THERE WERE no better cardplayers on the 1983 White Sox than Greg Luzinski and Jerry Koosman. Euchre, hearts: The game didn't matter. With 28 years of downtime in big league clubhouses between them, the Bull and Kooz were killers.
One night, on a long flight home to Chicago from the West Coast, the slugger and the old lefty accepted a challenge from the White Sox' manager and third base coach—reluctantly, as they knew it wouldn't be a competitive game. It wasn't. The skipper and the coach kept winning. "How can they be beating us?" Koosman yelled. As the players grew ever more mystified, they failed to notice that their opponents were exchanging signs. A knock on the table meant a club; a shoveling motion meant a spade; feigning indigestion meant a heart; a grab of a ring finger meant a diamond. The manager was named Tony La Russa, and his third base coach was named Jim Leyland.
Three decades, three world championships and a Hall of Fame induction later, the 71-year-old La Russa is trying to shoot the moon again—this time honestly. Attempts to do so out of nowhere, in cards and in baseball, rarely work out. Consider the results of the last few teams deemed to have "won the winter" due to their out-of-the-blue, single-off-season overhauls: the 2012 Marlins, the 2013 Blue Jays, last year's Padres and White Sox. To La Russa, who became the Diamondbacks' chief baseball officer in May 2014, the conditions for a club that hasn't made the playoffs since 2011 were right.
Nobody expected much from last year's Diamondbacks, baseball's worst team in 2014. But they fielded well, ranking second in the NL by FanGraphs' advanced defensive metrics. They ran well, trailing only the Reds in steals. They hit well, finishing second in the league in runs scored, led by two of the NL's top four WAR-mongers, broad-shouldered first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and whippet-thin centerfielder A.J. Pollock. They finished a promising 79--83, a 15-win improvement from the previous season that would have been even better if not for the one thing they didn't do well, which was pitch. Their rotation's ERA was 4.37.
"When you see them compete like they did last year," says La Russa, "you say, 'O.K., wow, we got a shot.' We thought if we focused on pitching, we could be serious."
The Diamondbacks revealed their bold strategy on Dec. 4. In a span of 5½ hours on that Friday, the front office—which also includes team president Derrick Hall and GM Dave Stewart—went from idly discussing the far-fetched possibility of signing Zack Greinke, the 32-year-old free agent who had just notched a majors-best 1.66 ERA with the rival Dodgers, to snatching him from the jaws of L.A. and the Giants with a six-year, $206.5 million offer. It was a shocking amount of money, the highest average annual value ever promised to a player. But if you squinted at owner Ken Kendrick's books, newly flush with a 20-year, $1.5 billion TV deal, they could afford it.
Arizona, though, wasn't done. "We needed a second big piece," says Hall. The club concluded that none of the other free-agent pitchers left on the market were worth their salary demands, nor the relinquishing of a second high draft pick as compensation. So four days later Arizona orchestrated a blockbuster trade. The initial reviews weren't exactly mixed.
The price the Diamondbacks paid, wrote one analyst, was "comically high." "A clear, obvious mistake," concluded another. "The worst trade I've ever seen," said a rival executive. La Russa, despite his managerial laurels, had never worked in a front office before, and Stewart had done so relatively briefly, before becoming a pitching coach and then a player agent. In a new baseball world of data hounds—and after a shocking injury to one of their key cogs on the eve of the season that, to some observers, confirmed their plan's folly—did these guys have any idea what they were doing?
WHEN SHELBY MILLER heard that he had been traded from the Braves to the Diamondbacks on Dec. 8th, he was home in Houston walking his dogs—a bulldog named Teddy and a maltipoo named Nixon (not after the president but the brand of watch). He found out the way many players discover such news these days: via a text message from a friend—Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood, who had seen it on Twitter.
Though he is just 25, Miller had already played for two big league clubs—he started out in St. Louis—and longed for a place to settle down. He welcomed the move to Arizona, where he and his wife quickly bought a house in a Phoenix neighborhood with few coyotes to threaten their pets.
