I've spent the better part of the last month writing to you all about the draft. Now, with the picks in, but the first two still being ineligible to sign due to their participation in the College World Series, I thought this would be a good time to move away from discussion of the draft for a bit. I'll be back with one more piece about the draft once the CWS has come to a close and the team has completed negotiations with Dansby Swanson and Alex Young.
Now that the draft is complete, the logical question becomes, what's next for this team? There is no way to sugar-coat it, the 2014 Diamondbacks were an absolute mess. Once the season was over, the list of issues to address was a very long and unpalatable one. The team needed to acquire young, dynamic, controllable pitching. It needed to shed a ton of payroll. It needed to free up roster space and playing time for developing talent that was languishing behind established veterans. It needed to address what to do with its arbitration players, including Mark Trumbo and Addison Reed. Would Daniel Hudson be allowed to start again? Would Archie Bradley take the next step? What sort of players would Pollock, Goldschmidt, and Owings be coming back from injury? Who would manage the team on the field?
Clearly, the franchise needed a new direction, as the old one failed to produce a satisfactory team. Having finished dead last in baseball, the team knew it was going to receive the top overall pick in the draft. This at least gave the team an idea of where it could start with planning for the future. Unfortunately for the team, this year's draft was one of the worst in recent memory, so the magnitude of future-building to be done by simply calling out the right name on June 8th was not nearly what anyone was hoping for.
Well, here we are, just over the 1/3 marker for the season. Last night the Diamondbacks played to reach .500, and for the seventh time in a row, came up short. However, the fact that they are now only two games under .500 after 64 games should be cause for some warm and fuzzy feelings. I think most of us would have been thrilled to know that the team has even been this competitive. Where does that leave the team and what can we expect for the rest of the 2015 season?
Priority 1: Shed payroll
The Diamondbacks spent a team record amount on player personnel last season and had the second-worst finish in team history to show for it. Certainly, injuries played their part, taking out Goldschmidt, Pollock, Owings, Corbin, Hernandez, and Arroyo. The reality though, is that the 2014 Diamondbacks just were not a good team. As a result, the team made the decision that it needed to get back to fiscal responsibility, and to shed payroll. This decision led the team to trade long-time Arizona catcher, Miguel Montero to the Chicago Cubs for a middling prospect. The upside for the Diamondbacks is that Chicago assumed 100% of Montero's remaining contract. That will actually be more important and more significant in 2016 than it was for 2015, as the majority of that savings was eaten up by arbitration raises for Mark Trumbo, Addison Reed, and newly acquired Jeremy Hellickson. Some more money was saved in a trade of Wade Miley. Finally, Trevor Cahill was traded to the Atlanta Braves, with the Diamondbacks clearing all but $6 million of his salary. Though the salary savings were not as steep as the front office said it would have liked, the team did a fair job of positioning itself for financial flexibility moving forward.
With the trade deadline now creeping up, the Diamondbacks could potentially clear more salary by trading Oliver Perez, Addison Reed, Jeremy Hellickson, Cliff Pennington, Brad Ziegler, or any combination thereof. Entering the season, Tony LaRussa also stated the team still had a task to complete by unloading Aaron Hill. If the team can manage this somehow, they will be well ahead of the game.
Grade: B but potentially an A depending on deadline moves.
Priority 1A: Find a catcher
In shedding payroll, the Diamondbacks traded away the only viable starting catcher in the entire organization. Tuffy Gosewisch, for all of his being a nice guy and a great teammate, was one of the very worst catchers in baseball in terms of production in 2014 and was head and shoulders better than anyone left after Montero was traded away. The team chose to address this situation by signing battered, oft-injured, rarely serviceable, Gerald Laird and also selecting Rays prospect Oscar Hernandez in the Rule 5 draft, despite the fact that Hernandez had never played above, or seen much success at the plate in, low-A ball. Things went from bad to worse, when both Laird and Hernandez went down due to injury to open the season, leaving Gosewisch to be backed up by Jordan Pacheco. Then, Gosewisch suffered a season-ending injury. Suddenly, the Diamondbacks were left to rely on DFA-castoff Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who had become so bad at the plate, that the Miami Marlins preferred to pay him to play elsewhere than to let him continue clogging the roster. This also led the team to trade Mark Trumbo to the Seattle Mariners in order to acquire Welington Castillo, another "challenged" catcher. Despite the entire baseball world recognizing just how incredibly bad the catching situation was in Arizona, the team chose to go the route of sticking its head in the sand, hoping that time and other long-shot developments would help dig them out of a hole, 6 years in the making.
