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It feels as though, in failing to coax the Marlins into accepting their (humongous) offer for Jose Fernandez, the Diamondbacks decided to pay the Braves for him, instead—even though all the Braves had was Shelby Miller. Dave Stewart and Tony La Russa have basically done what A.J. Preller did last winter: start out with some admirable grandeur, improve, get a glimpse of possible contention, and then totally lose their attachment to reality.
Miller improves the Diamondbacks at one of their key remaining areas of weakness. According to DRA, he was the 10th-best pitcher in baseball last season, despite his pedestrian strikeout rate and (as always) good-not-great command. He’s pitched three full, useful seasons in the majors, and the two best ones (2013 and 2015) look remarkably similar: ERAs of 3.06 and 3.02, FIPs of 3.64 and 3.47, identical cFIPs of 97. That last number stands out, because cFIP is the more predictive cousin of DRA, and indeed, our best way of using performance to project a pitcher’s talent level into the immediate future. Almost no matter how durable Miller is, if he’s really a 97 cFIP guy, he’s not going to repeat a top-10 season in overall pitching value. DRA says Miller was roughly as good as Cole Hamels and Corey Kluber; cFIP puts him in the company of Lance Lynn and Rick Porcello. Crucially, though, Miller developed a sinker in 2015, and found an approach that might help explain his defiance of cFIP’s predictive power.
Until 2015, Miller was Lance Lynn, more or less. He threw his four-seam fastball roughly 70 percent of the time, and most of the rest of his offerings were curves chasing strikeouts. Lynn’s 97 cFIP came with a 100 DRA- in 2015, meaning his results hewed closely to his peripheral stats, even after carefully accounting for context. In 2015, though, Miller more closely resembled Lynn’s teammate Jaime Garcia, who relied almost equally on his sinker and four-seamer, and used a slider to keep hitters honest. (Miller obviously used a cutter to achieve that effect, and still threw his four-seamer somewhat more often than the sinker, but the point stands.) Garcia had a 96 cFIP, but a 77 DRA-, not far from Miller’s 74, so they both beat cFIP by a healthy margin.
This is similar to the phenomenon I observed in studying Zack Greinke’s evolution when he signed with Arizona over the weekend: moving multiple pitches into the arm slot and velocity band naturally inhabited by a pitcher’s primary fastball can help him outpitch his peripheral numbers. It’s something about getting hitters to make contact, but on the wrong parts of the bat, or a hair off of their natural timing. If Miller is an astute student, maybe he can even learn something more about the art from Greinke, who is growing into one of its foremost practitioners. If the Diamondbacks are specifically seeking out guys who go about things that way, perhaps that strengthens the argument for believing in that skill. (Unfortunately, there’s little evidence of the latter. Arizona signed Greinke after Johnny Cueto spurned them, and dealt for Miller after Fernandez proved unobtainable.)
Anyway, Miller is still only 25, he’s generally durable, and if you buy into that DRA-driven 2015 WARP, he’s a solid second starter behind Greinke. He’s under control for three more years, at whatever salaries the arbitration system affords him, just as Fernandez would have been. Great. The Diamondbacks now have a starting rotation that can compete and win in the NL West.
At what cost, though? The Diamondbacks surrendered perhaps the National League’s best fourth outfielder, in Inciarte, a key cog in their run-prevention machine in 2015. They gave up Aaron Blair, a former first-round pick who split 2015 between Double-A and Triple-A, and who could have provided nice rotation depth in 2016. And they gave up Dansby Swanson, the top overall pick in the draft six months ago. If the Diamondbacks had any hope of extending their half-open competitive window further than the end of Paul Goldschmidt’s prime, they put a huge dent in it by agreeing to this trade.
That’d be okay if they were definitely, measurably better on this side of the trade, but that’s just not the case. Miller probably will prevent more runs than Inciarte and Blair will in 2016, but it won’t be by all that much, and the increased pressure on the likes of Yasmany Tomas and Peter O’Brien by the departure of Inciarte offsets some of that benefit. Stewart and La Russa continue to alternate good decisions with ghastly ones, which both imperils their organization in the long term, and calls into question their ability to leverage even this brief opportunity to contend. —Matthew Trueblood
Speier has now been traded three times this year, which doesn't tell you anything about what kind of prospect he is, but is pretty interesting. He throws a low 90s fastball that will touch the 94 when he reaches back for more, and he commands it to both sides of the plate from a three-quarter arm slot. His change is an above-average offering with fade, and he'll mix in a solid—but inconsistent—curveball with just enough depth to be effective. The upside is extremely limited, but the stuff/command is good enough that he could be a middle-innings guy for a season or five. –Christopher Crawford
Miller is set to actually get some run support in 2016, but his overall numbers will likely suffer (outside of wins) now that he's making half his starts in the sixth-friendliest park for left-handed hitters. (Turner Field had ranked as the third toughest environment for lefty hitters in 2015.) Miller’s road ERA of 3.67 this season was more than a full run higher than his ERA at home (2.43) and lefties feasted on him at a much better clip on the road as well, slugging .473 outside of Atlanta compared to a .362 mark at Turner Field. In each of Miller’s first two full seasons with the Cardinals, he allowed at least one home run per nine,but in his one season with the Braves, he cut that number almost in half (to 0.57 HR/9), again benefiting from Turner Field, where he allowed five home runs in 107 innings. Miller’s strikeout rate ticked up from his 2014 season (16.6 percent) to just under 20 percent this season, and while his 171 strikeouts were good for 30th among all starters, his overall numbers could creep back toward his 2014 season with St. Louis (3.74 ERA) as he enters his age-25 season in Phoenix. Miller’s saving grace is that he'll assuredly win more than six games this year.