In an analytical vacuum, the trade made no sense. Miller, whose fastball can touch 98, has shown promise—he had a 3.22 ERA in the majors—but in exchange for his remaining three seasons before free agency, Arizona had given up 17 controllable years of three highly regarded younger players. They had sacrificed centerfielder Ender Inciarte; minor league pitcher Aaron Blair, the game's 60th-ranked prospect according to Baseball America; and Dansby Swanson, the Vanderbilt shortstop whom the Diamondbacks had selected first overall in the amateur draft just six months before. In 2015 the defensively gifted Inciarte had, by himself, exceeded Miller's WAR 5.3 to 3.6.
For the Diamondbacks, though, context was everything. "We had three major needs," says La Russa. "They were all pitching." The club had exhaustively explored the trade market for arms and found it far less inviting than Phoenix real estate was for the Millers. They had reached out to everyone—"Anybody that had a guy that could pitch in the top two," says La Russa—to no avail.
They got flat "no's" from the Rays on Chris Archer and the White Sox on Chris Sale. They talked to the Marlins about Jose Fernandez, the A's about Sonny Gray, the Indians about Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar and the Padres about Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross. All of those teams asked for Pollock—who batted .315 with 20 homers, 76 RBIs and 39 steals last year and who had only just reached arbitration eligibility—or Patrick Corbin, the young lefty who had just returned from Tommy John surgery and who formed the third piece of their imagined rotation-topping triumvirate. Most asked for both, and sometimes they asked for more.
"When the first name that comes out is A.J. Pollock, for me, that is a red flag," says Stewart. "Those were deals that weren't going to get done." Given the club's immediate goals, those trades would have represented one step forward and at least one back.
Moreover, they watched as the off-season market determined that closers—closers!—like San Diego's Craig Kimbrel and Philadelphia's Ken Giles were worth four young players each in trades. (Kimbrel went to Boston, Giles to Houston.) "Somebody said that we made the worst deal they ever saw," rasps Stewart. "I think that's a little bit of an exaggeration, when you look at all the deals that were made for relief pitchers. I don't know that we didn't get away with doing well for a potential No. 1 or No. 2 starter that's 25 years old."
The Diamondbacks' evaluation of the deal was dictated by the particulars of their organization. Thanks to a club-friendly deal he signed before the 2013 season, Goldschmidt can be theirs, at just $10 million per year on average, through '19. Pollock won't reach free agency until after '18. In fact, virtually all of their key pieces—save closer Brad Ziegler and newly signed setup man Tyler Clippard—will be controlled by Arizona at least that long. And while it hurt to lose Inciarte and Swanson, the organization is deep in superb defensive outfielders (like Socrates Brito) and middle infielders (like Brandon Drury). "I value prospects," says Stewart. "But I don't buy into the idea that taking three or four players out of a minor league system sends your whole system to the dumps."
What they didn't have was a player like Miller, who could contribute right away behind Greinke and release pressure from less experienced starters like Archie Bradley, Robbie Ray and Rubby de la Rosa. Says Stewart, "[Miller] fits perfectly for what we're trying to do here, which is compete and win for the next three years." In fact, given the way the Diamondbacks are structured, what La Russa and Stewart believe they have done is give themselves not just one chance to shoot the moon but three.
TONY LA RUSSA and Jim Leyland soon revealed their malfeasance to Greg Luzinski and Jerry Koosman. Everyone had a laugh. Then the '83 White Sox won 99 games, the franchise's most in 66 years, and reached the ALCS.
Says La Russa, "What I learned that year was the value of players who are leaders," like Luzinski and Koosman. "I think there are some assumptions about a front office that includes Dave and myself, newbies in these roles. Although Dave has a lot of experience, I do not. But I've got a lot of experience being a part of a team with a chance to win."
Winning certainly takes math, and La Russa points out that as a manager, he was often accused of being something that few say he is now: overly reliant on analytics. But it also takes an incalculable chemistry that can enable people to exceed their track records and projections.
