It was inevitable that the Atlanta Braves’ one Phoenix stop of the 2016 season would spark discussion of the transaction that has been more criticized than any since … oh, the Red Sox selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees for cash? It was — I’m sure of this — only a coincidence that the Braves promoted Dansby Swanson six days before they played the Diamondbacks, but that heightened the rhetoric. Then, on cue, so did Keith Law.
Law, who writes for ESPN Insider, authored a post that appeared Sunday. Its headline: “Time to end the Diamondbacks’ reign of error.” The story itself, as they say in England, does what it says on the tin: It calls for the firings of D-backs president Tony La Russa and general manager Dave Stewart — the two guys who oversaw the trading of Shelby Miller for Swanson, Ender Inciarte and Aaron Blair.
That unbelievably lopsided move — the Snakes traded the first player drafted in June 2015, plus their No. 1 pitching prospect and big-league outfielder who’d had a 5.3 WAR last year, for a pitcher who flopped so badly he was demoted to Class AAA — was a large part of Law’s rationale, and that, duh, involved the Braves. So did the selling of Trevor Cahill, who worked 15 games as a Brave before being released.
The Cahill move involved separate trades, but the second wouldn’t have been made without the first. For minor-league outfielder Victor Reyes, the Braves received what’s known as “a competitive balance pick” — it was the 75th selection in the 2015 draft — as part of that deal. Even more than Cahill, that’s what they were seeking from Arizona. They took A.J. Minter, a Texas A&M left-handed reliever coming off Tommy John surgery. In 27 games this season, he has struck out 42 against seven walks. His ERA is 0.29. His WHIP is 0.68. He has already been promoted from Rome (Low A) to Carolina (High A) to Mississippi (Double A).
That’s the Braves’ side. Here, per Law, was Arizona’s:
“That (No. 75) pick’s slot value was $814,300, which the Diamondbacks could then not spend on their own picks … This was a complete failure to understand how to properly play the current draft system. How complete? The Diamondbacks failed to spend up to their full allotment of signing bonuses in 2015, leaving $1.7 million on the table, money they could have spent on players without penalty. That’s equivalent to forgoing an entire first-round pick.”
(By way of contrast, the Braves just spent all but $5 of the $13,224,100 they had in slot money for the 2016 draft. I asked GM John Coppolella what they did with the surplus fin. “We split a hamburger,” he said.)
Law also mentions the Touki Toussaint deal, in which the Braves sent utility man Phil Gosselin to the D-backs in exchange for Arizona’s No. 1 pick in 2014 and Bronson Arroyo, who was hurt but had $10.1 million remaining on his contract. (The Braves would offload that obligation in the Hector Olivera deal.) In a D-backs evaluation published Monday, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs ascribes the Toussaint trade to a previous snafu over Cuban lefty Yoan Lopez, whom Arizona bought for $8.25 million as an international signee and thereby drew another $8 million in tax.
(This gets complicated, I know.)
Writes Cameron: “Six months later, the team essentially sold 2014 first-round selection Touki Toussaint to the Braves in exchange for $10 million in salary relief. Industry speculation has long tied the two events together, suggesting the team was forced to make a cost-savings deal because of the Lopez signing.”
Cameron reaches the same conclusion as Law: That La Russa and Stewart, who were hired in 2014, need to go. Sure enough, Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported Monday that “Diamondbacks ownership is strongly considering making sweeping front-office changes.” (Nightengale actually mounts a defense of La Russa/Stewart, writing that they tried to deal the demoted Miller to Miami ahead of the trade deadline but were blocked by management, which thought such a move “wouldn’t look good.”)
For sabermetric folks, the La Russa/Stewart tandem was always too old-school to be cool. At a time when nearly every front office is embracing advanced analytics, Arizona seemed not to care one whit. Whatever the cause, D-backs have messed up mightily. They believed they had a real chance to make the playoffs. As we speak, they hold baseball’s third-worst record. There’s a difference between stinking by design, as the Braves have done, and stinking by accident.
Arizona overspent ($206 million over six years) for Zack Greinke, who has an ERA above 4.00. Three of their recent Round 1 picks — Toussaint, Blair and Swanson — now work for the Braves. They bought Miller at what figures to be his all-time high. In an Effectively Wild podcast that aired Monday — Monday having been declared D-backs Day in baseball circles — Baseball Prospectus editor Sam Miller asks: “Is there anyone in that trade you wouldn’t rather have than Shelby Miller? And I’m including Gabe Speier.” (Speier is a low-end reliever the Braves got from Detroit in the Cameron Maybin deal and flipped to Arizona.)
For the D-backs’ sake, it was merciful that they overrode a 5-0 deficit to beat the Braves on Monday night. In the grand scheme, it probably wasn’t all that bad for the Braves. If La Russa and Stewart get canned, it might prove impossible to find another trading foil like this.
Even further: Tears in his eyes, Dansby Swanson brings hope.