The Diamondbacks had a respectable second half, but there’s still a notable gap between them and the National League’s postseason contenders. Arizona seems to be on the upswing after a brutal three-year stretch. They’ve broken in a number of promising young players in the past couple years. Supplementing that emerging core with a better bullpen and a reliable starting pitcher will be offseason priorities.
- Ketel Marte, 2B: $76MM through 2027 (including buyout of 2028 club option)
- Madison Bumgarner, LHP: $37MM through 2024
- Merrill Kelly, RHP: $18MM through 2024
- Nick Ahmed, SS: $10.375MM through 2023
- Mark Melancon, RHP: $8MM through 2023 (including buyout of 2024 mutual option)
Additional Financial Commitments
Total 2023 commitments: $59.975MM
Total future commitments: $149.875MM
- Zac Gallen
- Christian Walker
- Carson Kelly
- Daulton Varsho
- Josh Rojas
- Caleb Smith
- Jordan Luplow
- Keynan Middleton
- Reyes Moronta
- Non-tender candidates: Kelly, Smith, Luplow, Middleton, Moronta
- Davies, Kennedy
It has been a tough few seasons for the Diamondbacks, who followed up consecutive last-place division finishes with the #4 standing in the NL West. They’re obviously not yet a complete roster, but they head into the offseason coming off their most encouraging few months since the end of the 2019 season. A dismal first half buried the D-Backs in the standings yet again, but they’ve played reasonably well coming out of the All-Star Break. They finished two games under .500 in the unofficial second half but outscored opponents by 15 runs since the Break. That was enough for the Diamondbacks to exercise their option on skipper Torey Lovullo, keeping him around for a seventh season.
Underperforming their run differential was a problem all year. Arizona finished with a 74-88 record, but their “expected” record based on their run differential checked in at 77-85. Only four teams (Rangers, Yankees, Dodgers and Twins) underperformed that mark by more, with Arizona’s 17-29 record in one-run contests a major factor. That gets partially at the team’s lack of offense late in close games, which the front office can expect to turn around through some combination of better luck and more high-leverage experience for their number of young hitters. Yet the inability to win close games also hints at the biggest flaw on the roster: the bullpen.
On the heels of their nightmarish 52-win 2021 season, the front office set out to address a relief unit that had allowed more than five earned runs per nine innings. Veterans Mark Melancon and Ian Kennedy were brought in via free agency, while the club aggressively leveraged their high waiver priority to cycle through late-game arms (e.g. Kyle Nelson, Paul Fry, Reyes Moronta) who’d shown any kind of promise in the past. Almost nothing worked as planned, and the Snakes again ran out one of the sport’s worst relief groups. Arizona’s bullpen ranked 25th in ERA (4.58), 28th in strikeout/walk rate differential (10.5 percentage points) and tied for the 8th-most blown leads (27).
Fixing the bullpen again has to be an offseason priority. Kennedy had a 5.36 ERA and will be head back to free agency after the team declines its end of a mutual option. Melancon is due $6MM next year, plus a $2MM buyout on a 2024 mutual option. He’ll be back on the roster as a result, but he posted a 4.66 ERA that ranked as his worst mark in a decade. Long one of the game’s more consistent relievers, the 37-year-old is on the downslope of his career and coming off a third consecutive season with a well below-average swinging-strike rate. He’s still serviceable against right-handed batters but ideally wouldn’t enter 2023 locked into a high-leverage or closer role.
A run at another late-career former star closer could be in the cards. Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman are all headed to free agency. None of that group is coming off a vintage season. Kimbrel and Jansen have been effective but not their formerly elite selves; Chapman has simply been below-average. Still, there’s little question that each of Kimbrel and Jansen, at least, would be upgrades in the late innings for Arizona. The D-Backs aren’t going to push towards nine figures to land Edwin Díaz, but a one-year salary in the $10MM range for a former star to solidify the ninth inning could be palatable.
