During the annual dry wake he holds to commemorate the passing of another Toronto Blue Jays season, club president Mark Shapiro always has a theme. This year’s theme was patience.
The Jays were preseason favourites. They no-mas’d out of the first round of the baseball playoffs. What’s going to change? Absolutely nothing. Shapiro likes his roster of offensive refuseniks, baserunning narcoleptics and strategic yes-men just as it is.
The TLDR was ‘Trust me. It can’t get any worse, right?’
It keeps getting worse.
On Tuesday, the Arizona Diamondbacks made the World Series.
By record, Arizona was the worst team to qualify for the postseason. It was written off against Milwaukee in the wild-card round (it won 2-0). It was a no-hoper against the Dodgers (another sweep). And it was prebooked into vacation golf packages after it went two games down to Philadelphia (it won 4-3).
Clearly, a lot of things have changed between the team that lost its last four games of the regular season and the one the Diamondbacks are fielding right now. Prime among them is Gabriel Moreno.
Moreno was one part of a trade the Jays made last offseason – a catcher of the future judged to be either too far off or expendable given current assets.
The Jays wanted an outfielder who wouldn’t drop every sixth ball hit in his direction. They settled on Arizona’s Daulton Varsho. So they looked around the organization and said, ‘Well, we’ve got three catchers. Why don’t you take this one?’
At the time, no one seemed too bothered by it. If anything, they were more concerned about the other guy the Jays were throwing in – Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
Gurriel was at least a known commodity. Moreno had only played a couple of dozen games for the Jays. Toronto had two catchers ahead of him on the depth chart – Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen.
If the Jays thought Moreno wasn’t worth keeping, they must know what they’re talking about, right? These guys never shut up about the NASA-level science they are applying to player evaluation and development. They couldn’t get something this basic about a player they had seen every day for many years wrong, could they?
Moreno was a good, though not spectacular, player for Arizona during this regular season. A promising beginner with a strong defensive bent.
Once the playoffs started, he became Johnny Bench. Moreno is hitting like a metronome, as well as holding down the Diamondbacks’ wobbly pitching staff.
Of the things Shapiro said during that presser two weeks ago, the one that sticks out most was his blithe dismissal of a question about the Varsho-for-Moreno-plus-Gurriel swap.
“You can’t evaluate that trade in the short term,” Shapiro said. “You’ve got to give it four or five years.”
It’s kind of a thing contemporary baseball executives say expecting everyone to nod along with them. Since most baseball types see themselves as quasi-GMs, a lot of people did. For a minute there, ‘Moreno hasn’t proved anything yet’ was the contrary fan’s position.
That feels like a baseball lifetime ago.
Let’s look at the trade now.
On one hand, you’ve got Varsho – a 27-year old playing the game’s least useful position (corner outfield) in what’s supposed to be his prime, hitting ninth in your order and not doing a great job of it.
On the other, you’ve got Moreno – a 23-year-old catcher playing in his first full season who’s batting third for a World Series team. What you’re describing there is an Ivan Rodriguez figure – the cornerstone of a winning franchise. That is every club’s dream player.
So the Jays already lost that trade.
Toss in the fact that Gurriel is essentially Varsho but taller, and they got robbed in that trade.
Consider that the guy you chose instead – Kirk – needs to be swapped out for a pinch runner every time he reaches base at a critical juncture, and you got grifted in that trade.
The only way Arizona could have won the Varsho-Moreno trade more is if it walked out of the Jays’ offices with a bunch of stolen laptops.
Another thing baseball types love talking about is a small sample size. Got something terribly wrong? Small sample size. Team lost eight in a row? Small sample size.
Moreno was an enormous sample size. The Jays signed him in 2016. The club raised this man from a child. This was as large a sample size as possible, and they got it dead wrong.
It is one thing for a ball club to go into a two-game win-or-go-home series and lose. You can blame the executive for that (because you should blame them for everything that goes wrong) but you can’t pin it on them. They may or may not have pulled the starting pitcher, but they definitely didn’t tell the hitters to swing like they were nailing rail spikes.
You can’t pin injuries or down years on the executive. Again, you can blame them – they are paid a shocking amount of money to win at all costs. But you can’t pin it on them.
One thing you can pin on the executive is an error in personnel management.
Most of what these people do a magic-8-ball could do instead.
Any bozo can go to the draft and take the guy who is the consensus No. 1, or No. 5, or No. 16.
Any ding-dong can negotiate a nine-figure contract with a guy who’s been an all-star five years in a row.
And any Muppet can go out there and throw the owner’s money at the free-agent starter everyone wants.
The only way executives distinguishes themselves from their peers is by finding the unobvious player who adds that special sauce to your team that turns a marginal contender into a World Series participant.
By that measure, Shapiro and his team deserve consideration as the 2023 executive of the year – for the Arizona Diamondbacks.