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Dealing with the Diamondbacks

 Was Pollock a dealbreaker for the D-Backs and Indians? (AP Photo) 
Yesterday, I took a long look at the Indians' front office here at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, detailing three missed deals that Chris Antonetti may have been in the mix for over the past year. The most recent of those misses was a possible trade involving the Arizona Diamondbacks that would have involved either Danny Salazar or Carlos Carrasco.

To set the stage for that deal, you have to understand what each team was looking for. The Indians were very clearly looking for a "Big 4" player of sorts. They were looking for a player who had an impact bat at the major league level, excelled defensively, had multiple years of control, and filled one of the sizable gaps on the team's current 25-man roster. It's likely they also would have been looking for other assets in that deal, depending on how good the centerpiece player was in a trade involving one of the 'aces' in the Indians rotation.

For Antonetti to make a trade involving the rotation, he would have to swing for the fences with some of his most prized team assets. It's key to note that it's not likely that Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff would instigate such a trade. This was the type of deal that would likely have to start with a phone call from another General Manager, who was desperate for a top starter, and had the type of players that the Indians would value. You could count those teams on one hand.

Enter Dave Stewart, the GM of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Diamonbacks were a prospect-rich team in that they had some highly regarded prospects at the top of they system, ready to play in the big leagues. They also have several "over-valued" players in their top ten, based on Stewart's belief that he understands his system's players (starters in particular) better than the scouts evaluating that talent. This is important to note only because Stewart would have to believe that a major trade wouldn't both gut his team, and/or his system.

As I noted yesterday, "over-valuing" your system isn't a knock on Stewart, as most GMs feel the same way about their systems as Stewart does his. Good GMs build their system to fit what they envision their major league roster should be, so they can fill needs as they need them. The key to that belief regarding your system's players rests in the reality of the situation, and how other front offices evaluates said talent in comparison to their own. In other words, if a GM over-inflates his players, he needs to realize that when trying to make deals with other organizations, his players may not be as highly regarded.

It's truly a complicated process, and really, the root of my piece yesterday regarding Chris Antonetti (I only leave Mike Chernoff out of this because I'm not sure he has any true pull yet, and we've yet to see him at the forefront of any deals, as Antonetti was at the end of Mark Shapiro's tenure as the Indians' General Manager back in 2009 and 2010). Good GMs find a balance, and said balance is easier to find if your organization has money to compensate for losses, either in trades, free agency, or injuries.

In an interview with Diamondbacks' broadcasters Steve Berthiaume and Greg Schultze after the signing of Zack Grienke and trade for Shelby Miller, Dave Stewart gave some insight into how he felt about his system while talking about both the Braves Shelby Miller and the #1 overall pick in the 2015 MLB June amateur draft, selected by the  D-Backs, Dansby Swanson.

Dave Stewart on Dansby Swanson:
"He's (Dansby Swanson) a special player. Is he an all-star, maybe once or twice in his career, but he's going to be a...steady major league player...for a good long time. But past that, a great character guy. When you have those kind of guys, it makes you think about it. This guy was...the #1 pick in the country."
It's an interesting and realistic take on Swanson. Prospects are often inflated and compared to the greats in the game. The reality is that it's rare that any prospect becomes an all-time great, let alone an All-Star. While I'm sure that Stewart's take on Swanson would have been slightly different before the trade, I like the reality of his current take. Swanson could very well be a ten-time All-Star before it's all said and done, but the reality is that if he becomes a consistent performer for years, the value is still there, and he's had a fantastic career. It's truly hard to gauge the future of a player that has less than a half-season of professional baseball, regardless of where they were selected at. In the end though, tools are tools.

The Braves, of course, are banking on those tools coming to fruition once their new ballpark opens in 2017.

