbacks also have a formidable outfield pairing in 2015-breakout star A.J. Pollock and the underrated David Peralta. With Paul Goldschmidt manning first base, this team could be offensively devastating next year. On paper, it sort of makes sense why La Russa and the D-Backs would sacrifice the future and hunt for a World Series in 2016.
Shelby Miller is a good pitcher, and he may well become a competent No. 2 starter for the Diamondbacks next year. Heck, he may even have the stuff to become an ace someday. He’s showed flashes of brilliance, but a 3.45 FIP/4.07 xFIP pitcher with 7.50 K/9 and a high walk rate does not signal future ace in the making. Miller also benefitted from a very lucky HR/9 rate that was nearly half of his rate with the Cardinals; his home run rate will probably go up in the offense-friendly confines of Chase Field. Miller was a 3.4 fWAR player last year, and that is useful for any baseball club, but the Diamondbacks just traded their two best prospects and a good outfielder for a projected No. 2-3 starter. The Braves asked many other teams about Miller and demanded a massive haul of young talent in order for their own Cubs-style rebuilding plan. The Diamondbacks were the ones who finally decided to bite.
If Shelby Miller were a nice house around the block, the Diamondbacks essentially walked up to the realtor and decided to pay triple the house’s value. By last year’s numbers, Ender Inciarte also produced 3.3 fWAR last season, and he is a fantastic defensive player that can help the Braves immediately (and he’s cheap!). Inciarte was the second-best defensive right fielder by Defensive Runs Saved last season, and he will be replaced by the below-average defense of Tomas. In addition to 25-year-old Gold Glove candidate who hit over .300 last season, the Diamondbacks also gave up their MLB.com’s No. 10 prospect and their second-best prospect (61st according to MLB.com) for Shelby Miller. I understand that Miller is under team control for three more years, but its possible that the D-Backs have just mortgaged their future for three years in a nice house.
But will the Diamondbacks even be competitive next year? You know which NL West team sacrificed a bunch of young prospects in a vain attempt to make the playoffs and revitalize a fanbase within the last year? Oh right, it’s the San Diego Padres, who went 74-88 last year after A.J. Preller signed James Shields in free agency and made a big splash by trading for a Braves pitcher, in this case closer Craig Kimbrel. Then everybody thought they could be NL West contenders with a breakout season from Tyson Ross and Wil Myers. Needless to say, it went horribly wrong, and Preller had to trade Kimbrel a few days ago to help rebuild the farm system.
Thankfully for the Padres, Preller’s jettisoned talent and heavy spending does not even come close to the price Arizona paid for Greinke and Shelby Miller. Arizona still has serious holes on the roster. Their situation at catcher currently involves the uninspiring duo of Welington Castillo and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Nick Ahmed is a good defensive shortstop but he cannot hit at all. Chris Owings could be one of the worst opening-day second basemen in baseball to start next year (with the Yankees out of the running after trading for Starlin Castro). The Padres also made big-name acquisitions without improving a putrid infield situation, and it cost them dearly. Steamer projects Yasmany Tomas to be a massive downgrade at right field. At least he won’t be hurting his value by not having to play third base anymore, but still, he posted -1.3 fWAR last season. The Diamondbacks better hope for a breakout season from Jake Lamb or Brandon Drury at third base, or else the entire infield other than Goldschmidt could be mediocre.
Also, while the Diamondbacks have a fantastic top-three starters, the other two spots will be taken by Robbie Ray and whomever wins out between Chase Anderson and Rubby de la Rosa. Ray showed enough last season to be a competent No. 4, but Anderson and de la Rosa have not been above replacement level in their careers thus far. In short, I’m far from convinced that Arizona will be a playoff team in division with the Dodgers and the Giants in an even year. The best case scenario for the D-Backs is having a season like last year’s Toronto Blue Jays, the one team that made the LCS without a crop of blue chip prospects. However, the Blue Jays had to trade for David Price and Troy Tulowitzki during the season to make that happen, so the D-Backs will probably be mortgaging more of their future even if they are in the playoff race come next July.
If this does not pan out for the Diamondbacks, they will regret this trade. If the team contends for a wild-card for one or two years, which I think is a rosy scenario, the D-Backs will regret this trade. If Shelby Miller has the same year as last season, the D-Backs will regret this trade. Anything short of a World Series championship and Shelby Miller reaching Jake Arrieta status will probably make Diamondbacks fans regret this trade. It’s an absurdly high risk for little projected reward.