A few weeks ago I sat down to pen an article about the Diamondbacks in which I was lamenting the fact that the team seemed destined to continue a trend of conservative team-building.
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 that is the Commissioner's Trophy.
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.
Less than 36 hours after I put those words on the page, the Diamondbacks signed Zack Greinke to one of the biggest contracts ever given to a professional athlete. Needless to say, I was forced to revise my article a bit. No longer could I claim that the team was not taking monetary risks to improve itself. No sooner had I cleaned it up than the team made another move to acquire Shelby Miller in exchange for Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson, and Aaron Blair.
Those two transactions had me rethinking my reservations regarding the Arizona Diamondbacks and their apparent conservative approach. It is tough to call giving out a $206 million contract and trading away the top two organizational prospects, along with a premium position player conservative. Those moves are entirely counter to the pattern of conservativism displayed by the team stretching back to November of 2015; when they acquired Jeremy Hellickson as a cost-controlled number two pitcher.
Having indeed rethought my stance that the Diamondbacks were possibly being a bit too fiscally conservative for their own good, I have come to the conclusion that, despite the big moves, this may indeed still be the case.
"I think (managing general partner) Ken (Kendrick) and I could be talked into more, but we're looking at $100 million right now."
Following the 2013 season, a year in which the team finished 81-81 with a Pythagorean record of 80-82, ownership authorized then General Manager, Kevin Towers to expand the payroll to the highest in team history at roughly $112 million. Things did not work out so well for the that team, as the Diamondbacks proceeded to piece together the aforementioned 98-loss season of 2014. Results aside, it is unlikely that Ken Kendrick and his partners authorized anything close to a level of payroll that would result in the team operating at a loss. 2016 looks to be a greatly improved team over the 2014 version, and not just because of the Greinke/Goldy bump to the team's revenue stream. Patrick Corbin is back. The team traded for Shelby Miller. A.J. Pollock is a legitimate top-10 MVP candidate. In many ways, this team (which finished with fewer real wins but more Pythagorean ones) is in better shape to compete moving forward than the 2013 team was going into 2014. This season also marks years one of the Diamondbacks' new television deal. Why then, is the team limiting itself so heavily in the payroll department, focusing on a number a full $12 million shy of the previous outlay two years ago, when each dollar bought more than it does now?
Let me be clear, I do not think the team needs to spend money just because it can. Any expenditures should be carefully considered and make sense in terms of noticeably improving the team. This is exactly why the Greinke signing makes sense. The team is much better with the addition of a TOR arm. This improves both the rotation and the bullpen, which addresses on both fronts, the team's biggest weakness in 2015. With $12 million left to spend before reaching the $100 million cutoff, the team is in something of a wishy-washy area. Real impact talent (other than in the bullpen) will cost more than the $12 million. Other talent is not worth spending the money on to create a bigger logjam of mediocre talent on the team.
Where could that money be spent though? Also, what difference would a payroll of $110 million be over what they are planning on?
Catcher: For whatever reason, this team does not seem to place much of a premium on having solid catching depth. Last season the team traded away a very decent Miguel Montero and expected to be able to compete with a tandem of Tuffy Gosewisch and the previous season's worst MLB catcher, the oft-injured Gerald Laird. To "address" the situation some, the team then selected defensive specialist Oscar Hernandez with the first pick of the Rule 5 draft. This season, that tradition of finding merely a warm body to put inside the tools of ignorance seems to be continuing. The team has Welington Castillo behind the plate as the presumptive starter. Short of catastrophic injury, there are no other possible candidates for the job. The team lost their eventual 2014 backup, Jarrod Saltalamacchia to free agency. So what did the team do? They went out and picked up the positionally challenged, no-bat Chris Hermann to be the backup to Castillo. Heaven forbid Castillo needs to take any time off or that Chip Hale should avoid riding Castillo into the ground through overuse. This season saw a number of strong candidates for backup catcher reach the market. None of them came with steep price tags. Instead, the team skipped on Alex Avila (1-year/$2.5 MM) and others. The thing is, Avila is everything the Diamondbacks claimed they were looking for out of Hermann, only better. Others fit the mold of quality backup catcher as well. All of them had one thing in common that Hermann lacks, they can start for extended periods of time should something happen to Castillo, this is a big plus, and should be considered when looking for a second receiver.
