You can probably put a precise date on the day Arizona's pitching ceased to be. April 6, 2009. Opening Day, and Brandon Webb took the mound for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was fresh off a 22-win season, and his third consecutive top-two finish in Cy Young voting. Sure, talks for a long-term contract extension has stopped the previous June, after the team were unable to secure insurance on the pitcher. But Webb had been a workhorse: from 2004-08, no major-league pitcher had more starts (169), or National Leaguer thrown more innings (1,135). There was no reason to expect anything except another Cy Young caliber season from Webb, as he took the mound that Monday afternoon at Chase.
Four innings later, he was done. As in, he'd never throw in the majors again.
It wasn't just the end of Webb's career, but also ended the era of stellar pitching in Arizona. Over the previous decade, 1999-2008, Diamondbacks had notched five Cy Young awards and five second-place finishes. Since then? Over seven seasons - and the one in progress isn't looking much more hopeful - we've had nobody even in the top three. Our sole mentions have been Dan Haren, who occupied the last spot on a single person's ballot in 2009, and Ian Kennedy's fourth-place finish in 2011. It's not purely a lack of aces. Going into this home-stand, the Diamondbacks' fWAR since Webb's last game on Opening Day 2009, was 81.1 - second to last among the 15 current National League sides.
Yes, pitching has undeniably been the team's most consistent problem, and it's a situation which, if anything, appears to be getting worse. 2009 at least gave us Dan Haren, the last five bWAR season in Sedona Red. Ian Kennedy in 2011 was our last four-win pitcher; Arizona's most recent three bWAR campaign? Wade Miley in 2012. Since then: nothing, though Zack Greinke should (hopefully) end the streak this year. It isn't exactly Hall of Fame level pitching either. No fewer than 88 different players have put up 3+ bWAR at least once over the three seasons since Miley; 32 have multiple such efforts; 10 have done it every year [Hell, Clayton Kershaw is already there in 2016] Not one of them was a Diamondback.
We haven't been able to do much in the way of strength through longevity either. Over the 2009-2016 period, just a trio of Diamondbacks have thrown 500 innings for the team: Ian Kennedy, Josh Collmenter and Wade Miley; all being well, Patrick Corbin should join this lightly-populated club next start, needing four more frames. But, for right now, no team in the majors has fewer 500 IP guys in that time than the Diamondbacks. Obviously, The One Who Got Away is Max Scherzer. Even if he was part of the trade that got us Kennedy, and Edwin Jackson whom we turned into Daniel Hudson, we can be forgiven for looking at the 2013 Cy Young winner and sighing heavily.
In particular, there has been an almost-total failure of our farm system to draft and develop pitching to help the team at the major-league level. From 2009 on, guess how many pitchers, drafted (before or since) by the Diamondbacks, have given the team two or more bWAR. Not in a season. Career total for Arizona. Here's the full list.
- Josh Collmenter: 7.5 bWAR
- Wade Miley: 5.6 bWAR
Do not adjust your SnakePit. That's it. Two. To find anyone else we drafted, you've got to go all the way down to Chase Anderson's 1.6 bWAR. Max Scherzer and Andrew Chafin are the only others to have been worth a single win for the Diamondbacks - and at current rate of performance, the latter will be leaving that club by the end of the year. But Archie Bradley might come in as a replacement. Still, it's hardly a ringing endorsement of our farm system.