Dave Stewart on Shelby Miller:
"When you look at a guy, some people say he's (Shelby Miller) a 3 that pitches as a 2B. I'd like to think that I know more about pitching than whoever that is. I see this guy as a solid 2, who has an opportunity to be a #1."
Evaluating starting pitching is always an interesting proposition for me, and I while it's easy to get snarky regarding Stewart's bravado, he likely does have better insight than the larks out there discussing Miller. This is a guy that the St. Louis Cardinals held in high regard, which immediately says to me, he can be a #1 starter. No, he doesn't have the electric "out" stuff that Danny Salazar has, but he's been a pretty effective starter at the big league level for three full seasons. When you have Zack Greinke at the top of your rotation, Shelby Miller is a pretty damn good #2 starter, who absolutely can spot fill the top of any rotation. Was he worth the prospect package that the Diamondbacks gave up?

He gave up a lot, but when considering the price of starters in today's market, I don't think it was as big a steal as other do. If Miller is a true #2 starter for three seasons, I think they got what they wanted in the deal. To Stewart, Inciarte is a true surplus asset, and Swanson, while a #1 pick, is a guy that the organization hasn't yet gotten to know. Think Drew Pomeranz. No, Pomeranz wasn't held in as high regard as Swanson, but my point there is that the Indians moved him before the organization truly counted on him. Nothing more, nothing less. The Diamondbacks see their next three seasons as playoff seasons, and while that may be the fallacy in all of this, it's easy to see their thinking.

Dave Stewart, on whether or not he could have gotten the deal done with less than the three major pieces in Ender Inciarte, Aaron Blair and Dansby Swanson:
"I guess we won't know...When I evaluated what I feel we have, vs. what we had to give up, I thought it was the right deal. I didn't think that there was another way that we could get it done. They were adamant that Dansby had to be a part of it, which for me, he was the stumbling block, he would have been the deal-breaker for me. I had absolutely no problem with Ender Inciarte and Blair. Dansby Swanson was the stumbling block for me."
While that 'I guess we won't know' piece was a hard one for me to get past, it's equally important to note that the second piece of that comment was that the Braves immediately wanted A.J. Pollock, which I'll get into in a second. John Hart was asking for the moon for Shelby Miller, and likely would have found a match eventually. Miller's body of work is exquisite in the National League, and while there were likely better pitchers available, it's really important to note the price of said pitchers, including the Indians' Salazar, Carrasco and Kluber.

The price is high, and it should be. It's clear that Stewart believes his team is ready to roll, right now. They have a young-ish roster, and in Stewart's eyes, their organization below the major league roster, remains strong, even if not in top-end talent.
"I think we have an opportunity to be a powerful organization and baseball team, now and going forward...our organization, at this time (after the deal) is strong with our prospects."
Later in the interview, Stewart noted that the team needed to improve their bullpen, and that he didn't think that his minor league organization had the ability to make a major deal with the current talent. While the quote appears to show Stewart with an unrealistic view of his system, I think just the opposite. As GMs tend to do, Stewart likely sees players that can supplement his current 25-man roster, while not having the type of value outside the organization to bring in a major chip, or even a pretty good chip.

Now let's get to the crux of what could have happened with the Cleveland Indians, and in a contextual manner, as opposed to just pulling out a quote on twitter. As I mentioned earlier, Chris Antonetti was looking for one of those "Big 4" acquisitions for his current roster, but only if someone came knocking first. Like Stewart, Antonetti believes his team is ready to win now, but has the added advantage of having an entire rotation locked up from 2016 through 2020, and to team friendly contracts.

While some surface arguments have been made that Antonetti and the Indians' front office is "hard to deal with," it's important to once again note that this is something that all GMs do with coveted and premium position players. For Antonetti, Chernoff and Terry Francona, who have all stated as much this offseason, the starting rotation of Corey Kluber, Carrasco and Salazar are such players. They aren't quite untouchable, but would require the moon and beyond, to acquire.

This is where people start spouting off about a "surplus," and how the Indians should deal from said "surplus" to help supplement the rest of their team. I don't disagree with that statement wholly, but I always get really antsy when the term "starter" is mixed with the term "surplus." Those terms are oil and water. I realize I mentioned Inciarte as a "surplus" player, but the major difference there is that the Indians' starters are all at the very least, borderline elite. Inciarte is really good, but his ceiling isn't near the term elite. While Inciarte isn't easy to replace, the D'Backs already have a full contingent of good outfieders with Pollock, David Peralta and Yasmany Tomas.

