The Diamondbacks have a great man very big decisions coming up soon. In a little less than a month, the 5-day, post-World Series window for signing controlled talent will close and MLB free agency will begin. It appears that the Diamondbacks will have plenty of money to spend. It is also evident that the team's greatest need is pitching, preferably quality, starting pitching. However, focusing solely on the starting pitching and ignoring the relief corps will not be doing the team any favours. To that end, the Diamondbacks have nine pitchers in-house to make decisions on in the very near future. For two of them, the future is already certain, they will be returning to the Diamondbacks next season. For the rest, the team has some very interesting decisions to make.
The two easy calls to make are, of course, Patrick Corbin and Brad Ziegler. Corbin will be first-time arbitration eligible after the season. There is zero chance the lefty with the wicked slider will be non-tendered, as he currently sits as the team's best MLB pitcher. Brad Ziegler is only slightly less of a sure thing to return. The submarine throwing right-hander has done nothing but pitch lights-out all season long. The Diamondbacks hold a very reasonable $5.5M option on him for 2016.Even if Ziegler tails off some in 2016, the Diamondbacks can easily move the right-hander at the deadline, based solely on his performance over the last five years.
Beyond Corbin and Ziegler, things get a bit more intriguing when it comes to determining the future of the Diamondbacks' pitching corps.
Jhoulys Chacin: Chacin may be the most intriguing decision the Diamondbacks need to make regarding their pitching staff. Although he signed what should have been his final pre-free agency contract when in Colorado, the oft-injured right-hander was demoted and spent enough time working his way back to the majors that he remains arbitration eligible for 2016 as well. The problem is, Chacin's last payday was enough to ensure that his final arbitration salary will likely be somewhere between $5.5 and $6 million. While Tony La Russa has already voiced his support for Chacin, it remains to be seen just how deep that support runs. While the Diamondbacks can assure themselves of Chacin's services in 2016 simply by tendering him, there is a better than even chance that the market for Chacin would yield a contract significantly smaller than his arbitration-driven one.
La Russa's comments would seem to indicate the team wants Chacin in the fold to compete for a rotation spot in 2016. Are they willing to risk losing him by non-tendering him and then signing him to either a minor league deal with an invite or an incentive-laden MLB deal? The team spent $4.275M on Jeremy Hellickson for 2015 looking for an extreme long-shot dead cat bounce. Might they take some of their extra spending power and invest as much as $6million in Chacin looking for that same bounce in 2016? The odds are actually much more in favour of Chacin than they ever were for Hellickson, so it remains a distinct possibility.
Josh Collmenter: Despite losing his place I the starting rotation, Josh Collmenter actually had a relatively strong 2015 season. He once again established himself as one of the best long-man middle relievers in the game. The team has a $1.825 million option on Collmenter for 2016 with a mutual option existing for 2017. Despite the emergence of other candidates for the role Collmenter currently fills, his contract for 2016 is still a very reasonable one. Furthermore, by exercising the option, the team leaves open the possibility of an additional year at no more than $2.25 million in 2017. If nothing else, performance versus contract commitment will probably bring Collmenter back. Despite costing three times as much as one of his potential replacements, he has a track record of success and is easily traded later should the team decide to make further cuts to their payroll.
Randall Delgado: Delgado will become first-time arbitration eligible once the season ends. Although it seems likely that the team will retain Collmenter as their long-man, Delgado still holds significant value for the team. It is likely he will once again compete for the rotation for 2016. Should that not work out, he could return to the bullpen, where he has been outstanding. The hard-throwing righty pairs nicely with Collmenter to spread out the workload for middle relievers. Furthermore, Delgado's arbitration raise will be nominal as he has not spent any significant time starting since 2013.
Jeremy Hellickson: It is no stretch to proclaim Jeremy Hellickson's 2015 a disappointment. Brought in to eat up innings and provide a solid upgrade to the rotation, Hellickson failed to do either. After being paid $4.275 million by the Diamondbacks to avoid second-year arbitration in 2015, Hellickson was wildly inconsistent, eventually being demoted to AAA Reno. Although he managed to return to the 25-man roster to make a total of 26 starts, Hellickson barely managed to clear 140 innings pitched. Hellickson will be third-year arbitration eligible heading into the 2016 season. While Hellickson did not meet expectations in 2015, it remains a distinct possibility that Hellickson will still earn a raise through the arbitration process. As a result, Jeremy Hellickson might just be the poster-child for non-tender candidacy. With a significant track record that shows he is unlikely to improve or to pitch better than Chacin for the same amount of money, it would make sense for the Diamondbacks to part ways with Hellickson. Being the very first of "Dave Stewart's guys" does still work in Hellickson's favour though, as does the fact that the team felt comfortable enough in his performance to put him back into the rotation for the final portion of 2015.