Kirk Gibson, the Diamondbacks' manager from 2010 to '14, led from the top and favored players cut from his own gritty cloth. According to his former players, during one of the losing streaks that pocked his later seasons, he commanded each of his players to sit in a cold tub filled with 45-degree water for a minute, as a bonding exercise. Chip Hale, who took over at the beginning of last year, works differently, encouraging players to be themselves and, ideally, allowing a winning culture to develop organically.
There was room this spring, for example, for the erudite veteran reliever Josh Collmenter to deliver casual clubhouse lectures on topics such as the theory of relativity; creation versus evolution; the etymology of idioms; and the historical references in the Billy Joel song "We Didn't Start the Fire." "Usually Wikipedia," Collmenter admits of his source material.
There is also room for Greinke, a noted introvert, to lead in his own way. Greinke is a prospect junkie whom De Jon Watson, Arizona's SVP of baseball operations, ran into in the stands of an Orlando-area high school game two winters ago. Watson, then with the Dodgers, was scouting shortstop Brendan Rodgers, a projected top pick, for work. Greinke was doing it for fun. "I think he reads FanGraphs every day," says Hall of his new highest-paid employee.
To La Russa, Greinke's impact will be felt more often than once a week. "He reminds me of the smartest pitcher I ever had on a team: Tom Seaver," La Russa says. "Brilliant. Brilliant about the art of pitching, the art of competing and getting hitters out." Greinke, like Seaver, is eager to share his knowledge with those who will most benefit from it. One day in January, when Greinke was spending a few introductory days with the club, La Russa found him in the video room, studying not opposing hitters but his new team's starting pitchers.
"He remembers every single pitch he's ever thrown to every single batter, almost," reports Miller. "He knows vividly how he got them out in the past—game by game."
If Greinke is the Diamondbacks' Seaver or Koosman, Goldschmidt is their Luzinski and Carlton Fisk wrapped into one. He is a former eighth-round pick who willed himself into an annual MVP candidate. "Not to be disrespectful to anyone else, but there's nobody better," says La Russa. The hope is that the 28-year-old Goldschmidt is the type of presence, both in the lineup and in the clubhouse, who could help talented teammates reach new heights—teammates like newly acquired shortstop Jean Segura. An All-Star as a rookie with the Brewers in 2013, the 26-year-old Segura has scuffled ever since, during which time he had to deal with the tragic death of his nine-month-old son. The Diamondbacks' January trade for Segura, in exchange for starter Chase Anderson, was criticized too; Segura batted just .252 with a .615 OPS over the past two seasons. The club simply believed in his gifts.
La Russa hears the skeptics. "I don't blame anybody for saying, 'These guys don't know what they're doing,'" he says. "I got accused of that even when I was managing my 30th year." But the Diamondbacks hired La Russa and Stewart for their experience and their accumulated baseball instincts. They felt something ineffable brewing in last year's clubhouse and believed it would be unacceptable to allow any more time to pass with Goldschmidt and Pollock, in particular, locked up at bargain rates without trying something bold. Their gambit got off to a mixed start, as Arizona went a Cactus League--best 24-8 but lost Pollock indefinitely due to a broken right elbow he sustained the Friday before Opening Day. Even so, as Pollock said with a sling on his arm: "This team is loaded." The moon loomed over the desert, low and heavy for three more years, waiting to be shot.
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"WE HAD THREE MAJOR NEEDS," SAYS LA RUSSA. "THEY WERE ALL PITCHING."
Photograph by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
ZACK ATTACK Arizona paid record money for Greinke, whose 1.66 ERA led the majors last season—but the club knew it couldn't stop there if it wanted to contend in 2016.
JAMIE SABAU/GETTY IMAGES (GOLDSCHMIDT)
GOLDEN YEARS To take advantage of their window with Goldschmidt (above) and Pollock (far right), Stewart and La Russa (near right) went all in on Greinke and Miller.
RALPH FRESO/GETTY IMAGES (GREINKE)
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NORM HALL/GETTY IMAGES (MILLER)
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MARK J. REBILAS/USA TODAY SPORTS (POLLOCK)
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