A Culture Of Accountability
The trade wasn’t a lead story. It happened late on the night of Nov. 23, between two teams in the Pacific Time Zone.
Headed to the Mariners were shortstop Jean Segura, a five-year veteran who had just batted .313, and outfielder Mitch Haniger, who was a month shy of his 26th birthday and had just 74 games above Double-A.
Headed to the Diamondbacks were righthander Taijuan Walker, who was just 24 but carried a below-average 4.18 ERA through 357 innings, and shortstop Ketel Marte, who was coming off a disastrous 2016 season but was still just 23.
“It was a traditional baseball trade,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “Four players who were under (club) control. No money moving. It was all about baseball talent, and how that talent was evaluated, and a building tool for two teams looking at the long term.”
The 2017 Mariners remained in the American League wild card race into mid-September, even though their pitching staff had been so strafed by injury that they had used a record 40 different pitchers, including 17 starters.
But for the Diamondbacks, it was one of the many subtle additions that GM Mike Hazen and his front office made to take a team that had won 69 games in 2016 to one of the best records in the National League.
“We needed Segura at the top of our order,” Dipoto said. “But give the Diamondbacks a ton of credit. They’ve done a great job with Walker, and he’s gotten over the hump and become a consistent, young major league starter.”
At the time of the deal, one Arizona front office member said, “Don’t underestimate Marte. He can be a really good middle infield player.” At the time, Hazen said, “Haniger is a heck of a player. Watch. But to get a young, controllable power starting pitcher, there is a cost. We paid it.”
Then in July, with the D-backs hitting .213 against lefthanders, Hazen beat other teams to J.D. Martinez—and not only for statistical reasons. “These players have played their hearts out, and there’s a time when a GM has to open his clubhouse door and say to the players, ‘You deserve our help.’ ” Hazen said at the time of the trade.
A key factor in the development of the 2017 D-backs was the way manager Torey Lovullo uses his players. Nick Ahmed is one of the best defensive shortstops in the NL, and defense was something Lovullo wanted to patch. Yet Chris Owings is a legitimate shortstop who Lovullo had used as a utilityman at five positions. That allowed both Ahmed and Owings to be in the lineup at the same time—until both went down with hand injuries. Enter Marte, who had provided strong defense and a league-average bat.
What is so remarkable that in a season when Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock, Ahmed and Owings had suffered injuries, they at one point won 13 games in a row. That included a sweep of the Dodgers in Phoenix, a sweep of the Rockies in Denver and another three-game sweep of the Dodgers in Los Angeles
“Our pitching,” Hazen said, “is really good. Everything starts there. A lot of it was here when we got here. Zack Greinke is a great pitcher. Robbie Ray has crazy stuff. Patrick Corbin was an all-star before having Tommy John surgery, and now he’s healthy again. Zack Godley has been really good. So has Walker.”
Playing half their games in a launching pad, the D-backs rotation had remained healthy and successful. They had combined for a major league-best 3.46 ERA. The Arizona bullpen ranked eighth with a 3.87 ERA, a huge part of that owing to the success of 2011 first-rounder Archie Bradley. Lovullo put him in the pen in spring training and he began to out-stuff batters with 10 strikeouts per nine innings and a sub-1.00 WHIP. Hazen now wonders if Bradley’s football mentality makes him think like an everyday player—perfect for a relief role.
Whatever happens in October, the D-backs are a study in an organization in lock step from Hazen on down. It helps that respected assistant GMs Amiel Sawdaye and Jared Porter worked with Hazen in Boston.
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And Lovullo is not only energetic and smart, he is trusted by his players. Just as Hazen learned under Theo Epstein that a GM in this era has to be able to relate to players, remain engaged and emote trust when he walks in the clubhouse.