"As long as we have pitching, I feel like we're always going to have a chance. We were all in agreement that we were not going to trade one of our (top) starters unless we were overwhelmed with an offer. When you look at the price of starting pitching, we know we can't go out and sign the kind of pitchers that we have right now. We're fortunate to have good young pitching. Unless someone is going to knock our socks off, we're going to keep our pitching."
I agree 100% with everything that Francona just said there. It's mind-numbing to think about the shortsightedness that some have with regards to the Indians and starters. Sure, the Indians have had three Cy Young award winners over the past nine seasons, but overall, this is an organization that didn't have a Cy Young winner for 35 years. Above-average starters are important, so the real question is whether or not the offense can somehow bridge the gap in 2016 and beyond.

That's the counterbalance to everything that the three-headed monster of Antonetti/Chernoff/Francona have been preaching about since October. They won't make a deal for those starters, unless we get something HUGE in return that can produce offensively. In other words, they need a bat that has those "Big 4" intangibles, and pieces.

For the Arizona Diamondbacks and General Manager Dave Stewart, he also has a player that he considers nearly untouchable, who also just happens to be one of those "Big 4" players in Pollock. It's also likely what kept the Indians from pulling off a deal, if you are to believe that Stewart was in serious talks with Antonetti, which I don't.

When Stewart was asked if he had to give up all three pieces in the deal for Miller, what he said next was extremely telling for me.
"Their (the Braves) first ask was A.J. Pollock, which was an absolute no for me."
It was clear from the get-go that Stewart didn't want to deal Pollock, and it was equally clear that the Indians 'must-have' player from the Diamondbacks was Pollock. I could probably end the conversation there, but it's important to note the realities of whether or not a deal could get done, and do it in a contextual manner. This is the kind of deal that happens over months, not days, and I'm pretty sure the conversation involving Salazar and Pollock took place in minutes.

The rhetoric since the Miller trade from national publications has been that the Diamondbacks zeroed in on Shelby Miller from the start, and I 100% believe this to be true. Stewart seemed to back-up this belief when Berthiaume and Schultze asked about whether or not they finally got the Miller deal done because of the Greinke deal, which I speculated on yesterday. Stewart said that regardless of what happened with Zack Greinke, he would have dealt for Shelby Miller. When asked why Miller was the ONE guy that he focused on, Stewart had this to say.
"He comes competitively, ready to pitch. He's a 200 innings guy. We've got three years of control. He's 25-years old. This guy, if he's not your two, he becomes your one on your staff. He can lead a staff, that's joined by a lot of other young pitchers. I believe that Shelby Miller is going to be a great addition to our starting staff..."
Like I have said from the start, I firmly believe that Tony LaRussa and Stewart were focused on Miller, and Miller alone. Any 'reaching out' the D-Backs likely did while the deal was in limbo was done to both gauge the value of starting pitching outside of Atlanta, and to try and push the Braves along the path. This is also where I think A.J. Pollock, as a trade chip, came into play, not in reality, but as a push to get other players involved.

Again, it's all speculation, but it's distinctly possible that Stewart told John Hart that if he had to deal Pollock, he might as well go after Salazar, who has five-years of control and a 100 MPH fastball.

Stewart was flat-out asked if he could have taken the same package of players (Swanson, Blair and Inciarte) and gone to Cleveland and acquired five-years of Salazar or Carrasco, and it's equally important to note that this was asked after Shelby Miller was acquired, and after Stewart had taken national heat for Shelby Miller being the primary focus from the start.
"Whoever said that, they weren't in my shoes. Danny Salazar is a guy that I held in the highest regard, and I had him actually above Shelby Miller, and I talked to Cleveland about Danny Salazar, and I'm telling you that was not a package that would have got it done."
He's right. Danny Salazar is a better pitcher than Shelby Miller. He's negligibly older, but with two more years of control, two wipe-out pitches, and developing the kind of stuff that has "nasty ace" written all over it.

