Who Should the Diamondbacks Target to Lead Rotation?

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I don't think this really needs much of an introduction. We surely all agree that something needs to be done to improve the rotation, and we also all agree that no incumbent starter is a true top of the rotation pitcher. So someone else will have to be brought in. Also, keep in mind that the plan is to compete. When there's no real shot at competing, pretty much any warm body can lead the rotation (Josh Collmenter and Wade Miley say hi.)

Option A: Promote from within

This is the least likely option, but it still has to be examined. Home grown talent is a good thing to have, and the Diamondbacks have plenty. Sure, Archie Bradley probably isn't regarded as a top talent any more, but he could be learning a pitch and show something in the spring we have yet to see. Aaron Blair and Braden Shipley are also talented young starters. Robbie Ray was successful last year, but even if he learns to control a slider, he still likely projects as a #2-3.

The biggest problem is that this just isn't done. Pitchers don't come in, take over the rotation, and lead the team to a championship. Possibly the closest example of this happening this millennium would be Dontrelle Willis winning the Rookie of the Year award en route to a World Series ring in 2003. But Willis was far from the leader of a rotation that included Brad Penny, Josh Beckett, and Carl Pavano (before he broke a mirror over the head of a black cat while walking under a ladder.) Bringing up the young star, letting him lead the rotation, and throw anywhere close to 200 innings is a thing that used to happen, but simply doesn't any more. Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 is the most recent that comes to mind, but he was assisted by the strike in 1981. Without the strike, he is asked to close to 300 innings and it is extremely doubtful that he would have had anything in the tank by postseason time.

On top of that, I don't see any of the young pitchers the Diamondbacks have in the minors being capable of taking over. Robbie Ray seems most likely, but unless Dave Stewart and company know something major that we don't, an outside acquisition is definitely necessary to compete.

Option B: Free Agency

The most obvious solution is to go out and sign someone. In this, the Diamondbacks are in luck. There are a lot of top-level starting pitchers available through free agency. The Diamondbacks also have money to spend. Where the issue comes in is that the Diamondbacks have money to spend this year, but also need to keep as much of the offensive core as possible together. This means that even if the D-backs find a taker for Aaron Hill or Yasmany Tomas (or preferably both), they won't be able to spend $60 million on Price and Greinke every year going forward without losing Paul Goldschimidt in a couple years. There is also more than one hole on the team to fill, with second base a major issue. (I don't consider shortstop a major problem, as Ahmed's glove is worth enough to offset his bat, and his BABIP was so far below his xBABIP that an improvement of 15-20 points on his batting average should be almost certain.)

Here are a list of available pitchers that would be considered top of this rotation, and what it would take to sign them:

Johnny Cueto: while Cueto would provide an instant upgrade to the rotation talent-wise, he has also been inconsistent. That could actually be a good thing for the D-backs. His health is also a bit of a concern. Plus, AL teams might shy away, given his poor performance after switching leagues. All of that could lead to Cueto having a bit lower price than other top pitchers. That said, if he waits to sign until Price and Greinke are signed, he becomes the top pitcher on the market, which would mean he would command more money. Cueto will likely command more in free agency than James Shields did last year (4 years, $75 million, plus a $16 million option for a fifth year.) He's pitched in worse parks and has a better track record on top of being younger. Cueto is unlikely to be offered more than a five year deal by most teams, so the Diamondbacks could possibly sweeten the pot by adding a sixth year, or a least a sixth option year with a large buyout. If the Diamondbacks were to target Cueto, I think it would take 5 years, $130 million. It would be smart, long-term, to front-load the contract. But I don't know that the FO would do that. I'm thinking 20/25/25/30/30. And there's a reason for that.

