There is no secret to what the Diamondbacks need to do this offseason if they want to take the next step toward being a playoff team. They, like many other teams in the league, need to find a solid starter to head their rotation. The best candidate on the open market is David Price. Behind Price are Cueto and Zimmermann. After those two, another tier of less spectacular pitchers comes up. IN this pool are names such as Mike Leake, Jeff Samardzija, and Yovani Gallardo.
This is nothing new for the Diamondbacks. They have been looking for an arm to place in the top two rotation slots since the winter of 2011-12. That season saw Kevin Towers trade for a young, dynamic Trevor Cahill. The next season, the Diamondbacks chose to go all-in on Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka. When they lost the bidding war to the New York Yankees, they were left with a free agent market already stripped clean of all the best quality talent and settled for an aging Bronson Arroyo. Last year saw a new General Manager in Dave Stewart calling the shots. Like his predecessor, Stewart found himself with the unenviable task of acquiring controllable, quality pitching. His task was made even more difficult by the contracts that Kevin Towers had saddled the team with. Unlike Towers, Stewart chose to take a more creative approach. Instead of trying to acquire an established arm, Stewart instead employed the shotgun method, acquiring as many young, talented arms as he could that had, for one reason or another, never lived up to their potential. While Robbie Ray remains a promising work in progress, it is starting to appear as though Stewart's approach will yield similar results to Tower's approach the previous two seasons.
2015 saw the Diamondbacks' offense emerge in a big way. Paul Goldschmidt had another MVP-caliber season. David Peralta surprised almost everyone by taking another step forward in his hitting development. A.J. Pollock showed his early 2014 was no fluke and that he is one of the best center fielders in the game - on both sides of the ball. Ender Inciarte, despite his low on-base percentage and questionable base-running, proved to be an adept leadoff hitter. Despite having what he feels was a "down year", even third baseman, Jake Lamb had a productive season at the plate and flashed many indications that he will be above average at the position moving forward. While the season started off poorly for the Diamondbacks behind the plate, the trade for Welington Castillo turned an extreme team weakness into something of a team strength (at least offensively).
The Diamondbacks finished the season with a 79-83 record, 13 games out of first place in the NL West. That is an awful lot of ground to make up in only one season. However, if this year has shown the Diamondbacks and their fans anything, it is that the team's best and earliest window for contention is probably in 2016, rather than 2017 or even 2018. Enough players are peaking on the offensive side of the ball and the defense currently ranks as one of the best in the game, despite the issue behind the plate and in a Yasmany Tomás-manned right field.
With the offense clicking the way it should and the defense doing such a great job, the team needs to strike while the iron is hot. But just because it needs to, does not mean it will be able to. David Price, Johnny Cueto, and Zack Greinke are all signing elsewhere. The chance of the Diamondbacks landing one of those big three arms borders on zero. With the Dodgers, Yankees, Mariners, Cubs, Rangers, and Angels all looking for a big arm and all having the finances to bid against the Diamondbacks, that is a race to the top the Diamondbacks simply need to avoid, lest they find themselves once again with no chair to sit in once the music starts. Both Jordan Zimmermann and my personal favourite of the next tier of pitchers, Wei-Yin Chen, are going to have qualifying offers tied to them. This gives teams like Detroit and Philadelphia a decided advantage in landing one of those two, as they have protected first round picks. The Diamondbacks first pick of the 2016 draft is not protected, and no pitcher outside Price, Cueto, and Greinke is really worth surrendering the 13th overall pick, not for a mid-market team like the Diamondbacks.
A wild card in the pursuit of an arm to head the rotation is Kenta Maeda out of Japan. Maeda looks poised to be posted this winter. However, waiting for that to happen could put the Diamondbacks in the exact same position they found themselves in after the 2013 season when they went hard after the much better Masahiro Tanaka and lost. Not only will the Diamondbacks have to wait for him to be posted, but then they will need to win the contract bidding war and then hold out hope that he is absolutely everything advertised and then some. Many critical eyes that have seen him put in a great deal of work view him as a solid #3 type pitcher, hardly the sort to move the needle enough to make the Diamondbacks a postseason competitor.
Obviously, this is the offseason in which the Diamondbacks can least afford to fail when it comes to obtaining a quality rotation-heading pitcher if they want to take that next step. Yet, someone out there needs to come up short, and the chances are probably 25/75 at very best that the Diamondbacks have a true ace at the top of their rotation in 2016. The day Zimmermann signs with a club other than Arizona is the day those chances quite possibly plummet to less than 10%. If the Diamondbacks cannot land such an arm though, that doesn't mean that 2016 should just be written off as rebuilding year number two.
Granted, the team could still swing a trade for an ace starter, but short of surrendering A.J. Pollock and half the farm, including top pitching prospects, the Diamondbacks do not have the trade chips to pull off that sort of deal, especially when that particular market is fairly dried up. Chris Archer sticks out as the one potential candidate that might make sense, but that is only if the Rays see themselves as being 2+ years from contention. Otherwise, Archer is unlikely to be available either. Assuming the team does not land a true ace-caliber pitcher though, what other options might the Diamondbacks use to try and make a push for the playoffs?
Over the next few installments, I will examine some possible alternate paths the Diamondbacks might employ to return to postseason relevance.