Don’t Forget How You Got Here!
by Jim Silva
How do small market teams, or even middle market teams, compete with large market teams? Well, if you ask Billy Beane, or Michael Lewis, the author of “Money Ball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game”, they would probably say something about exploiting market inefficiencies – looking for value that has been overlooked by the rest of the market. The simplified take on what the A’s did was to look for players with good on-base percentages and snap them up – they also traded away relievers, especially closers, who they thought were overvalued. But sabermetrics has caught fire and it is getting harder and harder to stay ahead of the rest of the league on anything. With the huge contract that the Cubs just handed Jason Heyward, it looks like defense, which was one of those undervalued nooks in the market, might not be quite so hidden anymore. Last season the Diamondbacks put together a high ranking defense that contributed greatly in taking them from a 63 win team in 2014 to a 78 win team in 2015. Can they still fly under the radar with their defensive bad selves or did they damage their biggest strength in the Shelby Miller trade? In fact, did they help themselves at all in the big off-season deal? Their off-season reeks of what the Padres did last winter – splashy but costly. The Diamondbacks took a step away from what was working for them and while it might help them this season, they could be paying for their eagerness to win now for many years into the future.
To start the season, the defense is still intact – sort of. They only swapped out one starter who had much defensive impact – Nick Ahmed. While Jean Segura might be a drop-off from Nick Ahmed, he is no slouch with the glove, besting the league average in range factor at shortstop and saving 3, 2, and -3 runs over the last three seasons. He gets to more balls than most shortstops, but he hovers around average always posting positive dWAR (defensive value above replacement players). So if you look at all of his defensive stats to get a more complete picture of Segura he looks solid, where Ahmed was excellent.
The biggest off-season move for Arizona might turn out to be the trade of Ender Inciarte, and not because it netted them Shelby Miller. Inciarte saved 29 runs playing left, center, and right field last season with DRS values of 12, 4, and 13 runs respectively. Even though he would have likely functioned as a 4th outfielder again, he would have picked up close to the 561 plate appearances he netted last season and saved the D-Back pitching staff plenty of runs. His bat produced too – his slash line was .303/.338/.408 with an OPS+ of 101 meaning he was pretty much league average. His glove won the Fielding Bible multi-position player award, so to also carry a league average stick at age 24 (last season) is pretty impressive. His WAR of 5.3 puts him into all-star territory, and again he will play as a 25 year old this season. The Diamondbacks gave up an all-star caliber outfielder, arguably the best player in last year’s draft class, shortstop Dansby Swanson, and a starting pitcher who just finished showing he could handle double-A, and triple-A, to get Shelby Miller and a minor league relief pitcher. Don’t get me wrong, the Diamondbacks needed to add to their rotation, and Miller is young and affordable, but did they give away too much at the major league level to get him? Part of the answer to that question depends on how you value Miller. If you think of him as a 3rd or 4th starter in the rotation, then the trade is likely to be disastrous from the start. If he is a number two starter with more development ahead, then the trade becomes more defensible. The question for 2016 is will Miller make up for what the Diamondbacks gave up in trading away Inciarte?
One way to look at the question is to compare how much of a difference there will be between what the replacement for Inciarte will contribute and what the pitchers who were pushed into the bullpen would have contributed. We also have to look at Blair – the starting pitcher and now the 4th best prospect on the Braves. Let’s start with Inciarte. His replacement is likely to be Socrates Brito. If he hits his 2017 projection (It is the first projection that has him over 400 plate appearances), then he will put up 0.7 WAR. He is young, and it is unknown how he will handle a full season in the majors so it is a reasonable guess. He is toolsy, fast, and likely to end up as a pretty rangy defender. If Inciarte just matches his numbers from last season and doesn’t show any growth, then the move from Inciarte to Brito is a net loss of 4.6 WAR. If Ender is a little off his game and drops back to his 2014 numbers (3.7 WAR), then it’s a net loss of 2.0 WAR. Obviously there are a lot of ways this could play out with the 4th outfielder for Arizona, but it is likely to be a pretty big drop off from Inciarte who was more of a 3rd-and-a-half outfielder and would have given the Diamondbacks the best defensive outfield in baseball had he reprised his 2015 season. But what about the pitchers?
