After the Diamondbacks met the Brewers in the 2011 National League Division Series, having drawn the series to the fullest extent of excitement and competitive balance, Arizona’s nine suffered a fate similar to the Brewers in 2012. While both teams underperformed their run differentials — Arizona by a handful of wins, the Brewers by a couple — they arguably suffered their fates for different reasons. The Diamondbacks’ front office, led by Kevin Towers, arguably represents a more aggressive approach to trading prospects and players, while Doug Melvin‘s front office has arguably exhibited more passive approaches to trading during the club’s competitive seasons.
Between 2011 and 2013, it’s important to note that both the Diamondbacks and Brewers exhibit similar cores to serve as the foundation of their respective clubs. In this regard, Towers’s arguable aggression in the trading market does not result in a completely different core of players.
|1B||J. Miranda / P. Goldschmidt|
|SS||S. Drew / W. Bloomquist|
However, one of the most important trades that Towers accomplished as GM was the swap with the Athletics that saw top prospects Trevor Cahill and Jarrod Parker change organizations. I have previously argued that the Diamondbacks provide one of the best examples of why developing pitchers is important, since they trade their pitching prospects as frequently as (or more frequently than) they develop them. After the 2011 season, Towers’ trade for Cahill mimicked his star-studded trade involving Dan Haren; that deal with the Anaheim Angels returned Tyler Skaggs (as a PTBNL!) and Patrick Corbin.Those two acquisitions arguably represented the most important roster shifts between 2011 and 2012 for the Diamondbacks:
|CF||C. Young / G. Parra|
Despite the fortified young pitching rotation, the Diamondbacks underperformed in 2012, and Towers dismantled his star-studded outfield to give his 2013 Arizona squad a markedly different look. The Justin Upton saga was one of the most interesting stories of the offseason, given that the club’s attitude seemed to imply that Upton absolutely had to be traded. Coupled with a multi-team deal that grouped the Diamondbacks with their friends in Oakland and the salary-dumping Miami Marlins to land the Diamondbacks Cliff Pennington and Heath Bell, Arizona’s front office overhauled their starting line up for 2013:
|SS||D. Gregorius / C. Pennington|
|RF||G. Parra / C. Ross|
One of the interesting facts about the 2013 Diamondbacks is that although they are more competitive than the 2012 club (since they are contending for the NL West crown), their club is arguably worse this year than last. Thus far, their 2013 squad is 3 runs above average on offense, while their pitching staff is approximately 6 runs better than their league and park; such a club, at this pace, might not be expected to win more than 80-to-83 games over 162. By contrast, the 2012 Diamondbacks’ expected W-L of 86-76 was driven by an offense that was 16 runs better than the league, and a pitching staff that outpaced the Senior Circuit by 30 runs.
Fluctuations and Roster Construction
This shift between 2012 and 2013 teaches another lesson about roster construction. Although the Diamondbacks’ front office continued their tradition of aggressively dealing for arms with their Cahill and Corbin combo, their club ultimately shows that fluctuating pitching performances can even occur to the most astute organizations:
|Pitcher||2012 IP||2012 Prevented||2013 IP||2013 Prevented|
One of the most interesting developments for the Diamondbacks is Ian Kennedy‘s descent from a top NL performance in 2011 to a respectable 2012 and rough 2013. Similarly, the club has encountered injuries to Daniel Hudson, and although Corbin is turning into an extremely productive starter, Cahill’s 2013 campaign is heading in the opposite direction. If there is one lesson to be learned, it’s that pitching can be volatile from season to season, even if you have good pitchers! (And let’s not understate that; I’m not saying that the Diamondbacks have a bad rotation, I am saying that they aggressively acquired a good rotation that is underperforming). The Dimonadbacks show that even a model organization encountered difficulties with their big league club from time to time.
One of the narratives floating around Disciples of Uecker in 2013 involves the Brewers’ potential failure to trade some of their position players when their value was high in 2012 (Corey Hart being the most obvious or extreme case). In this regard, the Diamondbacks’ trades of Young and Upton are as instructive as their shrewd deals involving pitching prospects.
