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The Bard's Take: Rebuilding the Diamondbacks - The Colangelo Method

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While it isn't spending money like there was a printing press in the bowels of Chase Field, it sure might feel like it.

For a number of weeks now we have been examining different ways in which the Diamondbacks might go about turning the current roster into a contending one. We have looked at some of the current models of success and compared how the Diamondbacks do or do not hold up against them. It would seem somewhat disingenuous though to ignore the franchise's own run of past success though. While the Cubs arrived in the playoffs a season early using their method, and the Royals just brought home the World Series trophy less than a week ago using theirs, the Diamondbacks too have had playoff success in the past, winning a World Series trophy of their own. In 2001, the Diamondbacks won it all in only their season of play, thanks in large part to an aggressive approach to winning by then majority partner, Jerry Colangelo.

The knee-jerk reaction to bringing up the Colangelo era generally tends to be to point at the 2004 Diamondbacks who finished with the worst record in baseball as a cautionary tale of what Colangelo's ways eventually brought the team. As such, I think it important to make a few quick distinctions here when it comes to advocating this week's rebuilding process - The Colangelo Method.

The first thing to note is that Jerry Colangelo's Diamondbacks did not have nearly the farm system the current team does. There was no Dansby Swanson on the horizon. Although the team did, in fact, draft Brandon Webb in 2000, he was still an unknown in the distant future. The luxury of having Blair, Shipley, Bradley, Young, Lopez, Clark, Keller, Reed, and Godley all vying for time as potential starters in the next year or two was not even a pipe dream that could be imagined by that 2001 farm system. The lack of farm was a silent killer waiting in the wings, like a coronary event building up, just waiting to cripple or kill the franchise. This was in large part due to the way in which the team was originally assembled to open its run as a major league franchise. There was no young, developed talent on those teams. Even the team's youngsters were players already coming along in age. Sure Kim was only 22, as was Cintron. Overbay was only 24. But these players were not part of what made the 2001 team good. They were players getting exposure to the bigs for some time in the future. David Dellucci (27) and Danny Bautista (29) were the closest thing the team came to "regular players" that were under the age of 30. With an aging team and no farm system to speak of, the eventual drop-off was all but inevitable. Even more devastating to the Diamondbacks though was the financial model, a deliberate and calculated gamble on the part of Jerry Colangelo to strike fast and win big while the team was still young. A big contributor to this gamble was that the Diamondbacks did not enjoy a full share of television revenues for the first handful of seasons they were in existence, another issue (along with draft status) of being an expansion franchise

Jerry Colangelo, for all the years he spent bringing a winning brand of Phoenix Suns basketball to the desert, was by no means one of the Good ol' Boys. Colangelo's method for winning in baseball just wasn't done. He rocked the boat by turning the Diamondbacks into a winning franchise as quickly as he did. The Diamondbacks had not "earned" their chance to be aggressive the way they were. Savvy acquisitions of five key players by an inexperienced franchise just didn't happen. Or at least, it wasn't supposed to. Colangelo, with the blessings of the partnership, spent, and spent big. He used his best salesmanship and big dollars to lure Randy Johnson and Steve Finley. He made sure the purse strings were open to pay for the acquisition of Curt Schilling. Then the team asked MLB to cosign their debt loan, and Bud Selig lost his mind. Now, there is nothing that definitively proves that Selig and his buddies went out of their way to target the Diamondbacks over the next few years, but deeds speak louder than words, and Selig was already rather vocal about not approving of Colangelo's "buying a championship". When Colangelo first put his plan together, the team was looking at an 8-10 year plan to adjust their debts and become a solvent team again. It was totally within the rules of team ownership. Then, only three years in, Bud Selig and his buddies forced through a change in how team debt could be handled, including reducing drastically the amount of debt a team could carry by both dollars and percentage. While a few other teams felt a slight squeeze, the Diamondbacks were basically forced into gutting everything and halving their costs. By late 2003, it was readily apparent that Arizona was no longer going to have the finances to resign Curt Schilling. The eventual return from the Boston Red Sox for Curt Schilling was four years of Brandon Lyon, two good, and two mediocre. Unable to secure Matt Williams' blessing for a trade, the Diamondbacks were forced to eat his contract. The Diamondbacks also moved Byung-Hyun Kim in a move looked at as both a salary saver and a move that might bring a new cornerstone player for the offense in Shea Hillenbrand. That offseason also saw the departure of Miguel Batista to free agency, Arizona unable to even bid on him due to their salary constraints.

All-n-all, events conspired in such a way that the delicate house of cards built by Jerry Colangelo came crashing down in sudden and spectacular fashion. The 2016 Diamondbacks, while not immune to some of the pitfalls, are in a much better position than the 2001 team was. For one thing, rather than fielding the oldest team in baseball, Arizona now fields the youngest. The farm, a glaring weakness of that previous team is something of a strength for this franchise. The 2016 team will also not only benefit from a full share of television revenue, but is in line to get a television revenue boost. Yes, debt rules are still in play, but the Diamondbacks are now very lightly leveraged, and even increasing payroll to the proposed amounts would leave them as one of the better off teams. Also, that World Series winning team had only four players; Randy Johnson (10.0), Curt Schilling (8.8), Luis Gonzalez (7.9) and Mark Grace (2.4) who put up even 2.0 bWAR. The 2015 team had six players, with three more that fairly easily make it if they play the full season. The 2015 team is in much better shape than the 2000 team was.