Even if the Snakes bring in an established closer, they’ll probably look for another middle-innings arm as well. Adding a right-hander would be ideal, as Lovullo hasn’t had many reliable options from that side. Arizona only has two returning relievers who posted an above-average strikeout rate. One, southpaw Joe Mantiply, broke out with an All-Star season and is a lock to assume a late-innings role next year. The other, right-hander Kevin Ginkel, cleared waivers last winter and only made it back to the big leagues in August. A solid final two months should earn him a spot on next year’s roster, but he shouldn’t be guaranteed high-leverage innings after posting a 6.50 ERA from 2020-21. Chris Martin, Adam Ottavino and David Phelps are veteran righties coming off quality seasons and heading to free agency.
There should be financial room for the front office to address the relief corps. Arizona has just under $60MM committed to next season’s books. That doesn’t include arbitration estimates, but it’s not an overwhelming class. Christian Walker, Zac Gallen, Josh Rojas and Daulton Varsho are locks to be tendered contracts, but none is building off a huge platform salary. Walker made $2.6MM this year and will probably see a bump into the $5-6MM range. Gallen, Rojas and Varsho (the latter two of whom are likely to qualify for early arbitration as Super Two players) are arbitration-eligible for the first time. Gallen will likely be capped around the $4MM mark, while Rojas and Varsho will make a couple million dollars each. Keeping backstop Carson Kelly, who’s a potential non-tender candidate but seems likelier to stick around, would tack on another $5MM or so. Even if everyone in that group returns, Arizona’s only looking at roughly $80MM in commitments before building out the roster.
The Diamondbacks entered 2022 with a payroll just under $91MM, and they’ve pushed as high as the $130MM range in the past. Jumping back to franchise-record heights set before the shortened 2020 campaign seems unlikely, since owner Ken Kendrick has curtailed spending over the last two years. Nearing or exceeding $100MM could be viable, though, leaving the front office some opportunity.
Aside from the bullpen, the biggest question mark seems to be the back of the starting staff. Gallen has cemented himself as one of the sport’s elite arms, and he’ll front next year’s rotation. Behind him is Merrill Kelly, who posted a 3.37 ERA over 33 starts after signing a two-year extension during Spring Training. Kelly may not repeat quite that level of effectiveness next year, but he’s at least a solid mid-rotation arm. Were he slated to hit free agency this winter, the right-hander would certainly have topped the $18MM he received from the D-Backs in April. Arizona bet on Kelly to bounce back from a somewhat disappointing 4.44 ERA last season, and he’s rewarded the organization’s faith.
The final three spots in the rotation are open questions. Madison Bumgarner probably gets another crack thanks to his contract. Arizona’s five-year, $85MM free agent investment during the 2019-20 offseason has proven disastrous, with Bumgarner posting a 4.67 ERA or worse in the first three seasons of the deal. His days as an ace and postseason hero for the Giants are distant in the rearview, and his production in the desert has been that of a 5th/6th depth starter rather than the rotation stabilizer the club envisioned.
While Arizona would certainly welcome the opportunity to shed the final two years and $37MM on Bumgarner’s deal, it’s hard to see that happening. Perhaps the front office can orchestrate a swap of unfavorable contracts, but Bumgarner’s limited no-trade clause further complicates an already unlikely trade scenario. The far likelier outcome is he’ll remain on the roster and in the rotation heading into next season.
The remaining spots could give some of the club’s younger arms an opportunity to take steps forward. Ryne Nelson, Drey Jameson and Tommy Henry all debuted this year and could compete for rotation spots in Spring Training. Nelson and Jameson are both well-regarded prospects who’ve impressed in their limited big league action. Each had a tougher time in an extremely hitter-friendly Triple-A environment, and their respective MLB bodies of work aren’t yet robust enough the D-Backs will lock either into an Opening Day rotation job. They’ve at least put themselves on the radar, reducing the need to give starts to the likes of Humberto Castellanos (who’ll miss most of next year recovering from Tommy John surgery) and Tyler Gilbert.
