- Heading for a losing season yet again despite an off-season of spending and dealing, Arizona must find a culprit for its woeful year. But who's to blame for the Diamondbacks' struggles?
Less than 15 months after he was chosen by the Diamondbacks as the top pick of the 2015 draft, Dansby Swanson made his Chase Field debut on Monday. Unfortunately for Arizona's embattled front office regime, it came as a member of the Braves, who traded for the now-22-year-old shortstop in a deal for righthander Shelby Miller that quickly went south, helping to drag the Diamondbacks' 2016 fortunes with them. That's hardly the only thing that's gone wrong for the club, but it’s emblematic of the now-imperiled regime of chief baseball officer Tony La Russa and general manager Dave Stewart.
After splitting the first two games of their four-game set with the Braves—during which Swanson has gone 3 for 8, incidentally—the Diamondbacks are 52–74, dead last in the NL West, with the league's second-worst record and run differential (-131). They're on pace for 95 losses, which would be merely their third-worst season out of the last seven, better than in 2010 (65–97) and '14 (64–98), albeit not by much. They've already changed general managers twice in that span, firing Josh Byrnes in July 2010 and Kevin Towers—under whom the team rebounded to win the division in '11—in September 2014. Towers's dismissal was heralded by the arrival of La Russa, a Hall of Fame manager who had never held a front office position before. After firing Towers, he hired Stewart, his former ace in Oakland, as a first-time GM, and De Jon Watson, the Dodgers' vice president of player development, as senior vice president of baseball operations.
While notable for adding minorities to a front office at a time when their absence has become increasingly glaring, the lack of experience for Stewart stood out as well. The 59-year-old former agent last worked in a front office in 2001, as an assistant general manager with the Blue Jays—a substantial gap that "encompasses the entire analytics revolution in the sport," as ESPN's Keith Law pointed out in a blistering criticism of the regime, more on which below.
The on-field results of that regime change haven't been stellar, though the Diamondbacks did improve by 15 wins from 2014 to '15 under first-year manager Chip Hale before this year's debacle took hold. And what a debacle it has been. The Diamondbacks are last in the majors in run prevention at 5.60 runs per game, some of which owes to their hitter-friendly ballpark, but not all of it; their 86 ERA+ is the NL's worst by one percentage point. Arizona's rotation and bullpen both own the league's highest ERAs (5.15 and 5.14, respectively), and both units are among the bottom four in walk and home run rates, with the bullpen's 4.67 FIP the league's second-worst mark. The defense's .663 defensive efficiency is in a virtual tie with the Twins for the majors' worst mark. The offense is sixth in scoring (4.56 runs per game), but again, some of that is park-inflated; the team's OPS+ is just 94.
The Swanson trade, made during last December’s winter meetings—six months to the day after Swanson was drafted—sent the shortstop plus outfielder Ender Inciarte and pitching prospect Aaron Blair to Atlanta for Miller and pitching prospect Gabe Speier. The deal set a record for the speed with which a No. 1 pick was traded, but it was the first year such a move could be made given the previous prohibition from trading draft picks until a year after they were chosen. But even had it been made six months later, the trade would have been panned for its imbalance of talent heading away from Arizona. Miller, a 25-year-old righty, came with three years of club control but was widely regarded as a mid-rotation starter, not an ace, and Speier was an A-ball lefty reliever. On the other hand, Inciarte, who came with five years of control, was coming off a 5.3-WAR season, and Blair was a consensus top-100 prospect.
That imbalance has been exacerbated by poor performance and injuries. Miller was lit up for a 7.14 ERA and 5.66 FIP in 14 starts, just two of which were quality starts. He struggled with his mechanics and missed nearly four weeks in late May and June due to a finger sprain; was optioned to Triple A Reno during the All-Star break; and was nearly traded to the Marlins at the deadline for three starting pitchers, but ownership reportedly rejected the deal because "it wouldn't look good." Miller has righted himself in Reno, pitching to a 3.52 ERA in a league where 4.49 is average, and his peripherals, including 10.0 strikeouts per nine, have been strong to boot. The Diamondbacks could call him up soon, though they're nearing the point where his stay could be long enough to delay his free agency by a year.
Miller has hardly been the rotation's only underperformer. Zack Greinke, the marquee free agent whom Arizona signed away from the Dodgers via a six-year, $206.5 million deal, has slipped from last year's league-best 1.66 ERA (222 ERA+) to 4.21 (105), with his home run rate doubling from 0.6 per nine to 1.2; where he was worth 9.3 WAR last year, he's been worth just 2.2 this year. He and Robbie Ray (4.31 ERA, 103 ERA+) are the only starters preventing runs at a better-than-average clip, though Rubby De La Rosa (4.15 ERA, 107 ERA+) has been limited to eight starts due to elbow inflammation. Patrick Corbin (5.73 ERA) scuffled to the point of being sent to the bullpen; touted prospect Archie Bradley (5.06 ERA in 19 starts) has received a rough introduction to regular work in the major league rotation; and fellow prospect Braden Shipley (5.45 ERA in six starts) has been pummeled as well. All three have walked too many hitters and allowed too many homers. Meanwhile, since-traded closer Brad Ziegler and current setup man Enrique Burgos are the only relievers with more than three appearances and an ERA below 4.14.