David Hernandez: Unlike the others in this list, David Hernandez is preparing to enter the market as a true free agent. 2015 marks Hernandez's return from Tommy John surgery. Although Hernandez only managed to pitch to an ERA+ of 90, he showed flashes throughout the season of returning to form as the dominant setup man he was in 2011 and 2012. While there does appear to be some mutual interest in Hernandez returning to the Diamondbacks, it still remains very possible that he could land another 2-year/$4 million deal, despite his down numbers in 2015. That sort of contract, while not prohibitively large, is about four times as much as it would cost to rely on pre-arbitration alternatives already in the system. Enrique Burgos supplied nearly equivalent performance and Silvino Bracho has been dominant in his 11 games so far this season. The presence of either arm, or both, makes committing to Hernandez on a major league deal seem somewhat unlikely, especially given how financially conservative the team has been leaning since the 2015 season started.
Daniel Hudson: Hudson will be entering his final year of arbitration. Since returning from double Tommy John surgery, Hudson has made no qualms about letting the entire world know that his long-term goal is to return to a major league rotation. The Diamondbacks are in the market for a fresh influx of starting pitching. Hudson, before he was injured, was arguably one of the best #2 pitchers in baseball with real TOR potential. Although Hudson's run through the arbitration process will be largely influenced by his time as a reliever, it still remains entirely likely that he would command a substantial raise, possibly to as high as $2 million for 2016. Thus, the conundrum for the Diamondbacks. As a relief pitcher, that figure is likely higher than the Diamondbacks should be paying. However, if the Diamondbacks intend to even consider letting Hudson compete for the rotation in spring training (and comments from the front office seem to indicate that they are) then tendering Hudson is a no-brainer. At worst, Hudson represents David Hernandez 2.0, working as a very hard-throwing (flirting with 100 mph) right-handed setup man on a very reasonable one-year deal. At best. Hudson wins a spot in the 2016 rotation, representing an upside of a #2/3 pitcher able to pitch 140-160 innings, all for a truly meager salary before hitting free agency.
Rubby De La Rosa: De La Rosa is the real wild card of the pitching decisions to be made in the offseason. It is the De La Rosa uncertainty that clouds Collmenter's picture somewhat. Although De La Rosa pitched the most innings for the Diamondbacks in 2015, his innings, like those of Hellickson were wildly inconsistent. When he was good, he was damn good, keeping the opposition guessing through a handful of 8-inning outings. On his best days, De La Rosa flashed TOR brilliance. On days where De La Rosa was off, he struggled to make it through five innings. Despite making 31 starts for the Diamondbacks in 2015, it is possible the team still has no better idea what they have in him than the day the acquired him in the Wade Miley deal. Is he a future starter? Or is De La Rosa better suited to a role out of the bullpen? While the 2016 rotation is still very undecided at this point, there are a few things we can pretty much take to the bank. Patrick Corbin will be part of it. Robbie Ray almost certainly will be as well. Aaron Blair will have to implode in spring training in order to not make the rotation to start the season. The Diamondbacks intend to acquire another arm, likely through free agency. That means four of the five slots are already spoken for. With Archie Bradley, Chase Anderson, Randall Delgado, Daniel Hudson and others all looking to compete for the final spot in the rotation, De La Rosa's best chance to stick might very well be out of the bullpen. Even though De La Rosa will be first-year arbitration in 2016, the salary he might expect is unlikely to eclipse what the Diamondbacks are paying to Collmenter. If the Diamondbacks decide early on that De La Rosa's future is out of the bullpen, that could make Collmenter expendable in order to save some money and to make room on the roster to promote younger, up-and-coming talent.
The Take: The Diamondbacks have some very difficult decisions ahead of them in the coming months. The sooner some of the decisions are made, the better. Letting Hellickson and Hernandez walk only seems to make sense. Both can be immediately replaced with younger, cheaper, better talents from in-house candidates. Rubby De La Rosa should be converted to a bullpen arm with an eye on him replacing Josh Collmenter down the road. Chacin is more difficult. While the Diamondbacks have some financial wiggle-room coming their way for 2016, I'm not sold that spending as much as $6 million for a single season of Chacin is a great idea. However, if the team is convinced that there is something in him that they really like (and it would seem that La Russa does indeed see something he likes), then offering arbitration to Chacin to wrap him up could make some sense. He could simply be 2016's Jeremy Hellickson-like bounce-back project. Retaining Hudson also seems to make sense, as does letting him compete for the rotation again. Should the stars align just right, Chacin and Hudson could both remain effective as starters and suddenly the Arizona rotation would look rather formidable. Although that is unlikely, the downside from making those commitments is not great, especially in the case of Hudson.
The Diamondbacks are going to have the arms in 2016 to assemble a very good bullpen. What's more is, they will not need to go outside to improve it, keeping the total cost of the bullpen down to a manageable level. As such, the Diamondbacks need to strike fast and strike hard to land the best addition to the rotation they can. Any improvements made there will only help what will already be a solid, affordable relief corps.