After 48 games, the Arizona Diamondbacks still find themselves tied with the Florida Marlins and the Chicago Cubs for the best record in all of baseball, yet a once-commanding lead over the rest of the NL West has shriveled into a 3.5 game edge over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Their 17-5 intra-division record, which seemed so impressive two weeks ago, has been exposed as the result of decent team beating up on awful ones; The NL West has an aggregate .455 winning percentage, easily the worst mark among Major League Baseball's six divisions.
The Diamondbacks remain a solid team, and could take advantage of this surprisingly weak division, thus securing their second straight playoff berth. Actually, they had better do so, or general manager Josh Byrnes will have some extensive explaining to do.
Byrnes has been lauded as one of the best general managers in the game after just two-and-a-half years with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Rightfully so, as he has turned a team riddled with financial debt and aging has-been players into one of the most exciting young franchises around. The one caveat is that the young talent that these Diamondbacks now have may not be as good as the young talent that they have recently traded away.
The most glaring example of Byrnes acting carelessly with his surplus of young talent can be seen in the Dan Haren trade. In order to secure an established innings-eater, Byrnes dealt away six promising youngsters - including five of the organization's top 10 prospects as rated here on FutureBacks.com.
The key member of this heroic half-dozen was ostensibly Carlos Gonzalez, a legitimate five-tool threat whose power ceiling is among the highest in baseball. But Oakland A's manager Billy Beane was just as excited about obtaining Brett Anderson, whose makeup and pinpoint command of four big league pitches combine to make him one of the safest bets ever to succeed among pitchers drafted out of high school.
Aaron Cunningham and Chris Carter, both of whom began their careers in the White Sox system, accompanied Anderson and Gonzalez to Oakland. The Diamondbacks traded second baseman Danny Richar to originally acquire Cunningham and former first-round pick Carlos Quentin to net Carter.
The consensus picks as the least promising prospects included in the Dan Haren deal were Greg Smith and Dana Eveland. Unfortunately for the Diamondbacks, through nearly a third of the season, they have outperformed Byrnes' prized acquisition all by themselves. While Haren has been more than respectable by going 4-2 with a 3.04 ERA in his first eight starts, Smith and Eveland have combined to go 5-5 with a 3.12 ERA in 12 starts.
Those numbers may seem to favor Haren slightly, but remember that we're really comparing Smith and Eveland versus Haren and Edgar Gonzalez. Had the Diamondbacks not made this deal, Smith and Eveland would have replaced Gonzalez' six starts - in which he averaged fewer than five innings per outing and compiled a 6.00 ERA - as well as Haren's eight starts. The younger duo would have been a lot cheaper for this penny-pinching franchise as well.
Even if you aren't convinced that the Diamondbacks would be better off with Smith and Eveland than with Haren and Gonzalez, surely you'd agree that when combined with the loss of four top prospects, this deal was lopsided indeed. Consider that Carlos Quentin was indirectly used to acquire Haren as well. Quentin currently leads the American League with nine home runs. His .971 OPS is higher than any member of the Diamondbacks' highly-regarded outfield, while his .568 SLG would rank first among all Diamondbacks regulars were he still wearing a red uniform.
The Jose Valverde trade has worked out better for the Diamondbacks even though it was the more widely criticized move this winter. Valverde has been somewhat inconsistent with the Astros, converting eight of his first 11 save opportunities and posting a 4.66 ERA. The main player he was swapped for, Chad Qualls, has a much better 2.75 ERA, but that doubles to 5.50 when you factor in the unearned runs that have led to his 0-4 record.. Unfortunately, with Chad Qualls also came Chris Burke, whose unthinkable .137 SLG is hampering the Diamondbacks' offense, particularly as he has stolen at bats from a revitalized Augie Ojeda, who is hitting .370. At least the Diamondbacks are saving money on this exchange.
If we go way back to Byrnes first few moves with the Diamondbacks, we find more lost gems. The Diamondbacks acquired Chris Young by shipping Javier Vasquez to the White Sox. Young's .238 career batting average may not improve much, as teams are beginning to throw him more and more curveballs, whereas the 31-year old Vazquez is leading the American League in strikeouts. Byrnes can't really be blamed for this one, since Vazquez was demanding a trade at the time, but we do see the list of successful ex-Diamondbacks growing.
It's much easier to fault Byrnes for not protecting Dan Uggla in the 2005 Rule V draft. The Diamondbacks received no compensation for the second baseman, whose 11 home runs are good for third in the majors and whose .618 SLG trumps anything the Diamondbacks have to offer. Like Quentin, Smith, and Eveland, Uggla is making these contributions despite a sub-$500,000 salary. In fact, that quartet will make less money this year than the newly acquired Chris Burke and Chad Qualls will combine to earn.
We are nearing the point where we can assemble an entire All-Star team of ex-Diamondbacks that could out-hit and out-pitch the 2008 Arizona Diamondbacks for but a fraction of the cost. As long as the current team makes the playoffs, however, fans won't complain about a few of their lost stars succeeding elsewhere. Alternativey, if the Diamondbacks continue their current slide, if the ex-Diamondacks continue to thrive, and if ticket prices begin to soar to cover the salaries of Eric Byrnes, Chris Young, and Dan Haren, there's going to be a furor in Phoenix.
Josh Byrnes, hero today, may need to traverse the desert incognito tomorrow.
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