Inciarte has been greatly missed due to the injuries of A.J. Pollock and David Peralta. Pollock, who was worth 7.4 WAR last season, fractured his right elbow during spring training, underwent surgery and was thought to be lost for the season, though he's expected to be activated on Friday. Peralta, worth 3.7 WAR last year, played just 48 games, hitting the disabled list three times for right wrist and back injuries, and underwent season-ending wrist surgery earlier this month. With youngsters Socrates Brito and Peter O'Brien failing to click, those absences have forced the Diamondbacks to fill out their outfield with either retreads (Michael Bourn and Rickie Weeks) or converted infielders (Brandon Drury and Chris Owings). Where last year's outfield combined for a league-high 15.7 WAR, this year's unit has slipeed to a league-worst -0.3—a drop of 16 wins.
Both totals include the replacement-level work of Yasmany Tomas, who stands as one of the La Russa/Stewart regime's most glaring mistakes in player evaluation. A Cuban defector signed to a six-year, $68.5 million deal in December 2014, Tomas proved unable to play third base last year (-6 DRS in 31 games) and was DH-caliber in the outfield as well (-6 DRS in 57 games), and to make matters worse, he managed a mere 89 OPS+; all that added up to -1.2 WAR. This year, while he's clubbed a team-high 26 homers, his overall offensive performance (.267/.310/.519 for a 111 OPS+) has still been offset by his defense (-8 DRS, mostly in leftfield) en route to 0.2 WAR.
If the metrics are to be believed, bad defense has also neutralized the offensive breakout of third baseman Jake Lamb, who has hit .262/.338/.535 with 24 homers and a 123 OPS+. That said, his slip from last year's +7 DRS to this year's -13 (or from +9 to -10 via UZR) should be regarded with suspicion—exacerbated, perhaps by the ball-hawking of shortstop Nick Ahmed (+12 DRS), who was lost for the season in late July due to right hip impingement, for which he will soon undergo surgery. Ahmed's utter failure to hit (.218/.265/.299 for a 47 OPS+) dragged his own WAR down to 0.0. Meanwhile, Didi Gregorius, whom the team traded to the Yankees in the three-way deal that brought back Ray, has grown into an above-average shortstop in the bright lights of the Bronx, providing 5.3 WAR in his two seasons there.
To be fair, the La Russa/Stewart regime has had some success in its trades. Wellington Castillo, acquired from the Mariners in June 2015 in a six-player deal that sent away Mark Trumbo—whose own DH-caliber defense had no place in the NL—has emerged as a solid starting backstop. Jean Segura, acquired from the Brewers in January 2016, has resurrected his career by hitting .321/.369/.478 and playing solid second base en route to 4.1 WAR. Still, that deal cost the team 2014 second-round pick Isan Diaz, a shortstop who has hit .276/.368/.488 as a 20-year old in Class A. That year's first-round pick, Touki Toussaint, was traded to the Braves in June 2015 for the purposes of dumping Bronson Arroyo's salary. The Diamondbacks' minor league system ranked 22nd this spring according to Baseball America and 24th according to Baseball Prospectus and ESPN, and they didn't place a single prospect among the BA midseason Top 100 or the BP Top 50; Shipley cracked ESPN's list at No. 22.
Law, who authored that ranking, highlighted what he termed "the Yoan Lopez fiasco" in his recent critique of the organization. When the team signed the 6'4" Cuban righty with an $8.27 million bonus in January 2015 "even though it appeared that he was priced by other teams at about one-tenth that number," it represented a misunderstanding of international signing rules. The Diamondbacks were apparently unaware they would not only have to pay a 100% tax on the amount by which they exceeded their international pool money but also would be prohibited from signing international free agents with bonuses exceeding $300,000 for the next two signing periods. That overage, in turn, led to the dumping of Arroyo's salary via the Toussaint trade; meanwhile, Lopez left the team's Double A affiliate in early July with the intention of quitting the sport, amid what Stewart termed "serious emotional issues” stemming from his defection.
Law also noted Arizona's 2015 trade of a competitive balance pick to Atlanta to rid itself of Trevor Cahill's contract, which cost the team $814,300 in slot money, and even then, the Diamondbacks failed to spend $1.7 million worth of that year's draft slot money, "a complete failure to understand how to properly play the current draft system … equivalent to forgoing an entire first-round pick, all because of poor planning." The front office's glaring mistakes look all the worse in light of its public disdain for analytics, though the team does have what the Los Angeles Times termed "a vibrant analytics department" that they're supposedly blending with their scouting.
Will all these struggles lead to yet another shakeup in the desert? Hale, who replaced Kirk Gibson prior to the 2015 season (Gibson was let go in late '14), was rumored to be on the hot seat in late July, though Stewart and La Russa have avoided publicly blaming him for the team’s struggles. Via FanRag Sports' Jon Heyman, Stewart and Watson have Aug. 31 deadlines for their 2017 options, and La Russa may have a similar option as well. Managing general partner Ken Kendrick, who's long been notorious for his impatience and meddling to the point that I called him "a desert Steinbrenner wannabe," is understandably unhappy with the team's struggles. Even so, president Derek Hall suggested that the club may postpone decisions on those option until the off-season.
Letting La Russa and company go would be a notably quick dismissal for a front office regime; as the turnarounds of the Royals, Astros and Cubs serve to remind, proper rebuilding efforts generally take far more than two years to unfold. On the other hand, the results in Arizona have been so bad that an abrupt change in direction may be necessary, and Kendrick may yearn for a scapegoat, particularly while he's become embroiled in a dispute over funding Chase Field upgrades that led county supervisor Andy Kunasek to call upon Kendrick to "take your stupid baseball team and get out" and go back to "f---ing West Virginia.” Kendrick, of course, isn’t going anywhere of significance. The problem is that once again, neither is his club.