The Case of the Curious Diamondbacks

In general, most baseball organizations are headed in the same general direction. The idea that you have to choose between stats or scouts is dead, and almost everyone is now just compiling as much good information as they can. While it was oddly notable for teams to have a “stat guy” 15 years ago, it’s now oddly notable when a team only has one. Teams might not weigh all the information the same way, and it certainly doesn’t all filter up from the nerds to the GM at the same rate, but mostly, everyone is generally doing things the same way now.

Except the Diamondbacks. They don’t just march to the beat of their own drum; they’re not even sure drums qualify as a musical instrument. This isn’t even about hiring a guy with a veterinary background to run their analytics department, or Dave Stewart’s months-old comments about the D’Backs being a “true baseball team”; their opinions just seem to run counter to the rest of the sport at just about every single turn.

The Yankees traded Peter O’Brien to Arizona in large part because they didn’t think he was a Major League catcher, an opinion shared by virtually everyone else within baseball. Their differing opinion led them to keep the position open for O’Brien this winter, despite everyone in baseball assuming they’d make a move to acquire something better than what they have. Stewart’s response to those rumors:

Thus far, Stewart’s proclamation has remained true, even after O’Brien developed some problems throwing the ball back to the mound and was reassigned to minor league camp. But, okay, you might say that the D’Backs are rebuilding, so it’s not really all that important if they have a +0 WAR or +1 WAR catcher behind the plate, since the value of that win is not particularly high. Well, the D’Backs wouldn’t agree with that statement either.

LaRussa, back in November.

“I will be absolutely brokenhearted if we don’t have a winning record next year, which is 82-80,” La Russa said. “I mean, I really believe that that’s realistic, but 82 is not going to get you into October.

“I think the message that we’re careful to send to our fans is that we are not a patient bunch. We are not going to ask them to hang with us for four or five years.”

Part of their plan to win sooner than later? Signing Cuban free agent Yasmany Tomas to a $68 million contract, luring him to Arizona by also including an opt-out after the fourth year. Tomas was an outfielder in Cuba, and his size caused some to question whether he’d eventually need to move to DH, but as usual, the D’Backs went the other way and decided to try and turn him into a third baseman. After all, they already had a lot of outfielders, but they didn’t have an obvious candidate to start at third, so why not kill two birds with one stone?

Well, there’s the minor issue of Tomas actually being able to make the transition.

Again, though, the D’Backs simply don’t agree. Stewart’s response:

Bobby Bonilla was the third baseman on a championship team and he was big,” Stewart said. “I already think [Tomas] is an average third baseman and he is such a hard worker that I think he can be better than average.”

Again, public quotes don’t mean a lot, and a GM should be supportive of his players. You wouldn’t expect Stewart to come out and rip on Tomas’ glovework, nor should he. But as Joel Sherman wrote in the piece linked above, Tomas is somewhat emblematic of the disconnect between what the Diamondbacks seem to believe and what every other team in baseball seems to believe.

It doesn’t end with O’Brien and Tomas’ defense, either. Yesterday, the team’s management was raving about Nick Ahmed’s defensive abilities, calling him “the best defensive shortstop in the National League”, perhaps forgetting that Andrelton Simmons is a thing that exists. Or when it’s suggested that perhaps the team consider trading Mark Trumbo — both to ease their outfield logjam and to clear some salary from a payroll that is apparently so maxed out that they can’t even afford Dioner Navarro — Stewart responds in no uncertain terms:

“We are not moving Trumbo,” Stewart said.

At nearly every juncture, the D’Backs appear to see things differently than the rest of the league. And because their process appears to be so different from the path that everyone else is going down, it can be easy to assume that this team is going to be a disaster. It almost feels inevitable that this is all going to blow up in the D’Backs faces.

But every time I start to go down that road, I remember feeling this way about the Orioles four years ago. No one wanted to work for Peter Angelos. Seemingly every decent GM candidate publicly declined to interview or withdrew from consideration, and the team ended up turning to Dan Duquette, a guy who had been out of baseball for a decade. When organizations were going young and giving first-time GMs a shot, the Orioles went with a retread who hadn’t even been treading lately, and then proceeded to get themselves in some trouble with some weird and potentially shady international signings.

The Orioles were where the Diamondbacks are now, and were about as perplexing and criticized an organization as Arizona has been this winter. And then they won 93 games and a Wild Card spot, followed by a 96 win season and a division title just two years later. The Orioles lost 90 games five years in a row, hired a guy that no one wanted, did some weird things, and it all added up an immediate success story.

I don’t think that’s going to happen in Arizona. I don’t think the D’Backs are even all that close to being a good team, and like most everyone else, I don’t really see how their plan is supposed to work. But every time I get close to writing off the D’Backs because their process is just so weird, I remember doing the same thing to the Orioles, and realize that weird front office statements don’t really matter much when the games start. As much as we focus on good processes and sound decision making, baseball is still remarkably random.

Yasmany Tomas might look an awful lot like Dayan Viciedo right now, but that doesn’t mean he’s definitely going to hit like Dayan Viciedo once the season starts. A rotation that begins with Josh Collmenter and Jeremy Hellickson seems like a disaster, but maybe by May or June, we’ll all realize that Rubby de la Rosa and Chase Anderson are the team’s two best pitchers and an interesting young tandem to build around. Maybe Stewart’s bluster about not trading for a catcher will pay off when they claim some reasonably useful veteran off waivers right before Opening Day, picking up an upgrade without surrendering any talent in the process.

On the one hand, I think the Diamondbacks are probably a poorly constructed team with a lot of legitimate problems, and I don’t have a lot of confidence that Stewart and La Russa are the ones seeing clearly while everyone else in baseball is wrong about their players. But on the other hand, the results on the field aren’t dictated by what a front office deserves based on their decision making process. Dave Stewart and Tony La Russa don’t have to be right about everything for Arizona to win. They could be wrong about a lot of these things and still have it all turn out okay, especially if Paul Goldschmidt hits 50 home runs or something.

More likely, I think the Diamondbacks end up as a 90 to 100 loss team, as a lot of these strange bets the front office is making are more likely to fail than succeed. But I keep remembering the 2012 Orioles. Weird things happen in baseball. The D’Backs having a winning year in 2014 would be a bit weird, but baseball seems to enjoy giving us weird results on a pretty regular basis.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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9 years ago

The D’Backs having a winning year in 2014 would be a bit weird. I will certainly agree with that.

david k
9 years ago
Reply to  Bob

What, just because 2014 is over and by all accounts, they didn’t actually have a winning record in 2014???

9 years ago
Reply to  david k

Kevin Towers is gone, I consider that to be a winning season