At the beginning of this month the Arizona Diamondbacks fired highly regarded GM Josh Byrnes and replaced him with interim GM Jerry DiPoto, a former major league reliever who pitched for the Rockies as recently as 2000.

It took only a few weeks for DiPoto to drive his franchise off a cliff.

The news came down today that the Diamondbacks have traded ace Dan Haren to the Angels for pitcher Joe Saunders, two marginal prospects and a player to be named. Even before we know who the player to be named is, this trade is so unspeakably bad for the Diamondbacks that its hard to know where to begin.

If you only look at traditional statistics (wins, ERA), on paper Haren and Saunders seem to be fairly similar pitchers who are both having an off year this season. I’m sure Jerry DiPoto looked at Saunders’s 17 wins in 2008 and 16 wins last season and figured that compared favorably with Haren’s 16 wins and 14 wins, respectively, only at a much cheaper price.

The massive problem for the Diamondbacks going forward is that even the most rudimentary understanding of advanced metrics shows that Haren is a vastly superior player to Saunders, both in terms of absolute talent and in terms of value versus dollars going forward.

Both players are the same age (29), which is still fairly young for a pitcher, but Haren is under team control even longer than Saunders (2013 vs 2012), and whereas Saunders heads to arbitration this offseason, making his future cost unpredictable, Haren is signed at below-market and below-value rates.

Saunders had one great season in 2008, when he went 17-7 and posted a 3.41 ERA, but that season was largely an illusion created by an incredibly lucky .267 BABIP. Saunders’s xFIP in the best season of his career was a very mediocre 4.65.

Meanwhile Haren is having what appears to be an off-year this season, posting a 7-8 record with a 4.60 ERA, but all his peripherals are just as good as ever, and he has clearly been the victim of a very unlucky .350 BABIP – his xFIP is actually a sparkling 3.38, and the ZiPS projection system expects him to have a 3.33 ERA going forward over the rest of the season.

All told, Saunders has a career xFIP of 4.69, which is 4th starter material at best, whereas Haren has a career xFIP more than a full run better at 3.61, which is clearly at ace level.

Over the past three years, according to Fangraphs, Haren has been worth an average of $26 million per season, and thus seems a good bet to provide value even at his 2013 salary of $15.5 million, barring injury.

Meanwhile, it is not even clear whether Saunders will be worth the big raise he is likely to get in arbitration this offseason. Over the past three seasons, which includes his strong 2008 campaign, Saunders has only been worth an average of $8 million per season. Last season Saunders was only worth $5 million, and he is on pace to be worth about $6 million this season. And while he earning a reasonable $3.6 million this year, he is likely to double that salary in arbitration.

When all is said and done the Dbacks traded that rarest of major league commodities – the true ace starter – in the even rarer package of a reasonable long-term deal, for a league-average starting pitcher and at best a grade B propect (depending on the PTBL, who is reportedly not top Angels prospect Mike Trout).

What has to terrify Dbacks fans, perhaps even more than the long-term implications of the trade itself for the team’s competitiveness going forward, which are horrifying enough, is what this deal indicates about the decision-making process in the Dbacks’ front office.

First, they fired Josh Byrnes, shocking the baseball world. Byrnes was one of the saavier operators in the game with a good grounding in statistical analysis. True, he had made the one mistake of hiring the unexperienced A.J. Hinch as manager and then compounded it by backing up Hinch despite the team’s struggles this season. But otherwise his actual player-personnel moves had pretty much all been good, which is pretty hard to pull off as a GM. Perhaps the sole exception was the 3-year deal he gave to gutsy, gritty, intangible-laden outfielder Eric Byrnes in 2007, but that move is widely held to have been forced on him by ownership.

Second, they fired Josh Byrnes in July. It’s got to be hard enough for even a competent and highly experienced GM to step into the role in the middle of trade deadline fever, but for a rather inexperienced hand like interim GM DiPoto it has to be even tougher. Was Byrnes such a danger to the team that he had to be fired, and thus the front office had to be thrown into chaos, right at the most crucial part of the season for a GM?

