Three-team trades are weird monsters in any sport, but especially in professional baseball. Due to a player development cycle that's exceptionally long and fraught with disaster, it's almost inevitable that half of the names involved won't ever crack an active MLB roster. Before Tuesday's trifecta between the Angels, Diamondbacks and White Sox, one of the last ones had been the Tigers /Red Sox/White Sox deal in July, which resulted in Jake Peavy, Jose Iglesias and Avasail Garcia finding new homes. The Red Sox clearly got what they wanted out of that in the macro sense, and even though Peavy was forgettable in the postseason, he's got another year under contract to redeem himself, while the jury is still completely out on the other two guys. Everyone could still walk away happy there. But given the number of moving pieces involved, that's not how it usually works.
Back before the 2010 season, when Angels GM Jerry Dipoto was still running things in Arizona, his front office participated in a three-team trade with the Tigers and Yankees. It would have amounted to little more than the two AL teams swapping a veteran (Curtis Granderson) for a rookie (Austin Jackson) in center field and Arizona picking up about 350 innings of slightly worse than league average starting pitching the next season in the forms of Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson -- if not for that Max Scherzer guy. Only one of the guys in these five- or six-man deals has to hit his ceiling for the whole thing to suddenly look like a foolhardy adventure for at least one of the teams involved.
This time around, it was the Diamondbacks sending OF Adam Eaton to the White Sox and SP Tyler Skaggs to the Angels, receiving OF/DH Mark Trumbo from the Angels and a player to be named later from both teams, while Chicago sent starter Hector Santiago to Los Angeles to complete the deal. Let's begin with 25-year-old outfielder Eaton, who up until today was mostly notable for being the second speedy Diamondbacks outfielder in the past five years to randomly give fans of another NL team heart attacks when mentioned in some context that doesn't make it clear he's not a starting pitcher.
Eaton's general profile as a prospect is essentially a B-list version of New York's Brett Gardner: a lefty hitter with a great approach who excels in left and center and can plausibly fake right field (Eaton's arm is the one tool he clearly has over Gardner; Eaton wouldn't be faking RF). Gardner should be a starting center fielder in this league; the only reason he has to put up with this "4th OF" nonsense is because someone in the Bronx saw one too many December to Remember car commercials and decided they absolutely needed to wake up Christmas morning to Jacoby Ellsbury in a goofy ribbon standing in the driveway.
Eaton's not as fast as Gardner (might have better baserunning instincts) and isn't quite the defender Gardner is right now (because Gardner is the elite defensive center fielder people sometimes pretend Ellsbury is), but if he turns out to be a league-average bat with elite outfield defense and baserunning skills out of the leadoff spot -- and the primary reason he hasn't been so far has been a hand fracture from a hit by pitch and a UCL sprain in his throwing elbow, which for an outfielder isn't nearly the red flag it is for a pitcher -- then Eaton has a very good chance of being the best player in this trade in two years.
While Tyler Skaggs probably still has a higher ceiling than Eaton (Skaggs's stock suffered a big hit in 2013 while fellow Diamondbacks starting prospect Archie Bradley's soared, but his poor performance was mechanical instead of injury-related and he's only 22), it's fairly obvious what the return for Skaggs was: Mark Trumbo. (It should be noted that the PTBNL do sometimes turn out to be very highly regarded players; the very same Skaggs that Arizona just unloaded was the PTBNL that came over from the Angels in the 2010 Joe Saunders/Dan Haren swap which eventually made that trade look a lot better for the Diamondbacks. It should also be noted that the White Sox farm doesn't currently have a trade-eligible guy with Skaggs's upside except, well, Eaton.)
Speaking of Trumbo: when a team dumps two of its top five prospects in a trade -- even two guys who have taken hits to their stock and are fancied "expendable" because of some tenuous positional depth -- the only guy of note coming back shouldn't be a one-tool power hitter with a career .299 OBP and a .469 slugging percentage who strikes out four times more than he walks and can't reasonably play the field anywhere but first base.
Trumbo's production could not only be roughly found on the free agent market in the forms of Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales, but it's not something that an NL team with an MVP-candidate first baseman and a number of capable corner outfielders already under contract should be making a priority. It's certainly not worth trading cost-controlled starting pitching with elite upside to acquire just as Trumbo's moving into an arbitration climate almost designed to give one-dimensional players with a couple great teammates like him a lot of money because of home run and RBI totals.
While we can't really judge the Diamondbacks' side of this trade until the PTBNL are sent over to complete the deal, on first blush it looks very solid for Chicago. They essentially traded a guy who gave them 219.1 innings of 3.49 ERA ball over the last two years being bounced between starting and relief to the Angels and got back a better prospect than either the Angels or White Sox had in their systems. Both Los Angeles and Chicago have some young guys in their systems who do nifty things and have promise to dream on -- everyone does -- but the Angels and the White Sox are currently disasters in the high minors.
Put it this way: if the two PTBNLs Arizona gets from the Angels/Sox are the guys who were their #1 Baseball America prospects going into 2013 -- infielder Kaleb Cowart from Los Angeles and outfielder Courtney Hawkins from Chicago -- then Arizona will have acquired a pair of guys who slot into the back half of their Top 20 prospects and who are each another bad year away from not really being prospects anymore. Anytime you can trade your swingman to one team and get some other team's young MLB-ready center fielder for it, you do it. The White Sox should still bring in a bat or two, but acquiring Eaton's a far more graceful solution to the center field problem for them than trying to outbid the Mets for Granderson.
Dipoto, meanwhile, has now traded for Skaggs twice, which makes Skaggs the anti-Dan Haren; unfortunately, Haren's a pretty good pitcher, so if you're the anti-Haren your MLB numbers probably look something like a career 5.43 ERA (73 ERA+) in 68 innings. Skaggs's magically disappearing fastball velocity and control in 2013 have been blamed on mechanical issues instead of medical ones, which could turn out to be a good thing (mechanics are ostensibly fixable) or a bad thing (mechanics don't heal by themselves in the offseason), but as a corollary to the above, anytime you can get young cheap pitching for arbitration-eligible league-average hitting, that's a gamble you should take. Because as the Angels discovered after being outbid on Jason Vargas and Ricky Nolasco this offseason, free agent pitching is a sucker's market.
The primary saving grace for Diamondbacks fans here is that if Kevin Towers has shown one thing in his recent trades, it's that he knows when to dump players. He hasn't perhaps shown the best judgment in what he gets back, but none of the guys he cut bait on with the possible exception of Justin Upton (Bauer, Drew, Kennedy, Young, etc.) have made the Diamondbacks regret that decision, and even Upton took serious steps backwards last year in some parts of his game (specifically defense and plate discipline). Towers is one of the best talent men in the game; if he's betting a guy won't hit his ceiling or even his reasonable median upside, I'd think carefully before betting against him.
But then, the question next year's Diamondbacks care about isn't whether or not Eaton and Skaggs turn out to be the players scouts thought they might be a few years back; the question next year's Diamondbacks care about is "will Trumbo help Arizona win more games than Eaton and Skaggs would have?" Right now, that's a tough sell.