Yovani Gallardo: Gallardo isn't as highly regarded as any of the other pitchers on this list, but he has been consistent for a while now. He seems to always pitch well in Chase Field, so there's that. He'd also come with a cheaper financial cost, although the qualifying offer he has received means he'll cost whoever signs him a draft pick. But if the Diamondbacks are looking to win now, does it really matter that much? It may to us, who want to also be winning in five or ten years. But not the FO, who already sold a high draft pick. If Gallardo is their guy, they won't let the loss of a draft pick stop them. Plus, Gallardo would come cheap enough that it would be possible for the Diamondbacks to acquire two high-to-mid level starters. I project 4 years, $55 million to sign Gallardo. That's close to what MLBTR projects, and I think the Diamondbacks would be a better landing spot for Gallardo than the Tigers, anyway.

Zack Greinke: Almost not certain to happen. Greinke is coming off of a career year. He's 32. He just opted out of $71 million over three years, so he'll be looking for a mega contract. Plus, the Diamondbacks need more than just a good pitcher; they need someone that can mentor the pitching staff. Greinke doesn't seem to be that guy. He's most likely going to re-sign with the Dodgers, but for the D-backs to land Greinke, I think they would have to offer at least six years, since I don't think too many teams offer more than five (although MLBTR has him getting six years.) I think to land Greinke, the D-backs shell out $150 million in six years. But here, they can do something that they have done in the past (with Tomas) and that Grienke has done in the past. They can front-load the contract a bit, with an opt-out after two seasons. Basically, structure the contract 30/30/30/20/20/20. Greinke would likely want the rights to waive a trade as well, but this looks like a win for Greinke. He can make $60 million in two years, then either stick around for another $90 million, or, if he's still pitching like he has lately, enter the free agent market again looking for more.

Mat Latos: Latos projects as a pitcher who would succeed in Chase Field. He's a ground ball pitcher who has done good work in the bandbox that is Great American Ball Park. But he's also struggled mightily the last couple of seasons. He'll be looking for a one year deal that boosts his value. If the Diamondbacks want him, they'll have to get creative, as the Pirates look like a perfect fit. Basically, offer him two years with the chance to opt-out after one. 2 years, $15 million. He gets $7 million in 2016, and if he rediscovers his form he can enter the market and get a lot more. Otherwise, I don't see anyone offering him more than $15 million guaranteed. Huge potential to backfire, though.

John Lackey: Lackey has been connected to the D-backs, but the D-backs should stay away. He's 37, will likely command a three year deal, and would require the team forfeiting a draft pick. If he does sign in Arizona, it's likely for somewhere around the 3 year, $50 million mark projected by MLBTR.

Mike Leake: Here's where it gets really interesting. Leake is one of the youngest pitchers on the market. He also doesn't have a qualifying offer. He's also young enough that it could be approached multiple ways. He could be given a five year contract (and be reasonably expected to perform well throughout the duration) or he could be given an opt-out. He might also be amenable to signing to a shorter deal. Personally, I lean towards a five year deal with an opt-out. 5 years, $85 million, with an option to opt-out after three. Structured 15/15/15/20/20. Obviously, you hope he pitches well and opts-out. This is also why I backloaded the contract figures for Cueto: sign Cueto to a backloaded deal, and you have plenty of money to sign someone else to a shorter term.

David Price: Not only is this not going to happen, it probably shouldn't happen. Honestly, the Diamondbacks need two starting pitchers, not just one. They can afford to sign Price, but they can't afford to do much else. They would likely have to offer 7 years, $225 million to sign Price. Not going to happen.

Jordan Zimmermann: Another pitcher with a qualifying offer attached. Zimmermann will be 30 next year, and has had Tommy John surgery. That might keep the price down a bit. Still, he's projected by MLBTR at 6 years, $126 million. I don't think it would take that much for the Diamondbacks to sign him, but they would still be looking at $20 million AAV for six years, or more than that for five.

