With the GM meetings now underway and the Hot Stove quickly heating up, it is time to bring this little series of roster construction exercises to a close. We have examined a few successful methods so far. We looked at augmenting an already potent offense in an attempt to go the Toronto route. We looked at a youth movement building from within that the Chicago Cubs have used with success under Theo Epstein, paying attention to where the Cubs and Diamondbacks are already sharing many similarities. As a mid-market team that made the World Series the last two years, winning it all this year, we looked at how the Royals have managed to get where they are and found the Diamondbacks have a number of parallels there as well. Finally, last week was a bit of nostalgia and pie-in-the-sky thinking, looking at what the Diamondbacks could do if the team payroll were elevated to $140 million to match what the Royals paid out this season instead of holding tight to the $100 cap the team is reporting to be targeting. The Colangelo Method involved aggressive spending in multiple areas and spent only dollars rather than developmental/prospect capital. This week, at what things might look like if the adopted more than one of the methods presented in previous weeks. Basically, for all those times over the last four weeks where I made mention that I would not necessarily do something that the method being looked at might advocate, this is the week where I am a bit more on the side of each possible move.
The Reasoned Method
The first thing to acknowledge is that multiple members of the front office have all intimated that the Diamondbacks are likely to restrict spending to around $100 million in 2016. As a fan, it is difficult for me to reconcile a stated goal of "going for it in 2016" with further statements that will have the team spending the same in 2016 as they did in 2013 when they finished with a .500 record. Players and wins cost more now than they did then. Furthermore, it is those wins over 85 that get incrementally more expensive. It is far easier to go from 70 wins to 81 wins than it is to go from 85-96 wins. However, as this is supposed to be a realistic look at roster construction, I will hold to the spending limit, or at least try to.
The Problem with Price
Sure the Diamondbacks have enough financial ability this season to offer up $30 million to David Price for 2016. The problem is not that the Diamondbacks cannot make the offer and stay within budget. The problems start when the other offers for David Price start rolling in. Yes, offering up 7/210 puts the Diamondbacks squarely in the conversation for signing Price. They are not the only team with that sort of spending power though. While the estimate is that Price will cost around 7/210, it only takes one other team being interested in Price for the Diamondbacks to have to find even more incentive to land the left-hander. Also, if the Diamondbacks spend all that money on Price, that leaves them with almost nothing left to spend in either 2016 or 2017 to help augment Price's arrival. Price, by himself, will not be enough to propel this current Diamondbacks team to the playoffs. Left with very little wiggle room after arbitration raises and Price's deal, where will the spending power come from to add yet another piece, most likely a second starter? Sure, Ziegler and Hill coming off the books in 2016 helps some, but after the arbitration raises, they probably only come out about $7-8 million up, and that assumes they let Daniel Hudson walk and that Collmenter does not return. Without a demonstrated ability to remain aggressive financially after the signing, it is going to be even harder to convince David Price that the Diamondbacks are serious about doing whatever it takes to contend.
The Middle Infield
Recent chatter has me revising this section just a bit. More than one person has suggested in the past swapping Hill for Brandon Phillips as the centerpiece of a larger deal. The deal is certainly intriguing in that the Diamondbacks could potentially see an instant 2 WAR upgrade at the biggest position of "weakness" on the team. However, given that the $14 million still due Phillips in 2017 will eat the entirety of their 2017 flexibility, if the team makes that sort of move, they need to be "in it to win it" in 2016. Among other things, that means loosening the purse strings a bit, adding at least another $15 million to the 2016 budget. If the team's ownership is uncomfortable sniffing the $120 million salary level in 2016 and 2017 they are probably better off not making the deal.