Things don't get much better if you look at free-agent pitching the team have picked up. Here's a list of all the names that have signed or been re-signed with the Diamondbacks, with an annual value of $2 million or higher since 2009, along with the details of their contract and value to Arizona. [Some were dealt to Arizona, then re-signed as free agents, e.g. Joe Saunders - I've only listed the latter portion of their time here in this section]
- Jon Garland: one year, $6.25 million. 1.3 bWAR, traded for Tony Abreu
- Bob Howry: one year, $2.25 million, -0.8 bWAR
- Aaron Heilman, one year, $2 million, -1.1 bWAR
- J.J. Putz, four years, $22 million, 3.5 bWAR
- Joe Saunders, one year, $6 million, -0.1 bWAR
- Brandon McCarthy, two years, $15.5 million, -0.7 bWAR, traded for Vidal Nuño
- Bronson Arroyo, two years, $23.5 million, 0.7 bWAR, traded with Touki Toussaint for Phil Gosselin
- Oliver Perez, two years, $4.25 million, 0.8 bWAR, traded for a minor-leaguer
- Zack Greinke, six years, $206.5 million, ??? bWAR
With the jury obviously still out on Greinke, the rest are not an impressive list. In some cases, it was a case of extending a player when letting them walk would (in hindsight) have made more sense. Putz, for example, was solid (2.8 bWAR) over the original two years of his contract., but had declined each season from a high of 1.7 immediately before joining Arizona That should have been a sign. The team instead, not only exercised the third, option year (0.9 at $6.5m), but extended him for a fourth, which was a disaster; below replacement-level while paying J.J. a career-high $7 million. Still, at least we got a special assistant out of it...
The most complicated part of the equation are the deals, because you have to try and figure out value on two sides, perhaps also taking into account subsequent transactions involving the players. A rigorous and methodical approach would likely mean this article appearing somewhere round about 2018. Instead, here are the best and worst of the significant (for some vague definition of "significant") trades since Opening Day 2009, in chronological order. with a general discussion of each category.
- July 25, 2010. Traded Dan Haren to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Received Tyler Skaggs, Patrick Corbin, Rafael Rodriguez and Joe Saunders.
- July 30, 2010. Traded Edwin Jackson to the Chicago White Sox. Received David Holmberg and Daniel Hudson.
- July 31, 2011. Traded Brandon Allen and Jordan Norberto to the Oakland Athletics. Received Brad Ziegler.
One of these things is not like the others... Trading a young position player and an even younger relief arm for a 31-year-old reliever with less than 20 career saves isn't typically genius. But neither Allen nor Norberto have appeared in the majors since 2012, while Ziegler has simply been the best reliever in franchise history since his arrival - and it's not even close.
- December 8, 2009: Traded Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth to the Detroit Tigers. Received Edwin Jackson from the Detroit Tigers and Ian Kennedy from the New York Yankees.
- December 9, 2011. Traded Ryan Cook, Collin Cowgill and Jarrod Parker to the Oakland Athletics. Received Craig Breslow, Trevor Cahill and cash.
- December 11, 2012. Traded Matt Albers, Trevor Bauer and Bryan Shaw to the Cleveland Indians. Received Didi Gregorius from the Cincinnati Reds and Lars Anderson and Tony Sipp from the Cleveland Indians
- December 9, 2015 Traded Aaron Blair, Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte to the Atlanta Braves. Received Gabe Speier and Shelby Miller.
What this proves, is that we need to lock our GM in a closet over the first two weeks of December. Though, I guess you can argue the other side for most, if not all, of these deals. But the fact we later spun the sow's ear of Edwin Jackson into the relative silk purse of Daniel Hudson, does not ever excuse dealing away a future Cy Young winner. But what we see here - with the exception of the Bauer trade - is a general pattern in the worst trades, that's the opposite of the best - trading future potential for a lower level of proven, current talent. Note, this doesn't necessarily make them inherently bad, just that they have the highest potential to backfire in spectacular fashion, if the lost potential blooms to its fullest extent.
You don't have to be great in all three areas to succeed. But it's hard to find any degree of consistent success when you're bad in two and little better than mediocre in the third. It's also notable that the only season since Webb's departure where we reached the post-season, our team ERA ranked ninth in the league - that division title was much more about our NL best hitting and fielding. Unless we're confident of repeating that, we're going to need pitching which is better than average, to compete. Roughly speaking that probably means being good in two of the three: whether that's smart trades and good free-agent acquisitions, or trades and a productive farm system, doesn't matter much,
But the approach over the past eight seasons can only be described as an almost-total failure. The team will have to take a hard look at all the above aspects, and figure out what they can do to improve in them.