The moves started very early, with mixed reviews. Right hander Jason Bulger had a nice stint with the big league club in 2005, but Byrnes recognized that one of the few failings of the D'Backs minor league system was its lack of solid alternatives in the lead off spot. To that end Byrnes moved Bulger to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in California on the West Coast of the USA for Alberto Callaspo. Callaspo went on to have one of the best seasons of any D'Backs minor leaguer and was good enough at second base and shortstop in his short stint at the big league level to make Craig Counsell expendable and at least allow the D'Backs to entertain offers for Orlando Hudson this offseason. If the D'Backs are able to parlay Hudson into a solid top of the rotation starter for next season, this move looks even bigger.
Unfortunately the D'Backs minors is also severely lacking in big league ready pitching, as the consistently faltering of their bullpen showed. In moving Bulger Byrnes knew he needed to stock back up, but by moving super versatile Alex Cintron to the White Sox a week later for Jeff Bajenaru it appears Byrnes may have given up something for not much of anything. Bajenaru has been, at best, disappointing, and while at the time (March 8th) he was a contender to make the big league bullpen out of spring training, he not only missed that opportunity, but struggled all year at Triple-A. Cintron may indeed have work ethic problems, and in Arizona he may not have had a position to play, but he could have contributed, and Bajenaru has yet to do so.
One thing that Byrnes has been unafraid to do though is pull the trigger on deals that improve the club immediately. In late March he did just that. Remember that 'vaunted' starting rotation at the beginning of the season? Brandon Webb, Orlando Hernandez, Miguel Batista and Russ Ortiz started the first four games and after moving Webb up a day in the rotation Claudio Vargas was the #5. Byrnes knew the club needed more middle relief help, and he knew that lefty Brad Halsey was best suited in the starting rotation, so the move that send Halsey to Oakland for Juan Cruz was a big one, and a smart one. Cruz has the potential to start, he has the movement and velocity to become a great pitcher, but he has the experience in the bullpen the D'Backs were looking for.
By May though the pitching staff was in a shambles. Ortiz was hopeless, Vargas was inconsistent, and it seemed to not matter who was 'closing' (Brandon Lyon, Jose Valverde, Brian Bruney) there were questions about the last third of the game. The Mets needed a starter, Hernandez had been disappointing, and Byrnes moved him to New York for Jorge Julio. 20/20 hindsight shows that the rumors about Julio not having the mental makeup to consistently close might be true, but at the time something was needed. Still, with a rotation as beat up as the D'Backs were featuring, there is still a lingering bitterness to moving a guy who went out every fifth day and threw six innings.
In August the D'Backs were still in the race, and the one thing that everyone could agree on was that they needed another starting pitcher. The pickings were slim, with most clubs asking far too high a price for rentals like Barry Zito or Jason Schmidt, guys who the D'Backs couldn't guarantee would be back. Livan Hernandez was right at the top of the 'second tier' of potential acquit ions the D'Backs could make, but in a move that came shortly after former Diamondbacks Director of Scouting Mike Rizzo had jumped to the Nationals, the D'Backs overpaid with two young arms for one aging hurler. Matt Chico and Garrett Mock would likely have both ended up among the Top 20 D'Backs prospects, and both easily would have made the top 10 among pitching prospects. Instead both will likely fall in similar positions on the Nationals prospect lists, and the D'Backs have a productive, inning eating pitcher with a long tradition of post season success, and no post season to pitch in.
But it was the last deal of the regular season that earns Byrnes the highest marks. With the D'Backs four games back, losers of six of their last 10, and Shawn Green in the midst of a slump that had seen him hit just .208 in August Byrnes moved Green and the $9 million he was owed in 2007 to the New York Mets for lefty Evan MacLane. MacLane in many ways resembles Halsey, and may never turn out to be the middle of the rotation starter some have projected him as, but he isn't making $9 million in 2007, and that is money that can be spent on pitching, whether through free agency or trade. It also opened the door for Carlos Quentin, the talented right fielder who has done nothing except dominate the Triple-A Pacific Coast League for three seasons now. It was a tough call, one that caused more than one commentator to announce that Byrnes was 'giving up' on 2006. None the less, it is a deal that offers the Diamondbacks financial freedom, allows one of their top prospects to play full time, and most importantly, started the 2007 campaign off on a positive note. Green is a nice player, but past his prime, and Quentin is as good an outfield prospect as Arizona has ever seen.
The trades though were only one part of the equation. Managing partner Ken Kendrick bungled the Luis Gonzalez steroid talk, while Byrnes handed the Carlos Quentin call up/Gonzo benching with aplomb. The team handled the Jason Grimsley mess by essentially turning their back and ignoring it, but then Kendrick once again opened his mouth, talking about suing Grimsley for his salary, as if the team was going to miss the $400,000 they had paid him. They gave Gonzo his proper sendoff, announcing in plenty of time that this would be his last season with the Diamondbacks, and giving fans a chance to say goodbye, but who is to say that didn't have more to do with packing an increasingly empty stadium on the final day of the season?
It was, by all accounts, an up and down year for the franchise, and for the franchise's front office. There is nothing nice about finishing the season in a tie for last place in the division, 12 games under .500, but the front office, in particular Byrnes, did his job, developing the young talent that is going to power the D'Backs in the future, moving high salaries (we didn't even mention the Troy Glaus deal that eliminated a ton of salary and netted both Miguel Batista and Orlando Hudson or the Javier Vazquez deal that landed us top center field prospect Chris Young and Orlando Hernandez) in an effort to produce available salary for future pitchers, and keeping a team in contention all the way through the end of August. It was a pretty good year.
Front office grade: B-