MLBTR will provide a broader view of each club’s winter plans when our annual Offseason Outlook series kicks off at the end of the regular season. Until then, the Diamondbacks are the latest team to be featured in our quick look at this season’s non-contenders. We’ve already covered the Angels, Brewers, Twins, and Rays.
Arizona’s struggles this year are well documented, and need not be canvassed yet again here. Not much went right, leaving a host of areas to address, but these three are most pressing:
1. Sort out the front office.
Turnover in the baseball operations department is nothing new for the D-Backs, but this winter could again see change up top. Tony La Russa was brought in to provide overarching guidance in the sui generis position of chief baseball officer, and he oversaw the hiring of Dave Stewart as general manager and De Jon Watson as senior VP of baseball ops. With Watson already having been shown the door, the team is still holding out on deciding the fates of La Russa and Stewart, neither of whom is under contract past this season.
The longer Arizona waits, the less time a new hire will have to prepare for an important offseason to come. Club CEO Derrick Hall has suggested that a decision will come “relatively quickly,” and that certainly seems to be a wise approach — though an earlier call would arguably have been preferable. After all, roster decisions on current players and potential targets will begin in earnest about one month from now.
Whether the team should change horses right now is up for debate, though certainly there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that’s in order. Regardless, two things seem clear: first, that some measure of certainty in personnel and approach is needed as soon as possible; and second, that some changes in the decisionmaking process ought to be made that allow the organization to better understand and navigate the ever-changing landscape of baseball transactions and player analysis. While the traditional approach has resulted in the identification of some nice assets — chiefly, Robbie Ray, Jean Segura & Welington Castillo — the D-Backs seem out of step in many instances in their market valuations.
2. Make the best out of the Zack Greinke contract.
That seeming market disconnect was as apparent in the handling of Zack Greinke as it was in the acquisition of Shelby Miller — and that’s before accounting for the struggles of both pitchers (particularly the latter) in 2016. Adding rotation talent and betting on a fairly talented core made plenty of sense, but the way that Arizona went about doing so was questionable at best.
The Greinke decision represented an unbelievable risk on a pitcher of his age for an organization that has carried about $100MM in overall payroll, about one third of which is gobbled up by Greinke’s annual obligation. His middling season wasn’t exactly the worst-case scenario — a debilitating injury — but in concert with the fall-off elsewhere, it changes the calculus for the organization moving forward.
It would be silly for the Snakes to dump Greinke for the highest offer while his value is down and he’s still on the relatively youthful side of his contract. Unlike Miller, the veteran hurler was mostly himself — with some expected regression, added home runs, and perhaps a bit of poor fortune and park effects combining for a dud of a season. It’s reasonable to think that he could still boost his value and hold significant appeal at the 2017 trade deadline, if not sooner.
Still, the organization’s apparent approach on Greinke — so far as has been reported — seems a bit concerning. A report in late July suggested that Arizona was not only demanding “a great return of players” in trade talks, but wouldn’t consider eating any of the salary. And the most recent word is that the La Russa/Stewart front office isn’t interested in listening on Greinke over the winter.
To reiterate, I’m not advocating here for any specific course of action. And there could certainly be some public posturing at play. But the fact is, Greinke the player isn’t worth the contract ($157.5MM, some of it deferred, through 2021) — which was arrived at in a highly competitive bidding situation after the righty had wrapped up a career-best season. Even accepting that he remains a top-quality starter, it’s not reasonable to value him as a player asset the way that the reports have suggested.
The bottom line: whether or not the team ends up trading Greinke, it needs to approach the matter with a realistic assessment in order to make appropriate decisions. After hopefully getting him righted, I’d argue, the team needs to begin thinking about how it can get out from under what could end up being a disastrous financial commitment.
3. Work around the edges.
There’s just under $60MM on the D-Backs’ books for 2017, but that will balloon with arbitration raises for players like Miller, Castillo, Segura, Patrick Corbin, Rubby De La Rosa, and Chris Owings. Assuming that ownership doesn’t authorize a big move up over the approximately $100MM current roster spend, there probably won’t be much room to add major pieces.
Really, though, the team isn’t desperately in need of one or two big pieces — as it thought it was last winter. Just finding solid players in a few areas would go quite a long way. Adding even 1.5 to 2 WAR types of assets is harder than it sounds, but those kinds of incremental gains ought to be the focus.
Thus far in 2016 for the Diamondbacks, only four positions — first base, second base, third base, and catcher — have featured average or better production. Just two members of the rotation cracked 1.5 fWAR, and the team already has or will soon part with a few of its better relievers. In many ways, it has turned out to be a top-heavy roster.
The good news is that the team can hope for healthier and/or more productive campaigns from players such as A.J. Pollock, David Peralta, Owings, De La Rosa, and Paul Goldschmidt — as well as Greinke and Miller — while banking on continued strides from a few young hurlers, including Archie Bradley, who actually turned in a reasonably promising campaign despite an unsightly 5.02 ERA. But injuries and performance variations are inevitable, and Arizona must do a better job of having options on hand both to share time when appropriate and to fill in when necessary.
Despite taking 200 or more plate appearances in 2016, Owings, Yasmany Tomas (who ought to be in the A.L.), Nick Ahmed, Michael Bourn, Rickie Weeks, and Phil Gosselin were all approximately replacement-level performers. In the rotation, hurlers such as Miller, Patrick Corban, Zack Godley, and Braden Shipley were marginal in nine or more starts. (I won’t endeavor to name all of the club’s middling relief performances.)
Again, Arizona will surely hope that some of those names will turn up on the stat sheet as positives in the season to come. But a few well-placed trades and signings, as well as well-conceived decisions on less-established players, could transform the supporting cast into one capable of supporting a winner (assuming, at least, that the core can restore its former luster).
While the Snakes may not have much money to brandish, they do have the ability to offer roster space and opportunities for playing time, which are important assets in their own right when properly deployed. That’s especially true in the outfield, which was easily the worst unit in the majors this year with Pollock gone, Peralta hurt, and Ender Inciarte playing in Atlanta. Such a piecemeal strategy may not be terribly likely to result in a full-blown turnaround, but that’s probably the only way that the organization can hope to squeeze through its self-appointed window of contention.