Barring a spectacular meltdown, the D-backs will find themselves in a playoff spot as the trade deadline approached at the end of next month. This is a spectacular turnaround from last year, when they finished July last in the NL West, 18 games back. The last time they were even at an even record for a single day in July, was back in 2013, reaching the deadline 2.5 games back, with a mark of 55-52. Since then our records on July 31 have been 48-61, 50-51, and 43-62. So this season promises to be rather different, both in terms of feel and front-office approach. GM Mike Hazen has already made the position clear:
“When the time comes, if we’re standing in a position to help make the team better, we’re going to try to make the team better.”
But it’s an area where the team should perhaps exercise caution. We’ve seen the team perform unexpectedly well for a new GM before, but the success caused subsequent problems down the road. Both the 2007 and 2011 National League West titles caused the front-offices of Josh Byrnes and Kevin Towers to enter “win now” mode. But they were not able to reproduce the early success, with neither man ever returning Arizona to the post-season under their charge. It may make some sense to treat this year as a delightful, unexpected early bonus, and continue focusing on the longer-term goal of rebuilding the farm system to provide a sustained pipeline of talent.
There are two particular factors which point particularly in my mind towards a conservative approach.
No obvious weaknesses
The first of these is that the 2017 Diamondbacks do not have any particularly glaring holes that need to be addressed. The chart below shows the value the 15 National League teams have received from each position so far. Note: the wins total shown is Wins Above AVERAGE for the position, not the usual Wins Above Replacement. The stats are through Tuesday, but you can see the current breakdown at this link.
NL Positions by WAA
|ARI 10.3||ARI 6.7||ARI 2.7||CIN 7.1||ATL 1.0||ATL 2.6||LAD 0.8||LAD 2.3||CIN 2.0||MIA 1.6||COL 1.4||WSN 1.8||CIN 0.2|
|LAD 9.6||COL 6.7||LAD 1.8||LAD 4.6||SFG 0.8||ARI 2.5||COL 0.5||COL 2.2||LAD 1.3||NYM 1.5||ATL 0.7||ARI 0.8||CHC 0.1|
|COL 9.0||WSN 4.7||COL 1.7||MIA 4.5||LAD 0.7||CIN 2.3||NYM 0.4||WSN 2.0||CHC 1.0||LAD 0.7||NYM 0.4||NYM 0.7||LAD 0.1|
|WSN 7.9||STL 3.8||SFG 0.8||WSN 4.2||PIT 0.7||WSN 1.7||ARI 0.4||CIN 1.8||WSN 0.5||CIN 0.5||MIA 0.4||CHC 0.7||NYM 0.0|
|CHC 1.8||LAD 2.8||PIT 0.8||CHC 3.9||CHC 0.6||MIA 1.4||CHC 0.3||MIL 1.3||MIA 0.2||PHI 0.5||CHC 0.3||MIA 0.6||MIL 0.0|
|MIL 1.4||SFG 2.1||CHC 0.3||ARI 1.4||MIA 0.5||CHC 1.2||PHI 0.3||STL 0.9||PIT 0.1||MIL -0.4||WSN 0.1||CIN 0.5||WSN -0.2|
|MIA 1.3||MIL 1.9||ATL 0.0||MIL 1.1||CIN 0.4||MIL 0.9||STL 0.3||PIT 0.9||ARI 0.0||PIT -0.4||ARI 0.0||MIL 0.4||MIA -0.2|
|STL 0.8||PIT 0.9||CIN -0.7||NYM 0.4||MIL 0.2||NYM 0.5||MIA 0.1||ARI 0.9||MIL 0.0||WSN -0.4||PHI -0.1||LAD -0.2||PHI -0.3|
|CIN 0.0||PHI -0.8||MIA -0.9||COL 0.3||STL -0.4||STL 0.4||ATL 0.0||CHC 0.9||COL -0.1||STL -0.6||SDP -0.2||STL -0.7||ARI -0.3|
|PIT -1.3||NYM -1.7||PHI -1.0||ATL 0.1||NYM -0.6||SFG 0.1||WSN -0.1||MIA -0.2||PHI -0.5||COL -0.8||STL -0.2||ATL -0.8||COL -0.5|
|NYM -2.6||MIA -1.8||SDP -1.3||STL -1.9||PHI -0.7||COL 0.1||CIN -0.1||SDP -0.7||ATL -0.5||ATL -0.9||CIN -0.6||SDP -1.0||STL -0.5|
|ATL -2.6||SDP -2.1||MIL -1.4||PIT -2.8||COL -0.7||SDP -0.3||SDP -0.2||NYM -0.9||SFG -0.6||SDP -0.9||LAD -0.7||PHI -1.1||ATL -0.6|
|SFG -6.4||CHC -2.2||STL -1.5||PHI -4.8||SDP -1.1||LAD -0.5||MIL -0.2||SFG -1.4||SDP -1.1||CHC -1.1||MIL -1.1||PIT -1.2||PIT -0.9|
|PHI -6.5||ATL -2.3||WSN -1.7||SDP -6.5||WSN -1.2||PIT -0.7||PIT -0.2||ATL -1.4||STL -1.1||ARI -1.3||PIT -1.1||COL -1.8||SDP -1.0|
|SDP -9.6||CIN -6.0||NYM -2.2||SFG -9.5||ARI -1.6||PHI -1.3||SFG -0.3||PHI -1.5||NYM -1.6||SFG -1.9||SFG -2.4||SFG -2.1||SFG -1.7|
With a couple of exceptions (which we’ll get to shortly), the D-backs are at or above average in every significant category. This isn’t a team where you see an obvious need at a spot. True, our catchers have been well below average in terms of offensive production, “led” by Jeff Mathis, whose OPS+ of 19 is the lowest this year by any major-league with a hundred or more PA. But I doubt anyone can argue that Mathis and Chris Iannetta have been a huge part in the remarkable improvement of the pitching staff this season. The hit at the plate - or lack of hits - is something I’m quite willing to accept in exchange.