Third, the handing over of the reins to DiPoto, who as a former player is an “experienced veteran” who “knows the game,” along with the hiring of legendary grinder Kirk Gibson as manager and now this trade, suggests an ownership enamored of gumption, grit, and grizzled veteraneity over solid statistical analysis, or even scouting.

Some people are postulating that this trade was a pure salary dump, but that does not make sense to me. The Diamondbacks already had one of the lower payrolls in the game, and they already had about $30 million coming off the books this offseason. Plus, the hasty firing of Hinch and Byrnes suggests that this franchise actually does care about wins and losses quite a bit. And it’s worth reiterating that Dan Haren is under team control until 2013! There was absolutely no pressing need to move him now, or t0 sell him off for cheap.

No, the much scarier prospect is that Jerry DiPoto, and presumably whoever is advising him, and presumably Diamondbacks ownership as well, actually think this is a pretty good deal. Sometimes it can be easy to forget what it’s like to evaluate pitchers pretty much only in terms of Wins and ERA. But if that is how you operate, and you have the chance to trade a player who has gone 16-8 and 14-10 for a player who has just gone 17-7 and 16-7, and the only slightly bothersome point is that the one you are getting has a career ERA of 4.29 (but is a winner), where as the guy you’re trading has a career ERA of 3.71 (put can’t always “put it together”) AND you have a chance to save a lot of money AND get some “prospects”?

Why then you take that deal and you think you just did awesome.

But obviously that kind of thinking is not what wins championships anymore, or even divisions. Which is why it’s a great day to be an Angels fan, or a fan of any other team in the NL West.

3 Responses to “The scary implication of the Haren trade: Dbacks actually just clueless”

  1. Could not disagree with you more. Haren has become a walking home run derby pitching machine since the all star break last season. 38 dingers since then with a medicore 12-13 record at best – and the Angels are now committed to him for a minimum of 29 million over the next two years. Plus an option for another 12 million.

    If he gets it figured out – then the Angels got a bargain – but there is no indication that he will figure it out with the Angels.

    As for whether or not Heran is an ace – look at the suitors that lined up to get him – even after Cliff Lee was gone… Angels and ???? I think when all is said and done the Angels where bidding against themselves for Heran. No way were the Tigers (who are losing a starter a day), Twins, Yankees or other team going to give up a Cliff Lee type package for him.

    • Paul Moro says:

      Dave, there is every indication that he will “figure it out”. In fact, there’s not much he needs to do except doing the same thing he’s been doing for his ERA and HRs to improve.

      While Haren has, to his detriment, not been inducing as many groundballs as you’d expect from him, there’s really no reason why he’s giving up so many HRs this year. Moving from Chase Field to Angel Stadium should help keep the ball in the park, but ultimately, whether you believe it or not (the fact that you cite the W-L record of a pitcher whose team has zero offense tells me that you don’t believe), all Haren needs is a change in luck. The vast majority of the time, the rate of HRs per flyball given up is pretty stable from year to year. Haren’s Hr/FB rate this year is 14.1%, and smart money bets on that number to go down quite a bit.

      Moreover, he’s also been unlucky in terms of how many balls are finding holes in the Arizona defense. They’re a good defensive team. There’s really no reason why so many of them are falling in for hits except bad luck.

      So yeah, there are a lot of indications that Haren will be fine, even in the DH league. The Diamondbacks sold really low on the guy.

      And are you kidding about how the Angels were “bidding against themselves”? Pretty much every team was linked to Haren at some point. The Yankees, Phillies, Dodgers, Cardinals, Tigers… I find it really hard to believe that none of them were offering a better package. What’s far more plausible is that the D-Backs were, for some reason or other, in love with Joe Saunders and really think that he’s almost as good as Haren, which isn’t true at all.

      • I am mystified by the divergent opinions on Dan Haren. His peripherals say that he is indeed one of the elite, and his price is very reasonable. His traditional stats say he is average, and his price tag is slightly high. But with all the progress that has been made in pitcher evaluation (DiPs in particular), it is amazing that Haren’s star has fallen so far, when his actual performance has not.

        The Dbacks no doubt sold low, and the FO is starting to look really really bad. The canning of Byrnes, and now this trade (which simply could not have been the best offer out there) are truly bad indications.

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