Priority 2: Find a top-of-the-rotation pitcher
Given the Diamondbacks' financial situation, the chances of them landing one of the big three arms in free agency this last winter stood somewhere between LOL and "Hell no!" Teams were not exactly lining up to trade great pitching either. Imagine that. This led Dave Stewart to get creative with trades. Wade Miley was turned into Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster. Didi Gregorius was turned into Robbie Ray. Jeremy Hellickson was brought in to see if he could revive his peripheral-beating career. All of these players came with extreme question marks, some bigger than others. However, the premise was one that at least made some sense. The hope was that a new environment, along with the pitching tutelage of Dave Duncan might just get at least one of these young, power arms straightened out, helping the team to fill the rotational void above the #3/4 starter. Archie Bradley was also promoted to begin the season in the rotation. The results have been mixed, but not entirely unexpected. The brightest hope has come, rather predictably, from Robbie Ray, a lefty with electric stuff, who just needs to have enough confidence to continue throwing strikes, even when the opposition starts hitting. Additionally, hot prospect, Aaron Blair has remained dominant in the minors and looks to be a fairly certain mid-season call-up, while Archie Bradley has been place on the DL to figure out what exactly has gone wrong with him.
Grade: Incomplete, but trending upward
Priority 3: Clear roster logjams
Thie Diamondbacks wasted no time in addressing this situation. By Opening Day, Cody Ross had been released, Trevor Cahill had been traded, Didi Gregorius had been traded, and Jake Lamb had been named the starting third baseman. The rotation was filled by Josh Collmenter, Chase Anderson, and three developing arms. Nick Ahmed was installed as the starting short stop. Aaron Hill was named a bench player. The only real logjam seems to be in the outfield. The offseason acquisition of Yasmany Tomás seemed to mark the end of Mark Trumbo's utility to the Diamondbacks. However, that's not how the front office saw things. Eventually, injuries cleared up playing time for everyone, and Mark Trumbo was traded as a result. Despite early season struggles at the plate that had most people calling for Nick Ahmed to be sent packing, the team stuck with him, realizing his poor results at the plate were unsustainably bad. Hard work on the part of Ahmed has rewarded the organization's patience in him, and he now sports a wRC+ of 70 to go along with his nearly league average OBP. Combined with his elite glove, he has been a pleasant surprise and a joy to watch for those that follow the team. On the other hand, Chris Owings has failed to regain his early-2014 form, and is now struggling to provide positive value to the team, causing Chip Hale to continue running Aaron Hill out more like a starter than a bench player.
Grade: B, some points are docked for reticence to make some moves that just needed to be made
Priority 4: Position the team for an aggressive 2016 and beyond
With the first two picks of the 2015 draft, the Diamondbacks took two players with the potential to make contributions by the end of 2017. Allen Webster, Robbie Ray, and Rubby De La Rosa are all getting extended looks to see what sort of end-product talent they can provide. Nick Ahmed is developing into a legitimate starting short stop, with defense to rival Andrelton Simmons. A.J. Pollock has the second highest WAR value in baseball behind only Mike Trout. Yasmany Tomás appears to be a possible .300 hitter, despite his reported swing and miss tendencies. International free agent Yoan Lopez is looking incredibly strong in the minors. Touki Toussaint has started pitching well for Kane County at the ripe old age of 19, rather than the typical 22. What's more, is the Diamondbacks currently are slated to spend all of $32 million on payroll next season before arbitration, a number that could drop even more if the team manages to trade away the likes of Hill, Reed, or Ziegler. That salary number, combined with television revenues and the reported cap of $90-95 million for 2016 puts the Diamondbacks in the position to be aggressive on the free agent market if they so choose. Furthermore, Brandon Drury continues to develop as a player at second base, possibly mitigating the falling off of Chris Owings. The team still needs a strong arm to lead the rotation, at least one catcher, a hitting middle infielder, and a stronger bullpen. However, now the team has a much better idea of what talents it has for those positions, and also now knows what it needs to do in order to improve them.
Grade: B+, with likely improvement on the horizon
Where do they go from here?
Despite their current record, the Diamondbacks are still not a playoff contending team. There are simply too many holes and inconsistencies. However, they are going through the motions of getting a very good look at what it is they indeed have in house. While I fully expect them to make a run at one of the top free agent pitchers this winter, if Robbie Ray emerges to be the star he appears he could be, or if Aaron Blair is as strong in the majors as he was in Mobile, or if Archie Bradley starts to throw a third pitch for strikes, the team's dire need for that free agent pitcher is mitigated, moving from absolute necessity to wonderful luxury. Even if the team signs a Doug Fister-type, there should still be money left over to invest in addressing at least one other hole on the team. They could invest in a catcher. Or maybe they chose to invest in a prototypical leadoff-hitting OBP machine. The team still has plenty of arms in the minors looking to break through for the bullpen. It is a pretty safe bet that at least a few of them will get long looks once the trade deadline passes. Names such as Aaron Hill, Oliver Perez, Addison Reed, and Brad Ziegler are unlikely to finish the season with the team. Every player leaving, means another young talent getting a long look.
The Bard's Take:
Only two and a half months ago I pegged the Diamondbacks' next competitive window as 2017. Now it looks like the team could have all the initial pieces in place by 2016, giving them an outside chance as soon as next year (likely for a Wild Card). That could then, with tweaking, make them very strong contenders for the NL West (despite the Dodgers) in 2017. This team is having a rough year. Unlike last season though, there is so much to be seen with these new players, that even these stretches of sub-.500 ball are exciting to watch, and are providing real hope for future seasons.