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The Diamondbacks feature quite a few roster chameleons, giving the team plenty of options this winter as it seeks to pursue immediate competitiveness without muddying the long-term outlook.
- Ketel Marte: $21MM through 2022 (including buyouts of 2023-24 options)
- Yasmany Tomas: $17MM through 2020
- Eduardo Escobar: $14.5MM through 2021
- Mike Leake: $6MM through 2020 (Cardinals & Mariners pay remainder of contract, including $9MM of salary and $5MM buyout of 2021 option)
- Merrill Kelly: $3.5MM through 2020 (including buyout of 2021 option)
- Diamondbacks also owe $20.667MM of salary to Zack Greinke through 2021
- Taijuan Walker – $5.025MM
- David Peralta – $8.8MM
- Steven Souza Jr. – $4.125MM
- Nick Ahmed – $7.0MM
- Jake Lamb – $5.0MM
- Caleb Joseph – $1.2MM
- Andrew Chafin -$3.2MM
- Robbie Ray – $10.8MM
- Archie Bradley – $3.6MM
- Matt Andriese – $1.4MM
- Abraham Almonte – $900K (already outrighted)
- Non-tender candidates: Peralta, Souza, Lamb, Andriese, Almonte
- Alex Avila, Jarrod Dyson, Wilmer Flores (declined $6MM option in favor of $500K buyout), Yoshihisa Hirano, Adam Jones, Blake Swihart
We heaped on the praise when the D-Backs announced they had re-upped GM Mike Hazen, and for good reason. He came into a tough spot and has both produced a competitive MLB team and improved the team’s talent pipeline. Shrewd moves abound — chief among them: acquiring and then locking up Ketel Marte before his breakout — even if they haven’t all been winners.
The Diamondbacks have played generally winning baseball in a wholesome and sustainable manner. That’s nice. But they were swept out of their 2017 postseason appearance and haven’t been back since. The Dodgers may not have swum in the Snakes’ pool of late, but they still haven’t let anyone join them in the NL West deep end since they splashed around Chase Field in 2013. And it isn’t as if the L.A. organization has monopolized the division through spending alone; it’s doing it in a cost-efficient manner that’s all the more fearsome for the teams chasing them from afar. If nobody is even nipping at their heels, the Dodgers will just keep cruising.
If the D-Backs are to force the issue in the division, or at least to stand out a bit in a crowded NL wild card picture, they will need both to continue making cost-efficient improvements and to find a way to make a Marte-esque leap. They don’t need to rush out and do another Greinke deal, by any means, but as presently constituted the roster is more solid than good — and that’s assuming healthy campaigns from some players that have had recent injury issues. Hazen still hasn’t promised double-digit millions in a single free agent contract. That seems likely to change this winter.
Looking at the payroll, there’s about $47.5MM written in ink. The arbitration outlay will probably more than double that starting point — if every eligible player is tendered. The Snakes can shear about $9MM if they move on from Jake Lamb and Steven Souza … and double that if they were to non-tender or trade David Peralta. If all three are cut loose, the club would have a few additional holes to deal with but could also have over $30MM in free payroll to play with — assuming the team is again comfortable opening with over $120MM on the books. The D-Backs don’t really have any true blue-chip prospects to use as trade assets, but the club has drawn praise for possessing an especially nice volume of farm talent. That should leave a lot of pieces to work with in trade talks.
So where is the work to be done? Not in the rotation, arguably. The D-Backs have turned over much of their starting staff since this time last year. Robbie Ray is the only holdover from before the 2018-19 offseason. The club brought aboard Luke Weaver and Merrill Kelly before the 2019 season and then added Zac Gallen and Mike Leake during that just-finished campaign. It’s not likely to be an overwhelming unit, but the spots seem ably accounted for. The Snakes surely feel they filled in the gaps when they picked up Gallen and Leake over the summer. The Gallen swap looks like a potential heist, though he’ll need to repeat his stunning breakout season and the Marlins surely feel good about what they saw from prospect Jazz Chisholm after picking him up in the deal. Leake can serve the part of veteran innings eater, joining Kelly to deliver a volume of serviceable frames. Ray is a bit of a wild card but is the kind of strikeout pitcher that teams dream on, while Weaver is coming back from injury but turned in a dozen sterling starts in 2019.
