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Rebuilding the Diamondbacks: The Nuclear Option

In which I suggest the unsuggestible

Philadelphia Phillies v Colorado Rockies Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

The 2016 Diamondbacks were the most disappointing team in Major League Baseball. Yes, even more so than the Twins. While both of those teams were expected to be far better than they were, the Twins had plenty of problems. The Diamondbacks looked good on paper, and were frequently picked to win the Wild Card (a few “experts” even picked them to win the division, which was probably the second-worst pick of 2016.)

As a result of the underperformance, Mike Hazen has taken over the front office and is tasked with fielding a competitive team and rebuilding what is currently one of baseball’s worst farm systems. In addition, he will have considerably less money at his disposal than his predecessor. Sure, payroll remains the same, but his predecessor committed one-third of that payroll to Zack Greinke. With arbitration increases (and an increase in salary for Paul Goldschmidt) there is really no money available for free agents.

But if ever there was a year when it’s not a bad thing to be cash-strapped, it is this year. There simply aren’t very many attractive free agent options. Those that exist are going to be extremely overpaid, something the Diamondbacks cannot afford to do. The smart option is to stay the course, maintain the status quo, and hope that the group of players that was expected to compete in 2016 can actually compete in 2017. That would not provide lasting success, but it might either convince Kendrick to open up the wallet or earn Hazen more leash to rebuild the farm.

Let me make it clear that, for 2017, the best option is to stay the course. I am not advocating what I am about to write. But there is a chance that it happens, and we need to be prepared and discuss it ahead of time. There is also a chance, and a much bigger chance, that the 2017 team is not competitive, and so we see this plan enacted around the July 31 deadline. That would be the smart option. If the team has managed to be in postseason position in July, staying the course has worked and can continue. If they trail by even as little as five games, it is probably time to sell, as there simply aren’t trade chips available to make a postseason run. If the 2017 team is going to be successful, it will be because these players figured it out.

So what happens if Hazen decides not to stay the course? Or, if he stays the course at first, what happens if the Diamondbacks are eliminated by the All Star break? There may be several options, but this is the nuclear option. It is the most extreme, but it would probably also set the franchise up much better in 2020 and going forward.

  1. Identify a core group of players who are under contract and will be relatively cheap through 2020.

This is important. You can’t have a baseball team without players, and you need some consistency for the sake of the fans. If you set 2020 as the year to be competitive again, it would be best for at least one player, if not more, to have been around through the entire process. Unfortunately, this rules out the three biggest stars on the team right now. Paul Goldschmidt is only under contract through 2019. A.J. Pollock is a free agent one year sooner. Zack Greinke is too expensive. None of the three most recognizable players right now will be around in 2020. So at least one new player, preferably at least three, need to be identified.

Fortunately, the Diamondbacks are well-positioned in this regard. There are four potential players, none of whom will be free agents until 2021, and some of whom are already well on their way to becoming fan favorites. They are David Peralta, Jake Lamb, Robbie Ray, and Brandon Drury. Ideally, extensions can be negotiated for some, if not all, of this group. All have shown they can contribute at the Major League level. The only way anyone from this group is traded is for a crazy offer.

2. Identify a group of players that need to be traded sooner, rather than later.

Essentially, this group of players need to be traded soon in order to maximize value. Obviously, the closer a player is to free agency, the less a team will be willing to part with in order to acquire him. This group of players all needs to be dealt before this next season, or by the trade deadline at the latest.

Zack Greinke and Yasmany Tomas are the only players in this group. Both are too expensive. Tomas would be a perfect fit in the American League (like Trumbo) but his glove negates his bat value in the NL. Greinke is simply expensive, and for a team with a $100 million payroll (and no signs of an increase, new TV contract and promises be damned!) there’s no way to hold on to him. Plus, he is 32, and with his performance almost certain to drop in the future, he probably won’t fetch more at any point after the trade deadline in 2017. Whether Kendrick will allow the “bad optics” of trading Greinke or not remains to be seen.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the Diamondbacks will be able to get anyone to take all of Greinke’s contract. They shouldn’t try. In fact, the Diamondbacks could and should be willing to eat a substantial amount of it (perhaps up to $100 million even) if they can get the right prospects back. Going nuclear and building for 2020 and beyond is all about blue chip talent. One way to get that talent would be to eat Greinke’s contract in exchange for it. This basically equates to paying $20 million a year (plus the minimum contracts) for the next five years for multiple good players, instead of paying $34 million a year for the next five years for Greinke.

