SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Recently, someone in baseball relayed to me an interesting theory that would help explain the Diamondbacks’ aggressive off-season strategy.
D-Backs chief baseball officer Tony La Russa thinks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt is another Albert Pujols, and doesn’t want to waste Goldschmidt’s prime.
I put the question to La Russa on Sunday, asking him if the Goldschmidt-Pujols comparison was indeed the motivation for the team’s seeming go-for-broke mentality.
La Russa did not dispute the concept, but corrected me on a couple of points:
Paul Goldschmidt helps the Diamondbacks in the field, too.
*The D-Backs are not simply built to win now — all of their principal players, with the exceptions of closer Brad Ziegler (free agent after ‘16) and setup man Tyler Clippard (after ’17), are under control for at least the next three seasons.
*Goldschmidt would not want to be singled out and should not be singled out when talking about the D-Backs’ desire to maximize their competitive window; center fielder A.J. Pollock also is 28, and a number of other D-Backs are in their primes or pre-primes.
But before delving into the D-Backs’ controversial offseason, let’s talk about the Goldschmidt-Pujols comp, which I found fascinating, given La Russa’s known affection for Pujols.
Goldschmidt’s OPS for his first four full seasons, when adjusted for league and park effects, is 154, or 54 percent above the league average. Pujols’ adjusted OPS for his 11 seasons in St. Louis, all under La Russa, was an astonishing 170.
Tony La Russa sees a lot of similarities between Albert Pujols and Paul Goldschmidt.
Anyway, here’s La Russa:
“When Albert was a kid — and I’m not sure how much he liked it, so I didn’t say it often publicly — I would call him Albert ‘P’ Pujols, for perfect,” La Russa said. “Albert was, and is — depending upon his health — perfect.
“After watching Goldy for a little bit of ’14 (La Russa joined the club that May) and all of last year, this guy’s perfect. In all the intangible ways — the worker, the leader, the teammate, the (lack of) ego, the desire to compete, the desire to win — perfect.
“He is a Gold Glove defender. He’s a plus base-runner. And he’s a .300 hitter who can drive in runs and hit for average like Albert did. He doesn’t get the ball in the air as often as Albert did for home runs. But as a complete winning player, he’s in Albert’s class.”
The Diamondbacks spent big for Zack Greinke.
And, lest anyone forget, Goldschmidt is under club control for four more seasons at a maximum of $40 million, assuming the D-Backs exercise his club option for 2019.
The D-Backs, after improving from 64 wins two years ago to 79 last season, saw an opening. Hence, their flurry of moves, which included the signing of free-agent right-hander Zack Greinke for $206.5 million and the trade of three players — outfielder Ender Inciarte, pitching prospect Aaron Blair and last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick, shortstop Dansby Swanson — for right-hander Shelby Miller.
The Miller move, in particular, drew pointed criticism throughout the industry. But it was neither the D-Backs’ first nor last decision that raised significant questions. For better or worse, the D-Backs value players differently than other clubs.
Last June, they traded their first-round pick in 2014, right-hander Touki Toussaint, for infielder Phil Gosselin and a $10.1 million savings on Bronson Arroyo’s contract.
The Shelby Miller trade was stunning to the baseball world.
They made another such move five weeks ago, parting with infield prospect Isan Diaz in a five-player trade that brought back infielder Jean Segura and helped create the financial flexibility to sign Clippard.
“That’s the only rationale for trading Touki,” La Russa said, referring to the financial savings. “He was a high-schooler (out of the draft). Even Isan Diaz (who also is 19) . . . we knew that we had to assemble a pot of money. I never thought it was going to be Greinke. But we had like $30-something million to spend this winter (initially).
“I think Touki is going to be a really good pitcher — four or five years from now. Well, our window of having a chance to be really good when you’ve got Goldy and his teammates . . . who knows what our club will look like four or five years from now?”
