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The Diamondbacks followed up their surprise run to the NLDS in 2017 by leading the way in the NL West for much of 2018, though an ugly late-season fade (11-24 over their last 35 games) left them with just an 82-80 record. Now, with the D’Backs facing an already-tight payroll situation and the likely departure of some major free agents, the team could appears to be at a crossroads.
- Zack Greinke, SP: $95.5MM through 2021
- Ketel Marte, 2B: $20MM through 2022 (includes buyouts of 2023-24 club options)
- Alex Avila, C: $4.25MM through 2019
- Jarrod Dyson, OF: $3.5MM through 2019
- Yoshihisa Hirano, RP: $3MM through 2019
Arbitration Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- David Peralta – $7.7MM
- Robbie Ray – $6.1MM
- Shelby Miller – $4.9MM
- Brad Boxberger – $4.9MM
- Taijuan Walker – $4.825MM
- Jake Lamb – $4.7MM
- Steven Souza Jr. – $4.0MM
- Chris Owings – $3.6MM
- Nick Ahmed – $3.1MM
- Archie Bradley – $2.0MM
- Andrew Chafin – $1.8MM
- T.J. McFarland – $1.4MM
- Matt Andriese – $1.1MM
- John Ryan Murphy – $1.1MM
- Non-tender candidates: Miller, Boxberger, Owings, Murphy
- Yasmany Tomas, OF: $32.5MM player option for the 2019-20 seasons ($15.MM in 2019, $17MM in 2020)
- Paul Goldschmidt, 1B: $14.5MM club option for 2019 ($2MM buyout)
- Patrick Corbin, A.J. Pollock, Eduardo Escobar, Clay Buchholz, Daniel Descalso, Jeff Mathis, Jon Jay, Randall Delgado, Jake Diekman, Chris Stewart, Brad Ziegler (retiring)
The D’Backs spent a club-record $131.56MM on payroll last season, and they’d approach that figure again in 2019 on returning salaries and arbitration numbers alone. Since Paul Goldschmidt’s club option and Yasmany Tomas’s player option are both virtual locks to be exercised, there’ll be roughly $77.4MM in guaranteed money on the books for next year’s payroll. The Snakes will have to decide whether to dole out a projected $51.125MM owed to a whopping 14-player arbitration class.
Keeping all those players would put Arizona over the $128MM mark, leaving the team ill-equipped to re-sign their two biggest free agents. Patrick Corbin will be one of the most highly sought-after players on the open market this winter, while A.J. Pollock also projects for a solid multi-year deal, even if he has battled injuries over the last few seasons. Finding suitable replacements at a palatable salary level would likely mean giving up precious young talent in trade.
Whether or not the Snakes view themselves as near-term contenders, then, some paring of arb-eligible players seems likely. Judicious non-tendering might just create enough room to retain a second-tier option like Clay Buchholz or Eduardo Escobar. For instance, $9.6MM could be saved by parting ways with Shelby Miller, Chris Owings, and John Ryan Murphy. It’s possible the D’Backs could be forced to sell low by trading notable arb-eligibles like Jake Lamb, Steven Souza Jr., or Brad Boxberger. All three players are in that unwelcome gray area of perhaps being too valuable to non-tender, yet lacking in trade value in the wake of disappointing seasons. Lamb and Souza at least come with future control rights via arbitration, increasing their value to Arizona. In the case of Boxberger, who struggled down the stretch and is entering his walk year, it could be that he’ll be dangled in trades in advance of the non-tender deadline.
Suffice to say, the Diamondbacks are in a tight spot, and GM Mike Hazen may now be facing the rebuild that many pundits expected to come when he was first hired two years ago. The general manager has already said that the team will first look to make some trades, and try to “be creative” when it comes to formulating next year’s roster. While a full teardown doesn’t appear to be in the cards just yet, some reshuffling of the deck, at a minimum, seems likely.
Let’s break down the two choices facing the Diamondbacks, beginning with the straight-forward total rebuild option. In this scenario, you’d see the team shop virtually all of their most valued short-term assets (i.e. Goldschmidt, Robbie Ray, David Peralta, Archie Bradley and more) in order to add some much-needed depth to a farm system whose best prospects may be a few years away. Trading Greinke would be the most obvious way to alleviate the payroll crunch, though his contact is so hefty that the D’Backs might still need to eat some money to facilitate a trade, despite Greinke pitching like one of baseball’s best starters over the last two years. On the other hand, it’s arguable he isn’t owed that much more than he’d be worth in free agency. Some clubs may prefer that three-year pact to a bidding war for Corbin or Clayton Kershaw.
Given the number of quality players on the roster, the D’Backs could shave a lot of financial obligations and also recoup enough big league-ready young talent to hope to return to contention as early as 2021. The Diamondbacks’ solid roster, however, is also the reason why a “creative” solution might be more palatable to Hazen and company than entering into a full rebuild this offseason. An argument can certainly be made that the Snakes could aim to contend next season while they still have Goldschmidt — who could also still be an offseason extension target — and then pivot to becoming sellers at the trade deadline if things don’t work out. In that case, the club would be prepared to start the rebuild next winter by selling off the players who are still controlled through 2020 (such as Ray, Peralta, Souza, and Taijuan Walker, assuming Walker recovers well from Tommy John surgery).
The alternative to a sell-off, then, would be strategically carving out some payroll space while still aiming to compete next season. There are no shortage of possibilities about how the Diamondbacks could try to do this, though obviously it’d be a difficult proposition to truly stay competitive without creating further long-term problems. It also doesn’t help matters that the D’Backs don’t have a ton of MLB-ready youngsters capable of stepping into spots left open by traded players — the likes of Ildemaro Vargas, Kevin Cron, or Kevin Medrano will probably be on the big league roster at some point in 2019, though can’t be expected to be play regular roles on a contender.