Second Base: Unlike the catching position, there were no reliable upgrades for second base to be had via free agency. The best fit was probably Howie Kendrick. Thanks to the postseason antics of Murphy and Zobrist (who would also have been a very decent fit), the cost for second basemen spun out too far to make much sense for the team. In order to land one of Kendrick or Zobrist would have required a long-trem deal that extends beyond the likely competitive window. On the trade front though, there is a solution, one Brandon Phillips. Even without blowing the lid off the $100 million budget, the team could add Phillips to the mix. The big unknowns here are what sort of return the Reds are looking for, and whether or not Phillips would agree to play in AZ. Given the outlined Nationals-Reds deal for Phillips that fell through though, it seems like the Diamondbacks indeed have the resources to make that deal happen. Of course, this is entirely speculative since prices change depending on the teams involved. For all we know, Phillips may hate the heat, and be deathly afraid of valley fever. Still, it seems very conservative that the team did not more aggressively pursue a player that represents a clear upgrade both offensively and defensively over the in-house options for second base. Even skewing the numbers in favor of Arizona getting shafted, they still pick up 2+ wins for only $12 million. That's a good deal even when the wins aren't marginal ones.
Outfield: Until the Shelby Miller trade, the outfield represented the team's biggest strength moving into 2016. The departure of Inciarte and the installation of Yasmany Tomás has turned the clear strong point into something of a question mark, albeit one with plenty of upside. The presence of Socrates Brito in the wings pretty much renders any big outfield acquisition a poor idea. Sure, the team would be better with an Upton or Cespedes bat in the outfield, but the commitments they will receive are still too rich, even for a freer-spending Diamondbacks club. As mentioned elsewhere on this site, Carlos Gonzalez looks to be available via trade in the near future. The prospect cost in addition to his salary make him a poor fit as well. Don't get me wrong, I like Huang, Leyba, and Reed as prospects just fine. I'm not ready for them to go into 2016 with them holding 3 of the organization's top five prospect slots though.
While the outfield could use some addressing, it would seem that $12 million or $20 million does not really make a difference, not unless the team had managed to sign Heyward to a franchise-defining contract early on.
Pitching: One would think that after adding Greinke and Miller to the rotation that there would simply be little if any room for rotation improvement. The thing is, beyond those two, the Diamondbacks rotation is still filled with unknown quantities. How many innings does Patrick Corbin get in 2016, and will they be enough to go into the playoffs? Will Robbie Ray continue his development? With Aaron Blair gone, Rubby De La Rosa is only pushed out by Archie Bradley showing significant improvement or Chase Anderson taking over because De La Rosa became injured. Braden Shipley is in the fold, but seeing him before June 1 seems like an unlikely scenario. This is where the difference between $100 million and $110 million comes into stark resolve. With $110 million payroll, the team can be "more comfortable" offering Cueto a touch more than they did. Landing him makes the Arizona rotation arguably the best in all of baseball. At the same time, it deprives the San Francisco Giants of the opportunity to run him out there. Another candidate would be Scott Kazmir, a lefty that probably comes on a shorter, lower-value contract, yet he still would rank as the team's second or third-best pitcher. Perhaps the team adds Cliff Lee on a one-year deal. Maybe the team simply "settles" for Mike Leake (who while not being a super-stud pitcher is actually a pretty damn good one).
Talk of adding another pitcher serving to block developing talent seems a bit baseless in light of Blair's departure. Unless Bradley has a massive turnaround, the team has no one else around that is knocking on the door of the 25-man roster demanding to be added to the rotation. Is anyone honestly worried about forcing Anderson or De La Rosa to the bullpen or Reno?
On the bullpen side of things, our very own shoewizard pointed out early this winter that Joakim Soria would be a good fit for this team. He even proposed a solid, aggressive, but not entirely out-of-whack contract of 3 years/$27 million. Arizona reportedly did investigate signing Soria, but decided he was priced out of their comfort zone. He signed with Kansas City for a deal slightly less than the one proposed here. Even adding that salary, the team still does not reach their stated payroll budget.
The Take: The Diamondbacks have money to spend. They have had both opportunity and need along the way, but they have, thus far, elected not to spend said money. While I stated earlier that I am not in favor of spending just to spend, the Diamondbacks have passed on clear opportunities to upgrade the team, even staying within the suspiciously low stated budget. The more reasonable budget of $110 million would seem to be just a waste right now, as the team seems hesitant to make further commitments.
The 2016-17 free agent class is a barren wasteland, there is no reason to be socking away money for a big spend then. Besides, that skips an entire half of the two-year competitive window of opportunity. Why exactly have the Diamondbacks limited themselves to a $100 million budget when there is clearly more to be had in order to compete? And why, after limiting themselves to such a small payroll (it won't rank in the top half) have they further decided to limit themselves to spending only $88 million of it? Sure, having some financial flexibility at the deadline is nice, but this sort of flexibility goes way beyond that? Barring some very fortuitous developments, this team has 2 years to make a push to bring home the trophy. Spend now and then start the conservative machinations again in a few years as the team regroups for another push. By relying on the likes of Chris Hermann, Chris Owings, and Yasmany Tomás instead of turning to more reliable, still affordable alternatives just seems like the team has lost a bit of its nerve and is still dipping their toes in the competitive pool rather than jumping in and making the most of this rare opportunity.