Credit and Blame in Constructing the Diamondbacks

The Arizona Diamondbacks are a playoff team. They probably aren’t a division-winning team, with the Los Angeles Dodgers surging ahead, but sitting roughly 10 games clear in the current Wild Card standings — or around six if you believe the Chicago Cubs will overtake the Milwaukee Brewers at some point — the team has about a 90% shot to make the playoffs. Given their place in the standings, it’s probably fair to consider the Diamondbacks a good team.

The Diamondbacks have also seen three different general managers over the last four seasons. They’ve certainly lacked continuity, but the muddled visions of three front offices have brought them here. Doling out credit and blame to one person or even two or three is a difficult task when we are talking about the construction of a baseball team. In any organization, myriad personnel play a huge part in acquiring players. Once those players are acquired, many more people play a role in developing them to put the best collection of talent on the field.

With that out of the way, let’s focus today on the acquisition portion of the equation and divide those acquisitions into three eras: pre-Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart, La Russa and Stewart, and Mike Hazen. But before we do that, let’s just take a moment to establish that the Diamondbacks are, in fact, good. Six weeks ago, Dave Cameron said it was time to take the Diamondbacks seriously. Since that time, the team has continued to win, improving its position with regard to securing a place in the postseason.

In his piece, Cameron noted that a number of hitters on the Diamondbacks roster were playing a bit over their heads and we could expect some regression. Several Diamondbacks pitchers have pitched well above projections from earlier this season — in particular, Zack Godley, Zack Greinke, and Taijuan Walker, with Robbie Ray’s solid pitching only a bit above expectations.

Godley, Greinke, and Walker are now forecast to end up with seasonal WAR marks close to 50% higher than their preseason projections suggested. The same is likely true for position players such as Paul Goldschmidt, Jake Lamb, Chris Owings, and David Peralta. This is, in part, due to the wins these players have already banked, but a lot of it is also a result of increased expectations for their performances over the rest of the season. In-season projections generally don’t move a ton, but they do move a little based on current performance, and the Diamondbacks have seen one of the biggest positive in-season changes in baseball. Just in terms of rest-of-season winning percentage, only the New York Yankees and the Houston Astros have seen bigger positive changes than the Diamondbacks.

The Diamondbacks looked to be a slightly below-.500 team when the year started, and now they look to be a slightly above-.500 team the rest of the way. With their record thus far — which, as indicated by their BaseRuns record, doesn’t appear to be simply a product of sequencing luck — the team is well on its way to a deserved 90-win season and a shot at the playoffs. Mike Hazen is in his first year as executive vice president and general manager after Dave Stewart was let go and Tony La Russa was moved to chief baseball officer.

The organization didn’t get to the playoffs overnight, but Hazen has made a number of changes. In terms of this year’s team, we will look at the 29 players with at least 50 plate appearances or 20 innings pitched. Every year, teams make a number of moves around the margins of the roster, signing low-level free agents and minor-league contracts. The table below shows the type of moves the Diamondbacks made this past offseason and how those moves are paying off.

Minor Diamondbacks Offseason Moves
Player Acquired GM Contract of FA Year 2017 WAR
Chris Iannetta FA 1/17 Hazen 1/$1.5 M 0.8
Fernando Rodney FA 12/16 Hazen 1/$2.75 M 0.7
Jeremy Hazelbaker Waivers 11/16 Hazen FA after 2022 0.6
Daniel Descalso FA 2/17 Hazen 1/$1.5 M 0.3
T.J. McFarland FA 3/17 Hazen FA after 2019 0.3
Gregor Blanco FA 1/17 Hazen 1/$1 M 0.3
J.J. Hoover FA 1/17 Hazen FA after 2019 0.2
Jorge de la Rosa FA 2/1/2017 Hazen 1/$2.25 0.0
Rey Fuentes FA 1/17 Hazen FA after 2022 -0.2
Tom Wilhelmsen FA 2/17 Hazen DFA 6/17 -0.2
Jeff Mathis FA 12/2016 Hazen 2/$4 M -0.5

We see a lot of positives here, and if catcher framing is to be believed, then Jeff Mathis isn’t the dud he looks like on the chart. These are the type of moves that help, but the Diamondbacks have accumulated 26 wins and these moves account for less than 10% of that figure. Before Hazen and before La Russa and Stewart, Kevin Towers was the general manager from the end of the 2010 season through the 2014 season. In his first season, the Diamondbacks won the division, but they haven’t made the playoffs since. Before Towers, Josh Byrnes had the job from 2005 through the middle of the 2010 season, when Jerry Dipoto served as interim ahead of Towers’ hiring.

