It means little to fans outside of Colorado, but that abstract concept serves as the buzz word for the disastrous 2012 season. The Rockies’ front office went all-in on Michael Cuddyer, Marco Scutaro, Jeremy Guthrie, and Ramon Hernandez. They did so in an effort to “improve the clubhouse culture.” They felt that the shortcomings of 2011 could be attributed to players who had mixed up priorities, got selfish, and failed to put the team ahead of their own selfish interests.
As such, “leadership” and “veteran presences” were put ahead of “talent” on the off-season wish list. It was kind of like that famous scene in Moneyball where the scouts assess the players based on their confidence and how attractive their girlfriends were. Except here, instead of saying “he has an ugly girlfriend, no confidence,” they said things like, “Nope, he seems surly, means he’s selfish, bad for our clubhouse culture.” This is not to say that I am opposed to adding players for characteristics beyond the playing field. On a good team Michael Cuddyer’s leadership is invaluable. But I am opposed to trying to add like six “character” guys in one off-season, and I am certainly opposed to the idea that abstract concepts should be placed ahead of talent.
Intangibles should be part of the evaluation process, but they should not be the top priority and they certainly should not stand on their own as the evaluation process.
The Arizona Diamondbacks aggressively pursued trades for star outfielder Justin Upton over the last couple seasons. These efforts baffled many of us; why would the team shop a young position player with so many tools and such a high ceiling? Furthermore, why would they explore trading him at all when he was under team control for a number of years and a reasonable salary? Now that the Diamondbacks have completed a trade with the Atlanta Braves for Upton, we know that part of the reason has nothing to do with Upton’s talent or performance on the field.
The Diamondbacks want to add more “gritty” players. They want to build a team in the mold of their manager Kirk Gibson. At this point you list the cliches: hard-nosed, hard working, blue collar, etc. If a player is perceived to be a “slacker” or does not fit that culture, they might be shipped out of town. If recent moves are any indication, grittiness (or lack thereof) is assessed above all other attributes, including talent. Look no further than the fact that the team traded super-prospect Trevor Bauer and Upton in the same off-season.
Aren’t Bauer and Upton the types of top shelf, blue chip talents that teams covet? Shouldn’t you have a darn good reason to part with them in a trade…maybe something better than their “lack of grit”? This feels similar to clubhouse culture. Isn’t there a way to factor grit or leadership presence or locker room presence into personnel decisions without overvaluing them and doing stupid things? You know, like trading 25 year old outfielders who are under team control?
The detriments of these decisions, if they exist, will not appear in such a poignant manner for the Diamondbacks. For the Rockies their lack of talent was exposed immediately, making their investment in clubhouse culture a punchline. Arizona is talented and has excellent depth (especially with their pitching). They will be a good team this year, so the decision to trade Upton will not burn them right away.
If this is like clubhouse culture, has Kirk Gibson earned that level of influence? He has been their manager for 2.5 successful seasons: in 2011 the team went 94-68; last season they went 81-81. Kevin Towers and the rest of the Arizona front office are banking on the fact that his early success is a sign of sustained success. They have faith that last year’s 81-81 mark is not a sign of regression or a turn for the worse. They are so invested in Gibson and his personality that they are willing to trade away prized talents. No matter how much fans love Gibson, that’s not much of a track record to already carry so much pull in personnel decisions.
Regardless of how you rate the package the Diamondbacks got in return for Upton, they traded a rare talent with the potential to be a league MVP. Talk about WAR or hitting for contact all you want, but Martin Prado will never impact games the way Upton can. No matter how rosy a picture you paint of the players the Diamondbacks received, you cannot in good faith say you would take their half of the trade on talent alone. Even if you allowed for other factors, such as grit or leadership or whatever, you would not take that trade if talent was among your top priorities.
Kevin Towers has earned a certain measure of goodwill and trust based on his previous success. He will lose a lot of that if this trade, for these reasons, comes back to haunt him.
Is this like clubhouse culture? I think it is, and that should scare Diamondbacks fans.