Arizona’s farm system is rife with upper-level arms, and youngsters like Brandon Pfaadt and Blake Walston could factor into the mix as well. Pfaadt was excellent in ten Triple-A starts and could compete for a big league job out of camp. Walston probably starts next year in Triple-A but may earn a midseason look.
While the organization and its fanbase is certainly excited about the long-term potential of most of those arms, the Snakes still look likely to seek out shorter-term rotation fits this winter. Not all of Nelson, Jameson, Pfaadt and Walston will develop into mid-rotation caliber starters. Injuries and simple underperformance will set back some of that group. Even if two of the four hit the ground running and join Gallen and Kelly in the rotation, an outside addition or two could help manage the younger pitchers’ innings, safeguard against injury and perhaps eventually bump Bumgarner from the starting five.
It’d be a surprise to see Arizona make a long-term free agent investment considering the number of upper minors arms they have. It’s more likely they’d dip into the lower-tiers of free agency to add a stable back-end starter, similar to last winter’s signing of Zach Davies. Hurlers like Kyle Gibson, Jordan Lyles (if the Orioles buy out his club option), Johnny Cueto or Michael Lorenzen could fit the bill.
If the D-Backs wanted to act more divisively in pursuit of an upgrade, packaging some of their young talent together for an impact trade piece shouldn’t be out of the question. Arizona has drafted highly in recent years, adding high-end prospects like Jordan Lawlar and Druw Jones to an already solid system. Even if those two are off limits in discussions, the Snakes’ upper level surplus of arms and outfielders (more on that in a bit) could allow them to push in their chips this winter. The Marlins are expected to make Pablo López available for offensive help. The Astros could deal from their rotation surplus, and Arizona pitching coach Brent Strom is familiar with the likes of Luis Garcia and José Urquidy from his time in Houston. Those are speculative possibilities, but Arizona’s at least a dark-horse candidate for that kind of trade.
Such a move wouldn’t have to be limited to the rotation, of course. Much of the D-Backs’ position player group is taking shape internally, but there’s still a chance to make a run at a good player with multiple seasons of club control. The A’s are widely expected to shop catcher Sean Murphy, who has three years of arbitration eligibility remaining. If the D-Backs do part with Carson Kelly after a second straight below-average season, a pursuit of Murphy makes sense. He’s an immense offensive upgrade over Kelly, and his excellent defensive reputation would dovetail nicely with the Diamondbacks’ upcoming pitching prospects.
If Arizona eschews external catching additions and brings Kelly back, he’d be in line for the lion’s share of playing time. José Herrera didn’t lay claim to the backup job, so a low-cost veteran complement in free agency makes sense. The right side of the infield is set with Walker and Ketel Marte. Arizona stuck with Walker after a rough 2021 campaign. They were rewarded with a 36-homer showing, paired with Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base. The D-Backs were open to offers on Walker at the trade deadline but didn’t move him. They’ll probably field some calls this winter, but it’ll tough for other teams to pry away his final two seasons of arbitration control.
Marte has been a frequent target in trade rumors for years, but Arizona committed to him as a franchise player with a five-year extension this spring. He didn’t have a great 2022 campaign, hitting .240/.321/.407 over 558 plate appearances with below-average defense at second base. Pedestrian season aside, Marte still brings a rare combination of contact skills and plus exit velocities. At some point down the line, the front office may think about reducing his time in the middle infield given his defensive limitations, but he’ll continue to play the majority of his reps at the keystone in 2023.
The left side of the infield is far less settled. Third base has been a revolving door for the past couple seasons. Arizona acquired Emmanuel Rivera from the Royals for Luke Weaver at the trade deadline and gave him a fair bit of run in the second half. Rivera hit .227/.304/.424 with plus defensive marks and will be in the mix at third, but he may be a better fit in a utility capacity.
