By the end of the season, the Diamondbacks will have had a 2016 salary figure of almost exactly the projected $100 million the fan base was told to expect at this tieme last season. It seeems that management’s claims that payroll could be increased to slightly more than $110 million could possibly happen if it enabled signing the right player were merely empty words to appease restless fans grwoing increasingly aware of the front office’s thrifty ways with payroll.
Despite a bounce-back season by Jean Segura that should put him squarely atop the discussion board for the National League Comeback Player of the Year, down seasons from PAtrick Corbin, Shelby Miller, and Rubby De La Rosa should keep the expected arbitration increases pretty much in check. This means that, should the Diamondbacks make no significant personnel changes, they could enter the 2017 season with a salary figure very near the 2016 numbers, give or take $1-2 million.
It’s the 2018 season where things get ugly. Even if the Diamondbacks were to divest themselves entirely of Zack Greinke and his $34 million annual salary, they would not be able to maintain the current payroll spending levels without making further cuts into the core of the team. In other words, if Ken Kendrick wants to keep his baseball team, he’s going to need to open up the checkbook. A.J. Pollock will be third-time arbitration eligible. Even with regression, he’ll command at least $8 million. Welington Castillo will be a free agent, going into a free agent class where he will be far and away the premium catcher available at age 31. Given the Diamondbacks’ catching situation, it is likely they will need to spend significantly on some sort of catching option, even if it is not Castillo, and given that Castillo will be the youngster of the aging, back-up laden crop catching crop at 31, none of the options look very promising. The Diamondbacks’ best hope there is for Oscar Hernandez to develop into enough of a hitter to fill the void. With Patrick Corbin and Jean Segura also reaching their thrid season of arbitration eligiblity, it is fairly easy to see another $10 million spent there, especially if Segura has a 2017 season that matches his 2016 and Corin returns to full-time starting duties.
Things get even tighter for the Diamondbacks moving into 2019, which is currently on pace to be the most lucrative free agent class ever, and by a long shot, with the very real possibility of at least one $40 million season being awarded. A rising tide raises all shops, or in this case free agent salaries. A.J. Pollock, unless he is extended during the 2017 season will be long gone, off to make close to $20 million annually on a four to five year contract. Likewise, Patrick Corbin is probably gone as well, though not for nearly that kind of money. Still, even moderately league average starters are likely to be getting $14 million annually, a price still well out of the Diamondbacks’ spending range, even with a modest bump in payroll.
This is where talent evaluation and well-reasoned gambles comes into play. It’s time for the Diamondbacks to steal a page from the Tampa Bay Rays. If the Diamondbcaks want to be able to retain their talented core and not watch it depart via free agency or become too expensive during arbitration, they are going to need to start extending their better talent before arbitration even rolls around. The Diamondbacks have gone down this road three times before, with Brandon Webb, Chris Young and Paul Goldscmidt. Despite injuries to Webb and Young sapping some of their hoped-for production, all three of those early extensions have nicely rewarded the Diamondbacks, with Paul Goldschmidt still paying off through 2019. Given that Goldschmidt has nearly earned the value of his extension since signing it, it seems unlikely he will fall short of being “worth every penny”.
The Diamondbacks currently have two players in the fold that should seriously be considered for similar pre-arbitration extensions. Neither player is without the risk of course, and neither is as sure a thing as Webb or Goldschmidt, but it is in finding these early extensions where the Diamondbacks can continue to run with a talented core of impact players while not having much wiggle room to play the free agent market before the possible departure of Paul Goldschmidt at the end of the 2019 season. The players it is time to consider for early extensions are Jake Lamb and Robbie Ray.
Next up, the case for (and against) Jake Lamb.