That said, the deal does address point number one. Aaron Hill needs to not be a part of the 2016 club. Trade him or cut him, but get him off the roster. His salary hurts, but it is already a sunk cost. What is hurting even more is his taking up room on the 25-man roster. With Hill gone, that leaves three strong(ish) candidates for the position of second base and utility infielder. Sure, someone like Jamieson or Reinheimer might impress in March and make it a four-man race, but the chances are long against that happening so fast. That leaves three players, Chris Owings, Brandon Drury, and Phil Gosselin looking to fill out two spots on the roster. The wild card here is really Brandon Drury. He represents the best possible hitter of the three and plays at least league average defense at second base. Additionally, he can play third base whenever Jake Lamb or Paul Goldschmidt need a day off. Chris Owings needs to regain his 2014 swing and he needs to do it fast. He is still way too young to give up on. However, if the team is in it to win it, they cannot sit back and let him compete with Ahmed for lowest batting average on the roster while not taking walks at even half the league average. He's the best option defensively at second. He also is capable of playing shortstop and, one would assume, third base in a pinch. If Owings cannot find a consistent bat by the time April rolls around, he needs to find his way back to Reno for a spell. If he does find his bat, then he is at worst, the best option the team has for utility infielder. That leaves Gosselin. While Gosselin has, in his limited exposure, shown that he might just have enough bat to stick at this level, his glove is, at its very best, below average. As of this moment, he looks like the best bet to hit, but also the worst fit for the defensive tendencies of this club.
This is going to make the competition in March an interesting one. While one of the three may be traded, I'm not sold yet on that. Under the best-case scenario, all three come out hitting in March. Owings is the utility infielder, Drury starts at second, and Gosselin works on his defense in Reno. Should Owings not hit well, he heads to Reno. If for some reason, Drury also fails to hit, then the Diamondbacks are in trouble, and it is readily apparent where they need to focus their efforts when it comes to the trade market.
As some of you have almost certainly already keyed in on, I have left out any mention of competition for shortstop. In 2015, Nick Ahmed showed that, if he can keep the loop out of his swing and remain short and direct to the ball, he can hit well enough to stick. He managed it for half the season. Will he be able to do it over the course of an entire season? I honestly don't know. I do know that he has been proving doubters wrong at every level though. I also know that the only other truly viable option at short is Chris Owings. By the end of 2015, Nick Ahmed had a better batting line while batting .226 than Owings did, hitting with more pop, striking out less, and walking more. Chris Owings needs to return to hitting .280 in order to really push for unseating Ahmed at shortstop. Right now, the position is Ahmed's to lose. If he figures out how to hit .240+, he becomes almost unmovable until the arrival of Swanson.
Now yes, Gosselin and Drury have both logged innings at short. Just because it has been done does not mean that it should be done. Drury lacks the range or the instincts. Gosselin, already challenged defensively at second, really doesn't belong at short unless it is an emergency.
The free agent market presents three possible options for improvement at second base in Howie Kendrick, Daniel Murphy, and Ben Zobrist. The first two, however; come with qualifying offers. That alone should keep Arizona away. Zobrist is unlikely to come for less than three years and $50 million. Already turning 35, the Diamondbacks would be better off simply taking on Phillips' contract.
The Corner Infield
Paul Goldschmidt plays first base. That just leaves third base. Jake Lamb plays third base. It really shouldn't even be all that big of an argument. The big knock on Lamb seems to be that he doesn't hit for enough power. I can buy into that, but only to a point. With only a modest up-tick in his offensive performance, Lamb will at least grade out as league average at third, if not better. Given that his 2015 season was marked by missing 55 games due to injury, it is reasonable to assume that his OPS+ of 94 for the season is actually a bit lower than a healthy season would have brought. He may never be the 20-25 home run threat many were hoping for, but he could be a 12-15 home run threat that adds 25-30 doubles in a season. He is only 24 folks. He is going to get better over the next 4 years as he reaches his peak. Given that Lamb also bats left-handed, this is an easy one. He is fully capable of being a left-handed bat over at first when the team decides to spell Goldschmidt as well. All of that discounts entirely his defense. Lamb may not yet be thought of in the same breath as Nolan Arenado when it comes to glove work over at third, but that could change with a full and healthy 2016. Simply put, Lamb is one of the better defensive third basemen in baseball. He's only 24. He isn't even arbitration eligible until 2018. The team has much greater concerns than trying to find an upgrade over Lamb that isn't going to come with a 7-year/$138 million contract.
