ARLINGTON, Texas — Before they slipped into the playoffs with 84 wins and marauded through three favored opponents to reach the 2023 World Series, the Arizona Diamondbacks last made the postseason in 2017. They finished under .500 the previous three seasons and lost 110 games just two seasons ago.
Based purely on that information, you’d probably picture one of a couple of types of positive build-up that could feasibly result in “sudden contention and World Series run.” One of them involves a complete rebuild and a multiyear emphasis on prospects, a progression from the alternate universe in which the Baltimore Orioles are preparing for Friday night’s World Series Game 1 (an alternate universe, we should add, that was far more likely than this one a month ago).
Another involves turbocharging a reboot by signing marquee free agents and bringing up young players to thrive in the spaces remaining. This is the route tread by the Texas Rangers and their $251 million payroll, fourth-largest in MLB.
The Diamondbacks, with the 21st-largest (or 10th-smallest) payroll in baseball, didn’t do either of those things. Even looking back on the 110-loss debacle in 2021, general manager Mike Hazen refused to disingenuously reframe the team’s intentions.
“Our approach to want to compete every year got torpedoed because our lack of farm system depth caught us in 2021 and into 2022,” Hazen told the Arizona Republic this year. “The goal was to contend the whole time. Everybody was like, ‘Oh, the Diamondbacks are going to rebuild.’ We didn’t rebuild in 2021. We stunk. That’s the facts.”
The signature of Hazen’s approach to team-building won’t be found in “trusting the process” or “winning the offseason.” Instead, when the Diamondbacks take the field under the lights of the Fall Classic on Friday, they will trot out an ace and three key lineup pieces who are on the team because of a more direct form of trust, a more primal type of win — the challenge trade.
Rare in an era in which swaps often occur between contenders and rebuilders and involve major-leaguers and prospects, this type of swap flips like for like. A challenge trade eschews the inherent delayed gratification — and, therefore, the relative safety of delayed judgment — of deals that spring from opposing locations on the win curve and instead epitomizes the boldest type of player evaluation a front office can express: We believe in that player so much that we’ll give you this really good one in return.
Game 1 starter Zac Gallen, NLCS MVP Ketel Marte, breakout catcher Gabriel Moreno and veteran outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. were all acquired by Hazen in challenge trades. They are all players who initially inspired faith from the front office and have since earned it from their teammates.
There is pain involved in these sorts of moves — players with some degree of track record or connection to the team have to go elsewhere — but they also communicate something to the rest of the Diamondbacks: We believe in you in the immediate future, no matter what the standings might say.
A lot of Hazen’s trades have been dubbed “fascinating.” The deal that brought Marte to Arizona in November 2016 was the first sign of that tendency. Eventually, he established a pattern with eyebrow-raising, conversation-starting deals for Gallen and then Moreno and Gurriel.
Here are the deals in full, to show just how mano a mano the moves looked at the time.
November 2016: Diamondbacks acquire Ketel Marte and Taijuan Walker from the Seattle Mariners for Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger and Zac Curtis. Segura was coming off a 6.2-WAR season in which he got down-ballot MVP votes, while Walker was viewed as a burgeoning No. 2 starter. They both performed admirably for their new clubs in 2017, but it turned out that the most productive players in the deal long-term were Marte and Haniger. Marte, who has since signed two extensions to stay with Arizona, has tallied 18.7 WAR for the Diamondbacks, including a phenomenal 2019 campaign that saw him finish fourth in NL MVP voting.
July 2019: Diamondbacks acquire Zac Gallen from the Miami Marlins for Jazz Chisholm Jr. Prospect for prospect, essentially, the Diamondbacks stuck their necks out for Gallen, who had only recently made his MLB debut, by flipping the thrilling middle infielder to Miami. Chisholm was a top-100 prospect entering 2019 (69th at Baseball Prospectus, 31st at FanGraphs), while Gallen was not. Given the Marlins’ success at pitching development, this can be viewed as a success for both teams, but Gallen has been the superior player thus far, tallying 12.1 WAR and plenty of Cy Young votes while Chisholm has logged 6.0 WAR.
December 2022: Diamondbacks acquire Gabriel Moreno and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. from Toronto Blue Jays for Daulton Varsho. A stunner that relieved Arizona’s left-handed outfielder surplus by snagging a young catcher with elite prospect pedigree and a veteran right-handed bat, this trade sent out Varsho the offseason after a 4.8-WAR campaign in which he completed a move from catcher to outfield and promptly proved himself a top-tier defender.
