With Joe Torre sporting that old gleam in his eye in Los Angeles, Troy Tulowitzki and Matt Holliday poised for a repeat in Colorado, and Jake Peavy and Greg Maddux quite comfortable as generational bookends in San Diego, the National League West has become a very unforgiving place to build a team.
"It's like SEC football," said Josh Byrnes, Arizona general manager. "It's just a grind. It might not make your record too pretty, but to survive it is a real accomplishment."
Here we are, with a week left until Christmas, and Byrnes already has his 2008 season survival kit packed. At the moment, he's placing a lot more emphasis on aces than Ace bandages.
Shortly before Hank Steinbrenner emerged from headline purgatory to proclaim the Yankees still in the Johan Santana sweepstakes, Byrnes held a seminar in action over talk. On Friday, Arizona acquired All-Star pitcher Dan Haren in an eight-player deal with Oakland. And to make the day doubly chaotic for the media relations department, the Diamondbacks traded closer Jose Valverde to Houston for reliever Chad Qualls, second baseman Chris Burke and starter Juan Gutierrez.
From a national perspective, the deals were overshadowed by Andy Pettitte's HGH admission and Katie Couric's inside look at the Alex Rodriguez-Scott Boras rift. But if you were paying attention, an Arizona team that posted the best record in the National League in 2007 just got a whole lot more formidable.
The Haren deal, in particular, was an eye-catcher. It's not often that a pitcher this accomplished gets traded so early in his career. Haren is 27 years old, and he's averaged 14 wins and 221 innings over the past three seasons. Since he just reached three years in service time, he won't be eligible for free agency until late 2010.
The last comparable deal that springs to mind occurred in 2005, when Florida sent Josh Beckett to Boston two years in advance of his free agency. We all know how that one worked out for the Red Sox.
In Arizona's case, all the stars aligned properly. The Diamondbacks have one of baseball's deepest farm systems, and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, the centerpiece to the deal from Oakland's perspective, was blocked by Eric Byrnes, Chris Young and Justin Upton in Phoenix.
You can argue that A's GM Billy Beane could have gotten more in return for a hot commodity like Haren. But really, we're not going to be able to judge his six-player haul for at least a couple of years. What's undeniable is that Beane, true to form, had the chutzpah to do something bold rather than be held hostage by circumstances.
"Every situation is different," said Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi. "I think Billy was looking to get some more players in his system, and it was a good trade for him. And Josh was looking for a top-line starter and had the resources to trade for him.
"Both these guys went into the trade with an idea of what they wanted to do, and it looks like they accomplished it. I think they both made gutsy moves."
The Haren deal reinforced the notion that some clubs are simply better at executing a plan. As a counterpoint, look at Houston, which has created some short-term excitement with the addition of shortstop Miguel Tejada and Valverde. But at what cost? At a time when smart clubs are hoarding pitching, the Astros have traded away Jason Hirsh, Taylor Buchholz, Dan Wheeler, Brad Lidge, Troy Patton, Matt Albers, Qualls and Gutierrez since last December. At this rate, general manager Ed Wade might have to coax Jim Deshaies out of retirement.
And what exactly are the Giants thinking? After cutting their ties with Barry Bonds and seemingly going young, they've brought back Omar Vizquel and signed Aaron Rowand to a five-year, $60 million deal. Rowand is a terrific character guy who'll have a positive impact on the Giants' clubhouse. But he would seem to be a better fit on a contender than as a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage in San Francisco.
The Diamondbacks, in contrast, have acted with surgical precision -- using creativity to keep their costs down, maximizing their resources, thinking two steps ahead, and pushing for that little extra to give them lots of Plan B's and C's.
In Haren and Brandon Webb, Arizona might have two of the top dozen starters in baseball. And here's the best part: They're already signed for the next three years at a combined cost of $37.5 million. That's just a tad more than the Dodgers will pay Andruw Jones to hit 60 homers and strike out 260 times over the next two seasons.
Byrnes, who is mistakenly characterized as a "stat guy," relied heavily on the input of talent evaluators Bob Gebhard and Jerry DiPoto, assistant GM Peter Woodfork and farm director A.J. Hinch before running the proposals up the flag to general partner Jeff Moorad. The Diamondbacks also owe a debt of gratitude to former scouting director Mike Rizzo, who helped lay such a solid foundation in Arizona before leaving for Washington.
For all the praise the D-backs received for the Haren deal, they've taken a few hits for trading away Valverde fresh off his 47-save season. But Byrnes was simply executing a move from the Billy Beane playbook -- which advises spinning off closers before those gaudy save totals make them cost prohibitive.
With Qualls, Tony Pena and Brandon Lyon in the bullpen and top prospect Max Scherzer emerging as a future closer candidate, Arizona should be OK in the late innings. Burke and Emilio Bonifacio give the Diamondbacks some second-base depth with Orlando Hudson a year away from free agency.
Byrnes learned the importance of a deep pitching inventory last season when Randy Johnson was limited to 10 starts because of back trouble, so he's always looking for young arms. Along with Haren and Qualls, he picked up Gutierrez from the Astros last week and added former second-round pick Billy Buckner from Kansas City in a trade for infielder Alberto Callaspo.
If the rotation of Webb, Haren, Johnson, Doug Davis and Micah Owings hits a pothole, the Diamondbacks have Yusmeiro Petit, Edgar Gonzalez and a few other options to assure that manager Bob Melvin won't have to go into panic mode.
Right now, the Diamondbacks are cautiously optimistic on Johnson, who's hoping to return from back surgery at age 44 and improve upon his career record of 284-150.
"He's motivated in a couple of respects," Byrnes said. "He has a shot to win 300, and he has to be really healthy to do it. And he demonstrated last year that when he's healthy and on a roll, he can dominate as much as anybody can."
The Diamondbacks will spend the coming weeks and months monitoring Johnson's health. In the meantime, there's something to be said for having all the big pieces in place in mid-December.
"It's the old John Hart model," said Byrnes, who apprenticed under Hart in Cleveland in the 1990s.
And if you think Brandon Webb and Dan Haren look good in the Arizona rotation now, just imagine how happy the Diamondbacks will be in a week or two, when teams start throwing gobs of money at Carlos Silva and Kyle Lohse.