So, should the D-Backs go looking for a nice upside play and/or some depth in free agency? Not necessarily. There’s more to the rotation picture. The uber-talented Taijuan Walker will be working back from Tommy John surgery, with hopes he’ll be available for a good portion of the season. Corbin Martin is doing the same, though he’s unlikely to return before later in the year and is probably not a major factor in the 2020 planning. Jon Duplantier got his first taste of the majors last year and will surely be a factor. Taylor Clarke and Alex Young are among the 40-man roster pieces that contributed last year and can again be called upon; J.B. Bukauskas and Taylor Widener are perhaps the most promising upper-level prospects, though both had less-than-ideal results in 2019.
Some of those arms will spill over to the bullpen; Duplantier and Clarke each spent time there last season. But there’s some work to be done in the relief unit. Archie Bradley, Andrew Chafin, and mid-season callup Kevin Ginkel make for a nice trio of arms. Yoan Lopez and Stefan Chricton both got the job done in 2019, though the former had questionable peripherals and the latter has to prove he can do it over a full campaign. Matt Andriese suffered from the BABIP blues and could be asked back, though it’ll cost a bit. Otherwise, it’s Jimmie Sherfy and the leftover starters — good for a band name, but questionable for a contending pen.
There isn’t an overwhelming amount of need, but the D-Backs sure could stand to add at least one established, high-quality reliever to this mix. Having utilized Bradley in a flexible manner in recent years, with the closing job being occupied mostly by short-term signees, the team seems a likely bet to once more lure a veteran to the desert with promises of 9th-inning glory. We posited the club as a potential buyer of top-class relievers in compiling our list of the top 50 free agents, though we ultimately predicted a relatively low-cost accord with the sturdy and experienced Steve Cishek. This is certainly an area the team can spend on, particularly if it ticks off other needs at lower-than-expected expense, though the market isn’t exactly laden with high-end arms. The D-Backs could take a risk on a hurler like Dellin Betances and/or explore trade options.
On the position-player side, Hazen could go in quite a few different directions. Let’s start with what is in place. Carson Kelly will be the primary backstop, with Caleb Joseph and/or some other veteran (the Snakes like to carry three catchers) supplementing him. Marte can be lined up in center or at second base alongside shortstop Nick Ahmed. Either way, two of the three slots up the middle are accounted for. At the infield corners, Eduardo Escobar is a fixture while Christian Walker and Kevin Cron can be called upon at first base pending the arrival of Seth Beer. There’s room for a left-handed-hitting reserve in the mold of Lamb, who seems unlikely to be retained at his arb price point after two consecutive forgettable campaigns. And in the outfield, the D-Backs could rely upon Souza and David Peralta for a big chunk of the action … or they could move one or both of those not-insignificant salaries and go in a different direction entirely.
The Snakes gave a lot of plate appearances to light-hitting performers last year. Lamb, Adam Jones, Jarrod Dyson, Tim Locastro, Ildemaro Vargas, Josh Rojas, and Blake Swihart combined for nearly two thousand trips to the dish; not one was within a dozen points of league average by measure of wRC+. It’s not a stretch to imagine Locastro, Vargas, and/or Rojas playing significant roles in 2020 and beyond. Ditto utility infielder Domingo Leyba. But the Snakes can’t afford to settle for that level of offensive output from such a major segment of the roster. They’ll need to fill in for the departing players and avoiding asking too much of those that remain from this list.
So, how to proceed? There are two key factors to consider here: Marte’s positional malleability and the payroll/roster flexibility in the corner outfield (and to some extent also at first base). With bench space to work with as well, there are quite a few ways in which the club could seek improvement. It was interesting to hear Hazen suggest recently that the team prefers Marte at second base. It would be easier to fill that spot from outside the organization, given the multitude of possibilities, but it appears the Snakes are likeliest to chase after a center fielder.
Put it all together, and it seems the overall focus is squarely on the outfield grass. Asked recently about Shogo Akiyama, Hazen revealed some level of interest in the Japanese center fielder. The meandering nature of the quote also served to underscore the wide-open nature of the offseason. “We think he’s a good player,” says Hazen of Akiyama. ” … We’re in the outfield market, the center-field market specifically. We’re in the entire market.”
