As much as any baseball team in recent memory, the Diamondbacks on Thursday publicly embraced the idea of grittiness and guts, of the inherent and unquantifiable. And in doing so, they finished a two-trade whammy over the last six weeks that has seen them ship out their two most talented players in an effort to better embody this belief.
First went Trevor Bauer, the super-talented and cerebral pitching prospect who rubbed manager Kirk Gibson and some teammates the wrong way. And now [Justin] Upton, the super-talented and underproductive outfielder who was extremely well-liked by teammates but did not embody the dirt-on-the-uniform, all-out, get-concussed-or-go-home sort of player [manager Kirk] Gibson wants, because, in a flare of vanity, Gibson wants guys who play like he did, football in a baseball uniform…
The result is a fascinating experiment: a team stressing culture over talent. The Diamondbacks might say otherwise – [Martin] Prado is an All-Star and in both deals they got young and talented shortstops, one of the toughest things to find – but a consensus of scouts and sabermetric wonks agree: In both trades, Arizona sacrificed one for the other.
“Different clubs like to look for certain intangibles,” Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said. “We like that gritty, grinder type. Hard-nosed. I’m not saying Justin isn’t that type of guy.”
Actually, he sort of was saying that. While Towers made sure to praise Upton, to say the Diamondbacks “never had to kick him in the rear to play,” he brought up body language. Towers is an old scout, and it is an old scouting trope – that slumping shoulders can tell all he needs to know about a player. Fluidity can be mistaken for bad body language, too, and the ease with which the game comes to Upton and other such gifted players can be mistaken for not caring. When the seed of that idea is already planted, it doesn’t take much for someone to germinate it.
“Sometimes people’s mannerisms and the way they carry themselves – they might not perceive him as the grinder type,” Towers said, and he used that word again. Grinder. It’s a baseball catch-all for players who make up for a lack of physical gifts with hard work and a willingness to do anything. It is also a word that baseball people almost never attach to black players. Maybe it’s because they see most black players as physically gifted to begin with. Perhaps it’s a subconscious bias borne of historic stereotyping. The Diamondbacks certainly don’t traffic in racism – they wouldn’t have built ad campaigns around Upton otherwise – but in outlining their philosophy for this team, they severely limit the sort of player who fits the system…
Towers has gone all-in shaping this team in the mold of his manager instead of forcing his manager to be malleable to the talent. Diamondbacks players love Gibson – not necessarily his obsessive detail as much as how much he hates losing, how he’ll come into a clubhouse and rant about the attitude or whatever else is on his mind and punctuate it with a simple pick-me-up: “Let’s go get ‘em today.”
Gibson, at the same time, is not Tony La Russa, the sort of manager with the cachet and gravitas to hand-select his roster. Gibson won a division title in his first full year. Then he went 81-81. And that is his résumé. Gibson may well end up being the best manager of his generation. Towers wants to do everything he can to make sure that’s the case.
Trading talent with perceived personal flaws rarely leads to such success. This does not make Gibson a bad guy for wanting a certain type of player. This does not make Towers stupid, not after a career of showing that he is indeed one of the game’s savvier GMs, the sort who has made what seemed like ill-conceived plans in the past work with aplomb. Because they contradict current convention does not fit them for a dunce cap.
It simply leaves them prone. The Diamondbacks dumped a player with superstar potential when they didn’t have to. They scoffed at the roads offered and cleared a new one with Grit Avenue and Guts Boulevard and Grind Parkway as side streets. They can only hope the ride is not as bumpy as it looks.