Despite the presence of Welington Castillo, the catching position is still one of concern. For one thing, the team has no clear backup for Castillo. The team did recently trade Daniel Palka for the left-hand hitting Chris Herrmann. The problem is, Herrmann is about on par with Castillo and Saltalamacchia defensively, but has shown no ability to hit at the big league level. He does bring the left-handedness the team needs on the bench, but it is a stretch to think he is a shoe-in for the position. Tuffy Gosewisch is still about, but he is unlikely to be available until June. Even then, there will be concerns over how strong he remains defensively on that surgically repaired knee. His defense, while very good, was never great, and his bat was anemic even when it was at its best. If there is any slip in his defense, there is reason for concern. Peter O'Brien is apparently going to attempt (again) to learn how to be a catcher in Reno. Oscar Hernandez is Mobile-bound, where the team hopes he can learn how to hit. Should Castillo regress to his Chicago-self, or worse, get injured, the team is really up a creek. As it is, the team already looks poised to be forced to run the risk of catching Castillo for too many games in a season, which will only increase the chances of injury.
First thing's first, if the Diamondbacks can find a taker for Yasmany Tomás, even selling low, they should jump on the offer. Otherwise, the Cuban outfielder needs to head back to Reno to work on his conditioning and his defense. Hopefully, being better prepared physically, he'll be able to tap into his absent power. Regardless of his contract, he needs to fight his way back onto the 25-man roster.
The Diamondbacks have an embarrassment of riches in the outfield. It is from here that the team is most likely to make a move to improve other areas of need. Pollock starts in center field. That is the one absolute. The rest of the outfield is fluid depending on the trade market. Solid hitters with good speed and above average defense are the order of the day though. Inciarte and Peralta should be starting the vast majority of games if somehow they are both still around.
The Diamondbacks have enough candidates within their own system that there is no reason to look elsewhere for help in the bullpen. Ziegler and Collmenter are coming back. Any upgrades can be made through converting starters like Rubby De La Rosa, Chase Anderson, and Allen Webster to relievers. If Matt Reynolds fails to hold his own as a left-handed thrower, the team can explore that aspect of the market at the trade deadline.
This brings us back to the Price problem. The Diamondbacks, with the current payroll restraints, simply are not in on David Price. Nor is it very likely they are in on Johnny Cueto, or even Jordan Zimmermann. Even the second tier of starting pitchers looks to be problematic for the Diamondbacks, largely due to the number of free agent pitchers saddled with a qualifying offer. Of the second-tier pitchers, only Mike Leake managed to avoid having a qualifying offer attached. The Diamondbacks need to not be giving up the 13th overall pick for a second-tier pitcher. Kenta Maeda does still appear a possibility. A month ago, I would have said the Diamondbacks were strong favourites to sign Maeda. Since then, things have changed quite a bit, mostly in the form of qualifying offers to Chen, Estrada, Gallardo, Lackey, Anderson, Kennedy, Iwakuma, and Samardzija. The $20 million entry fee to bid for Maeda's services will not deter a fair number of teams. I do think the Diamondbacks still have the inside track to sign Maeda should they truly think as highly of him as Dave Stewart has seemed to in the past. I do not think it is a sure thing the Diamondbacks land the Japanese right-hander though.
That leaves the trade market. Teams are not exactly lining up to trade young top-of-rotation talent. Heck, they aren't even trading veteran talent of that ilk. Cole Hamels was dealt at the deadline last season. It could be some time before an arm of that caliber moves again. Certainly, the Diamondbacks should be making some calls to Ohio and checking in with the Indians and Reds. While the Indians do have two intriguing arms in Carrasco and Salazar, the price for either one is likely to tart with A.J. Pollock and then require some further sweetening, assuming the Indians do not try to solve their problems via free agency. If that is the case, the Diamondbacks should move on. The Reds too have some very intriguing candidates. However, the fact that they are looking to unload Phillips and are listening again on Chapman after having already moved Cueto and Leakes, says about all that needs to be said about Cincinnati. They are clearly in the beginning stages of a total rebuild. That is not the time to be asking a team for dynamic young pitching.
Just because Chris Sale, Matt Harvey, and Sonny Gray are unavailable does not mean that there are no trade opportunities to upgrade the rotation though. What it does mean is that the acquisitions will come with a higher degree of risk. Likewise, that risk will also bring the price of acquisition down.