That’s also true of Rojas, who split his time between second and third base and designated hitter. He’s a solid left-handed bat with excellent plate discipline and good bat-to-ball skills. Rojas is a productive hitter, but he’s not a great defender anywhere. Rather than pencil him in as an everyday third baseman, the D-Backs are likelier to continue to deploy him as a multi-positional option off the bench, living with poor defense at various positions to plug him into the lineup on a more or less everyday basis.
Between Rivera and Rojas, the Diamondbacks don’t seem likely to consider third base a true position of need. With a weak free agent class there, they may not end up addressing it at all. Still, neither Rivera nor Rojas absolutely forecloses the possibility of an upgrade, and the front office figures to at least gauge the trade and non-tender markets for potential fits.
Shortstop, meanwhile, looks like the biggest position player hole on the depth chart. Defensive stalwart Nick Ahmed is under contract for more than $10MM next season, but he only played in 17 games this year before undergoing shoulder surgery. Ahmed played more frequently in 2021 but didn’t hit well. The shoulder issues could’ve played a role in that subpar production, but he’s been a below-average offensive player in every season of his career. With Ahmed out, Arizona gave extended run to rookie Geraldo Perdomo. The 22-year-old looked overmatched, posting a .195/.285/.262 mark across 500 plate appearances.
Relying on Ahmed and Perdomo again would be suboptimal, although it’s fair to wonder if the front office will be able to find an upgrade. A run at any of the top four free agent shortstops (Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts or Dansby Swanson) isn’t likely to be in the cards for financial reasons. There’s a notable drop-off to Elvis Andrus and José Iglesias beyond that group. Turning to the trade market, Amed Rosario is among the names who could be made available, as the Guardians thread a tight financial needle.
In contrast to shortstop, the D-Backs enter the offseason with an arguable surplus of outfield talent. Top prospect Corbin Carroll reached the majors in late August and hit the ground running. He’ll play every day in either left or center field, while Varsho will be a regular at another outfield spot. Formerly a catcher/outfielder hybrid, Varsho seems to have landed full-time in the grass at this stage of his career. That’s in large part because defensive metrics have viewed him as an elite gloveman in right field (and a plus in center).
Meanwhile, second-year player Jake McCarthy broke out with a .283/.342/.427 showing with 23 stolen bases over 354 plate appearances this season. McCarthy was never the caliber of prospect Carroll or Varsho were, but he looks deserving of everyday run himself. A slightly below-average exit velocity and contact rate raise some questions about how sustainable this year’s performance may be, but he’s capable of covering all three outfield spots and has performed against left-handed and right-handed pitchers alike. At the very least, he looks like a high-end fourth outfielder, and he’s earned an opportunity to demonstrate he’s more than that.
Carroll, Varsho and McCarthy give the Snakes a trio of potential everyday outfielders, all of whom can cover center field. That’s before considering the presence of another recent top prospect, Alek Thomas. Thomas is the one Arizona outfielder who didn’t hit the ground running at the big league level, posting a .231/.275/.344 line across 411 plate appearances. He’s raked throughout his time in the minors, though, and he’s yet to turn 23. A gifted defensive center fielder with strong contact skills, Thomas still looks like a possible everyday player.
Arizona could open the season with a McCarthy – Carroll – Varsho outfield while sending Thomas back to Triple-A. Yet the enviable depth could also allow them to explore ways to bolster other areas of the roster via trade. Dealing someone from that group (McCarthy or Thomas, most likely) as part of a package for a controllable starting pitcher or shortstop won’t be off the table. This front office pulled a similarly fascinating trade a few years ago, sending then-prospect Jazz Chisholm Jr. to Miami for Gallen, suggesting they’re at least open to that kind of unconventional swap.
For a team coming off a third straight sub-.500 season, the Diamondbacks could be in for a sneakily fascinating winter. They’ve seen a young core begin to blossom in the majors. General manager Mike Hazen and his staff should have chances to package some of that upper level talent to balance out the roster. With some financial leeway also in place, Arizona could be more aggressive than many might anticipate as they work to establish themselves as legitimate playoff contenders heading into 2023.