The Road to 42

Christian Petersen

The season is over one quarter of the way through. While current projections (Fangraphs) predict that the Diamondbacks will play close to a .500 level for the rest of the season (going 58-61), due to our abysmal start, those same projection systems predict that we will still end up tied for the fifth worst record in all of baseball by year's end.

While as a fan it is always meaningful to remain optimistic about our team, I think it also behooves us to plan for next year and beyond. This post presents my own personal views on how this plan should be designed.

The title of this post is "The Road to 42". The name stems from a very simplistic model designed from WAR. After Baseball Reference and Fangraphs harmonized their replacement level calculations, both systems currently set the baseline for a replacement level team at 48 wins. If we assume that a 90-win team can generally make it into the playoffs, then what we have here is a very simple rule of thumb. The name of the game is to design a team that can generate 42 WAR.

Here I would like to make a disclaimer. While the harmonization of the replacement level team at 48 wins has helped mitigate a lot of the difference between bWAR and fWAR, the calculation for pitcher WAR is still fundamentally different between the two systems. I have chosen to use fWAR, mostly because the fWAR database is more user-friendly. I understand a lot of people think the bWAR system based off runs allowed is a more accurate system. Alternatively, I would argue that since we are projecting into the future, to the extent that FIP is a better predictor of future ERA than runs allowed, perhaps I can be excused for using the fWAR system in designing this plan. I'm certainly open to suggestions for how the design of the team might be adjusted if we were to use bWAR numbers instead.

2015 Bullpen

In our exercise, let's start with the bullpen. Bullpens are largely, in my opinion, a relatively fluid pool of players. Relievers are very volatile creatures, and in general, it is difficult to predict the future performance of relievers not named Mariano Rivera. Because of this, even the composition of the 2015 bullpen is highly uncertain. However, for our purposes, this may not matter all that much. Below is my current projection of what the 2015 bullpen might look like at the beginning of the season:

  • Closer Evan Marshall
  • Set-up Randall Delgado
  • Long-man Josh Collmenter
  • LHP Oliver Perez
  • LHP Joe Thatcher
  • RHP (Sherfy/Barrett/Stites/Hernandez/Munson)
  • RHP (Sherfy/Barrett/Stites/Hernandez/Munson)

Ultimately, the labels of the relievers don't matter all that much. The key observation here is that we have plenty of bodies capable of creating a fluid pool of players, without Addison Reed, J.J. Putz, and Brad Ziegler. These are three players, who all have what it takes to be back-end of the bullpen pitchers, and the trade market places a disproportionate amount of value on these types of players around the trade deadline. We should feel very comfortable with moving these three players at that time, given the depth of cheap relievers we can apply to the bullpen next year.

The median WAR for team bullpens in the NL the past three years has been between 2-2.5 WAR. I feel very safe in projecting that the group of pitchers listed above can generate that 2-2.5 WAR if not more. For our purposes, we can use 2 WAR as a safe estimate of projected production from the bullpen next year.

8 position players and 5 starting rotation members remain to be decided on our MLB roster. From an accounting standpoint, they need to produce 40 WAR, which means on average, each player needs to produce 3 WAR. This means that for a well-designed MLB roster, you essentially have two types of players: 1) Players who produce over 3 WAR; and 2) Players who are cheap enough that even if they produce less than 3 WAR the money saved from playing them can help the team acquire other players who produce over 3 WAR. This is an important point that we should keep in mind when thinking about how the team should act moving forward.

2015 Position Players

Core Players

The parenthetical WAR projections for next year are based off updated ZIPS figures with subjective adjustments by me. The first three core players certainly follow the axiom stated above. Goldschmidt is a star-calibre player, and 4.5 WAR may be underestimating his true talent ability. Pollock and Owings are the productive cheap players that can get you at least 2 WAR, with some upside for more.

Montero is a borderline core player. This season has been a rebound for him, and he is actually projected by ZIPS to be worth 3.2 WAR over the course of the season. It's tough for me to forget last year though, and I figured projecting Montero for 2.5 WAR next year was a reasonable aging/risk discount.

Thus, our core players can be expected to contribute 12 WAR next year from a baseline expectations standpoint, with some room for more.

Question Marks

Didi Gregorius is projected to be somewhere between 1.5-2 WAR given a full year's worth of plate appearances. That's not great but it's also not terrible, and considering how cheap Didi is, there's probably not a whole lot to be gained by moving him at this point.

A bigger issue is the remainder of our current roster. Aaron Hill, Martin Prado, Gerardo Parra, and Mark Trumbo also all project to be worth 1.5-2 WAR (Trumbo actually projects to be worth only 1 WAR). None of these guys are minimum wage, and thus according to the paradigm I discussed above, we should try to explore trade opportunities for them moving forward.

3B is the easiest spot to fill. We can use Lamb internally, and give him the rest of the season in order to determine whether we think he has a shot at being a minimum wage 2 WAR player moving forward, at least until we are forced by Drury to reconsider. Alternatively, we can sign Headley or Sandoval in the offseason at 3B. I think Headley in particular may be an intriguing buy-low candidate if his hitting continues to suffer this year.

RF and LF are much more difficult problems to deal with. Trumbo simply does not provide value for the Dbacks relative to what he could provide to another team in the AL East. This suggests an arbitrage opportunity for us to trade Trumbo away.