The Method: The key to the method is spending money both aggressively and wisely. With a projected payroll of $90 million in 2016, the Diamondbacks will only have about $27 million to play around with. By comparison, once they paid for partial seasons of Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist, the Kansas City Royals, another mid-market team, spent right about $140 million to win the World Series last week. With the increase in television revenue and solid, though unspectacular attendance, it is rather difficult to see how the partnership fails to turn a profit even if they allow payroll to reach that same level. So, that is the number I will work with here.

The 2001 Diamondbacks were carried by a pitching duo and Luis Gonzalez. The 2016 Diamondbacks will have both Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock to carry the team from the offensive side. The pitching staff needs help though. In order to address that, the team needs to go and grab the best free agent pitcher they can, plus some more help. They also have Aaron Hill and Yasmany Tomás on the 25-man roster. First thing is first though, DFA Hill. Next, take the best possible offer for Tomás, anything to clear his spot on the 25 and 40 man rosters. Yes, it will be selling as low as possible on the young Cuban, but the team has already demonstrated it has better internal candidates.

  • Extend A.J. Pollock if possible and so long as it is reasonable. What is reasonable depends on one's opinion of future development and how much longer one thinks Pollock can keep this up. Elsewhere shoewizard suggested a max of 5/50. I might actually go as high as 5/58. I think something in between probably gets it done.
  • Sign David Price for 6/210. That's right, offer Price the same amount he is already expected to sign for, but knock a year off of the length. That protects the team on the back end while giving Price an undeniable incentive to choose Arizona over the other suitors in the guise of an extra $5 million AAV up front. Price alone may not be enough though.
  • Sign Scott Kazmir for 3/36. Kazmir's people may not go for it, but this has to be considered a solid offer, even a bit on the high side given the laundry list of still existing question marks. This signing also limits long-term risk. Unless Kazmir breaks on day one, the team will have developed and promoted replacements before his contract is up and can use his expiring contract to help offset arbitration increases. If Kazmir is unavailable, then John Lackey, Wei Yin Chen, and Jeff Samardzjia can be pursued (in that order) as possible alternative plans, though for slightly different contracts.
  • The team can continue to use inexpensive internal candidates for the bullpen. This would actually be the preferred method of roster construction. Between the arms they already have in the bullpen, and the additions of Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, Chase Anderson, and possibly Zack Godley, the team may very well have zero need to go pay for reliever volatility. If the team elects to forgo signing big bullpen arms, all of that money can then be devoted to signing Matt Wieters for 3/48, or possibly 4/64 if necessary. Signing Wieters improves the team pitching by putting a stronger game-caller behind the plate and vastly improves the team defense as well. As a switch-hitter, Wieters helps the lineup stay balanced. Wieters' bat is also (when healthy) not much of a drop from that of Castillo. Castillo gets retained as the club's back-up catcher. I then look for a closer to even than normal split to keep both catchers fresh, with Wieters catching about 90 games and Castillo 70.

If the team signs Price, Kazmir, and Wieters at the proposed amounts, the team increases the payroll $63 million. Figure in $7 million for Pollock in 2016 (a high figure to be sure) and the team is at a $70 million increase over current levels of spending. At a budget of $140 million, the team was left with $77-78 million is money to spend. That means the team actually still comes in under budget, all while landing three premium veterans and locking up a young star.  The rest of the money could either be saved to facilitate a salary-increasing player (if necessary) at the trade deadline, or it could be spent on improving the bullpen by adding a pitcher like Franklin Morales to be tough from the left side. Of course, the team could just sit on the savings as well, using it to help them somewhere down the road.

The resultant 25-man roster looks like this:

Pitchers:

Price
Kazmir
Corbin
Ray
Blair/Bradley/Hudson
Ziegler
Delgado
Collmenter
Chafin
Reynolds
Bracho
RDLR

Position Players:

Goldschmidt
Drury
Owings
Gosselin
Ahmed
Lamb
Wieters
Castillo
Pollock
Inciarte
Peralta
Brito
To Be Determined - Tomás as the 25th man if the team absolutely cannot unload him

The best out of Blair, Bradley, and Hudson opens the season in the rotation. The others serve as depth, as we all know the team is not getting by with only five starters. Anderson returns to the bullpen. If the team is not comfortable with Hudson in the rotation at all, he replaces RDLR in the bullpen immediately. Drury, Owings, and Gosselin provide a viable solution for rotating through second base and utility infielder.

The Take: While still not my preferred method of building the roster, this comes very close. With Kazmir on a three year deal, the risks are diminished. By the time he leaves or breaks the team should have multiple arms ready to replace him. Bringing Price down to six years also helps to lessen the risk to the team long-term. The team risks Wieters becoming Montero 2.0, however; if the team watches his workload, there is less risk of that. If the team can get 8 WAR out of the combination of players, then they stay marginally ahead of the curve. Synergistically, they should be able to realize more than just an 8-game improvement from 2015 to 2016. That roster, with youth and depth supporting it, is a playoff caliber roster. As arbitration and age kicks in, the farm will feed the team and the larger contracts will be falling off.

There are worse ways to build a team. Of course, those contracts could prove to not be enough, which would make the method harder to pursue. The single-biggest obstacle though, remains Ken Kendrick and the partnership. While $140 million really does seem a reasonable payroll figure given what we publicly know about the team, it is unlikely that the ownership will ever agree to such a figure. Never mind that at $7-8 million per bWAR on the open market, that team is still a bargain.