Shelby Miller delivered 3.6 WAR to the woefully bad Braves last season and was rewarded with a 6 and 17 record, winning the coveted, “I lost the most games in the entire league” award. Back in the day, his season would have been viewed as a disaster, much like Ryan’s 1986 season with the Astros where he went 8 and 16 but won the ERA title. Nowadays we are more civilized and we can see past the wretched won-loss record to the bright and shiny ERA and other peripherals. For Miller, he has to be excited to move from a team destined to lose 90+ games to a solid contender for the National League West crown. There are tradeoffs of course. He is moving to a hitter’s park from a pitcher’s park, but also moving to a team with excellent defense. The defense giveth while the park taketh away. It is not unreasonable to expect a season similar to 2015 from the 25 year old. If we set the bar there, then we can compare him to what the Diamondbacks could have expected from the guy Miller bumped from the rotation.
Josh Collmenter and Archie Bradley are the two pitchers most affected by the Miller deal. Either man could have worked their way into the rotation, with Collmenter being more of a known quantity and Bradley being the one with the higher upside. It might have worked itself out with Bradley being the 5th starter and Collmenter filling the swing role again. At this point Collmenter is a better pitcher than Bradley, but Collmenter has proven time and again than he can handle moving back and forth from the rotation to the pen while Bradley doesn’t have that experience or extended major league success. Aaron Blair – the pitcher they traded away – might also have jumped over Bradley into the rotation with a stellar spring, although he likely would have started the season at triple-A since he started last season in double-A, and only has half a season of triple-A experience. At this point Blair IS better than Bradley and could probably give Collmenter a run for his money, but the Diamondbacks have a lot invested in Bradley and will likely give him at least one more crack at the rotation. Of course, you never know how good a kid is until he shows that he can do it in the majors. So far Blair has been shelled in Braves camp this spring while Bradley has been “meh”, but spring stats mean so very little except when you are trying to steal someone’s job.
With the Diamondbacks believing they can win it all, they would have been unlikely to give Bradley a very long leash. If Bradley looked like he did before he got hit by a line drive, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to hope for a 1.0 War season from the kid. If he looks like he did after he got hit, then Collmenter gets the nod. Collmenter has stayed between 0.9 WAR and 2.4 WAR for each of the last five seasons. Let’s say he has a season near the bottom of that value range – somewhere around 1.0 WAR. The difference between 2015 Miller and some growth Bradley/worst-case Collmenter would be around 2.6 WAR. Who knows what Blair would have delivered – probably somewhere close to what Bradley would manage. So that means Bradley or Blair in the rotation and Collmenter in the pen getting 12 to 15 starts and working in long relief, with no Miller on board. With Miller on board maybe Bradley gets a chance to prove himself again at triple-A, but the pen doesn’t change with Collmenter being the swing man. The trade likely helps Bradley’s development or gives him time to show that he just isn’t good enough to play with the big kids. The cost to the organizational pitching depth being you no longer have your best pitching prospect who might have contributed this season and almost certainly would have contributed in the near future and for a long time to come.
While on the surface, the Diamondbacks look significantly different in the rotation and stable everywhere else, they paid a big price. If we only look at the big pieces of the trade, the Diamondbacks are likely to make a slight gain in 2016. It is hard to overstate the loss of Inciarte, even if he wasn’t tabbed to be the starter. For a team built on excellent defense, trading away elite defense – the best glove man on the team – even to get a young starter, is worth questioning. If Miller isn’t what the team wish-casts him to be – a number two starter – the team is in serious trouble and Dave Stewart’s job as GM is endangered to say the least. If the diminished defense hurts the pitching staff, if Aaron Blair makes 30 starts for the Braves and is solid, if Ender Inciarte becomes a star as a full-time starting center-fielder, if, if, if… So many things have to happen in order for the trade, and the move away from their defensive focus, to pay off in order for the trade not to be mentioned in the same breath as Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen.