Disclaimer: Obviously, there are many ways to build a team. There are even many ways to reach a desired lineup construction. These entries will each be showing but one way to reach the desired conclusion. In the case of this week, it is a high-octane offense with passable pitching.
The Diamondbacks are hoping to contend for the playoffs in 2016. The quickest apparent fix would be to add a solid ace to the top of the rotation. As the Diamondbacks have discovered over the last three season, adding that caliber of arm is easier said than done. Despite the presence of three powerful arms on the free agent market, the Diamondbacks are still very likely to come up short in obtaining one again this season.
A failure to land a true ace is not necessarily the death knell for the 2016 season though. As looking around the league and at recent playoff history shows, riding a top-tier starter is a solid way to become a winner, but hardly the only way. If the Diamondbacks are unable to land a true ace, what other options might work for the 2016 version of the team?
Given the current makeup of the Diamondbacks team, there are a few alternate options. One of the most exciting, and possibly one of the "easiest" options to consider is the path of the offensive juggernaut. As the Toronto Blue Jays have so aptly demonstrated this season, if the team can score an embarrassingly excessive amount of runs, a great many pitching deficiencies can be glossed over. Now, we're not talking about merely an impressive lineup that is 8 bats deep. The Diamondbacks are close to that already. No, we're talking about a lineup that can and does explode with great frequency. This year the Toronto Blue Jays finished the season by outscoring their opponents by 221 runs. That's tied with the 2011 Yankees for the most since the Diamondbacks last popped celebratory champagne corks in November. Putting things into a different perspective, the most run-challenged team in baseball in 2015 was the Atlanta Braves. The Braves managed only 573 runs for the entire season. That 221 runs over opponents by the Blue Jays is 38.56% of the total runs the Braves scored all season long. The Blue jays didn't just score runs in bunches, they made digital scoreboard operators eternally grateful for modern technology while manual operators had to do extra stretching and eat an extra bowl of Wheaties before Blue Jays games. You have to go back to the Yankees of 2009 to find a team that scored more runs in a season and to 2007 to find a year in which more than one team scored as many runs. Needless to say, those seasons fell during the period of offensive explosion that led to a number of prolific hitters being barred entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But I digress. The point is, the Toronto Blue Jays made the postseason on the strength of their offense. Not only were they an offensive juggernaut by mid-season, they actually went out and added yet more firepower to their offense at the trade deadline to up the stakes. This is one way many teams through the years have managed to move forward. Rather than dedicating resources to improving a weakness, teams can instead further improve on a league-leading strength. How then might the Diamondbacks take a page out of Toronto's book? The following is an example fo what such an attempt might look like.
Pitching: It shold be noted that the Blue Jays, despite having the most prolific offense, also had some decent pitching and went the extra mile of adding David Price at the deadline. By the time Price was added though, the Blue Jays were already in the driver's seat as far as making the playoffs. The addition of Price helps their chances of going deep in the postseason. Despite having decent pitching, they also employed on of the very, very few full-time starts in all of baseball worse than Jeremy Hellickson, Drew Hutchison. This is key, as it shows that even a winning team can, if it must, support the presence of a sub-par innings eater, though even calling Hutchison an innings eater is being kind as he barely managed five innings per appearance. Outside of Hutchison though, every regular member of the starting rotation was at least league average if not better. Emergency starter Felix Doubront, who had five starts for the team was below average, but actually enjoyed better results than Hutchison.
In order for this approach to work for the Diamondbacks, they will need a bit of development to fall their direction. Currently Aaron Blair and Archie Bradley represent the best chance of that happening. The team already has above league average starters in Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray. If one or both of Blair and Bradley can join them, Rubby De La Rosa could still be a serviceable #5 starter who looks better than either Hutchison or Doubront ever did for Toronto.
Step one: Cut Aaron Hill. This will be a recurring theme in this series. Aaron Hill just has no real place on the future palyoff team.
Trades from the 25-man roster: Chris Owings, Ender Inciarte, Chase Anderson, Randall Delgado/Josh Collmenter (but only one)
Minor leaguers to dangle or include in a package: Peter O'Brien, Yoan Lopez
These players all bring back some sort of real value and used in various combinations with other minor league talent could fairly reliably bring back a pitcher in the league average (or slightly above) range.