Hazen has mentioned the bullpen as a potential area for upgrade: “I think if you would poll every contender, every one of them would probably say bullpen. I think there are reasons for that. One, you have seven spots out there. And, two, you typically have a lot of ups and downs as you go through the season. That’s just something we’ll probably be looking at.” But this table shows the D-backs have had the best bullpen in the league. Even if J.J. Hoover has been struggling of late, they seem to have potentially good options in Reno, including Rubby De La Rosa, Jake Barrett and maybe even rookie Jimmy Sherfy.
Indeed, if you’re looking for a bit of radical thinking, how about the team being sellers at the trade deadline and shipping out Fernando Rodney? He’s a free-agent at the end of the season anyway, and would likely fetch a good return from another contending team in need of a closer, since at time of writing he trails only the Rockies’ Greg Holland in MLB saves. Maybe the Nationals could use him, with their closer Koda Glover currently on the DL with a back issue. Put Archie Bradley in the closer’s spot he’ll likely occupy in 2018 anyway, move everyone (bar Hoover, perhaps) up the ladder a bit, and bring one of the names mentioned above up from Reno.
Left field seems another potential area for improvement. However, we do currently have two-third of our Opening Day outfield on the DL, in the form of A.J. Pollock and Yasmany Tomas. They have managed only 33 and 42 starts this year. While Pollock obviously does not affect left-field directly this has meant Gregor Blanco has needed to move over to cover center. In turn, that leaves left-field occupied mostly by the back end of the bench, in the shapes of Chris Herrmann and Daniel Descalso. Does this need to be addressed? If Pollock and Tomas are able to complete their rehabs and return by the deadline. I’d say probably not.
The dangers of an arms race
There may be only two games separating the Rockies, Dodgers and Diamondbacks at the top of the National League West. But right now, Fangraphs give the Dodgers an 87% chance of winning the division. Now, these projections have been wrong before: they gave the D-backs an 8.2% chance of making the post-season on Opening Day. However, it would be a very brave man to bet against Los Angeles winning the division. And to quote Sherlock, “Bravery is by far the kindest word for stupidity.”
The annoying Dodgers fan in the office tells me (in between breathlessly adoring Cody Bellinger) they will be aggressive buyers at the deadline, likely adding another starting pitcher - he mentioned Yu Darvish. They have the payroll and farm system to pull off a significant move like that. Arizona has neither. It seems the D-backs can add no more than $5 million in payroll down the stretch. Good enough, perhaps for a decent bench-bat, but not something that will move the needle much, in comparison to the moves available to the Dodgers.
The playoff structure does reward division winners over wild-card teams, more than previously. [Though you can argue its fairness, when the three teams with the best record in the NL are in the same division, as currently. Maybe it should be adjusted: make the 4th- and 5th-best records the wild-card teams, rather than the best non-champions?] So there is certainly something to be said for doing all that’s within our power to win. But trying to keep up with LA may be impossible, and even counter-productive. We’ll burn resources, like prospects, we need for the long term, and there is absolutely no guarantee we would be able to beat the richer Dodgers to the title.
The mantra for the team needs to be, “Spend smarter, not harder.” There’s a case that selling out to take on LA for one year would not be smart. If the projections are to be believed, we’d likely end up in the same wild-card game against the Rockies, as if we kept our powder dry. Chasing the potential mirage of a division title may not be worth the cost.
Buy, sell or stand pat?
It’s a difficult balancing act for any GM. You don’t want to spurn the chance which opportunity has dropped into your lap. But on the other hand, as we’ve seen, going all in prematurely can hamper a franchise for years to come. I’m confident that Hazen is perfectly aware of the potential pitfalls. He said, “We want to make sure we’re recognizing the true marginal upgrade of what we’re trying to do. We’re not trading off zero. Rarely. Not unless somebody’s hurt. You’re trading off something.” It may be that the return of a healthy Pollock is all the team needs. After all, his career 5.8 WAR per 162 games is not far short of the figure owned by Paul Goldschmidt (6.2).
I’m inclined to stand close to pat. Team chemistry may not be able to be measured, but it’d be foolish to discount its impact - or its fragility. Perhaps look at picking up a rental bench bat, if the cost is mostly measured in salary dollars, rather than in prospects. Tweak the bullpen with some Reno arms. But otherwise, there’s a strong case to be made for not interfering with what has clearly been working so far. There will be tougher stretches on the schedule to come. But for right now, we can just bask in the joy of having to think about whether to be buyers at the deadline!
At the deadline, the D-backs should
This poll is closed
Be strong buyers
Be weak buyers
Be weak sellers
Be strong sellers