In opposition to the Diamondbacks’ trading techniques, the Brewers’ roster transition is the result of a more conservative approach. Since 2011, the most important positional transitions occurred at 3B (free agency acquisition of Aramis Ramirez) and 1B/RF (the emergence of Norchika Aoki simultaneously allowed the Brewers to replace Prince Fielder with Corey Hart at 1B). Similarly, both these moves in 2012 signal another problem in 2013, given the injuries to both Hart and Ramirez. While the club obviously did not have to trade either player during 2012, especially given their contract control and an organizational need for both players in 2013, the injuries, underperformance, and replacement woes at both positions expose the problems with a conservative roster approach: Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that trades couldn’t have failed, too, but it’s that a failure to receive performance due to injuries is arguably worse than even a bad trade because (a) the club’s runs production is impacted, and (b) the players’ respective trade values are also impacted.
We can apply these lessons to the Brewers’ starting rotation, too. As mentioned above, the Diamondbacks’ 2013 rotational shifts show that even when a club acquires good, controllable pitchers, those pitchers may have hiccups along the course of their development (or, of course, encounter injuries). The Brewers had a handful of young or controllable starters that were above average at the end of 2012, some surprisingly so. This is one of narratives of 2012 that is lost: every Brewers starter except for Randy Wolf (well, and injured Chris Narveson) was average or better. It’s not that Marco Estrada, Mark Rogers, Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers, or Yovani Gallardo were all equally valuable trading chips at the end of 2012 (or trading chips whatsoever), but that they all were not candidates to improve (or continue) the Brewers’ pitching success into 2013. This is a point I largely failed to realize throughout the offseason.
Here’s where the Brewers’ recent drafting and development issues hurt the club (for, one might argue that the state of the farm system shifted Melvin from a previously aggressive GM into a conservative one; perhaps organizational aggression can only last so long). Melvin had his hands tied with a gang of organizational pitchers that suddenly looked upwards. But, just as the Diamondbacks’ young pitchers are showing in 2013, the performance expectations of those pitchers were likely to fluctuate in 2013 because pitching performances fluctuate: pitchers have to consistently maintain mechanics, stuff, approach, and many other factors to continually succeed at the big league level. It’s no wonder that so few pitchers consistently produce at above average levels year-after-year-after-year. Melvin was arguably handcuffed because (a) he didn’t yet have young impact arms available to him to use his 2012 starters as trading chips, and (b) he didn’t trade his young potential impact arms, either (or, the potential impact of his young arms was “organizational depth” rather than “solid middle rotation starter,” or something like that).
Given this predicament, Melvin plugged his organizational crew into the rotation, and Mark Attanasio acquired Kyle Lohse. While the Brewers’ and Diamondbacks’ overall pitching performances in 2013 tell the same lesson about pitching fluctuation, they do so for completely different reasons (or, they reflect completely different ideologies). One might look at the Diamondbacks rotation and argue, “well, even if Melvin had traded ___________________, his club could underperform,” but that misses the point, to an extent; the Brewers’ rotation missed the mark in 2013 without any corresponding value or ceiling or acquisition to remember (for instance, the Diamondbacks can say, “Cahill might be underperforming this year, but at least we don’t have Jarrod Parker”).
From this string of transactions or this comparison of organizational ideals, we can consider an extremely difficult question about roster construction. Here, I’ll offer a concluding point in the terms of a hypothetical argument and rhetorical question: baseball rosters will always fluctuate because baseball is a difficult sport and ballplayers’ mechanics, approaches, etc., will fluctuate. However, by aggressively trading players at the peak of their value (or, sometimes, trading them “just because”), those fluctuations can be accompanied by shifts in organizational talent or shifts in longterm value (i.e., the Diamondbacks’ performance is fluctuating in 2013, but they still control valuable arms for 2014). Is there inherent value in aggressive roster building, rather than conservative roster building?