Revisiting the Braves’ fleecing of the D-Backs in the Shelby Miller trade

In late 2015, the Braves drummed up quite a bidding war for right-handed pitcher Shelby Miller, who became one of the biggest names on that winter’s trade market. As a controllable, 25-year-old starter who had spent the last year toiling away on a Braves team that lost 95 games, he garnered interest from as many as 20 teams: what’s not to like? This was a player who could boost a team’s playoff chances not only for the coming year, but for the foreseeable future as well — and he was attainable. Unfortunately for the team that won that bidding war, the Arizona Diamondbacks, it gave way to one of the more lopsided trades in recent memory.

In its entirety, the five-player deal sent Miller and relief prospect Gabe Speier to the Diamondbacks, who in turn gave up Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson, and Aaron Blair to the Braves. Just about six months earlier, the D-Backs made Swanson, a 21-year-old shortstop from Vanderbilt, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft. For that hefty price, Arizona got their man.

Miller was coming off a year in which he notched an unsightly 6-17 W-L record, but that mark was wildly misaligned with his 3.02 ERA, which fell just outside the top 10 in the NL. He did that while tossing 205 1/3 innings in his first (and only) year in Atlanta, which acquired him as the centerpiece of the trade that sent Jason Heyward to the Cardinals.

But the D-Backs’ valuation of Miller proved to be severely misguided. In his first year in Arizona, he would go 3-12 and was credited with just 0.6 fWAR. And while you need to look just a year in the past for evidence that W-L records can be misleading, Miller couldn’t hang his hat on a good ERA this time around: his 6.15 ERA in 20 starts was the worst among NL starters with at least 100 IP. Despite the impressive run prevention numbers from 2015, Miller’s price tag portrayed him as a front-line starter when he was probably more accurately described as a mid-rotation arm.

The move firmly declared Arizona GM Dave Stewart’s intent to contend in the immediate future. Acquiring Miller came on the heels of the Zack Greinke free-agent signing, which gave the D-Backs a formidable rotation of Greinke, Miller, Robbie Ray, and Patrick Corbin. Add that to an offense anchored by Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock, and it’s not hard to see how Arizona perceived a path to the postseason. However, they would win just 69 games in 2016 and essentially wound up as a re-imagination of the previous year’s Padres, a team that likewise went all in only to fall flat.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the deal, many viewed the deal as a vast overpay on the Diamondbacks’ part. But that negative public perception apparently didn’t bother the club, which was dead-set on vaulting itself into the playoff picture after winning 79 games the year before. It’s an admirable approach, no doubt, to try to capitalize on the coincidence of Paul Goldschmidt’s prime with the big-money signing of Greinke. But in this case, the price just didn’t match the prize. Of course, as we know now, the team would have to wait a year — and install a new front office regime — before they broke into the 2017 postseason as a Wild Card team.

At the time, Swanson was one of the first draftees (and first number one choice) to be traded under a new rule that allowed teams to deal drafted players after the World Series in the year of their selection. He is one of three first overall selections to have been traded before debuting with the team that drafted him. As MLBTR’s Steve Adams noted in his summation of the trade at the time, Swanson was the latest in a series of moves that illustrated the Arizona regime’s apparent devaluation of draft picks: by trading Swanson, signing Greinke (and therefore surrendering their 2016 top pick), and trading Touki Toussaint, the team had effectively missed out on three consecutive years of first-round selections.

Swanson was heralded as the shortstop of the future for Atlanta, which had just recently shipped Andrelton Simmons to the Angels. And although Swanson maybe hasn’t been the superstar that we expect from a No. 1 overall draft pick, he’s been a good MLB shortstop and showed us glimpses of another gear last year, when he had his best offensive season thanks to improved power output. If that upward trend is to be believed and he can provide even slightly above-average offensive numbers, Swanson can really solidify himself as a building block in Atlanta, thanks to his solid defense at a key position. Check out the growth in Swanson’s hard-hit rate and expected hitting stats from 2018 to 2019, courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Inciarte, meanwhile, wound up being a surprisingly important piece of the deal for the Braves. He won the Gold Glove Award for NL center fielders in each of his first three years in Atlanta, ultimately serving as a nice transitional piece between losing years in 2014-2017 and the contending teams of today. And while he’s seen his role with the Braves diminish over the last couple of years, he proved to be a pretty solid acquisition for a team that lacked quality Major League talent outside of Freddie Freeman. He was a fine guy to pencil into center field every day while the franchise cultivated a core of young players.

Neither Blair nor Speier wound up contributing much to the teams that acquired them: Speier made his MLB debut last year with the Royals, who got him in exchange for Jon Jay, and Blair hasn’t appeared in the Majors since 2017. He was a former first-round pick himself, but failed to put things together when he got his chance with the Braves in 2016.

All told, the combination of Inciarte, Swanson, and Blair has thus far produced 13.1 fWAR for the Braves, with more likely to come from Swanson and, to a lesser extent, Inciarte. For the Diamondbacks, Miller and Speier produced a meager 0.7 fWAR. Miller lasted just three years in Arizona, appearing in only 29 games and pitching 139 innings for the team.

Last year, he got a chance with the Rangers and toggled between the bullpen and the starting rotation, but the change of scenery didn’t seem to help his fortunes. He tossed 44 innings of 8.59-ERA ball, striking out just 30 batters. In January of this year, he earned himself a minor-league deal with the Brewers, and was expected to begin the season with the team’s Triple-A affiliate.

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