Diamondbacks' trade for Jean Segura is head-scratcher for Arizona
In filling out the Diamondbacks’ Winter Report Card two weeks ago, Jay Jaffe suggested that the Diamondbacks—one of the off-season’s most compelling teams—make a move to sort out their middle infield. On Sunday, they did finally swing a deal involving an infielder, but it wasn't the sort of trade we were expecting. Rather than add clarity to their infield, the Diamondbacks have only made it more crowded by getting shortstop Jean Segura and righthander Tyler Wagner from the Brewers for veteran second baseman Aaron Hill, righthanded starter Chase Anderson and minor-league shortstop Isan Diaz. Even worse, Arizona downgraded its rotation depth in the process by trading away an established starter in Anderson.
From the outside looking in, the primary motivation for this trade would appear to be financial. Hill—who will turn 34 in March and has been below replacement level the last two years—is owed $12 million for 2016, the last season of a three-year extension he received from former Arizona general manager Kevin Towers prior to the '13 season. The Diamondbacks are eating just $5.5 million of Hill’s 2016 salary, however, and Segura, in his first year of arbitration, will make $2.6 million this year; Arizona is only saving $3.9 million in this deal. To put that amount in context: Veteran starter Joe Blanton signed a one-year deal with the Dodgers for $4 million last month, and middle-inning relievers Neftali Feliz and David Hernandez each signed one-year deals for $3.9 million for the coming season. There’s not a lot that the Diamondbacks can do with that money in terms of player payroll.
Instead, this trade appears to be about the players involved. But perplexingly, Arizona GM Dave Stewart cited a need for an offensive upgrade as the primary motivator behind the trade in a conference call with reporters on Sunday:
“I think we all had a little bit of discomfort in where we were offensively and had been seeking to add a little bit more offense, if we could," Stewart [said]. "Jean Segura has been a pretty good offensive player in the past. He’s been an All-Star and is a very good defender. And he’s a guy we can hit in the top of the order, if we choose to. With an opportunity to make a move like that, we felt that we would do it.”
Segura was indeed an All-Star in 2013, but since his selection—based entirely on a hot first two months that season—he has hit .250/.282/.328 in 1,367 plate appearances over 2 1/2 seasons. He was a replacement-level player in 2015, and his 68 OPS+ tied him with the Royals’ Alcides Escobar as the third-worst qualified hitter in baseball last year. Segura is a good fielder and base stealer (despite his miserable on-base percentages, he has stolen 45 bases over the last two years and has a career success rate of 77%), but he is an awful hitter, lacking in both patience and power. Heading into his age-26 season, there’s little remaining optimism that he will rise above replacement level at the plate going forward. Indeed, given the direction in which his career is heading and the fact that he is now into his arbitration years, Segura seemed likely to be non-tendered before reaching free agency after the 2018 season.
With Segura in the mix, the Diamondbacks now have five young players for three infield positions, all of whom are coming off disappointing performances at the plate. Nick Ahmed, who is two days older than Segura, is an elite defensive shortstop who hit just .226/.275/.359 (70 OPS+) in his first full major league season last year. John Lamb, 25, is purely a third baseman and hit .263/.331/.386 (94 OPS+) in 390 plate appearances last year. Chris Owings, 24, can play on either side of second base but hit just .227/.264/.322 (58 OPS+) as a sophomore last year coming off off-season shoulder surgery. Brandon Drury, 23, can play third or second and is a legitimate prospect (ranked No. 72 on Baseball Prospectus’ just-released Top 101 list), but he has just 59 major league plate appearances to his name and posted a 68 OPS+ in those opportunities. All but Lamb are righthanded hitters.
