Diamondbacks strike first, aim badly

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Arizona GM Kevin Towers wanted to upgrade at shortstop and in the bullpen. And apparently he wanted to make sure he did so 5 1/2 months prior to Opening Day. So, he ended up with these two trades:

– acquires SS Cliff Pennington and INF Yordy Cabrera from the A’s for OF Chris Young and cash
– acquires RHP Heath Bell and cash from the Marlins for INF Yordy Cabrera

I understand the first deal. Pennington is a fine defensive shortstop, and at 28, he’s young enough to bounce back from a horrible offensive season that saw him bat .215/.278/.311. Eligible for arbitration for the first time, he shouldn’t make more than $2 million or so next year.

The problem with the trade is that it’s highly unlikely the Diamondbacks needed to give up Young to get him. I understand that Young doesn’t have a lot of trade value, particularly with center field being the one deep position in free agency this winter, but he’s a quality regular, even with his low batting averages. He’s a very good center fielder, and he has the secondary offensive skills to make up for the strikeouts.

It says a lot for Young that the A’s traded for him even with a Yoenis Cespedes-Coco Crisp-Josh Reddick outfield already under control for 2013. They didn’t need him, and they almost certainly would have given up Pennington for a modest prospect instead, but they simply couldn’t say no to this.

Oh yeah, and the Diamondbacks were nice enough to throw in $500,000 against Young’s $8.5 million salary for 2013 and $11 million option for 2014 (with $1.5 million buyout).

For an Arizona team with Gerardo Parra and Adam Eaton to cover center, it still makes some sense. It may even make the team a little better. I just don’t think it was a proper use of assets.

It’s the Bell trade that’s flat-out foolish. For some reason, Arizona volunteered to pick up $13 million of the $21 million he’s owed the next two years.

Sure, it’s possible Bell will actually be worth that kind of money. But it’s hard to imagine anyone else would have taken on that much of his salary, which is why the Marlins were so quick to make the move. They felt they absolutely had to move him, and they’re jumping for joy that they had to eat a “mere” $8 million to make it happen.

Much of Towers’ strong rep as a general manager comes from the bullpens he built on the cheap in San Diego. Bell was a part of that, coming over from the Mets for Jon Adkins and Ben Johnson before the 2007 season.

The Diamondbacks pen will likely be pretty good once again, too. But it will hardly be cheap. With both J.J. Putz and Bell earning $6.5 million, the Diamondbacks are set to commit at least $20 million to relievers next year, which is an awfully big chunk of a likely $80 million-$90 million payroll.

Maybe it will work out. Bell could bounce back and form a terrific setup tandem with David Hernandez in front of Putz. But it again seems like a poor use of assets. The Diamondbacks ranked sixth in the NL in bullpen ERA this year and were three runs allowed out of third place. The Bell gamble is a luxury acquisition for a team that might come up short on the necessities.

Mark Lerner says Nationals can’t afford both Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg

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The defending champion Washington Nationals may have to replace two star players in third baseman Anthony Rendon and starter Stephen Strasburg as both are free agents. Both are represented by agent Scott Boras and both are expected to command lucrative contracts. As a result, Nationals managing principal owner Mark Lerner said the club can’t afford to bring back both players, Todd Dybas of NBC Sports Washington reports.

Lerner told Donald Dell in an interview, “We really can only afford to have one of those two guys. They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with.”

As Dybas notes, there are myriad reasons why Lerner would say this publicly. If Lerner had instead said, “Yeah, we’re filthy stinking rich, especially coming off of a World Series win. We could afford to get every free agent if we wanted to,” then the Nationals would have no leverage in negotiations. Creating artificial scarcity increases the Nationals’ leverage when negotiating with Boras and his clients. And as Dybas also points out, Lerner’s statement also prepares fans for an unsatisfactory outcome not unlike when the club took itself out of the running to bring back outfielder Bryce Harper earlier this year. This not to say Lerner’s statement is justified; it’s just how things work in the current system.

Lerner also defended the Nationals’ approach to free agency. He said, “They think you’re really back there printing money and it’s whoever goes to the highest bidder. It’s not that way at all. You give these fellas — there’s a negotiation that goes on, but…We’ve been pretty successful in free agency over time. You’re not going to get everybody. Certain players may want to go home, closer to where their home is. You never know the reason why people move on. But, we’ve been very successful. Probably one of the most successful teams in free agency the last 10 years. We’re very proud of our record. But, again, I think people have to realize, it’s not all up to us.”

It is true that the Nationals have been one of the most active teams in free agency in recent years. In a league that has otherwise done the opposite, they deserve some credit for that. But the Nationals are also keenly aware of the competitive balance tax threshold, which teams use as a de facto salary cap. They don’t have to, but they choose to because it’s a convenient structure that allows them to limit expenditures.

At the end of the day, it’s baseball’s financial structure that is rotten. It forces constant misinformation out of everyone’s mouths so as to protect their financial interests and leverage, and incentivizes teams to value profits above all. In a perfect world, MLB team owners wouldn’t need to cry poor every offseason, but we don’t live in such a world.