The D-Backs do have some options up the middle, especially if they like Akiyama even more than they’ve already let on. He is arguably the only truly intriguing option on the open market, at least unless Brett Gardner considers a departure from the Yankees. But there are some trade possibilities. Starling Marte is the central focus on the trade market. He’ll be sought after by quite a few other teams as well, but there’s an argument to be made that he fits in just the right space (two years of affordable but not cheap control) for the D-Backs. It’s also possible to imagine the club looking at a few other possibilities. Old friend Ender Inciarte could conceivably be made available, depending upon how things develop in Atlanta. And Jackie Bradley Jr. figures to be dangled by the Red Sox; acquiring him might help quench Hazen’s insatiable thirst for Boston products. (We kid, but there’s no shortage of examples.) If the D-Backs can’t sort out an upgrade and are forced to utilize their existing Marte at times in center, they may come away with a timeshare veteran in the nature of Dyson, Leonys Martin, Juan Lagares, or Cameron Maybin. The club could instead utilize the speedy Locastro in such a capacity as well. Any of these fall-back possibilities would feel like a bit of a disappointment unless the Snakes end up securing other significant pieces.
None of the above-noted center field possibilities will bust the budget. Even if the Snakes score a second Marte, there should be cash left to work with to do more. And this is where things could get yet more interesting. Souza is an obvious non-tender candidate after an injury-cancelled campaign on the heels of a disastrous first year in the desert. But the Snakes could simply decide they like him better than any of the options they can get in free agency for a similar price tag. It’s actually a closer call than you might think on Peralta. He’s a rather accomplished hitter, to be sure, but the track record isn’t unassailable and he’s a 32-year-old looking to return from shoulder problems. And Peralta has long struggled against left-handed pitching. The Snakes might reasonably believe they can do more for less in trade or on the open market, though there has been no suggestion to this point that they are considering moving on.
Whether or not one or both of those players is retained — whether through arbitration or in a re-signing following a non-tender — there are many opportunities to consider. This year’s market includes a group of unusually youthful and talented corner outfielders: Nicholas Castellanos, Marcell Ozuna, Avisail Garcia, and Yasiel Puig. It isn’t hard to fall in love with some of those players’ tools; perhaps the D-Backs could consider a somewhat longer, lower-AAV contract if they like one of the group in particular. There are lefty bats in the form of Corey Dickerson, Kole Calhoun, and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo. There aren’t an immense number of obvious trade targets to consider, but the Diamondbacks could look into the likes of Trey Mancini, Clint Frazier, and perhaps even Mookie Betts or Andrew Benintendi, depending upon what the Red Sox end up pursuing. Though the Snakes have mostly worked to remove big veteran salaries, they could consider a player such as Charlie Blackmon — not that an intra-division deal is likely to be sorted out for such a fan favorite. The same issue applies to the Dodgers, who could end up with an extra outfield piece to move. Relieving the Athletics of their obligations to Stephen Piscotty could conceivably work for both teams. It’s not impossible to imagine the Mets talking about Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto, or J.D. Davis. There are plenty of other possible scenarios that may be explored but are even more speculative than the ones just listed.
If that feels like relatively short-term patchwork … well, that’s pretty much what’s available. And it’s also what Hazen has done so well thus far. Putting some added financial gusto behind the effort could yield dividends. Exploring moves to bring in a star makes sense, but that’s a necessarily speculative endeavor. That approach could spill over and meld with the first base and broader bench. As noted above, the D-Backs have some younger players they like. In addition to those already listed, catcher/utilityman Daulton Varsho and first baseman/outfielder Pavin Smith could be closing in on the majors. But the former is now recovering from an ankle injury and the latter is still working to re-burnish his prospect standing.
Expecting something from the existing, younger players is sensible. But the Diamondbacks can and should reduce their reliance on them as immediate options without cutting off their paths entirely. Short-term veteran role players abound. Lefty bats seem to make particular sense given the existing array in the infield. Brock Holt is among the utility pieces that could shoulder some of the load all over the field. A lefty slugger makes tons of sense to form a platoon at first base, with Eric Thames representing the top of that market. Perhaps Mike Moustakas could reprise his surprise utility role, appearing all over the infield for the Snakes. If the Cards decide to try to shed some of Matt Carpenter’s contract to free up payroll and roster space, perhaps the Arizona org could take a chance on the veteran and come away with another desired piece as well.
It’s frankly hard to pin down a simple task list given the adaptable roster and payroll circumstances — a credit to Hazen’s handiwork. The Snakes have some shape-shifting puzzle pieces and blank Scrabble tiles to work with. It makes for a choose-your-own-offseason decision tree that could take any number of different courses over the months to come.