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After signing Zack Greinke and acquiring Shelby Miller last offseason, the D-backs had high expectations in 2016. Things couldn’t have gone much worse, though. Star center fielder A.J. Pollock went down late in camp. The club fell out of the playoff race early on and ended up losing 93 games. Manager Chip Hale and general manager Dave Stewart lost their jobs. And Chief Baseball Officer Tony LaRussa ended up being reduced to a lesser role. Now, a revamped front office, led by a group of former Red Sox execs, has been tasked with turning things around.
- Zack Greinke, SP: $172.6MM through 2021.
- Yasmany Tomas, OF: $56MM through 2020. Tomas can become a free agent after the 2018 World Series if he declines a player option.
- Paul Goldschmidt, 1B: $22MM through 2018. Contract includes a $14.5MM club option in 2019 with a $2MM buyout.
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLB Trade Rumors)
- Welington Castillo, C (5.009): $5.9MM
- Patrick Corbin, RP/SP (4.105): $4.2MM
- Randall Delgado, RP (4.100): $1.9MM
- Rubby De La Rosa, SP (4.097): $3MM
- Jean Segura, 2B/SS (4.065): $7.3MM
- Shelby Miller, SP (3.166): $4.9MM
- Chris Owings, IF/OF (3.027): $2.1MM
- Chris Herrmann, C/OF (3.001): $1MM
- Tuffy Gosewisch, C (2.154) – $600K
- Non-tender candidates: Gosewisch
A new era has begun in Arizona with a shift from the “old school” mindset of Stewart and Hall of Fame manager LaRussa, who had no front office experience when he was hired in May 2014, to an analytics-savvy group with much more front office experience. Mike Hazen was hired last month as the team’s executive vice president and general manager. Amiel Sawdaye and Jared Porter, who worked together for years with Hazen in the Red Sox front office, have since been brought in as his top assistants. Torey Lovullo, Boston’s bench coach for the past four seasons, was hired as manager.
Lovullo inherits a roster that was one of the most disappointing in baseball last season. Injuries to Pollock (46 plate appearances) and fellow outfielder David Peralta (183 plate appearances) didn’t help. Greinke, while still an effective starting pitcher with a 62% quality start rate, finished the season with his highest ERA (4.37) since 2005, highest H/9 (9.1) and HR/9 (1.3) since 2006 and highest WHIP (1.273) since 2008. Miller was a disaster, posting a 6.15 ERA in 20 starts. And Patrick Corbin failed to bounce back to his pre-Tommy John surgery form.
Yet, this D-backs roster has a lot of talent. Well, at least talented hitters. The pitching staff was one of the worst in baseball in 2016. While the Orioles (19th in ERA) and Rangers (22nd in ERA) did their best to out-slug opponents all the way to the playoffs, the other eight post-season qualifiers had the eight lowest ERAs in baseball. Good pitching and good defense win championships. While the D-backs still have some really good arms in their organization, it’s hard to find one, other than Greinke, who they can confidently rely on for 180+ quality innings.
Hazen will likely look to add at least one starting pitcher to the mix, along with a closer and setup man. He has indicated that the payroll is expected to stay around $100MM—they’re currently projected just under that, including non-guaranteed salary projections—which would probably limit him to bargain hunting on the free agent market. Club president/CEO Derrick Hall has stated, however, that his new general manager won’t face payroll limitations, at least not on his first year on the job. Regardless of how these somewhat conflicting statements are interpreted, Hazen has the trade chips that would allow him not only to improve and balance out the roster, but also to create some payroll flexibility at the same time.
Peralta and Pollock should have strong trade value despite missing most of 2016. Welington Castillo, who is due to become a free agent next offseason, should also draw interest with several teams looking for catching help. Hazen could also flip second baseman Jean Segura at peak value after one brilliant season in Arizona. Yasmany Tomas, a bad defender with a low walk rate and a hefty salary, will likely be shopped to American League teams, but it won’t be easy an easy sell despite his huge second half at the plate (.294/.323/.584). Of course, trading players such as those would run the risk of opening holes elsewhere on the roster.
Young starters Archie Bradley, Robbie Ray and Braden Shipley each had their moments, but all finished the season with an ERA in the neighborhood of 5.00. All struggled badly at Chase Field. The left-handed Ray, who struck out 218 hitters in 174 1/3 innings, is a bit of an enigma. His 11.3 K/9 rate indicates that batters would have a tough time putting the ball in play, but he gave up more than a hit per inning and allowed five earned runs in nine of his 32 starts. Corbin finished the season in the bullpen after struggling to follow up on his promising 2015 season.
The good news is that Bradley, Shipley and Miller — all former No. 1 prospects in their respective organizations at one time — join Ray as arms with their share of upside. And Corbin, the oldest of the group at age 27, pitched well during his late-season bullpen stint—he had an 0.95 ERA while holding opponents to a .141 batting average in mostly two and three-inning stints over his last nine appearances.