The Diamondbacks should be more insistent on a team taking on a bigger chunk of the contract for Tomas. Here, they don’t need to be as concerned about the return. Better free agent classes will be coming, and if they can save ~$20 million a year between Greinke and Tomas, they will be in position to take advantage of it. The Diamondbacks could offer to pay no part of Tomas’s salary if he opts out after next year (much more likely if he is mashing the ball as a DH in an American League park) and to cover ~$15 million of it over the next three years if he doesn’t opt out.

3. Trade Paul Goldschmidt

Here is the big one. But there’s no rush to a decision. If the Diamondbacks free up money by trading Greinke and Tomas, there might not even be a need to trade Goldy. He will still be a very good player in 2020 and for a few years after that, so if it is possible to extend him further, that should be done. However, he is a great player right now. And great players (especially ones on team friendly contracts) bring back a lot more prospects in trade than do good players. In addition, if Lamb and Drury are both regarded as parts of the future core, trading Goldy enables both of them to play more natural positions: Lamb at first base (where his struggles throwing the ball would be minimized) and Drury at third base.

Obviously, you need a crazy offer to even consider trading the biggest draw on the team. And if it is going to happen, it needs to happen before the 2018 season. At that point, the risk becomes first that Goldy will decline enough to not bring back enough in trade, and that, with under two years left on the contract, a team would bring back as much.

I don’t want to trade Goldy, but the facts are what they are. The Diamondbacks have a better chance of replacing his production than, for example, replacing that of Welington Castillo. He will also bring more prospects back than anyone else on the team. In the event of a rebuild, it is almost certain that he will not be around by the time the team returns to being competitive.

4. Sell High

Here are the players not in the previous sections currently under contract that will see their contracts expire before 2020: A.J. Pollock, Chris Owings, Chris Herrmann, Shelby Miller, Welington Castillo, Jean Segura, Patrick Corbin, Rubby De La Rosa, Randall Delgado, Tuffy Gosewisch. These players either have to have their contracts extended, or they can be let go via free agency, or they can be traded to get something back when they leave. If they are to be traded, that needs to happen at a time when value is high, and not (as the Diamondbacks have done in the past) when value is low.

This means that Welington Castillo and Jean Segura should be traded soon. Castillo is a free agent after next year. His value will decrease as the season goes along. Segura has never had higher value. Can the team afford to gamble that his stock keeps going up? However, the team needs to hold on to these players if they wish to stay the course until the trade deadline. That may diminish the return, but it will be nearly impossible to replace their production in 2017. So unless Hazen has decided to blow everything up before even seeing half a season, look for them to stay at least a little while, barring a ridiculous offer.

Everyone else needs to be held, for now. Pollock needs to show that he has returned from injury to be the same player he was before. The other pitchers all need to show improvement or health, or both.

Shelby Miller is the most intriguing player on this list. He may never be the pitcher he once was. That is fine, for a rebuilding team. Either he bounces back, reclaims value, and can be flipped for prospects, or he doesn’t and can help ensure top draft picks, while not getting a big pay increase via arbitration. That’s a win-win for a rebuilding team. Still arguably the worst trade in Diamondbacks history, but at this point, we’ll take what we can get.

Pollock and Owings are the only two players on this list that have a good shot at being extended through the rebuilding phase and into 2020 and beyond. Owings needs to demonstrate that last year wasn’t a fluke. If Pollock continues to struggle with bad luck related injuries, he may well be cheap enough to extend.

5. Draft and develop well

No matter how big of a sale the Diamondbacks make, they don’t figure to get more than 3-4 top-shelf prospects and a collection of nice prospects. That means the draft and development continue to be extremely important. Hazen’s first draft pick should be someone that will possibly be ready to star in 2020. Drafting and developing well is important, because the front office will not hit on all of their acquisitions. A core player might disappoint. A high prospect could be injured, or fail to live up to expectations. Drafting well is how teams can cushion themselves against falling on their faces like the Diamondbacks did last year.

This has been the nuclear option. It is my hope that Hazen somehow finds a way to build the team without blowing it up, but I think we need to face what could be a difficult three years as the Diamondbacks transition to a cheaper team with a better farm system.