While I would have likely traded one of our starters for the package given to the Braves, I can certainly understand why the Indians and Chris Antonetti didn't. They clearly, like the Braves, were targeting Pollock, and if I'm a betting man, also wanted Blair and Inciarte. I'm not saying that it would have been a straight up Salazar-for-those-three type of deal, but I'm guessing Pollock was the must-get. The home run would have been to acquire Inciarte as well, which would have loaded the Indians outfield in 2016, while plugging Blair into the bottom end of the rotation.

As I've believed from the start, Stewart called Cleveland as more of a courtesy and curiosity call, then a "let's get a deal done" call. My firm belief is that it was one of the key motivators for the Braves to beat the Indians to the punch, but I question whether there was a real punch there to begin with.

Fangraphs' Jeff Sullivan was recently asked about the potential for the Diamondbacks and the Indians to pull a similar deal, and he was pretty sure that something could get done.
"The have (prices for pitchers have skyrocketed), but, Salazar has five years of control, and Miller has three. Salazar just struck out more than a batter an inning in the American League; Miller didn't come close, in the National League. I think if they pushed it, Arizona and Cleveland could've arrived at an agreement. But Swanson would've been of less interest to the Indians, on account of Lindor."
That's more or less where I stand as well. While I disagree that Swanson was an impediment in the deal, my guess is that he wouldn't have been a primary asking point for the Indians, and that's less to do with Lindor, and more to do with timing.  Swanson is going to start the year off in High A, and while he could be a quick mover, I don't think Inciarte, Blair, and a guy that could be ready in a couple years, especially after a transition to second or third, is what they were looking for.

I also like Blair a lot, but don't think that the priority in the deal for the Indians was to get a replacement for Salazar, although it would have been a component. So the Indians would have to be content with Inciarte, while hoping Blair is a true top-of-the-rotation replacement, to make Antonetti budge. That's a pretty big gamble for a GM who wants a kings ransom for a clear top-of-the-rotation starter, with five years of control.

I know, some will be screaming about the #1 pick in Swanson, and I'm not trying to downplay him at all. He could be a star. But even on the Jason Kipnis track, if he starts at High A Carolina this year, that puts him 18-months away from the big leagues if everything clicks with a position change, and if he doesn't have any setbacks. Kipnis was a rarity, an exception to the rule, and players like that, even in a #1 pick, don't grow on trees.

It seems pretty risky for the Indians, who truly understand Salazar's value, to make that trade. When evaluating talent, there is immediate value, and down-the-road value. An organization might put weight into one or the other, depending on the level of their major league roster. The Diamondbacks and Indians are looking for immediate value, while the Braves are down-the-road. This is what make the Indians and D-Backs bad trade partners, but the Braves fit the bill. In a bubble, the D-Backs gave up a boatload, but if you take a step back, there's more value to the D-Backs then people give them credit for.

Could a deal with the Indians have gotten done? Yes, if Stewart really wanted to deal with the Indians.

Could a deal have gotten done with the three players offered to the Braves? I'm pretty sure that deal was never offered to the Indians, and for the reasons I noted already. Stewart was just fishing, and the Indians replied to his fishing with Pollock and pieces. Remember, Stewart;s exact quote was "that was not a package that would have gotten it done with the Indians." The key words there are 'would have.' Stewart likely asked about Salazar, and Antonetti likely asked about Pollock, Blair and Inciarte, or some variation, with an understanding that bantering and "extras" would have to be included. That was when the likely exchanged pleasantries, and quickly hung up the phone.

Could a deal eventually have gotten done? Had Stewart and Antonetti been talking all offseason about variations of the deal, I 100% agree with Jeff Sullivan that something could have gotten done. It would have had to be something big though. I'd be curious as to what would have happened had the Braves decided not to deal Miller. I wonder if Stewart would have blinked on A.J. Pollock. Of course ponder in one hand and crap in the other, and see what gets filled first.

In the end, my point remains the same. Chris Antonetti played hard-ball with a coveted asset in Danny Salazar and Dave Stewart played hard-ball with a coveted asset in A.J. Pollock, if you believe that the two GMs were talking seriously. I don't.

Dave Stewart was doing what GMs tend to do, casting his fishing line around the edges of the lake, before heading off to where the real fish were biting for Arizona...

...somewhere around, say, Atlanta.
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