Last week, the Diamondbacks traded Justin Upton to the Braves for Martin Prado and a collection of unexciting prospects. The trade was not particularly well received, and the response didn’t get any more positive in the aftermath, as members of the Diamondbacks organization explained that Upton’s personality wasn’t really what they were looking for.
“What we’ve gained now, is a couple of blue collar guys that are going to play the D-back way,” Gonzalez, now a special assistant to team president and CEO Derrick Hall, told Arizona Sports 620’s Doug & Wolf Thursday. “Which means they’ll go out there and play hard, give everything they’ve got.
“We love Justin Upton, of course the fans are going to miss him and we’re going to miss him… But at the same time, this is a business in baseball. What we are trying to do is make our team better.”
While Gonzalez said the team will miss Upton’s skill set both in the field and at the plate, the former D-back was rather candid in suggesting that at times the star outfielder was his own worst enemy.
“There were times when Justin was on, he was a superstar,” said Gonzalez. “But when he was off, he would get in his shell and would have those slumps and those streaks.
“When you’re in the middle of that lineup you have to be that rock every day when you’re going good and when you’re going bad. You have to provide that leadership for your teammates… Personally for me, there were times where (Justin) didn’t have that.”
• Asked if the Diamondbacks preferred grinding, gritty players
Towers replied, “That’s accurate. That’s the way [manager Kirk Gibson] played the game. That’s how we won in 2011, and Justin was part of that club.” Towers lauded Martin Prado as having that kind of mentality, grinding out at-bats and not striking out. He added, “Justin played hard every single day,” and “he cared, he’s a competitor.” But because he had a bit of a “swagger,” and because of his general body language, people might have perceived him differently.
“The problem is that he didn’t play with a high level of energy,” said the former teammate, who spoke on the condition that he would not be identified. “What I think they want is guys who play with the speed, energy and intensity of the Oregon football team — all out, all the time.
“Justin doesn’t have that kind of attitude; he has a quiet intensity that doesn’t fit the mold of what KT and Gibby seem to want. He plays hard, but has to look suave doing it. Slamming into walls isn’t his thing, and they will accept nothing short of all-out sacrifice for the team.”
This off-season, the Diamondbacks spent a lot of time getting Kirk Gibson’s kind of guys. They essentially swapped out Justin Upton, Trevor Bauer, Stephen Drew, and Chris Young for Martin Prado, Brandon McCarthy, Cody Ross, and a combination of Cliff Pennington and Didi Gregorius, along with a host of prospects who are considered lower ceiling guys based on a lack of physical tools. There’s no question that the D’Backs are acquiring guys who fit a specific type of player, and they’re getting widely criticized for that philosophy.
However, perhaps lost in the criticism of the process is that the Diamondbacks aren’t just collecting gritty players who can’t play baseball; they’re targeting players who are very likely undervalued by the market, and building a pretty decent baseball team in the process.
It’s one thing to focus so intently on personality and “grittiness” that you do things like give replacement level scrubs such as Willie Bloomquist a multi-year deal, but it’s another thing entirely to acquire players who outperform their tools and produce at a decent level in the process. And, by and large, that’s the kind of player the Diamondbacks spent time stockpiling this winter.
Martin Prado was never considered to be much of a prospect. Baseball America never ranked him as one of the Braves top 10 prospects during his time in the minors, and he got to the Majors as a utility infielder who couldn’t play shortstop. He worked his way into a regular job by producing through high contact rates and gap power, and through his age 28 season, has now averaged +3.4 WAR per 600 plate appearances. There’s no question that Prado is one of the game’s great overachievers.
Cliff Pennington and Brandon McCarthy had a little more expectation placed upon them, as Pennington was a first round pick and both were rated as Top 100 prospects (Pennington #83 in 2006, McCarthy #49 in 2005) by Baseball America at one time. Still, neither are big tools guys, as McCarthy features a cut-fastball to overcome his lack of velocity and Pennington relies on his ability to be decent at everything rather than good at anything. And yet, despite the lack of big time physical abilities, both have been productive big leaguers; Pennington at +2.3 WAR per 600 PA during his career, and McCarthy at +2.8 WAR per 180 innings pitched over his time in the big leagues.