If free agency is the chosen method to improve the rotation, I would pursue Cueto and Gallardo. Sure, Gallardo would cost a draft pick, and that wouldn't be good, but signing those two should leave the Diamondbacks with enough payroll flexibility going forward. They are also both pitchers that project to do well in Chase Field. In order to save some money on the back end of Gallardo's contract, I add a fifth option year at $10 million with a $5 million buyout. That way, I can structure that 12/13/15/10/5. That gives total payroll commitment over the next five seasons of 32/38/40/40/35. That should provide enough flexibility both to sign acquire a stop-gap at second base and extend Goldy and Pollock.

Option C: Trade

Trading appears to be the least attractive option as far as the long-term is concerned, as it would likely involve giving up a number of prospects and hamstring the team in the long run. That said, there are some good starting pitchers who might be available via a trade. Some of these trades have been discussed here.

  • Matt Harvey (likely costs A.J. Pollock plus)
  • Carlos Carrasco or Danny Salazar
  • James Shields and Tyson Ross
  • Felix Hernandez
  • Stephen Strasburg

All of these players would come at a significant price. Also, Strasburg is only under contract for one season, so on top of the significant prospect cost would come the need to do something else next year with fewer quality players on the market. Out of these possibly available players, there is one trade I would look into doing, but it likely wouldn't happen. I contact Seattle and see about taking on the contract of Robinson Cano along with Felix Hernandez. There is a definite downside to this, of course. Cano is owed $24 million a year through his age-40 season. That isn't going to be worth it. But the Diamondbacks have pieces the Mariners would be interested in (Inciarte, Swanson, Tomas, and a couple pitching prospects.) Hernandez would instantly lead the rotation, while also costing an astronomical price. But Cano would fix the second base problem, and likely post great offensive numbers, meaning that the Diamondbacks could trade him again. Hernandez comes with an insurance policy on his contract, so that if he misses significant time due to needing elbow repair, he works in 2020 for $1 million. This would be a substantial gamble. But if Cano could get back to posting MVP-like offensive numbers, his $24 million shouldn't be on the books for very long. (If Drury showed signs of coming along with the bat, Cano could even be moved at the trade deadline.) Arizona is a good place for an offensive resurgence.

In the end, though, a trade just isn't likely. Too high of cost, not enough years under contract. The best trade option for the Diamondbacks would have been Cole Hamels at the deadline last year, but that didn't happen.

Option D: Japan

Signing Kenta Maeda appears to be the most likely option, although one wonders how much he would move the needle. MLBTR projects Maeda to command five years and $60 million, on top of a $20 million posting fee. If that projection is correct, and Maeda's contract was structured similar to that of Tomas, we'd see the D-backs pay him something like 5/10/15/15/15. But the payroll figure hit would actually be $25 million this year. In addition, another free agent would have to be signed, as the track record of Japanese pitchers coming to MLB and pitching 200 innings leading a rotation just isn't very good.

This is another reason to back-load any contract offered to Johnny Cueto, and not significantly backload an offer to Maeda. If Maeda's $60 million was paid out 10/10/15/15/10, the initial payroll hit would be harder. But in the long run, the payroll hit of 50/35/40/40/40 wouldn't be significantly different from the payroll hit to sign Cueto and Gallardo, without losing a draft pick. Except in that first year. That first year would be a killer, but the D-backs likely have the money to do it now. Better to take a big hit up front when plenty of players are making smaller salaries than to take it in five years, when Goldy and possibly Pollock are making big bucks.

So, what do I think happens?

I think the Diamondbacks sign Maeda. I also think they make a play for Leake, but fail to sign him. They may sign Gallardo. They may sign another mid-rotation pitcher. But I don't think they want to commit $50 million this year to get the job done. And in the end, I think that's the difference between getting a true leader of the rotation (Price, Greinke, Cueto) and getting more of the same. That doesn't mean the team can't compete with a rotation consisting of Gallardo-Ray-Maeda-Corbin-Blair/Bradley/RDLR/Godley. It just means that we shouldn't expect a deal that really moves the needle.