A necessary search for quality pitching drove the Diamondbacks’ offseason acquisition of right-hander Shelby Miller, club chief baseball officer Tony La Russa said in defending the swap in comments to Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic. While the Arizona front office has obviously discussed that highly-scrutinized deal before, its ongoing relevance is heightened by recent rumblings of change in the baseball operations department.
Amidst reports of embarrassing missteps, Arizona’s upper management hasn’t yet committed to retaining La Russa, GM Dave Stewart, or other top baseball ops personnel. And a more recent report says that the ownership group has nixed several significant would-be actions by La Russa and company in recent weeks, suggesting at least some lack of alignment in the organization’s baseball decisionmaking.
The Miller deal, which followed the team’s out-of-nowhere signing of Zack Greinke, is Exhibit A in the detractors’ case against La Russa and Stewart. It is a powerful piece of evidence, because Arizona not only gave up solid and controllable MLB regular — Ender Inciarte — but parted with a quality pitching prospect in Aaron Blair and the just-drafted top overall pick in Dansby Swanson. In return, the D-Backs received a pitcher who didn’t really seem worth that package at the time, and who has gone on to suffer through an unimaginably bad 2016 season.
Because a transaction of that magnitude could end up altering a franchise’s trajectory, its success or failure carries significant weight in assessing front office performance. In that context, La Russa and Stewart have recently defended the swap — among other moves — as pressure mounts. The D-Backs currently hold the second-worst record in the National League, leading only the Braves — who are, of course, the rebuilding organization that sent Miller to Arizona.
La Russa, who was hired in May of 2014 to revamp the organization’s baseball operations, acknowledges that the Snakes’ performance to date doesn’t add to the defense of the front office decisionmaking. But he suggests that he doesn’t regret the move for Miller.
“Unfortunately for the Diamondbacks and our fans, our season this year does not give any answers in support of the moves that were made,” said La Russa. “Sometimes the results are not as immediate as you want. It’s not fantasy island; it’s the reality of playing the game. We are still very solid in favor of having Shelby as part of our organization.”
While Piecoro reports that Atlanta was actually concerned the overwhelming reaction favoring its side of the trade would lead Arizona to scuttle it, La Russa maintains that public perception of the industry viewpoint isn’t accurate. Other front offices, he suggests, were supportive. “At the same time that we were hearing the criticisms, I was also hearing from people that I knew personally saying, ‘Hey, man, we know where you were coming from. We were interested in Shelby, as well.”
That doesn’t mean that the package parted with for Miller hasn’t stung — especially with Swanson joining the Braves in time for their current trip to Chase Field. For Stewart, it was the loss of Swanson that constituted “the one piece of the whole deal that bothered me the most.”
La Russa generally concurred, but said Inciarte was as big a loss as Swanson. He explained: “Including Ender was just as difficult as including Dansby. He’s a really good player. But you don’t win without pitching.”