Last week we examined, among other things, just how similar the Diamondbacks and Cubs were in their approaches to constructing playoff contending teams and looked at how the Cubs arrived there a year early. We also examined the case that the Diamondbacks too, could arrive a year early and see October baseball as soon as next season. By and large, the most important part of the process for the Diamondbacks moving forward was going to be continued performance from the team's current leaders and continued development from within. Contrary to the team's history, the Diamondbacks have experienced some pretty decent position player development over the last few years. Goldy, Pollock, Inciarte, and Lamb are all home-grown talents. Chris Owings could be added to that list if he ever gets things turned around again. Peralta, Ahmed, and Drury are all products of the Diamondbacks' farm system as well. Though they were acquired after their development process had already begun, it was Arizona's upper levels that shaped and molded them as future big-leaguers. That is a taller order than it sounds, however; the Diamondbacks have benefited from some excellent amateur scouting over the course of the last five or six years. There are indeed reasons to hope that the Diamondbacks might indeed be able to continue along that path to success.
This week though, we will examine another club whom the Diamondbacks are somewhat similar to and that they might try emulating if they want to reach the playoffs - the Kansas City Royals. While there are actually many similarities between the Diamondbacks and the Cubs, the pieces are also in place already for the Diamondbacks to take a page from Kansas City's playbook. The trademark of the Kansas City Royals over the past two seasons has been speed and defense. Sure, other aspects of the game have factored in significantly, but the crux of their identity resides in their speed and defense.
The Diamondbacks were second in the NL in stolen bases in 2015. The only team that bested them was the Billy Hamilton led Cincinnati Reds, where Hamilton accounted for 57 of the team's 134 counts of theft. Defensively, the Diamondbacks are blessed with an embarrassment of riches. Goldy is a plus defender at first, having won a Gold Glove there once and on track to be considered for one again. Nick Ahmed can, with a straight face, be mentioned in the same category of elite defender as Andrelton Simons at Shortstop. Jake Lamb may not quite be Nolan Arenado at third base, but he has been known to make those Arenado-type plays. Given a full, healthy season at the hot corner, and it might be closer than many would think. The Arizona outfield is one great big vacuum. David Peralta has the range to play center field (albeit not exceptionally well) and uses that range in left field. Despite his strong arm and great left field range, he rated a tad negatively defensively in 2015 and as such, represents the weak defensive link among the outfield starters. Ender Inciarte, with his 29 defensive runs saved in 2015, will be a Gold Glove contender for 2015. There are only a handful of teams where Inciarte is not the starting center fielder. Arizona just happens to be one of them. Then there is, of course, A.J. Pollock roaming about in center field. While Pollock only had 14 defensive runs saved in 2015, he still managed to put up a sill 1.8 dWAR. In other words, his defense alone was basically a replacement level player. In many ways, Pollock is his own worst enemy when it comes to defensive numbers as he tends to get to just about everything, and more often than not, he makes it look like an easy play. Pollock is among the very best of elite defensive center fielders and could also win a Gold Glove this season, especially given how far off Juan Lagares' defense has slipped. As fate would have it, Pollock is also the driving force behind the Diamondbacks being a speedy team, swiping 39 bags in 2015.
Yes, the Diamondbacks have speed. Yes, the Diamondbacks have stellar defense. The defensive weak link is behind the plate, and Welington Castillo is at least able to field the position without embarrassing himself. Second base could be Chris Owings' home. He brings a shortstop's range and arm to second base. At short, Owings is merely decent to slightly above average with the glove. At second, he is very good indeed. Comparing position players around the field, the Diamondbacks match up very well with the Royals. No, the Diamondbacks do not have the luxury of the DH (where Kendrys Morales provided 22 HR and an OPS+ of 128 in 2915), but they do match up well outside of that.
While the Royals are known for their speed and defense, another thing they are known for is their pitching, primarily their shut-down bullpen. However, despite having a spectacular bullpen, the rotation is actually an area of strength as well. In 2014 the Royals rode James Shields for 227 innings. They also saw the out-of-nowhere emergence of Danny Duffy as a left-handed starter with real stuff to be feared. Then there was the breakout of Yordano Ventura who, finished sixth in the AL ROY voting despite falling off late in the season. While Shields was no longer part of the equation in 2015, the Royals got a second solid season out of both Duffy and Ventura and were the beneficiaries of one of the more spectacular dead cat bounces in recent baseball history (second possibly only to Scott Kazmir) when they got 123.1 innings of 135 ERA+ pitching out of 36-year-old Chris Young. They also signed Edinson Vólquez away from the Pittsburgh Pirates in a move that helped lead to the team's 2015 salary ballooning to $136.8 million for 2015 - almost $50 million more than the Diamondbacks were comfortable committing to.