Here are the players acquired before Stewart was named GM at the end of the 2014 season.

Diamondbacks Players Acquired Before Dave Stewart
Player Acquired GM Contract of FA Year 2017 WAR Notes
Drafted 2009 Byrnes FA after 2018 0.7
Drafted 2009 Byrnes FA after 2019 1.2
Patrick Corbin Trade 7/2010 Dipoto FA after 2018 1.2 Dan Haren trade
Paul Goldschmidt Extension 3/13 Towers, drafted by Byrnes 5/$32 M, 2019 option 4.1
Andrew Chafin Drafted 2011 Towers FA after 2020 0.8
Archie Bradley Drafted 2011 Towers FA after 2021 1.1
Drafted 2012 Towers FA after 2020 2.1
Trade 1/13 Towers FA after 2020 0.3 Justin Upton trade
Brandon Drury Trade 1/13 Towers FA after 2021 1.2 Justin Upton trade
Randall Delgado Trade 1/13 Towers FA after 2018 1.1 Justin Upton trade
FA 7/13 Towers FA after 2020 1.6 Signed out of independent league
TOTAL 15.4

Around 60% of the Diamondbacks’ WAR this season was already in the organization when La Russa and Stewart took over. This might give one the impression that Byrnes and Towers did a good job assembling talent for the future, but it was also certain of Towers’ trades — like the move that sent Justin Upton away and the acquisition of Mark Trumbo — that might have led to his eventual termination. Byrnes drafted MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt and Towers signed him to a team-friendly extension that will keep with the team through 2019 instead of becoming a free agent at the end of this season. We see here about five full seasons before Stewart became GM. Here are the acquisitions on the team that happened after Towers but before Hazen.

Diamondbacks Players Acquired under Dave Stewart
Player Acquired GM Contract of FA Year 2017 WAR Notes
Zack Greinke FA 12/1/2015 Stewart 6/$206.5 M 2.8
Robbie Ray Trade 12/14 Stewart FA after 2020 1.9 Didi Gregorious trade, who they acquired for Trevor Bauer in December 2012
Zach Godley Trade 12/14 Stewart FA after 2022 1.8 Miguel Montero trade
Yasmany Tomas FA 12/1/2014 Stewart 6/$68.5 M 0.3
Shelby Miller Trade 12/15 Stewart FA after 2019 0.5 Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte trade
Chris Hermann Trade 11/15 Stewart FA after 2019 -0.5 Daniel Palka

It’s probably not fair to lay Hermann’s negative WAR at the feet of Stewart, as the current regime is the one that’s decided to play him. There were a lot of good reasons to fire Dave Stewart. The Shelby Miller trade, for example, was a disaster from the start and has only gotten worse. Also, the team essentially sold prospects so they could drop salary to give Zack Greinke one-third of their payroll. But there are a couple of important trades here, too, that have benefited the current edition of the club. Robbie Ray and Zack Godley have been helpful parts of the rotation this season and should remain so the rest of the season.

The only other player not mentioned above is Taijuan Walker, who was traded this past offseason for Jean Segura. Segura himself was acquired under Stewart for Chase Anderson, Aaron Hill, and Isan Diaz, who’s now one of the top-100 prospects in baseball. A little over two years ago, the Diamondbacks had a limited payroll and wanted to win now. They executed a pretty poor strategy and likely worsened the long-term future of the club. They also possess some pretty decent talent on hand and have acquired enough additional pieces to put themselves in a position to compete this year.

As Cameron argued earlier, just because the team is competing now and some of the players acquired by Stewart are playing important roles, that doesn’t mean Stewart should have been allowed to continue to make the franchise worse overall. The Diamondbacks are winning and they have had a lot of cooks trying to turn the team into a contender over the years. As we’ve seen with most rebuilding franchises, it takes a long time to build up a winner, and this run in Arizona might end up being short-lived. That a rebuild is coming soon might not matter much now, because the team seeks its first playoff spot since 2011.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Monsignor Martinez
5 years ago

C’mon Rodney! C’mon Rodney! Poor old Robbie Ray. Sounded sad watching from the dugout… But he should have won on TV…now I must say more than ever…Come on Rodney