Baseball Evolution West: The Thing About Russ

On Thursday, Roger Clemens will pitch in an Astros uniform for the first time this season.  The Cubs expect Mark Prior back a day later.  These teams are looking at such additions as though they are trading deadline deals that could save the day.  What is the Diamondbacks version of this type of faux-acquisition?  The release of Russ Ortiz.

The media has made a pretty big deal about how the Diamondbacks have gone 1-10 since the Grimsley bombshell exploded.  Good point, but has anyone mentioned that the club was 0-6 during the six days that Ortiz was on the active roster this month?  Or that Arizona's one win during this stretch has come from the arm of stud rookie Enrique Gonzalez, Russ Ortiz' effective replacement?

Yes, Ortiz really is that bad.  His departure would be worth several wins if he were replaced by a below-average pitcher.  But he's being replaced by exciting young arms developed within the organization.  Their presence means even a bigger net gain for the club in terms of wins, and does not add to the net loss financially the way a proper trade for a veteran pitcher would.

This brings to mind the first of three misconceptions about this maneuver.  Everyone's saying how releasing Ortiz financially cripples the team.  Um, no.  The Diamondbacks have to pay Ortiz $22 million over the next two-and-a-half years whether they keep him or not.  The Diamondbacks are simply a worse team when Ortiz pitches (1-5).  What crippled them financially was signing him to that ludicrous contract in the first place.

Oh, but hindsight is always 20-20," you say.  "Ortiz had a career record of 103-60 when Arizona signed him.  How could anyone have known that he'd go 5-16 with the Diamondbacks?"  That's misconception #2.  Anyone with a modicum of baseball knowledge could see that Ortiz' signing would bring disaster upon the organization for years to come.

Russ Ortiz has finished among the top 5 in the NL in bases on balls in each of the six seasons that he has made more than 30 starts.  His 214 walks allowed between 2003 and 2004 led all of baseball during that span.  That sort of thing might be passable if he could strike batters out like Randy Johnson or induce ground balls like Brandon Webb.  But his strikeout rates are pedestrian, and he's neutral as far as GB/FB ratio goes.

So why was he successful for those two seasons in Atlanta?  Well, he won games because he played for a team with a very good offense and a fantastic bullpen that rarely let a lead get away (remember Smoltz as a closer?).  He put up respectable Earned Run Averages because he played in a pitcher's park and had Rafael Furcal and Andruw Jones gobbling up the many balls he allowed to be put into play.   In fact, his park-adjusted ERA was just 4% better than the league's average in 2004.

In Arizona, he played with a solid, yet unspectacular defense behind him, and in one of the better hitter's parks in all of baseball.  I'll admit, I didn't expect his Diamondbacks ERA to finish at seven (that's right, 7.00 even), but his failure in itself was hardly a shock.

Misconception #3: GM Josh Byrnes owned up to the organization's mistake by cutting Russ loose.  He did no such thing! Owning up to a mistake can be seen in Twins GM Terry Ryan releasing ex-Diamondback Tony Batista six months after taking a chance on him.  It was a gamble, it didn't work out, and Ryan moved on.

Josh Byrnes had nothing to do with the Russ Ortiz signing, and hasn't done anything with the club to indicate that he would pull such an ill-conceived stunt.  If anything, Russ' release separates Byrnes from the organization; it shows that Byrnes is above the free-spending shenanigans that current managing general partner Ken Kendrick displayed in signing Ortiz himself (one day after he signed Troy Glaus to a huge deal despite having a young, capable Chad Tracy already installed at third base).  Most general managers don't fix their own mistakes, as they're usually fired before they get a chance to do so.  Byrnes has been charged with the difficult task of rebuilding a franchise that had lost more games between 2004-2005 than any team except the Royals.  He's simply trying to clean the slate and do things his way.   

With these misconceptions having been addressed, major kudos goes to Josh Byrnes.  I picked the Diamondbacks to finish last in the NL West this year due mostly to the fact that Russ Ortiz was on the team, and the supposition that there was no way that the club would unprecedentedly give up on a player with so much money still owed on his contract.  Byrnes proved me dead wrong, and I'm totally fine with that.  I would rather my preseason predictions look silly than suffer through another of the walk-filled nightmares that Ortiz calls "starts."      

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