In 2015, Brad Ziegler put up a mind-boggling 221 ERA+ to go with his 30 saves and propensity for dialing up double play ground balls, even when the team fails to turn them behind him. Ziegler is joined by Andrew Chafin. Chafin is another terrific arm out of the bullpen providing balance by throwing from the left side and not being strictly a LOOGY. Randall Delgado comes out of the bullpen able to throw 97 from the right side and put up a 2015 season that compares favourably with just about anyone in his position. While the Diamondbacks may not have a trio or a foursome of guys flirting with 100 mph coming out of the bullpen, they do have the foundation for a game-shortening, shut-down bullpen. IN fact, they are quite possibly only one very good arm away from being such a bullpen. It just so happens that they have a plethora of such arms waiting in the wings. Silvino Bracho could very well augment that bullpen, as could Daniel Hudson if he is not returned to the rotation. Both of them do flirt with 100 (with some guns clocking Hudson touching that last season). Both of them are very good relievers. Without breaking the bank to go out and acquire an arm like Aroldis Chapman, the Diamondbacks already have the pieces to have a dominating bullpen that can shorten a game to 5+ (but preferably 6+) innings.
What the Diamondbacks do not currently have is the Kansas City equivalent of a rotation. Furthermore, unless newly-named Diamondbacks Pitching Coach, Mike Butcher, is able to coax another level of performance out of Robbie Ray, Archie Bradley, and Aaron Blair, it is going to be difficult for the Diamondbacks to find the same level of performance the Royals have found. The Diamondbacks do not have any real candidates for an unexpected breakout. The talents they have are ones that have, thus far, not lived up to the potential. Or, as is the case with Aaron Blair, have not yet been given the chance to perform.
Yes, the Diamondbacks are expected to go out and acquire pitching this winter. They may even try for their own dead cat bounce signing. The leading candidates for that role would probably be Mat Latos and Doug Fister. Even if they find a quality arm, and get that late-career rebound, they are still left with a rotation that falls short of what the Royals have been blessed with for the last two seasons.
The Take: For as easy as it is to look at the Royals and say, "If they did it, why can't we?" the reality is, the Royals have been the recipients as much of fortuitous timing as anything. Furthermore, the Diamondbacks are not blessed with the depth of talent to trade that the Royals were. Wil Myers and Zack Greinke, each in their own way, redefined that franchise's future by being traded. Yes the Diamondbacks are blessed with some depth, but not of the sort that franchises are falling over themselves to acquire. Quite possibly the strongest trade chip the Diamondbacks have right now is A.J. Pollock. Except, Pollock is largely the centerpiece of any rebuild using the Royals' way of going about business on the field.
Unless something changes drastically, the Diamondbacks are not going to go and blow up their self-imposed salary cap and spend $136 million in 2016 or 2017. Nor are they going to trade away Dansby Swanson for Matt Harvey. Yet, it would take doing both to follow in the footsteps of the Royals. One thing facing the Royals now is, their window of opportunity may very well be coming to a close - already. The Royals are looking at at least five, and as many as eight of their key contributors in 2015 hitting the free agent market. Their chances of resigning any of them are fairly small. They may indeed be able to hold onto Chris Young. Ryan Madson may give the Royals first right of refusal. Gordon, Zobrist, Rios, Cain, and Cueto will all be much more difficult to bring back. The team is going to be at nearly $100 million in payroll in 2016 without bringing anyone back at all. They emptied their farm over the last few years to get Shields, Cueto, and Zobrist. The Royals could find themselves struggling for another 5-7 year window again as soon as 2016.
The Diamondbacks can emulate the Royals' style of play without actually emulating how the Royals got to where they are. If the Diamondbacks can simply continue to develop the talent they already have (much as with the plan examined last week), they alreay have the majority of the pieces they need to make a similar run. The difference is, if Arizona simply holds the course, the Diamondbacks are in a position to use the Kansas City roster model as one of sustainable success instead of a being a 2-year flash in the pan.
Relying on dead cat bounce performances and getting all-star seasons out of scrap heap acquisitions is not what the Diamondbacks need to be doing right now. They have enough developing talent that they are more likely to get the same performance out of a young talent, especially in the rotation. Except, if one of those developing arms does perform, the Diamondbacks can look forward to a number of future seasons, instead of being thankful for one final good season.