Ahmed is exactly Segura’s age, has two more years of team control remaining, is two years away from arbitration (which Segura has already reached) and was a more valuable player last year. Nonetheless, Stewart suggested that Segura would get most of his playing time in spring training at shortstop, the implication being that Ahmed may have to battle Segura for his job. If Ahmed does hold on to shortstop, Owings may wind up being the odd man out, demoted to the utility infielder role. That said, if anyone beats out Owings for the second base job, it should probably be Drury, a career .285/.334/.440 hitter in the minors who may yet prove to be a viable major league bat—something Segura has established he is not. That logjam of young players could result in another trade, but Stewart would be selling low on any of those five players and would likely have to deal the best of them (Lamb, Ahmed or Drury, who are probably his best options at each position heading into camp) to get any kind of worthwhile return.
Beyond the infield, trading Anderson increases the likelihood of top prospect Archie Bradley making the Opening Day rotation. Rubby De La Rosa, who turns 27 in March and posted a 4.67 ERA and 4.81 FIP last year, is the 23-year-old Bradley’s only serious competition for the spot now that both Anderson and Aaron Blair (who was part of the package for Shelby Miller) are gone. Bradley had an awful and injury-riddled debut last year, but he seemed to be rounding back into form in Triple A as the minor-league season came to a close in early September. Zack Godley and fellow prospect Braden Shipley (who is due to make his Triple A debut in April) offer in-season alternatives should both Bradley and De La Rosa struggle.
The Diamondbacks do have options for the rotation, then, but they still traded away an established league-average starter (94 ERA+ in 48 starts over the last two years) with five remaining years of team control who won’t hit arbitration until after the 2017 season. Anderson is 28 and unlikely to be more than a good back-end option, but a pitcher like that can be quite valuable as a fifth starter. Arizona must then hope that Wagner—who is 25, has all six team-controlled years remaining and made three major league starts down the stretch last year—can provide similar value. Wagner, a ground-baller who was drafted in the fourth round out of the University of Utah in 2012, skipped Triple A last year and seems most likely to open the 2016 season there, where he could fall behind Shipley on the depth chart.
Anderson offers some level of certainty to the Brewers’ rotation, which has been an amalgam of emerging youngsters and struggling veterans in recent years and projected to have a similar character in the coming season. It’s entirely possible that Milwaukee’s young arms could ultimately squeeze Anderson out of the rotation entirely, but he will at least serve as a baseline which they must surpass in order to do so. It’s also possible that adding Anderson could allow the Brewers to deal one or two of those young arms for help elsewhere. Hill, meanwhile, will likely get a chance to reestablish himself in a wide-open Milwaukee infield—possibly at third base, with Scooter Gennett holding on to second and Jonathan Villar (who was acquired from the Astros in November) likely getting the first chance to keep shortstop warm for top prospect Orlando Arcia, who will likely open the year in Triple A.
The key to this trade for Milwaukee, however, may have been Diaz. A Puerto Rico native who was drafted out of a Massachusetts high school in the second round of the 2014 draft, Diaz won’t turn 20 until late May, but he had a monster age-19 season in rookie ball last year, hitting .360/.436/.640 in 312 plate appearances and winning the Pioneer League’s Most Valuable Player award. A lot of that is an inflated batting average (he hit .434 on balls in play), but if you shave off 70 points of batting average, you still get a .290/.366/.570 line, as Diaz was slugging at a 30-homer pace and had 25 doubles and six triples in 68 games as well. Diaz is still something of a lottery ticket—he’s unlikely to remain at shortstop and has yet to play in a full-season league—but for a rebuilding team, he’s a very compelling player, and one the Brewers gave up almost nothing to get.
That’s good work for Milwaukee, which could afford to deal from its glut of rotation arms and eat some money to get a compelling prospect with significant potential. It’s still a head-scratcher for Arizona, however. I don’t see how this trade makes the Diamondbacks better in 2016 or beyond, and it doesn’t simplify their infield situation at all. Clearly, Stewart thinks Segura can rebound, but his two months of productive hitting were so fleeting, I’m not even sure “rebound” is the right term. Segura would have to become a completely different hitter to be a better option than the infielders Arizona already had in its system. The possibility exists that a subsequent but related move—be it trading from that infield surplus or spending that $3.9 million savings—could cast a better light on this trade, but taken on its own, this swap is simply more reason to doubt Stewart’s ability to pull off such a deal.