Speculation has already begun about a potential Goldschmidt trade, and there’s no shortage of pain in trading away a face-of-the-franchise player who has hit at a borderline Cooperstown-level pace for virtually his entire career. As painful as it would be to deal the star first baseman, however, it would also be the most boldly pragmatic move Hazen could make. Goldschmidt is only controlled through 2019, he’d net easily the biggest trade return of any veteran asset on the roster, and there are several other first base options available in trades or in free agency who could at least partially replicate Goldschmidt’s production. This is just my speculation, but if the D’Backs can find a trade partner with enough payroll space, they could move both Goldschmidt and Tomas in the same deal, taking a fairly light prospect return for the sake of getting Tomas’s albatross contract off the books. This would create a ton of additional payroll flexibility, though the team would have to have a clear strategy in mind to reinvest the money wisely — not only to boost the 2019 outlook but also to avoid unwanted long-term obligations.
It’d be an awfully bold strategy, to be sure, but moving Goldschmidt could help Arizona address several other holes around the roster. Center field is the most obvious area with Pollock’s likely departure, as Jarrod Dyson is more suited as bench depth than as a viable everyday option. The D’Backs are also hoping that Souza and Lamb can rebound from injury-shortened seasons so that right field and third base can be solidified, though I’d expect the team to pursue some type of right-handed hitting utility infield depth anyway to account for Lamb’s struggles against southpaws. Re-signing Daniel Descalso would be a boost, as Descalso was a valuable asset filling in for Lamb at the hot corner last year, and also sharing time with Ketel Marte at second base.
Arizona has been only a modest player in free agency during Hazen’s regime, so even re-signing a player like Escobar would require a bigger dive into the open market than the club has been willing to make for the last two offseasons. The 29-year-old will merit a solid multi-year commitment as he comes off the best season of his career, though it wouldn’t be a bank-breaking price tag, and Escobar does offer more versatility as a switch-hitter and a player capable of filling in at multiple infield positions. Even if the D’Backs did prefer to utilize Escobar primarily as a third baseman again, he could represent enough of an upgrade over Lamb that the team could take the plunge.
Elsewhere around the diamond, Arizona will hope that Marte can continue to progress at the plate after posting a career-best 104 wRC+ in 2018. Defensive standout Nick Ahmed will likely remain as the everyday shortstop, and the D’Backs will probably try to take another glove-first approach at catcher, as the Athletic’s Zach Buchanan recently argued that Jeff Mathis was the best positional fit of any of the team’s free agents. Mathis and Alex Avila were by some measures baseball’s best defensive tandem behind the plate, though if the veteran Mathis can’t be re-signed, the D’Backs could look into adding a catcher with a bit more offensive pop.
Dyson brings enough pluses as a defender and baserunner that the Diamondbacks could use him as the left-handed hitting half of a center field platoon, which would leave Arizona only looking for a righty bat to share time (a free agent like Cameron Maybin would be a good fit in this scenario). Alternatively, Peralta could be moved into center field, though Peralta probably projects best as a corner outfielder. The D’Backs might also not want shift Peralta again since, after being installed as the everyday left fielder last season, he delivered the best year of his career, hitting .293/.352/.516 with 30 homers over 614 PA.
Peralta and Ray are the Diamondbacks’ top trade chips if they balk at dealing Goldschmidt, or if Greinke’s contract prevents them from finding a trade partner. These two are less likely to be dealt, in my opinion, since losing either would drastically weaken a position that is already taking a hit. Losing both Pollock and Peralta would be a huge blow to the outfield, while the rotation would suffer from losing Ray when Corbin and Buchholz could depart.
Greinke, Ray, and Zack Godley are the only sure bets in the rotation as things stand, with Miller (if he isn’t non-tendered), Matt Koch, and Matt Andriese looking like the top candidates for the final two spots. Walker will also hopefully re-enter the picture at midseason upon his recovery from Tommy John surgery, Braden Shipley is Triple-A depth, and top prospects Jon Duplantier and Taylor Widener could also be ready later in the season.
There’s certainly room here for Buchholz to return, as the veteran proved to be one of the year’s best minor league signings. Health is always a question with Buchholz, and his season was prematurely ended by a flexor mass strain in his throwing elbow, though this latest injury could actually work in Arizona’s favor if the team wanted to retain him. Buchholz’s asking price could fall into a palatable range for the Diamondbacks if other teams are scared off by the elbow problem, and the D’Backs certainly are the most familiar of anyone with Buchholz’s health status. If Buchholz doesn’t return, the Snakes could look at other low-cost veteran arms to compete for a starting job, or consider using the bullpen and a Rays-style “opener” to address a rotation spot.
Speaking of the pen, the closer’s job is up for grabs after Boxberger’s struggles at limiting walks and homers cost him the role down the stretch. It’s possible the Diamondbacks could forego a full-time closer altogether, as they adopted a committee approach in September upon removing Boxberger from the job, though I would guess they might bring in an inexpensive veteran reliever with closing experience to provide added depth. Names like Sergio Romo or former D’Back Fernando Rodney might be fits in this regard on the free agent market. Arizona could also stand to add a bit of extra left-handed depth, though the team already has an overall solid group of relievers.
As per Hazen, the Diamondbacks have several organizational meetings planned in the coming weeks, and if the club will indeed gauge the trade market first, we may have to wait until the Winter Meetings in December before we get a true sense of the Snakes’ approach for the offseason. Whether the D’Backs become baseball’s most popular seller or instead attempt to perform a tough balancing act, Arizona is poised to have a fascinating offseason of potentially pivotal importance to the franchise’s outlook.