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2014 Diamondbacks: A desert mirage

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The Diamondbacks' unrealistic expectations are likely a product of their overachieving-based culture


It's easy to snark the Diamondbacks. Their rough start combined with their emphasis on grit has left them open to pretty much any joke you can think of. It's not their focus on grit that's gotten them in trouble though. What's got them sinking in quicksand is the failure to live up to the expectations set by general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson.

The regime's first season was a revelation. Arizona went from 65-97 in 2010 to 94-68 in 2011, a worst-to-first campaign that seemed to validate Gibson's hard-nosed, grit-based ethos. That, in and of itself, isn't a negative thing. Attitude, approach, culture -- whatever you want to call it, is a real thing that affects an entire team. Managers have limited impact during most of the game, and it could be argued their top job is managing the players in the clubhouseIf Gibson was so sweet in 2011, why are things so sour now?

The roster has been redone in the years since to fit Gibson and Towers' image; one that values fit and hard work as much, and at times more so, than talent. At least, that's been part of the explanation for why the club has traded the likes of Trevor BauerJustin UptonAdam EatonTyler Skaggs, Matt DavidsonJarrod Parker, Chris B. Young, and Chris Johnson, among others. While that's a lot of talent to for any one organization to lose, it's important to put things into context. Context: not all those players were traded because they lacked grit,but we have clues that the bigger dominoes fell because of makeup-related issues. As Danny Knobler noted..." as Danny Knobler noted following the trade of Justin Upton in January of 2013:

"That's how we won in 2011," Towers said. "Justin was a part of that team. We kind of like that gritty, hard-nosed player. I'm not saying Justin isn't that type."

But he wasn't exactly saying Upton was that kind of player, either.

At times, Gibson and Towers were more explicit, as Bob Baum of the Associated Press reported in February 2013:

"Bloomquist, described by Gibson as "one of my favorites" because of his hustling play, sees the kind of lineup that Gibson likes."

and on Paul Goldschmidt per AZCentral's Nick Piecoro

"I wish we could mold 24 more of them. What he embodies and the way he plays, when it comes to preparation, attitude, selflessness. We had those coins built up a couple of years ago of what we stood for. Tenacity, team unity, selflessness, never quit.

So while not every trade was made with these traits specifically in mind, it certainly was a part of the analysis that went into each decision. It's also important to note that the players sent packing haven't exactly come back to bite Towers and company in the rear. Upton has had another fabulous April, but was merely good in 2013 on balance. Chris Johnson exceeded all expectations thanks to a fluky BABIP, and even then his poor defensive work deflates his value. Trevor Bauer has pitched in five games at the major league level since being traded, yielding a 4.30 ERA and 18 walks against 19 strikeouts. Eaton and Skaggs have been solid-to-good since their trades, but with less than a month on the books it's fair to withhold judgment. Chris Young is a fringe starter, Jarrod Parker was great but just underwent his second Tommy John surgery and Matt Davidson hasn't yet cracked the majors.

To the Diamondbacks detriment, the imported parts have struggled too. Prado wasn't much better than Johnson last year, and that's before we get to Upton. Didi Gregorius lost the starting shortstop gig to in-house option Chris Owings, and Trevor Cahill - the big return for Jarrod Parker - isn't even in the starting rotation, with the same being said for Randall Delgado. Mark Trumbo has been what we expected thus far, leading the NL in home runs while struggling to get on base and playing an atrocious left field. Remember too that the Diamonbacks' trades also facilitated free agent signings, and those too have been mostly negative. Jason Kubel was designated for assignment before he could complete his two-year, $16 million contract. Cody Ross received $27 million over three years and has thus far produced 98 games of below replacement-level offense over the season-and-one-month he's been there. Brandon McCarthy underwhelmed in his first season and is off to a poor start in 2014, while Bronson Arroyo has been a disaster (through four games).

In his favor, there's... well there's a bunch of bullpen moves that have been mostly good: David Hernandez, JJ Putz, and Addison Reed (at least at present) are the notables there. Then there's Aaron Hill who he both signed and extended, and that's a big feather in his cap. Aside from that there are extensions left, with Paul Goldschmidt prominent among them, but Miguel Montero, Martin Prado and others might not look so good in time.

Individually the trades are a mixed bag; when pieces together, however; things begin to look askew. It's when you start piling one on top of the other that things tend to start looking askew. The upside (and youth) has seemingly evaporated: Trevor Bauer was a first round pick, Justin Upton was an MVP candidate. Tyler Skaggs was a supplemental first round pick of the Angels who looked like a steal at 40th overall by the time he reached the majors with Arizona. Matt Davidson was selected 35th overall and looked like a future big league regular. In their stead are Bronson Arroyo, Brandon McCarthy, Cody Ross, AJ Pollock, Martin Prado and others. All capable, surely, but lack the upside that could propel this team to the playoffs, much less a championship.

That depth would have provided them more useful pieces to plug in when Gibson decides to tinker, as he did this week, shuffling Cahill and Delgado out of the starting rotation, or when Corbin went down, or when McCarthy was hurt last year, or when Ross' injuries linger or, or, or. No one can predict everything, so it's not entirely fair to hold management responsible for everything that has happened. Still, they've left themselves with fewer and fewer backup plans by continually cashing in their future for marginal present improvements, if that. The players Towers has brought in to replace the talent he has traded away have not held up their end of the bargain, leaving fans and critics alike to wonder what the opportunity cost was.

The negative perception of the Gibson/Towers tenure isn't based solely on who they sent or driven away, but also on their inability to live up to the aggressive expectations set by their GM. Towers was quoted prior to the 2013 season by AZCentral Sports' Dan Bickley saying

"Last year, I had 89 (wins) and we won 81. But I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve got a pretty good idea. I guarantee it’s going to start with a nine."

They went on to finish 81-81, again. He said of Gregorius after acquiring him

"When I saw him, he reminded me of a young Derek Jeter," Towers said. "I was fortunate enough to see Jeter when he was in high school in Michigan. He's got that type of range, he's got speed, more of a line-drive-type hitter, and I think he's got the type of approach at the plate and separation to where I think there's going to be power there as well."

He has a career .252/.329/.365 slash line. Here's his most recent effort regarding Mark Trumbo, courtesy Jesse Spector of Sporting News

If 180 strikeouts translates into 40 homers and 150 or 120 RBI...

We can guess how that will end. Even if Trumbo did hit those marks, which his recent injury all but assures he won't, his defense in left reduces the value of such contributions. Not that you expect any GM to downplay their acquisitions, but by creating unrealistic expectations, Towers has set himself up for failure even if that D'Back perform to their traditional means. Additionally, while the Diamondbacks' current true talent level might not differ significantly from the one they'd have without all these machinations, their payroll has increased from $56.5 million during their 94 win season in 2011 to $112.3 million during this dreadful start to 2014. A moderate step back in talent is not what you want when adding ~$76 million to the budget.

The Diamonbacks haven't been done in by a lack of talent; rather, it's that all the "character men" they've brought in haven't galvanized and outperformed like we've been led to believe over the years by post-hoc "chemistry was the x-factor" stories. Even if the D'Backs can right the ship and play well enough to reach the .500 mark by season's end— an outcome that doesn't stray far from preseason projections—what should feel like a momentous outcome will instead be a disappointment, and all because of misplaced optimism.