Diamondbacks pay steep price to improve rotation with Shelby Miller
In case the record-breaking salary they gave Zack Greinke didn’t tip you off, the Diamondbacks are going all-in on the final three years of perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt’s contract. That was confirmed Tuesday night, when Arizona acquired righthander Shelby Miller and minor-league reliever Gabe Speier from the Braves for a jaw-dropping package that includes outfielder Ender Inciarte, pitching prospect Aaron Blair and the No. 1 pick in the 2015 amateur draft, shortstop Dansby Swanson.
Miller, a former top prospect himself, is a clear upgrade to the Diamondbacks’ rotation. In two of his three full seasons as a major league starter, he has posted an ERA+ above 120, and the sinker he has developed over the last two seasons has helped correct his once-troubling fly-ball rate and actually make him a bit of a ground-ball pitcher. Capable of hitting 98 mph with his four-seamer and mixing in a cutter, curve and change, the 25-year-old Miller boasts a live arm, a classic pitcher’s build and a deep repertoire, and he will likely benefit greatly from sharing a dugout with the cerebral Greinke. Chances are that, despite the move to a more hitter-friendly ballpark, his best years are ahead of him.
Miller is not, however, a front-of-the-rotation starter, at least not yet. Despite the quality of his stuff, he has posted below-average strikeout rates in each of the last two years. He also walks a few too many; over the last three seasons, has posted an anemic 2.30 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a middling 3.87 fielding independent pitching figure. Indeed, he will likely slot in as Arizona’s No. 3 starter, behind Greinke and Patrick Corbin, the latter of whom made a strong return from Tommy John surgery in the second half of 2015, and ahead of sophomore lefty Robbie Ray. That improves the rotation by forcing incumbents Chase Anderson and Rubby De La Rosa, righty Zack Godley and top prospect Archie Bradley to battle over the fifth spot, which should ultimately be the 23-year-old Bradley’s provided he can build on his strong finish to an injury-riddled 2015 season. It’s not difficult, however, to imagine Ray or Bradley out-pitching Miller in the coming season.
Given that, the Braves made out like bandits in this deal. The 25-year-old Inciarte alone could be more valuable than Miller going forward. An outstanding defensive outfielder with a capable bat and speed on the bases, Inciarte was third on the Diamondbacks, pitchers included, in baseball-reference.com’s Wins Above Replacement this past season. He has averaged 5.8 bWAR per 162 games in his two major league seasons and will likely hold down centerfield in Atlanta for his remaining five team controlled-seasons. That bWAR figure may be slightly inflated by an enthusiastic Defensive Runs Saved figure, but Baseball Prospectus had him worth 4.7 Wins Above Replacement Player per 162 games over the last two seasons, and FanGraphs has him at 4.0 WAR per 162 games. In other words, he is an All-Star-quality contributor and has performed at that level while breaking into the league and being jerked between all three outfield positions in an overcrowded outfield. He could emerge as a legitimate star in Atlanta.
Blair, a 6’5” righty entering his age-24 season, was rated the 40th-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America entering this past season. His stock fell with his strikeout rate in a 2015 season split between Double and Triple A, putting up a year that look a lot like something off the back of Miller’s baseball card by getting good results with weak peripherals. Still, he projects as a mid-rotation starter in the majors given his deep repertoire and deceptive, three-quarters delivery. Having gone 7–2 with a 3.16 ERA in 77 innings at Triple A this past season, he could be a part of the Braves' rotation as early as the coming season.
Then there’s Swanson. The top pick in the nation this past June, Swanson is by definition an elite prospect, a legitimate shortstop with a legitimate bat that hit .289/.394/.482 across 99 plate appearances in short-season A ball in his first professional exposure. Something like that line with 20 homers and above-average play at shortstop is not out of the question for his major league projection. A Vanderbilt product, Swanson will turn 22 in February and could move quickly through the Braves' system toward the shortstop position vacated by the trade of Andrelton Simmons earlier this offseason (Erick Aybar, acquired in that deal, is in his walk year). He won’t be ready to open the Braves’ new ballpark in 2017, but he could be in the majors as early as '18, and as a Georgia native with star potential at the up-the-middle position, he could prove to be the face of the franchise in its new digs.
Obviously the time tables for these two teams are very different. The Diamondbacks are clearly in win-now mode, willing to trade Swanson’s future for a chance to cash in Goldschmidt’s present. Nonetheless, they acquired the three arbitration-eligible years of a starting pitcher who is still more potential than performance for a total of 17 team-controlled seasons of three players, any one of whom may prove to be as valuable or moreso than Miller in their primes. That’s a bad deal on paper, and given Inciarte’s contributions the last two years, may not necessarily make them a better team on the field even in the short term.
Yes, the Diamondbacks’ outfield was overcrowded prior to this trade. Yet of the many players jockeying for playing time in the Arizona pastures, only A.J. Pollock, whose emergence as a star player has in large part emboldened Arizona’s aggressiveness this offseason, was more valuable than Inciarte. Independent league find David Peralta is a legitimate hitter but a poor fielder and is already 28. Cuban import Yasmany Tomas was a massive disappointment in his first major league season this past year, got worse at the plate as the year progressed and finished below replacement level due to his brutal play wherever the D-Backs tried to hide him on the diamond. Socrates Brito and Peter O'Brien are compelling young players, but there are doubts about Brito’s bat and O’Brien’s glove, and the two have combined for just 46 major league plate appearances. There may be more moves to come, but as things stand, it’s not a guarantee that Miller will upgrade the rotation enough to compensate for the loss of Inciarte in the outfield.
For all of the attention the Diamondbacks are generating, this deal is a much bigger win for the Braves, whose rebuild got a jumpstart with this trade. Atlanta has now turned Jason Heyward’s walk year into a potential face-of-the-franchise shortstop, five years of an above-average centerfielder and six years of a potential mid-rotation starter. Add to that 23-year-old righty Tyrell Jenkins, who came over with Miller from the Cardinals and made 25 starts in a season split between Double and Triple A in 2015 and could have a future in the bullpen. With Atlanta holding the No. 3 pick in 2016 and likely in the top five again in '17, we could look back at this trade as the moment the team began to turn the corner toward its next contending season. That season is still several years away, but the chances of its arrival improved greatly with the Diamondbacks’ continued willingness to overpay for starting pitching.