Tuesday, Nick Lampe over at Beyond the Box Score published a piece that dovetails nicely with many of the on-going discussions that have been popping up around here at the pit. In fact, it fit so nicely, that I am using the article as a springboard into my own weekly article since I had planned on discussing very much the same sort of thing, just from the perspective of constructing a contending Arizona Diamondbacks team in 2016 and 2017.
It was only a year ago that the Diamondbacks were coming off an MLB-worst 98-loss season. At the time, the focus was understandably set on the future, everyone trying their best to put the failure of 2014 behind them. Having the first overall pick in the upcoming draft dominated many of the discussions. The prevailing opinion at the time was that the Diamondbacks needed to do some soul searching and cut away dead weight in 2015, rebuild in 2016, and then be best-poised for being legitimate contenders in 2017. When April rolled around, I wrote a two-part piece positing that the Diamondbacks' best window for contention may in fact be as soon as 2016. With a 2015 Pythagorean W-L record of 82-80, a young core of talent all peaking together, and the strength of this winter's free agent class, it is looking even more like 2016 is the season for the Diamondbacks to be "all-in" and go for the prize in 2016.
Realistically, the only way the Diamondbacks are getting themselves into a much stronger position for contention is to spend money on this winter's free agent market.
"I think (managing general partner) Ken (Kendrick) and I could be talked into more, but we're looking at $100 million right now."
That was Derrick Hall back in September. Nothing much has changed internally since then, so it seems safe to assume that dubious $100 million figure is correct. This, despite the addition of television revenue that the team claims is going straight into improving the team and the unloading of Toussaint and a draft pick to clear some money from the ledgers.
What will the Diamondbacks do with their $100 million budget? Back in early September, I took a pass at a possible approach the Diamondbacks might take. Since then though, two things have changed significantly. First, the quality and quantity of competition for the services of the still-to-be-posted Kenta Maeda has increased seriously. Where the Diamondbacks once appeared to be the heavy odds-on favourites to sign the Japanese right-hander, today sees them as still on the short list of likely landing spots, but no longer holding tight to the top spot. The second thing that has changed is the projected salaries of both Maeda and the second tier of free agent pitchers. Cueto's stock has plummeted. Meanwhile the asking price for the likes of Greinke, Kazmir, Zimmermann, Leake, and others (like the recently signed J.A. Happ) have actually climbed. No longer does it seem likely the team will be able to stay in a position to meet the budget they have stated and still sign two free agent pitchers. In fact, it now seems unlikely that the team, with $35-39 million to spend on 2016, will be able to sign any two impact players, regardless of whether they pitch or the play a position. At most it would seem the team is in a position to sign one decent pitcher and then rely on finding a strong dead cat bounce candidate for their second acquisition.
Here's the thing. What happens if the team only invests in one impact player, and that turns out to not be enough? Where will the talent acquisition come from next year? Sure, the trade market will look somewhat different. However, the Diamondbacks' trade pieces will not be changing significantly before then. The depth will still be in the same places it is now. What's worse though, is that the free agent market will be unlikely to bear any solutions.
If the Diamondbacks are truly going for it in 2016, then they need to be all-in. Kevin Towers already showed us what happens when a team tries to sit on the fence between getting impact talent and playing conservative. The team wound up with Trevor Cahill (the good one) and then signed Jason Kubel, when they could have had Cahill and Gio Gonzalez both, and not sacrificed a dime of cash or any player set to help the team in 2012. Injuries took a very heavy toll on that team, but it isn't hard to imagine the Diamondbacks remain in the hunt for the playoffs up through the very last week of the season if they had a 4.9 bWAR Gio Gonzalez in the rotation instead of the marginal value they received from Joe Saunders or the negative value they received from their fifth starter position.
If the Kenta Maeda's posting fee is coming, at least in some part, from this season's payroll budget, he needs to not be a target. Projected as a middle-of-the-rotation starter without much upside beyond that point, the Diamondbacks cannot be sacrificing such a hefty price for a pitcher unlikely to produce better than other in-house options.
Last year, the team was in a rebuilding mode. Yet, that team was very aggressive in the offseason, signing Yoan Lopez for $16 million and giving a team-record contract to Yasmany Tomás. This year, the market is much stronger, and the Diamondbacks are poised to put themselves into the conversation as a playoff challenger. At the time of the signing, Dave Stewart confessed that the Lopez signing was an expensive one and that the cost would have to come due from the future. Future moves seemed to have addressed that. However, this season, the Diamondbacks are still continuing the trend of being frugal with regards to addressing competitive concerns. If there is more to pay for from last year's signings, the Diamondbacks need to put those costs off until next year. This is the year to open the purse strings. If the Diamondbacks are able to overspend by $8 million in a non-contending year and put that cost off until tomorrow, why not spend an extra $20 million in a contention year, and put those costs off until next winter - a winter where there will be no place to spend anyway? Imagine just how different this team's chances of landing multiple difference makers could look with $57-59 million to spend.