Dave Stewart, the general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, knew how the baseball industry perceived his trade with the Atlanta Braves for right-hander Shelby Miller.
The consensus around the Opryland Hotel at baseball’s winter meetings was that the Diamondbacks overpaid for Miller by sending the Braves outfielder Ender Inciarte, pitching prospect Aaron Blair and this year’s No. 1 overall draft pick Dansby Swanson, a shortstop.
Stewart didn’t care what others were saying.
“For me,” Stewart said, “it’s the cost to win.”
The Diamondbacks have transformed themselves this winter into a legitimate threat to the Dodgers in the National League West, not only by acquiring Miller, but also by landing free agent Zack Greinke, who posted a 1.66 earned-run average for the Dodgers this year.
The Diamondbacks have a rotation topped by Greinke and Miller, as well as an offense headlined by All-Stars Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock that was second in the National League in scoring in 2015.
“They’re doing everything they can to knock us off,” said Andrew Friedman, the president of baseball operations for the three-time defending division champion Dodgers.
Compared to the Diamondbacks, the Dodgers so far have been curiously subdued this off-season, as their most significant moves this week consisted of reaching agreements with starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma and reserve infielder Chase Utley.
Utley’s one-year, $7-million contract became official Wednesday. Iwakuma’s three-year, $45-million deal is expected to be finalized later this week.
As Friedman talked about the composition of his roster, he offered this reminder: The Dodgers still have a solid foundation.
Their roster remains stocked with several players with All-Star experience, including Clayton Kershaw, Adrian Gonzalez, Yasmani Grandal, Yasiel Puig and Joc Pederson.
“We’re really excited about the core we have in place,” Friedman said. “The core group of guys, we feel, is a championship-caliber core.”
Even if the Dodgers don’t make any significant additions over the remainder of the off-season, Friedman believes their nucleus is strong enough to lead them to another NL West championship.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said.
Whatever the reality, the widespread perception is that the Dodgers are a less formidable version of the team they fielded this year because of the departure of Greinke and the anticipated loss of second baseman Howie Kendrick.
Stewart acknowledged that the Diamondbacks pursued Greinke as aggressively as they did because they knew that signing him would weaken the Dodgers. Greinke’s six-year contract established a record for highest annual average value at $34.4 million a year.
The San Francisco Giants were also relieved the Dodgers lost Greinke.
Brian Sabean, the vice president of baseball operations for the Giants, also made a failed pursuit of Greinke. While disappointed, Sabean told MLB Network, “The one thing we appreciate is that he’s not with the Dodgers.”
The Dodgers are believed to have offered Greinke a five-year contract worth close to $160 million.
“We feel like we put our best foot forward,” Friedman said.
Asked why the Dodgers didn’t make a push to re-sign Greinke during the season, Friedman replied, “It’s a distraction during the season.”
Isn’t it a distraction now?
“No, because we’re not playing,” Friedman said.
Wouldn’t that have eliminated the threat of losing Greinke?
“But what if his performance would have fallen off and we don’t win the West?” Friedman said. “Like, who knows? Most teams don’t do it during the season for a reason. Guys want to focus on what they’re doing every fifth day and preparing and I don’t blame guys for not wanting that distraction while they’re trying to compete and help their team win.”
Friedman wouldn’t say if he asked Greinke whether he would have been distracted by an in-season negotiation.
In the wake of Greinke’s departure, the Dodgers explored various ways of off-setting the potentially crushing loss.
One plan was to acquire All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman from the Cincinnati Reds and pair him in the back of the bullpen with incumbent closer Kenley Jansen. The Dodgers were set to send two prospects to the Reds in exchange for Chapman this week, only for the deal to be derailed when domestic abuse allegations against Chapman surfaced.
The Dodgers are back to the exploration phase.
Friedman said the Dodgers are considering everything — starting pitching, relief pitching, even offense.
“There are certain scenarios in which we’re much stronger in one area than another, others where we’re more balanced across,” Friedman said.
With the price of pitching at record levels, the Dodgers could wait until later in the off-season to make a move. Once big-spending teams have satisfied their needs, pitchers who remain on the free-agent market could theoretically be acquired at discounted prices.
“There’s certainly a scenario where it plays out that way,” Friedman said. “It’s hard to say. It’s also hard to say if it will be a guy that we have interest or not.”
While the Dodgers remain engaged in multiple conversations with potential trade partners and free agents, Friedman said there is no sense of urgency to complete any deals by the conclusion of the winter meetings Thursday.
“It’s all about what we look like in early April,” he said.