Yasmany Tomas and David Peralta
With Inciarte on his way out of town, the door is open for Peralta to receive substantial playing time once again in 2016. His 517 plate appearances this season were enough to put together a sparkling .312/.371/.522 line with 17 home runs and nine steals—good for 24th among outfielders on ESPN’s Player Rater. With the defensive deficiencies of both Peralta and Tomas, speculation existed that they could form a platoon in an outfield corner with fantasy monster A.J. Pollock entrenched in center field. Now the opportunity will likely present itself for Tomas to also receive more than his 426 plate appearances in 2015. However, he will have to drastically improve upon his ugly .208/.228/.325 line posted over his final 158 plate appearances after the All-Star break to be earn that up arrow.
Socrates Brito and Peter O'Brien
An injury—or a continuation of Tomas’ second-half struggles—could lead the Diamondbacks to turn to Brito, a 2015 Futures Game participant who came on strong at Double-A Mobile over the season’s second half, earning a September callup. Or else O’Brien, if Arizona can stomach his defensive efforts in the grass. O’Brien, too, was summoned to the majors in September, and while his power is certainly legitimate (26 home runs at Triple-A Reno this season; 34 across two levels and organizations in 2014), his ability to make enough contact and field a position are still huge question marks. —J.J. Jansons
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Acquired OF-L Ender Inciarte, RHP Aaron Blair, and SS Dansby Swanson from the Diamondbacks in exchange for RHP Shelby Miller and LHP Gabe Speier.
Inciarte was one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball last season. In fact, he won the Fielding Bible Award for multi-positional defenders. He can play any of the three outfield spots well, but obviously, he was slightly limited in value by the presence of A.J. Pollock just above him on the center-field depth chart. Inciarte also has just 111 strikeouts in 1,008 career plate appearances and provides value on the bases. He doesn’t draw walks and doesn’t hit for power, but if his glove is all it has seemed to be early in his career, he’ll still be a three-win player or better for the next few years. It’s as though Andrelton Simmons never left.
In the big picture, this is a big step forward for the Braves. Blair’s performance hasn’t caught up to his scouting reports so far, and of course, there’s always a danger that it never will. Swanson played just a handful of games in the Northwest League after signing this summer, so he’s not likely to reach the big leagues anytime before 2017. Given the timeline the Braves claim to be targeting, though, Swanson is a huge acquisition, and it demonstrates a heretofore undocumented sense of competitive purpose on the part of the baseball people in Atlanta. Maybe their brutal corporate ownership situation still prevents them from getting back into contention soon, but on the long list of things that had to change before smart people could take this rebuild seriously, John Coppolella checked off several items in this one transaction.
Swanson was considered by almost every source I had to be either the best or second-best prospect in the 2015 draft, and he's a tremendous coup for Atlanta. He has outstanding feel for the barrel, and his smooth swing with little wasted movement along with above-average bat speed give him a chance for a plus hit tool. He's deceptively strong, and there's some extension and leverage here, giving him a chance for 50-grade power as he fills out the frame. He didn't run much as a professional, but there's plus speed here, and he's an excellent, heady baserunner.
In the field, Swanson is still relatively new to shortstop, but you'd never know it. His instincts are exceptional, and his above-average arm strength plays up because of how quick his release is. This is the type of player who can be worth five wins for a very long time, and it shouldn't shock anyone if this were a perennial All-Star.
Blair is the "other" prospect in the deal, but he'd be the headliner in most. He gets downhill with a low 90s two-and-four seam fastball, and his ability to get sink along with plane leads to plenty of groundballs and weak contact. The curveball is on the slow side, but there's enough depth and break to make it a swing-and-miss pitch; sitting comfortably as a 55 offering. His best pitch, however, is his change, a low 80s offering with vertical drop and excellent deception from his arm speed. Add in the ability to throw strikes and a durable frame, and you have an ideal mid-rotation starter. –Christopher Crawford
Noted speed-merchant George Bissell touched on Inciarte in his recent look at stolen bases, and pointed out that Inciarte earned $23 in NL-Only leagues in 2015. Although the crowded Diamondbacks outfield only provided 447 plate appearances, his .303/.338/.408 line with six home runs and 21 steals propelled him to the top 30 among outfielders on ESPN’s Player Rater. If Inciarte can carve out regular at-bats with the Braves in 2016—and there’s absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t be able to—he should be able reach 25-30 steals. With the league-wide decline in stolen bases, that likely makes Inciarte a top 20-25 outfield option if he can keep his average near his career total of .292. (He hit .284 in the minors.) Inciarte’s 73 runs scored were 31st among outfielders this season. Hitting atop the order in Atlanta (along with the increase in playing time) gives him a strong chance to exceed that number as well, despite moving to a less prolific offense.
With Zack Grienke now atop the rotation in Arizona, Blair was likely stuck behind the likes of Archie Bradley and Rubby de la Rosa (among others) on the starting pitching depth chart for 2016. His move to Atlanta gives him an opportunity to join a Braves rotation that includes Julio Teheran (who could be next out of town), Matt Wisler, and a host of unproven young pitchers: Mike Foltynewicz, Williams Perez, Manny Banuelos, Tyrell Jenkins, etc. Blair is likely ready for a major-league trial after posting a 2.70 ERA (3.95 FIP) in 13 starts at Double-A Mobile and a 3.16 ERA (4.08) at Triple-A Reno.
With Inciarte now in town and Hector Olivera reportedly on the move from third base to left field, Smith, who turns 23 in May, likely needs a Nick Markakis trade to get significant playing time in 2016. Speed-starved owners were eyeing Smith (who came to Atlanta from San Diego in the Justin Upton trade) as a possible top-of-the-order option who would get playing time almost by default. Now he’s probably a fourth outfielder or stuck in the International League in 2016. —J.J. Jansons