Untouchables: Archie Bradley (due to closeness to MLB and the need to add an arm immediately), Aaron Blair, Dansby Swanson, Alex Young
Obviously, there are always exceptions to the rule of being "untouchable". Archie Bradley might come closest to falling into one of those exceptions. However, short of gross overpay, these talents should be held close as they can make positive contributions between now and the end of 2017.
Major signings: Yoenis Cespedes, Howie Kendrick, and possibly a mid-tier starter depending on the market
Yoenis Cespedes is going to get major money in this offseason. Even at 6/150 though, he still comes in less expensive than the top three pitchers on the free agent market and probably also costs less in entirety than signing Kenta Maeda would once the $20MM posting fee is factored in. Cespedes marks a substantial offensive upgrade over the departing Inciarte and does not represent too great a drop off defensively in the corner. He slots in nicely behind Goldschmidt as a true clean-up hitter, and adds pop and length to the Diamondbacks lineup.
Howie Kendrick represents a short-term investment with one particular goal - postseason play. At Kendrick's age and position, there is the danger of another Aaron Hill scenario. However, a 2-year deal might be possible still. Kendrick represents a substantial upgrade offensively over any other option the Diamondbacks have for second base, save possibly Brandon Drury (who is as yet mostly untested/unproven). On a 2-year deal though, either he performs very well, or is displaced by a blossoming Drury and is still easily traded. Either way, the Diamondbacks turn an offensive black hole from 2015 into a positive run producing spot in 2016.
Mid-tier pitching might wind up out of the Diamondback's price range once Cespedes and Kendrick are added. However, the above mentioned trades should bring back at least one arm capable of an ERA+ of 101 to add to Corbin and Ray.
What needs to break right: Aaron Blair or Archie Bradley (if not both) need to step up and pitch to league average at a minimum. The Diamondbacks bullpen, which was a strength late in 2015 needs to avoid the extreme volatility often associated with relief pitching. Howie Kendrick needs to not fall off the 32-year-old second baseman cliff. David Peralta needs to maintain his improved hitting. The team's catching needs to not suffer any injuries, as there is no depth behind Castillo. Many of these things are not so much to ask for. Others, like Kendrick aging, are decided risks.
Projected lineup for 2016:
A.J. Pollock (CF)
David Peralta (RF)
Paul Goldschmidt (1B)
Yoenis Cespedes (LF)
Howie Kendrick (2B)
Jake Lamb (3B)
Welington Castillo (C)
Nick Ahmed (SS)
Bench for 2016: Phil Gosselin, Brandon Drury, Socrates Brito, Yasmany Tomas, Backup catcher
Rotation for 2016:
Rubby De La Rosa/Archie Bradley
Projected lineup for 2017:
Swanson (SS) *ideally
Bench for 2017: Socrates Brito, Howie Kendrick, Yasmany Tomas, Phil Gosselin, Backup catcher
Rotation for 2017: By this point, the team should have 6-7 options for league average or better pitching out of the rotation. The best five should be the ones toeing the mound.
Why it could work: Without a significant impact to defense, the offense gets upgraded at two positions. The pitching is improved to the point of real respectability, which should help with run prevention. The team should be able to score often and consistently and have a reliable arm on the mound at least four out of every five games if not more often. In the NL West, that might just be enough, as both the Dodgers and the Giants are wildly inconsistent.
Why it could fail: The approach is an aggressive one and relies heavily on pitcher development and some good fortune in regards to health. Catching could still come back to bite the team, or members of the lineup could simply not live up to their potential. Glaringly, the lineups are right-hand heavy, with only Peralta and Lamb as starters batting left-handed and only Brito and potentially the backup catcher batting from the left side.
The Take: Adding Cespedes and Kendrick probably winds up costing the Diamondbacks about $40 million in each of 2016 and 2017. That's a bit more than the current expectation, but is close enough that it could still fall into the "convinced to go over to win" category. While Cespedes is a major signing and sucks up a great deal of financial flexibility, he is still less of a risk than the top pitching candidates. Also, Kendrick is on a short deal, making him easier to move if necessary and not crippling the team if they cannot move him. The rest of the talent is largely home grown, with the push being towards better, more consistent OBP and stability on the mound rather than high risk/high reward volatility in the field and on the mound that is so often the model of success for teams with somewhat limited budgets. This development from within, especially on the mound (Blair, Bradley, Shipley, Young, Clarke, Keller, etc.), should help produce financial flexibility in the future in order to continue to supplement the offense with a player here or there as needed from season to season. Although this is not the path I would take if I was making the decisions, it comes close.