"I think (managing general partner) Ken (Kendrick) and I could be talked into more, but we're looking at $100 million right now."
With that quote, Diamondbacks' President Derrick Hall has given the fan base a solid figure from which to work from when trying to envision the future of the franchise, starting with 2016. With that number, the Diamondbacks have approximately $35 million to work with, though Hall did leave the door open for more. Usually, I would be of the mind that the likelihood of the team spending more is close to nil. However, given the timing of Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock peaking, along with the stated goal of competing in 2016, I could see Hall and Kendrick being "talked into" spending a bit more in 2016. In fact, I would not be surprised if the number became $100 million plus whatever additions extensions for Goldschmidt and Pollock bring.
In one of my earlier pieces, I discussed what I thought would be a best practice for the Goldschmidt extension - extending Goldschmidt without increasing immediate salary. This would allow the team to retain the large portion of its financial wiggle room.
If the team does indeed pursue a course that allows them to retain the full $35 million of buying power, then they have enough funds to pursue one top tier free agent this coming winter. Who should the team target?
Despite their best efforts, the team has been unable to land a true front-line pitcher for three years now. That would seem the most likely course of action for the team this winter. Taking a look at the likely soon-to-be free agents, it is even more likely that the Diamondbacks focus on pitching. There are only a few position players that would appear to help the team get better offensively. Of those, only one plays a position other than the outfield. The best candidate for an outfield upgrade is likely Justin Upton. For numerous reasons, we can eliminate Upton from the conversation. Matt Weiters looks like he is going to finish the season healthy. While he would represent an upgrade at catcher, there are legitimate concerns with Weiters' durability, and his cost relative to that of Welington Castillo means that the small upgrade in production from both sides of the plate would have to come at a very steep premium.
That leaves pitching. This is a good year to be in the market for pitching. There will be three truly lights-out aces available via free agency; Zack Greinke, David Price, and Johnny Cueto. Despite being a shoo-in to win the NL Cy Young Award, Zack Greinke is likely to be the cheapest of the bunch. A contract in the neighbourhood of 5 years/ $150 million is probably going to be about right. David Price and Johnny Cueto are both likely to flirt with 7 years and around $200 million or more in order to sign. One thing that these three all have going for them is, there will be no qualifying offer tied to them. That means, the cost to acquire them will be only money, and not forfeiture of a draft pick.
While Greinke will be the cheapest of the bunch because of age, conventional wisdom holds that he will return to the Dodgers for 2016 and beyond. This makes a lot of sense. The Dodgers have already budgeted $26 million for the right-hander in 2016. Offering him $30 million on a renegotiated contract is only a net increase of $4 million. That all but makes it a no-brainer that the Dodgers are the team to sign Greinke again. The Dodgers have a little under $90 million coming off the books at the end of the season. While they will certainly want to keep some of that savings for themselves, a minor increase to keep a pitcher performing as strongly as Greinke has is an easy call.
That leaves Price and Cueto among top tier pitchers. Will the Diamondbacks have enough financial muscle to land one of those two? Once again, the Dodgers look to be in play for one of them to add to their rotation. The biggest weakness for the Dodgers this season has been rotation depth. Adding a third ace to be backed up by Ryu and Wood would go an awful long way towards turning that weakness into a strength. Despite having enough cash to pay one of them in 2016, that money will be tougher to come by in 2017 and 2018 as the team in general gets more expensive through arbitration. It also seems unlikely that this particular organization is in a position to offer seven or more years at an AAV of $30 million or more.
Jordan Zimmermann stands alone in the next tier of pitching. He too will command a hefty contract, but is probably available in the 5-6 year $125 million range. Unfortunately, Zimmermann also comes with the forfeiture of a draft pick for any team not holding one of the top 10 picks. As of today, the Diamondbacks hold the 11th pick, so it would be unprotected. Jordan Zimmermann's decreasing "stuff", along with his age and the length of the contract probably make him a no-go for the Diamondbacks as well - especially if they are forced to surrender a draft pick to sign him.
So who is left then? Although there are plenty of names being bandied about, including Scott Kazmir and Jeff Samardzija, the most likely candidate would seem to be Mike Leake. Like many of the other top pitchers in this particular crop, Leake is exempt from receiving a qualifying offer. Leake has ties to Arizona, and has more than once been linked with the Diamondbacks before the Reds finally shipped him to San Francisco. Leake probably gets a four-year deal, which would pay him through his age 31 season, meaning he would still have one more chance to test free agency as an arm near its peak. My guess is something in the realm of $50 million probably brings Leake over to the Sedona Red.
This would seem to be a somewhat underwhelming sign by Arizona if they do indeed go that route. However, Mike Leake represents a clear upgrade over the current crop of expected rotation candidates. He comes at low risk, and also allows the Diamondbacks to hold on to a great deal of their financial flexibility. This flexibility can be used at the trade deadline to upgrade pitching yet again. Or, it could also be used to land coveted Japanese hurler, Kenta Maeda.
While Maeda profiles more as a solid, innings-eating #3 pitcher with good upside than a TOR arm, it is not inconceivable the Diamondbacks could get creative and land both Maeda and Leake. That duo, paired with a duo of Patick Corbin and Aaron Blair provides a rotation of solid #3 pitchers with the potential to go toe-to-toe with opposing team's TOR arms and hold their own. Suddenly, Archie Bradley, Daniel Hudson, Robbie Ray, and Braden Shipley competing for the #5 slot in the rotation feels and looks rather promising.
No, that strategy does not bring a true TOR arm to the desert in 2016. It does, however; allow the Diamondbacks to continue developing the arms they have in an attempt to find such an arm from within, while injecting talent and excitement into the rotation in moves that are clear upgrades over the current corps of pitchers. Absolutely this feels somewhat underwhelming. It does though, also feel very practical. What's more, it still represents a probable upgrade of 8-10 wins, while also not committing the Diamondbacks to any franchise crippling contracts.