Free Agent Signings
Chris Young (OF) 2 years $10-12 million
Yes, Chris Young has lost a step, possibly two since he left Arizona. One thing remains constant though, the man absolutely murders left-handed pitching. Looking at just 2015 where his age really started to "show", he still triple-slashed .327/.397/.575 against left-handed pitching in 175 plate appearances. With two of the three starting outfielders being left-handed, Young presents an insurance policy against lefty-batting killers. Young's ability to play all three outfield positions also helps, though one would hope to keep him out of center. On such a reasonable contract, he only needs to provide something in the neighbourhood of one win per season to earn every penny. That is a very reasonable goal to expect from him.
Carlos Corporan (C) 2 years $6-10 million
Like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Carlos Corporan hits from either side of the plate. Unlike Salty, Corporan is at least a competent defender, both with regards to throwing out base runners and with pitch framing. Obviously, he does not have Salty's pop, but unlike every other healthy catcher in the Diamondbacks system that could potentially slot as Castillo's backup, he is not a defensive liability.
Norichika Aoki (OF) 2 years $8-10 million
When Aoki is the fourth-best option on the roster for playing the outfield, something is going right. An on-base machine that plays above average defense in left, Aoki is a left-handed option off the bench that is a very real threat to get on and to make things happen on the bases. Should Inciarte (or Brito) run into some real difficulties and fall off in terms of being able to hit leadoff, Aoki represents insurance that could easily push for more playing time.
Total Outlay: $24-32 million
After calling the Indians and Reds to find out there is nothing doing, attention can be turned to Tampa Bay. The process is a tiered one. First, find out is a package headlined by one of Peralta or Inciarte (preferably Inciarte but more likely Peralta), joined by O'Brien (strictly as a DH and platoon bat at 1B for Logan Morrison), and another prospect could be enough to pry away one of Alex Cobb or Chris Archer. The only prospects clearly off the table in such a trade being Swanson, Blair, Shipley, and Young. Any inclusion of Bradley would need to include something beyond the pitcher coming back from Tampa. If not, then a lesser package (buying low) could be offered for Matt Moore. I doubt Tampa is moving Moore though, as they know that they would be selling at his lowest point, while also trading away exactly the sort of contract a financially crunched team like Tampa should be hoarding. If unable to land the Moon and stars, a third approach is quite possible, and also makes a great deal of sense for Tampa to consider. Offer Inciarte/Peralta plus O'Brien and another lesser body (absolutely no Bradley here) for Blake Snell or Brent Honeywell. Snell would be the preferred choice as he represents a player closer to 2016 ready.
Once the Diamondbacks have concluded their business with Tampa Bay they will have a better idea of how aggressive to be when they call the Chicago White Sox. Obviously, the acquisition of Cobb or Archer would change the calculus moving forward. Realistically though, the Diamondbacks wind up with Snell and Peralta and O'Brien are gone.
The White Sox are not interested too much in distant prospects right now. However, they do need youth and upside. If somehow the Diamondbacks still have both Inciarte and Peralta on the team after calling Tampa (which would likely mean no deal was made), then offering up Peralta and Drury for Francelis Montas is a possibility. If one of Inciarte or Peralta is already gone, then Drury could be paired with Yoan Lopez for Montas. Realistically, Drury and anyone not in the Diamondbacks top ten prospects (save Lopez or Leyba) could be offered up. It may take also throwing in a much lower prospect, and that would be fine as well.
C: Welington Castillo
1B: Paul Goldschmidt
2B: Phil Gosselin
SS: Nick Ahmed
3B: Jake Lamb
LF: David Peralta/Socrates Brito
CF: A.J. Pollock
RF: Ender Inciarte/Socrates Brito
Util: Chris Owings
SP: Patrick Corbin
SP: Aaron Blair
SP: Robbie Ray
SP: Francelis Montas
SP: Archie Bradley/Blake Snell/Daniel Hudson/Zack Godley
RP: Josh Collmenter (easily moved if/when he becomes excess to need)
RP: Randal Delgado
RP: Andrew Chafin
RP: Matt Reynolds
RP: Daniel Hudson/Rubby De La Rosa
RP: Brad Ziegler
CL: Silvino Bracho
Bench: Carlos Corporan
Bench: Chris Young
Bench: Norichika Aoki
Bench: Sean Jamieson
First, the Diamondbacks address the starting pitching, while also improving at second base offensively and also improve their catching depth and bench considerably. They do so while remaining on target for the team's desired 2016 payroll, and they do it without entirely gutting the system. The uptick in production from second base, along with strong platoon options in the outfield should help ensure that there is no falling off offensively. Furthermore, the team now has other options in place should any of 2015's performers start to drop off some.
