Last week I asked whether or not it was time to reconsider the organizational timeline for the Diamondbacks to return to postseason contention. I then looked at the position players the team currently has, and the likely or at least possible players of the future. That, however; is only half the picture. In fact, in the world of baseball, it could be argued that the positional talent is slightly less than half the picture, especially when it comes to rebuilding a team that finished in dead last. Here, in part two of examining the issue, I look at the Diamondbacks' pitching
There is no way to sugar-coat it. Arizona's pitching in 2014 was horrible. Perhaps that's why, of the five pitchers that comprised the Opening Day rotation in 2014, only one (Randall Delgado) is still on the team's active 40-man roster. Yes, Bronson Arroyo is still with the club, but he currently resides on the 60-day DL and there are some compelling reasons to doubt he will ever pitch for the Arizona Diamondbacks again. The 2014 Opening Day starter, Wade Miley was moved for a pair of second chance prospects. Brandon McCarthy was moved in a salary dump that brought the team left-hander Vidal Nuño. Trevor Cahill was unloaded on the Braves a few weeks ago.
Here's a quick comparison:
1. Wade Miley 1. Josh Collmenter
2. Brandon McCarthy 2. Rubby De La Rosa
3. Bronson Arroyo 3. Jeremy Hellickson
4. Trevor Cahill 4. Chase Anderson
5. Randall Delgado 5. Archie Bradley
This is not our average turn-over. This is a total overhaul, including the dismissal of arguably the team's best, consistent performer over the 2013 and 2014 seasons in Miley. What's more, the new crop of pitchers come with more question marks than those they replaced. But, they also come with substantially more upside.
Gutting the rotation was only the first step though. The team still needed to find quality arms to start games in 2015 and beyond. This is where the team has gotten creative. This is also where I feel the need for full disclosure. The team's move to acquire Jeremy Hellickson from the Tampa Bay Rays for highly regarded prospects Andrew Velazquez and Justin Williams flies in the face of much of what I discuss in this article. The trade remains for me, something of an enigmatic outlier that simply does not add up, regardless of how creative I try to get with the reasoning. As you will soon see, Hellickson quickly fades from relevance in my estimation. This move away from the right may be a bit premature, but unless Hellickson turns out to be the second coming of Brandon Webb, I'm not sure that m projections which exclude him entirely are all that unreasonable.
Acknowledging the need to address the starting pitching with a fury, Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart took an unorthodox approach to rebuilding. Rather than possibly sign a few solid arms or trade for some more reliable inning-eaters, they duo proceeded to go out and acquire a bevy of arms with undeniable upside, but severe questions regarding their ability to reach expectations. In a short span of time, the team acquired Jeremy Hellickson, Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, and Robbie Ray. All four pitchers were young. All were still under control for a number of years (only Hellickson yet reaching arbitration). All of them had at one time or another in the recent past been considered possible top-of-the-rotation prospects. Perhaps even more importantly though, is another trait that the all shared. Despite being sought out by the Arizona front office and summarily placed high on the organizational pitching depth chart, all of these pitchers (save possibly Ray) were infinitely expendable - lottery tickets with high upside and no real downside other than a failure to perform, which would only have been pitching slightly below actual expectations. None of these arms, despite their potential, in any way blocked the development of pitching already present within the Diamondbacks' system, they only augmented it. This seems very deliberate, especially in light of the one other pitching acquisition the team made in the offseason, going over-limit on an international signing bonus to bring in highly touted 22-year-old Cuban pitching prospect, Yoan López.
How does all of this play into the Diamondbacks' timeline for fielding a playoff-competitive team? Lets' have a look.
For 2015, Josh Collmenter was rewarded for putting in yeoman's work since 2011 by being named the team's Opening Day starter. Collmenter, a pitcher that on most playoff-caliber teams rates somewhere between a low #3 arm and a long arm in the bullpen was, only a week before the season started, the standout pitcher of an uninspiring bunch of arms that included Trevor Cahill in the final slot. Then the team did something completely unexpected. The team managed to move Trevor Cahill. This was no small task, and was done with curious timing. What was even more startling is that the team then promoted Archie Bradley to the 25-man roster, trading a season of peak-years control for 2 starts in a developing year for a team not expected to compete. This sort of thing does not happen often, and has rarely paid off immediately. This was no small risk to take for the Arizona front office. The move also did something else of significance though - it moved the line forward.