There are no free agent outfielders next year that look immediately enticing. In addition, the trade market for OF prospects appears relatively dull. One very intriguing prospect situation that bears monitoring is Joc Pederson in LAD. He's completely blocked by Puig, Kemp, Crawford, but should be ready to contribute to the majors soon. Depending on what LAD decides to do with Hanley Ramirez's contract, they may be interested in shifting Dee Gordon over to SS, and trading Pederson for Hill. Alternatively, the biggest hole on their team right now is C (where they have yet to spend exorbitant amounts of money) so it may also be possible to pry Pederson from them in a trade involving Montero.

This would however leave us with a hole at C which we are not in a particularly good position to fill, but it would decrease the risk that Montero's contract poses while providing us with a very good cheap outfield prospect. Another intriguing guy to look at would be Stephen Piscotty in STL. He's effectively blocked by Holliday, Bourjos, and Taveras. Just as importantly, STL is in dire need of contribution from a 2B. Flipping Hill for Piscotty seems like a realistic possibility.

Internally, we don't have any outfielders that might be able to contribute in the near future either. Our best bet if the trade market does not bear fruit, may be to keep Parra (despite his rising cost in his last year of arbitration) and hope that he can come close to his 2013 4.5 WAR season (despite his significantly lower projection), and possibly shift Prado to LF. Prado is about 10 runs better defensively in LF than at 3B, which just about compensates for the positional adjustment from LF to 3B.

As it stands now, our question marks project to total around 5.5 WAR. This is a crucial area that we need to figure out how to improve.

2015 Starting Rotation

Corbin's projection is questionable given that he's coming off a major injury. Bradley's projection is based off a reasonable estimate of what other top-tier pitching prospects have been able to do recently in their first year in the majors (Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran, Gerrit Cole, Zack Wheeler, Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez). Miley's projection is based off the fact that even though his ERA is dramatically worse this year, his xFIP remains identical to past years, so we can basically expect production moving forward similar to his past years. Chase Anderson is a complete guess. He could flame out. He could become the next IPK. Arroyo/Cahill both project to be worth about 1 WAR next year via ZIPS.

Based on the above assumptions, our projected rotation moving forward would probably generate 9.5 WAR.

Conclusion

The Road to 42 is long and arduous. Based on the above roster design, the baseline expectation next year for our team might be in the ballpark of 30 WAR. This doesn't take into account the negative drag on our WAR that the pitchers' hitting may entail, and also the churn of bench players that oftentimes can lead to a negative WAR.

There is certainly room for internal improvement on this projection. The bullpen may be better than league median, and given the raw talent of the arms listed above in the bullpen, there is a decent chance that the bullpen could be worth 4 WAR. That would be a 2 WAR improvement on the baseline.

If Goldy repeats 2013, that would be another 2 WAR improvement on the baseline.

If Parra can regain some of his 2013 form, that would be another 2 WAR improvement on the baseline.

If Archie has a Matt Harvey rookie-like year, that would be another 3 WAR improvement on the baseline.

Chris Owings, Jake Lamb and Chase Anderson might all be a little better than what I projected above, and that could lead to another 3 WAR improvement on the baseline.

And voila, we've arrived at 42.

The point of delineating these potential positive adjustments is twofold. First, it is to illustrate that a lot needs to go right in order for us to reach 42 WAR next year. A Fangraphs author recently suggested that the Dbacks should use its soon-to-come TV deal to expand payroll and sign two aces next offseason to reload. Certainly, if we exchange Chase Anderson and Bronson Arroyo/Trevor Cahill for Jon Lester and Max Scherzer, that would get us to around 38-39 WAR. It gets us very close, but we would still need to rely on some of the factors described above coming true in order to get us over the 42 WAR threshold. Meanwhile, we'll have completely used up all of our flexibility moving forward, and locked up our cash in the most volatile of baseball assets (pitchers). To me, this strategy is not optimal, as an injury to either of our two FA aces would essentially crush the team for years to come.

Second, the positive adjustments illustrate that there is sufficient uncertainty in our team moving forward, that internal volatility alone is possible for us to make the playoffs. As fans then, we can still watch our team with hope, while the FO continues to make moves to improve our team's long-term outlook.

Under this model, the important chips that need to be moved around the trade deadline are Hill, Trumbo, Reed, Putz, Ziegler, and possibly Prado. We should move them for an outfield prospect (Hill for Piscotty is a very viable opportunity), and upper-level arms in the minors (e.g. Nick Kingham, Rafael Montero, Jesse Biddle, Allen Webster, Jimmy Nelson). We don't know if Corbin is going to be 100% next year. We don't know if Archie is going to be ready. We don't know if Miley is actually going to recover like his xFIP predicts. We don't know if Chase is not going to just combust. We don't know if Arroyo won't be injured. These minor-league arms don't have the upside of a guy like Archie Bradley, but they provide important depth for our team, and some of them will pan out and end up as solid mid-rotation pitchers.

Don't splash for a big-name FA pitcher. Trade for prospect pitchers at the deadline with our excess deadwood. Let natural volatility take its course. Rebuild and look towards 2016. That is the course I would charter.

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