I haven't written about the controversial trade last weekend between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Atlanta Braves, when the Diamondbacks essentially sold Class A pitcher Touki Toussaint, last year's 16th overall pick, to the Braves for about $10 million in salary relief (giving injured starter Bronson Arroyo to Atlanta).
The deal was met with much criticism across analyst land. Here's what ESPN Insider Keith Law wrote:
I don't see how anyone can claim that it is. MLB doesn't have any responsibility to protect any team from its own stupidity, but it does have a genuine interest in maintaining the long-term competitiveness of all of its franchises. Allowing the sale of prospects for cash sets a terrible precedent, so while it appears that current commish Rob Manfred isn't going to step in and block this specific deal, he should be looking at future trades to prevent this single incident from becoming a trend.
Jeff Wiser of the Inside the 'Zona blog wrote:
This deal stood out and shocked the astute baseball community for one reason: Teams don’t do this. Moves of this variety rarely happen because people around the game are smart enough to know that first-round picks don’t grow on trees. Toussaint has as high of a ceiling as any current minor league pitcher outside of perhaps Lucas Giolito and Julio Urias. For a team short on impact prospects, he was easily the player with the highest potential impact. The team obviously agreed with that assessment when they gave him $2.7 million as a signing bonus, about 15 percent over his slot allotment. That did happen under La Russa. So when you consider that the team already sunk $2.7 million into the guy they sold for $10 million, it’s not nearly the savings that it might sound like. Baseball budgets generally work year to year, but it’s worth noting that Toussaint wasn’t free, although that’s the way prospects are generally discussed.
Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote that the D-backs underestimated Toussaint's value:
So I’d say Toussaint is probably worth something closer to $20 million than $10 million, at least if we believe that he’s still roughly a back-end top-100 pitching prospect.
Chris Crawford of Baseball Prospectus talked to some front-office personnel, one of whom said:
"Don’t blame Dave Stewart for this deal. Don’t blame Tony La Russa. Cost-cutting moves come from up above, and if the Diamondbacks ownership group is so cheap that they feel like it’s necessary to move a top-100 prospect to clear enough cash to sign a No. 3 starter or a No. 6 hitter, then maybe they should be looking for someone else to purchase the club, because clearly this isn’t the right business for them. On paper, this is as bad a trade as I can ever remember, and I can’t help but feel sorry for the fans in Phoenix right now."
Joe Sheehan took a different approach, pointing out that the bigger issue is players getting shafted out of bigger bonuses when originally drafted:
That $6.6 million -- the difference between the signing bonus and the purchase price -- went to the Diamondbacks rather than Toussaint. That's what the agreement among MLB's owners to not compete openly for amateur talent, complicit with the desiccated remnants of the MLBPA, took from Toussaint. That's the difference between his signing bonus and what a franchise values his talents at in the marketplace.
We've seen examples of this before. There were four players from the 1996 draft declared free agents due to a CBA loophole exploited by Scott Boras. The bonuses for Travis Lee ($10 million) and Matt White ($10.2 million) remain the highest any drafted player has ever received. Lee, drafted second, got five times as much as the No. 1 pick that year, Kris Benson, received. The 1996 free agents underlined the point that competition will drive up bonuses. The Toussaint trade shows that competition isn't even necessary to make that point. A year ago, the rights to Toussaint were deemed to be worth $2.7 million by one team with exclusive negotiating rights. Now, they're worth $9.3 million.
After all that criticism, chief baseball operator Tony La Russa came and tried to explain the rationale behind the trade as the D-backs freeing up some financial flexibility. He told Nick Piecoro of The Arizona Republic that, "I don't think we're going to need a lot of pieces because we're going to develop with this core. But if you can make the right move or two with somebody, that brings a lot to the table. Payroll flexibility is important."
In other words, if the Diamondbacks -- 35-36 and four games out of first place in the NL West and 4.5 behind the Cubs for the second wild-card spot -- now have the ability to bring on more payroll if they want to make a trade (say, for a certain starting pitcher who could become the staff ace). Still, it came across as a money-saving ploy by a cheap organization, but at least that seemed to explain why they made the move.
So, case closed? Nope! General manager Stewart spoke with Ken Rosenthal and said,
"The truth is we did not know what Touki’s value would be if we shopped him. There is a lot of speculation on that. People are assuming it would have been better, but we don’t know.
"There was an opportunity to make a deal that gave us more flexibility today as well as next year. We took that opportunity. It’s tough to say we could have gotten more. He was drafted at No. 16, given ($2.7) million. In my opinion, that’s his value."
Now, general managers don't have to call all other 29 general managers before making a deal, but you certainly don't want to hear your general manager saying "we don't know" about a player's value. That's embarrassing. Stewart might turn out to be an effective GM, and this deal might not come back to haunt him, but he still has a lot to learn. As Cameron wrote today at FanGraphs, "To claim that Toussaint’s market value is $2.7 million because that’s what he signed for in a closed-market system with constrained spending is so ridiculous that I can only hope Stewart was just making an off-hand comment to a reporter and didn’t think about about the ramifications of what he was saying."
Are the Diamondbacks as close as La Russa believes? Not for 2015. They're basically riding MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt and an All-Star season from A.J. Pollock to a .500 record. The defense should be better now that they've traded Mark Trumbo and moved Yasmany Tomas off third base, but the rotation is still enough of a mess that I can't see them challenging the Dodgers and Giants or the Cubs.