LOS ANGELES -- It has been a quiet but cruel twist of irony for Jerry Dipoto. The best trade he ever made got him pilloried by fans and media and helps explain why his Los Angeles Angels are such an expensive mess.
Three years ago, Dipoto was the interim general manager trying to clean things up for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who were in last place in the National League West. Ownership wanted to shed money, Dipoto knew he needed young talent and along came Angels general manager Tony Reagins, whose team was trying to make up a seven-game deficit to the Texas Rangers and needed a reliable No. 2 starter to plug behind Jered Weaver.
The teams' needs lined up perfectly. So, Dipoto traded stalwart veteran pitcher Dan Haren to the Angels in exchange for two obscure pitching prospects. Dipoto also got a place-holder starter, Joe Saunders, until Arizona's young pitchers were ready and a reliever, Rafael Rodriguez, who never panned out.
Dipoto recalls taking a "bloodbath" in the Arizona media. One national baseball writer wrote, "the Angels pulled off a whopper of a deal. Inauspicious start for D-backs without [former GM Josh] Byrnes." Another baseball analyst said of one of those prospects, Patrick Corbin: "projects as a back-of-the-rotation guy if he can put on some weight."
Things, of course, look different now. Haren pitched well for the Angels for the first year and a half, but they never reached the playoffs during his time with the team. Corbin, 23, is 9-0 with a 2.28 ERA for first-place Arizona and might start the All-Star Game for the National League. The other prospect from that deal, a left-hander named Tyler Skaggs, has already pitched in the major leagues and is still just 21.
In the days leading up to the trade, there had been turmoil in the Angels' front office. Scouting director Eddie Bane thought Haren's diminished fastball made him a risky target and he knew that Skaggs would be the player to be named later. Bane loved his 2009 draft picks and was angry Reagins was willing to give them up. He was also unhappy Reagins made the move without consulting him.
"My guys stayed away from me for about a week until I relaxed," Bane said.
Bane, now a special assistant to the general manager with the Boston Red Sox, was fired after the 2010 season, a year before owner Arte Moreno sacked Reagins.
Dipoto was hired as the GM of the Angels at the end of the 2011 season, inheriting a situation that was far from ideal, an organization with a faltering farm system, high expectations and a highly reactive owner. Some of the Angels' woes can be traced to that 2010 trade. With a $128 million payroll, they are among the worst teams in the American League and their starters have a combined 4.53 ERA, 23rd in the majors.
The Angels' lack of organizational pitching and the $125 million signing of Josh Hamilton forced Dipoto to comb through a barren supply of available starters last winter. He couldn't come up with much. Joe Blanton, signed to a two-year deal in the offseason, is 1-10 with a 5.87 ERA and has given up 111 hits in 76 2/3 innings. Jason Vargas, acquired in the offseason in the trade that sent Kendrys Morales to the Seattle Mariners, and Tommy Hanson, also acquired in the offseason in a trade with the Atlanta Braves, have been solid at times, but far from dominant.
The irony of his career trajectory isn't lost on Dipoto, but he can't exactly afford to dwell on it now as he scrambles to make moves to keep the Angels afloat.
"You can always use young pitching," Dipoto said. "You can always use pitching of any kind, but hindsight is 20-20."
It only got worse from there. The Angels, trying to stop slipping attendance and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009, made another risky gamble that didn't work out around last year's trade deadline.
They traded shortstop Jean Segura, along with pitching prospects John Hellweg and Ariel Pena, to the Milwaukee Brewers for Zack Greinke. Again, the Angels failed to make the playoffs, and Greinke moved up the I-5 freeway to sign with the wealthy Los Angeles Dodgers. Segura leads the National League in hits (87) and triples (eight) this season and also has a .918 OPS.
You can't entirely fault Dipoto for that one. He had a Gold Glove shortstop, Erick Aybar, and an All-Star second baseman, Howie Kendrick, and they had both recently signed fairly team-friendly contract extensions.
The Greinke trade, like the Haren deal, was widely hailed as a coup for Dipoto and the Angels. But it again illustrates the perils of trading prospects for short-term fixes, particularly as rebuilding teams demand greater and greater hauls for young talent. Under the current collective bargaining rules, teams now can hold onto impending free agents and collect valuable draft picks after the season. Teams know they can get young talent either way.
"The end result is you've got to give to get," Dipoto said. "In a moment in time, when you're trying to win -- and you don't get the opportunity to win very often in this league -- most teams, including us, are willing to take some risk. That's what you're here for, to win a championship and to get your fans in the ballpark."
At the time of the Haren trade, July 25, 2010, few scouts would have predicted Corbin would have come on this fast, blooming into one of the best starters in the NL in just his second season. But Dipoto said he insisted on acquiring Corbin in the trade. He and the Diamondbacks' scouts had been following Corbin since his days at Chipola College, a junior college in Florida.
"We identified him as an athletic guy with a good delivery who had the pitching menu and the feel to project as a good starting pitcher," Dipoto said.
Corbin was 20 at the time of the trade, playing alongside Mike Trout in Class A ball. It took him a while to get over the shock of being moved at such a young age.
"At the time, you're like, 'Was I not good enough for them,' or something?" Corbin said. "But they wanted to win at the time and they wanted to start at the big-league level. Looking back on it, it was probably good for me. It got me to the big leagues a little quicker and I just knew the Diamondbacks would give me every opportunity."
Corbin keeps in touch with Trout and is happy for his success, a little surprised he has blossomed into a 30-home run hitter and a national superstar so young. Then again, Corbin has something over Trout. His team is winning.