The D-Backs might not look good, considering that they have dropped to No. 22 in Baseball America’s organizational talent rankings, down from No. 6 a year ago. Then again, while the losses of Swanson, Blair and Toussaint undoubtedly compromised the D-Backs’ base of young talent, it’s not as if La Russa and general manager Dave Stewart gutted the system entirely.
Tony La Russa (far right) has the Diamondbacks ready to contend.
Stewart, watching a “B” game against the Rockies on Sunday morning, pointed out two prospects whom he acquired in trades — shortstop Domingo Leyba, who came from the Tigers with Robbie Ray in the three-team Didi Gregorius deal; and right-hander Matt Koch, who came from the Mets in a package for reliever Addison Reed. Right-hander Zack Godley, whom the D-Backs acquired for Miguel Montero, made an impressive debut in the majors last season, producing a 3.19 ERA in 36 2/3 innings.
Consider as well: Since July 5, 2014, the beginning of La Russa’s first trading period with the club, the D-Backs have acquired 36 players with an average age of 23.6 and traded 32 players with an average age of 27.1. Those figures do not include younger international free agents such as Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas and right-hander Yoan Lopez, or a Rule 5 pick from the Rays, catcher Oscar Hernandez.
Of course, some also viewed the signing of Lopez as ill-conceived; the D-Backs, by exceeding their international bonus pool, paid a 100 percent overage tax on Lopez’s $8.27 million contract and lost the chance to sign any international amateur for more than $300,000 in the next two signing periods.
The Miller deal, though, is the one people still talk about — and never mind that a move that drew similarly harsh analysis, the Royals’ trade of Wil Myers and others for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis in Dec. 2012, proved the best thing that ever happened to Kansas City.
Paul Goldschmidt is tough to beat at the plate.
“Maybe we overpaid for Shelby,” Stewart said. “But if he pitches well for the next three years, we’ve got the guy we need to pitch behind Greinke, along with (Patrick) Corbin. And those guys don’t come along that often.
“Ender is going to be a good player. And I believe that Dansby is going to be a good player. I don’t know if he’s going to be a great player, but he’s going to be a good player. The thing we know about Dansby is that he has a way of bringing people together. That’s the one thing I really, really liked about him. He was a natural leader. That I will miss about him. He was the toughest part of the trade for me.
“Aaron Blair is going to compete, maybe pitch in the middle of a rotation, maybe be a fourth starter. But you trade the unknown for the known. And we know that Shelby Miller the past three years has created a track record that is tough to pass on if you get an opportunity — and he’s 25.”
The Braves first insisted on Pollock for Miller, Stewart said, “and we were never going to move Pollock.” Inciarte, in fact, is the only major leaguer whom the D-Backs gave up in their recent deals — and some team officials believe that a homegrown prospect, Socrates Brito, might turn out to be a better player.
There will be a lot expected of Zack Greinke after his $206.5 million deal.
Third baseman Jake Lamb, infielder Brandon Drury and right-hander Archie Bradley were among the other D-Backs whom other clubs targeted. But as La Russa said, “Those trades were not going to happen. Those players were too dear.”
I asked Stewart if he could have traded just two of the three players for Miller, or even one of the three. He replied that the Braves would not do Swanson straight-up for Miller. And he said that no other club offered a No. 2 or No. 3 starter for Inciarte. The Padres had “big interest” in Inciarte, Stewart said, but would not part with either of their coveted right-handers, Tyson Ross or Andrew Cashner.
The bottom line: The D-Backs want to win while they still control Goldschmidt, Pollock and Co.
“I think it’s awesome,” Pollock said. “You see a lot of teams that want to win, but don’t really sell out to it. Obviously, everyone will have different opinions. But it’s clear they’re all in. As a player, it gets you fired up, gets you really excited. You show up to the ballpark with a little more pep.”
I know what some of you are thinking: Forget pep, give me prospects. I’m inclined to agree, but let’s see how this plays out. As Stewart put it, “If we play well, it’s all going to be water under the bridge.”