This version of the team is still one of the youngest in all of baseball, with the only real "aging" players all relegated to being bench players, Chris Young the old man of the group at age 32 among position players and Brad Ziegler being the oldest on the team at 36. The veteran free agent signings are all short-term, making them movable assets as the team's circumstances change.
At worst, the outfield void left by the departure of Peralta or Inciarte is filled by a strict platoon of Aoki and Young. At a combined cost of $11 million per season, they likely still come in at a bargain. At best, Socrates Brito makes the transition and realizes the potential he has shown that he has.
The rotation is filled with upside and has depth already knocking on the door to keep players hungry and to protect against injury. Both Blake Snell and Braden Shipley should avoid the Aaron Blair 2015 treatment and see significant action in 2016. The only reason for them not to is if the rotation that opens the season actually pitches to its ceiling and remains healthy. That's the good sort of problem to have though. Speaking of ceiling, it is there. Aaron Blair could quite possibly represent the lowest ceiling of the projected starting rotation. If Daniel Hudson fails to win the final slot in March, he goes straight to the bullpen and brings his 100 mph fastball to the role of setup man, forcing De La Rosa back to Reno, where he can work on converting to a reliever until the bullpen needs his services.
The team clearly does not land a no doubt about it, lights-out ace in this scenario. There is still some chance that second base could be an area of some weakness, and it is also possible that Socrates Brito struggles mightily once the league gets a look at him (though that is more of an issue moving forward than immediately). This method also relies on developments towards improvement from the young core and has little tolerance for any slips in performance. Unfortunately, such is the nature of most rosters constructed with such a limited budget in this age of $25-30 million AAV star players.
There is the very real risk that the rotation winds up a bunch of #3 pitchers. Unlike 2015 though, this new crop is not made up of retreads, but is instead made up of young talents still in demand. They can be moved to make room for other options.
Also, outside of Shipley, Snell, and Bradley, the upper minors are fairly stripped of any impact talent. This forces the team to exercise patience and restraint moving forward when it comes to future deals with other teams and with assessing free agent needs. This is the sort of patience that this front office is not entirely known for, even if they have shown it on the 25-man roster.
There is nothing sexy about this method for building the team. That is sort of the point though. Like the Royals did, this roster relies on short-term veteran contract to augment team strengths and cover over potential weaknesses. Like Chicago, this approach relies heavily on developing the talent from within with Pollock, Goldschmidt, Lamb, Corbin, Inciarte, and others all coming from within. Also like the Cubs, this team is very young and cost-controlled for at least 4 more seasons. Despite the outfield being a current strength, the offseason spending is indeed focused on further improving an already potent offense. This is indeed a way of embracing the best of all the methods looked at save one, spending like Colangelo.
It's simple really. This method is a "safe" one. Should it fail to produce, the next wave of talent will be filtering up from the minors to give the Diamondbacks another shot. Meanwhile the team has kept spending under control and not lost their shirt in money or prospects. If the team wants to truly go for it and make a "win now" statement, then it would behoove them to loosen the purse strings. Even a modest increase of $20 million (unlike the $37 million spent in the Colangelo method) changes everything. A $20 million increase very likely means the team can put together a rotation including both Jordan Zimmermann and Chris Archer as the money allows the hiring of the former and the presence of the ace affords the team the wiggle-room to slightly overpay for the latter.
Building a championship team is not all about the money. If it was, the Yankees would have an extra 10 World Series trophies. However, baseball is entering an era where $100 million needs as much creativity and luck as it does skill. The more the Diamondbacks are willing to spend, the more variables they can eliminate from this roster moving forward.