The Blue Jays, needing outfield defense upgrades and set behind the plate with Alejandro Kirk, moved on from Moreno 25 games into his MLB career and one year after he ranked as a clear top prospect (No. 22 at Baseball Prospectus, No. 10 at FanGraphs). The jury is still very much out on this deal — Varsho had a down year at the plate this season but won’t be a free agent until after 2026, while Moreno is just beginning his career — but Arizona has quickly come to rely on Moreno’s laser-targeted arm and line-drive bat.
These moves, more than the blockbuster deals that sent away Paul Goldschmidt and Zack Greinke, combined with top young talent such as Corbin Carroll to brew up a surprise 2023 playoff berth, a legend-making NLCS and a chance at World Series glory. In most of these cases, Hazen’s rebuild-averse front office has been notable for pursuing talent ready to help in the big leagues. That tendency didn’t serve them well in the Goldschmidt and Greinke deals, but their insistence on maintaining close-range optimism has coalesced into an ethos that allowed for a rare type of resilience.
When Gallen got the news that he had been traded from Miami to Arizona, he had made only seven major-league starts (after joining the Marlins organization in the blockbuster Marcell Ozuna deal that became known as the Sandy Alcantara deal). He said the experience of moving on to a new team at that moment was “kind of odd, honestly.”
“I was just happy to be in the big leagues, really. I felt like I was having a really good year in Triple-A,” he said. “I was happy to get up and finally get to the big leagues.”
At that point in 2019, Arizona was in the hunt for a wild card, and Gallen immediately slotted into the rotation, where he logged a 2.89 ERA in eight starts down the stretch. In the whirlwind of his career upheaval, though, he said he barely registered the stakes of his new team’s move. His focus was on staying in the majors.
“So I think it was almost good that — I don't want to say ignorant — but just I had no idea what's going on, adding more pressure on myself,” Gallen said.
Zac Gallen, Paint-ish 94mph Fastball. 🖌️❓ pic.twitter.com/TbD0faWhug
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 22, 2023
His new teammates saw him differently. They recognized the arrival of a key player.
“It was very clear when Gallen came aboard how great he was and what the value was in him, so it's easy to buy into something like that,” said Christian Walker, the Arizona first baseman who has been with the organization since 2017. “You know, all of a sudden Zac Gallen's my teammate, and it's like, all right, let's go.”
New talent strolling into the Diamondbacks clubhouse has been a regular thing, even following seasons that fell short. Signing Madison Bumgarner, trading for Starling Marte, the Arizona front office kept pushing, with Hazen and deputies Amiel Sawdaye and Mike Fitzgerald reassuring their top players that they were not going to enter a demoralizing teardown — not even after that brutal 2021 season.
“And then '22, to kind of have Haze and Fitz and Amiel be like, ‘We're not going into a full rebuild. We're just going to try to reload this thing and shift the mindset a little bit.’ He was like, ‘You'll have to be a little patient, but we're not doing that,’” Gallen said ahead of taking the mound in Game 1. “So for me, that was super encouraging, just knowing that I would be, I don't know, for lack of a better phrase, a little bit ahead of the timeline of the guys coming up.”
He’ll be throwing to the manifestation of that promise on Friday. Moreno said he was heartened, in a way, by the fact that he was acquired for a well-known player in Varsho. Instead of feeling pressure, he was invigorated by the confidence placed in him.
“Varsho is a very good player, so as far as when I arrived, I kind of had it in mind that I was gonna get the opportunity to play a lot,” he said, “so thankfully, that's what's been able to occur here.”
— MLB (@MLB) October 23, 2023
Adding Moreno and Gurriel marked perhaps the boldest of Hazen’s maneuvers, one that required giving up Varsho, a strong player and clubhouse favorite, to strike before the young backstop had fully proven himself.
“I feel like a year in the big leagues in a full season of play,” Hazen said after the deal, “I think I make a phone call on this player, and I don’t get a response.”
Pavin Smith, who was in Double-A with Chisholm when he was traded and came up to the majors alongside Varsho, said the deals don’t change personal relationships. He still plays fantasy football with Varsho — who beat him last week in their league, he noted — but he maintained faith in Diamondbacks management. The immediate proof of concept helped.
“The guys we got for him, Moreno and Gurriel, it's hard to deny how much they've helped us,” Smith said.
Walker, who called Varsho one of his favorite teammates ever, said the aftermath of a trade can be “heartbreaking,” but teams have a way of moving on, of reforming around the new additions and, in the Diamondbacks’ case, finding that they have, in fact, gained an edge from their contributions.
“You don't really have time to focus or dwell on the things that you're used to,” he said. “It's about the guys in the clubhouse right now, today.”