Since he was drafted seventh overall in the 2011 draft, Archie Bradley has been the poster boy for the future of the Diamondbacks. Bradley's ascendance to the rotation and possible development into a top-of-the-rotation arm, has been held up as the point at which the Diamondbacks might start being relevant in playoff discussions again. Could this be true now?
Despite the acquisitions of Ray, De La Rosa, Webster, and Hellickson, the Diamondbacks have three more pitchers in the system all projected to pitch for the top half of the rotation; Aaron Blair, Braden Shipley, and Touki Toussaint. Yoan López has also been added to this list, though his development may be a bit behind where it was thought to be when he was drafted. With Bradley now on the 25-man roster, Blair stands apart as the next "big arm" in the developmental pipeline. When the season was about to begin (before the Bradley move), Blair appeared destined to be called up in August or September of the season, if service clock concerns allowed him to be called up at all. Now, Blair stands poised to be the first arm called upon should there be a long-term (as opposed to a 1-4 start) need in the rotation, something that is entirely likely given the health and performance concerns associated with the current roster.
While this seems a very minor thing, the acceleration of one arm to the big leagues, it actually marks a rather significant shift in the evolutionary timeline for the Diamondbacks rotation. With Patrick Corbin slated to return in June, it is very possible (and also likely) that the team could sport a rotation that includes the Opening Day starter moving down to #4 or #5 on the depth chart. What's more, if Shipley continues to develop in 2015 the way he did in 2014, he will become the new man pushing against the service clock to appear this season.
Here's something to put it all into perspective. Barring a significant injury (and possibly even despite significant injury) the worst-case scenario for the Diamondbacks is now this September rotation:
What's more, the team would still have two more TOR prospects sitting in Mobile in Toussaint and López, plus the possibility of an arm added through this year's draft. This is the scenario should Stewart and La Russa's gambles on Ray, De La Rosa, Webster, and Hellickson all flame out and force the team to cut bait.
Things get even rosier when looking at 2016. In 2016, three significant developments are expected. First, Patrick Corbin should finally be fully recovered from his surgery, pitching more like his 2013 self than he is likely to in 2015. Second, Daniel Hudson should be ready to rejoin the rotation. Third. The Diamondbacks will have less than $40 million committed to payroll, including the raises for arbitration. If The Diamondbacks wish to, they will be in a very good position to chase after one of the numerous impact arms currently slated to hit free agency. Not only will they have the financial resources available, but they could very easily find themselves bargaining from a position of strength, no longer needing to sign that high-priced free agent, able to say "no" if the price becomes too high.
The Bard's Take:
Last week, when examining the position talent of the future for the Diamondbacks, I said I saw a potential for 28 WAR. Given that baseball is a game predicated on failure, let us assume I aimed high and that there are only 25 wins there. Here's a theoretical Opening Day rotation for 2016:
Add to that the presence of Toussaint and López in Mobile, waiting and developing to join the rotation. Both Anderson and Collmenter, quality MLB arms are back in the bullpen or moved to bolster the farm. Should this rotation materialize, it is not unlikely that the combined efforts could be worth 15 WAR. Added to the 25 from the position players and suddenly, the Diamondbacks are a 40 WAR team on Opening Day without having spent a dime of their cash infusion or having traded away a single piece of the future. If the Diamondbacks are able to add an arm to the mix that would stand tall above all those already listed, or add a quality catcher (or both), that projection only goes up.
So, is it time to reconsider when the Diamondbacks might compete? 40 WA makes the team a 92-win team (give or take). 92-wins can win a division in off years and is a Wild Card contender in any season. An increase to that 40 WAR total puts the team in an even stronger position to make a push for the NL West crown. What is even better, is this team is not only built to compete soon, but it is built to sustain that success for a number of years to come.