In all three cases, the D’Backs have acquired guys who are likely to be better than average players in 2013. While Prado wasn’t on the D’Backs roster when the ZIPS rollout went out for Arizona last week, we can see that Dan Szymborski’s projection system is forecasting +1.9 WAR for both Cliff Pennington and Didi Gregorius (in 541/550 PA respectively) and +2.3 WAR from McCarthy in just 118 innings pitched. In other words, despite being projected for less than a full season’s worth of playing time, all three players would be expected to produce at the level you’d expect from an average full time regular. Add in Prado’s likely +3ish WAR projection along with increased playing time for Adam Eaton — who ZIPS had forecasted for +2.8 WAR if given 719 plate appearances, making him an average-ish regular as well — and the Diamondbacks have essentially re-worked their roster to make room for four average or better players, plus a significant amount of depth.
The fact that they’re being lauded for their work ethic shouldn’t cause us to ignore the fact that they’re good players, and they may very well represent an upgrade over the incumbents. Here’s Dan, when asked on Twitter last week about Arizona’s side of the deal:
@bertdbacks Thanks for the link.FWIW, ZiPS actually thinks a 3B/OF of Prado/Kubel/Eaton/Ross nearly 2 win upgrade over Johnson/K/R/Upton.
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) January 26, 2013
His comments don’t include the pitching swap, but no matter how bullish one might be on Trevor Bauer’s future, it’s hard to imagine that replacing Bauer with McCarthy is anything besides an upgrade for 2013, especially given the extra starters Arizona has to fill in for McCarthy during his annual trips to the DL. The combination of McCarthy + fill-ins could very well produce +3 WAR for Diamondbacks this year, and given Bauer’s command issues, expecting him to match that level of performance in 2013 is simply unfair.
While their stated pursuit of personality might not sound like a very good way to build a roster, the reality is that Kevin Towers has put together a team for 2013 that could very well be a contender in large part because of the winter’s reconfiguration. With Prado at third, Pennington/Gregorious at short, Eaton in the outfield, and McCarthy in the rotation, Arizona upgraded at the totality of those four positions, and did it without spending a lot of money in the process.
Prado will make roughly $7 million in arbitration if he doesn’t agree to a team friendly contract extension instead. McCarthy will make $5 million in the first year of a two year deal he signed as one of the better free agent bargains of the winter. Pennington just agreed to a two year deal that will pay him a total of $5 million through the 2014 season. Eaton will make the league minimum. We can certainly quibble with the prices paid to acquire Cody Ross and Heath Bell, but in total, the D’Backs probably added something like +10 WAR for a total of less than $30 million in salary. In terms of production for the paycheck, they added a lot of surplus value.
Perhaps the long term costs were too high, as the organization sacrificed the future of higher ceiling guys in Upton and Bauer for the short-term reward of improving their 2013 club and stockpiling depth. Whether the team punted too much of its future in making these gains is a legitimate criticism. But, let’s not let all this talk about grit and personality obscure the fact that the Diamondbacks improved their 2013 team this winter, and should be viewed as legitimate contenders in the NL West.
While the stars-and-scrubs philosophy of roster building has taken hold as the popular method of team construction, teams can absolutely win with a large collection of above average players. That Arizona is choosing to stockpile the kinds of players that are undervalued by the market doesn’t mean that they’re building a roster incorrectly. Many times, players are labeled as “grinders” because their performance outstrips what scouts expected from their tools. Many times, these kinds of players are underrated contributors to winning teams.
The Diamondbacks might be talking about acquiring guys who play the game with a certain style, but they’ve ended up collecting a bunch of players who are better than they’re given credit for. And, now, don’t be too surprised if the Diamondbacks team in 2013 ends up being better than they’re given credit for.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.