ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

Diamondbacks’ Zac Gallen trade impact clear 5 years later: ‘We had to take a risk’

May 25, 2024, 4:25 PM | Updated: 6:41 pm

Zac Gallen...

Starting pitcher Zac Gallen #23 of the Arizona Diamondbacks pitches against the Miami Marlins during the first inning of the MLB game at Chase Field on May 24, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen described the Zac Gallen trade — soon to hit its five-year anniversary — as a tricky one to pull off.

It was a trade we rarely see in MLB, a one-for-one, pitcher-for-hitter, prospect-for-prospect transaction between two teams on the outside looking into the playoff picture.

The D-backs traded their top prospect and top-60 overall prospect in shortstop Jazz Chisholm Jr. to the Miami Marlins for Gallen, who was only seven starts into his career.

The two matched up to lead off Friday’s ballgame at Chase Field, Gallen the established ace of Arizona’s staff and Chisholm a dynamic offensive weapon atop Miami’s lineup.

“At that time, we were looking for long term rotation help, we didn’t have a lot of young starting pitchers coming up in the system,” Hazen told Arizona Sports Friday.

“(Gallen) was at the top of their system at the time. We always liked him, and he was dominating. We felt like we had to take a risk trading our top prospect at the time, who has gone on to be a very good player. It was a tricky trade because the situation we were in. We didn’t have a great farm system and giving up a middle-of-the-diamond position player was a tough thing for us to think about. But Jazz was further away than Zac. We were hoping to continue to compete in that window.”

Gallen has had the upper hand head-to-head since they first matched up in 2022. Chisholm previously said he wanted to take Gallen deep but finished 0-for-3. Gallen said postgame he gave Chisholm a 97 mph heater to see what he could do. “Not much,” was his response.

Chisholm went 0-for-3 again with two strikeouts against Gallen on Friday, and he is 0-for-12 with five punch outs against his trade counterpart. Gallen threw seven innings with three earned runs but picked up his first loss in four starts against his former club.

Zac Gallen trade key to eras transition

Now that it has been nearly five years, the picture of what each organization received has been much clearer than that first meeting.

Not that whoever “won the trade” is relevant to either side, but the deal will always be a significant success for Hazen’s front office.

Arizona was tethering along the .500 line all season in 2019, and come deadline day Hazen and his front office played roles as the “buyer” and “seller.” Starter Zack Greinke was dealt for four prospects, and Arizona added Mike Leake to the rotation for infield prospect Jose Caballero.

Hazen said he’d love to have kept Chisholm, but that’s what it took acquire a controllable, high-upside starter. The D-backs reloaded their arsenal of young pitching over the subsequent drafts with the likes of Brandon Pfaadt and Slade Cecconi, but at the time the top pitching prospects were Jon Duplantier and Taylor Widener, who did not pan out.

Gallen made himself at home right away in the desert with eight starts and a 2.89 ERA following the trade.

“We felt very comfortable right away he was gonna be a very good starting pitcher. I don’t think the transition time was that extreme for us,” Hazen said.

“He had already cut his teeth a little bit at the upper levels. We felt fairly comfortable at what we were getting. He had a consistency to his stuff, threw a lot of strikes. He’s gotten a lot better since then. Now he’s a number one starting pitcher, which I didn’t know that he was that day, but it was very safe to say he was a very good starting pitcher.”

Gallen became the bona fide ace of the staff in Arizona, an All-Star who has been a top-five Cy Young finalist the last two years with his eyes set on another. Catcher Tucker Barnhart earlier this season described his command as “crazy.” Among qualified D-backs pitchers, Gallen ranks third in franchise history for ERA (3.23), sixth in strikeouts (746), fourth in rWAR (16.7) and fourth in ERA+.

The D-backs continued to push chips in the following offseason with additions such as starter Madison Bumgarner and outfielder Starling Marte. But even without Chisholm, the development of the farm system along with major leaguers Gallen, Ketel Marte and Christian Walker led to the eventual World Series run in 2023.

Chisholm is an exciting player in his own right with speed, power and swagger. He held his own at second base and has since moved to center field. He has been on the cover of MLB the Show.

Injuries early in his career have kept his games down to 157 between 2022-23. He has 60 home runs and 68 steals in 353 career games and was a 2022 All-Star.

Gallen has a career ERA+ (100 average) of 132, compared to Chisholm’s 104 OPS+ — although Chisholm is two years younger. Gallen has Chisholm beat by nearly 10 rWAR since the deal, but Chisholm did not debut until 2020.

This year, with abundant injuries and lack of offensive performance from several counted on bats, Gallen’s consistency in the rotation is that much more valuable.

There has not been a trade like the Gallen-Chisholm swap since

One-for-ones are not necessarily rare, but going through every transaction over the past five years, a hefty sum come after a player is designated for assignment. Many others involve an established veteran for a prospect, such as the Diamondbacks’ trade for Tommy Pham last deadline when they sent out Jeremy Rodriguez to the Mets.

The Rockies adding Nolan Jones for Juan Brito was a prospect-for-prospect deal before the 2023 season, although neither had debuted at that point. Another somewhat similar deal in terms of young player for top prospect may be the Angels trading outfielder Brandon Marsh to the Phillies for catcher Logan O’Hoppe. But neither of those trades included a pitcher.

Gallen for Chisholm has been compared to Pablo Lopez for Luis Arraez as another Marlins trade in which they sent out a promising pitcher for a middle infielder. But Arraez was a batting champ in Minnesota and Lopez had five years of experience.

“I can’t remember too many deals where it was one-for-one in general, especially two guys of that stature. So I think it was and still is kind of unique in that way,” Hazen said.

One of the hardest jobs in baseball is developing starting pitching, so that was an opportunity to pick up a building block for what the rotation would look like going forward.

This past offseason, he sent outfielder Dominic Fletcher to the White Sox for starting pitcher prospect Cristian Mena in that frame of thinking. Gallen was further along than Mena at the time of each deal, but the D-backs were in need of another young arm to compete for a rotation spot down the line.

Mena has had a really promising start with the organization, boasting a 3.42 ERA in 50 innings for Triple-A Reno. With a little more polish to Mena’s command, the big leagues may not be far.

Lessons from Gallen-Chisholm trade

“I think they’re just such unique one-offs,” Hazen said of lessons learned from trades. “It’s easy to look at that one as a one-for-one. But so many of these deals end up not being one-for-one because they don’t fit in the same way. You do your best to understand why you liked players at the time when trades don’t work out or what you were looking for.

“I think having a firm belief in exactly what we think we need to get is more important than in some cases than what we’re giving up. I think we have to be willing to give up good players to get good players. That’s the number one thing that I try to remind myself.”

The D-backs practiced this in December 2022 by dealing rising outfielder Daulton Varsho for catcher Gabriel Moreno and outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

Hazen agreed it is hard to imagine the Diamondbacks over the past few years in an alternate world without Gallen, even with Chisholm turning into a useful major leaguer.

They probably have one fewer pennant in that case, he said.

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