There are a few other names to consider, too. Rubby De La Rosa was beginning to look like a breakout candidate in 2016 after a stretch of four dominant starts in five outings between April 23rd and May 15th. Unfortunately, he would make just one more start before an elbow injury knocked him out of action until September. After undergoing stem cell treatment in September in an attempt to avoid Tommy John surgery, the 27-year-old’s status is up in the air for 2017. Matt Koch could be in the mix for a rotation spot after a pair of impressive September starts (11 IP, 3 ER, 6 H, BB, 6 K) in addition to a scoreless four-inning relief stint, as might lefty Anthony Banda, who was very good during his first season in the upper minors (2.88 ERA, 3.3 BB/9, 9.1 K/9 in 26 starts between Triple-A and Double-A).
The bullpen picture is just as murky with Jake Barrett the only young pitcher to force his way into the picture for 2017. The 25-year-old, who had a 3.49 ERA, four saves and eight holds in 68 appearances, could get a shot at the closer’s role, but is more likely slated for setup duty. Randall Delgado, while unable to work his way into a late-inning role, remains a valuable middle reliever who can take the ball often (79 appearances in 2016) and pitch multiple innings on occasion. Aside from that duo, it’s a wide open competition for whatever spots are still left after Hazen is done shopping.
Hard-throwing Enrique Burgos didn’t fare well when given an opportunity to pitch with the game on the line. Silvino Bracho’s minor league dominance hasn’t carried over to the big leagues. Andrew Chafin took a step backwards due to injuries and ineffectiveness after a very good 2015 season. That’s not to say he can’t bounce back, or that Burgos and Bracho won’t take a step forward. But these are currently some of the team’s top candidates to fill out the bullpen, which is why adding to the relief corps is a top priority for Hazen. A wild card could be De La Rosa, who might be a better fit in the ’pen if he can avoid Tommy John surgery. Lefty Jared Miller has likely worked his way into the team’s plans with his dominant performance in the Arizona Fall League (16 IP, 0 R, 5 H, 3 BB, 27 K).
It’s hard to know what kinds of targets might be pursued, not least of which since salary considerations could leave the D-Backs waiting for buy-low opportunities to emerge. But there are a fair number of former closers on the market this year, including recent Red Sox hurler Koji Uehara as well as Drew Storen, Santiago Casilla, Joaquin Benoit, Jonathan Papelbon, Fernando Rodney, Joe Nathan, and former Arizona man Brad Ziegler. Offering a shot at the ninth inning to one of those pitchers — or, perhaps, another who doesn’t have a history as a closer — could be a nice way to woo some talent without paying top dollar.
Turning to the lineup, the team has to be encouraged by the emergence of Brandon Drury, who had a .786 OPS, 16 homers and 31 doubles in 499 plate appearances while playing four different positions (LF, RF, 3B, 2B), and third baseman Jake Lamb (.804 OPS, 29 HR, 31 2B). They further bolster a group that’s led by perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt, Pollock (20 HR, 39 2B, 39 SB in 2015), Peralta (.893 OPS, 17 HR, 26 2B, 10 3B in 2015), Segura (.867 OPS, 20 HR, 41 2B, 33 SB), Castillo and Tomas.
With so much firepower in the top seven spots of the order, it’s not a given that Chris Owings, an average defender who had a .731 OPS with 21 stolen bases, will beat out Nick Ahmed, a Gold Glove caliber defender who can’t hit much at all, for the starting shortstop gig. Owings might have more value as a super utility-man, anyways—he’s also played second base and center field—especially if Drury ends up being the everyday left fielder.
If the outfield goes Tomas-Pollock-Peralta, the organization likely will be set for the bulk of its innings. And other internal options can probably make up for the rest. Mitch Haniger may be first in line for reserve duties after cracking the majors last year. Chris Herrmann can both back up behind the plate and spend some time in the corner outfield. Reasonably intriguing prospects such as Peter O’Brien and Socrates Brito remain on hand, and perhaps are ready to sink or swim. And the D-Backs already claimed Jeremy Hazelbaker to provide a possible left-handed complement to Tomas.
Ultimately, Arizona doesn’t seem destined to do much tinkering with its position players, at least this winter. That could all change if a golden trade offer floats into Hazen’s door, but for now it seems rather likely that the organization will mostly stand pat and see what it can do to add arms. All is quiet on the Diamondbacks rumor front at the moment, but they cannot completely be discounted in the pursuit of top free agents. Hall’s comments on the payroll should at least leave open the possibility that they can make a free agent splash. Remember that this is the team that swooped in at the last minute to win the Greinke sweepstakes … though it’s fair to wonder whether Hazen will prefer that approach.
Indeed, if the plan is to not increase payroll, is it possible that they go in the complete opposite direction and allow the new front office to tear down and start over? Hey, a bunch of former Red Sox execs executed the rebuilding plan to perfection with the Cubs. With several valuable trade assets, it has to be a tempting possibility for the group of former Red Sox execs now running the show in Arizona.