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Why the Arizona Diamondbacks should rebuild

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As a great philosopher once wrote, “Rip it up and start again...”

77-meter Building Demolition Blasting In Wuhan Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images

At the start of the week, we asked “Should the Arizona Diamondbacks rebuild, retool or go all-in?” and gave a high-level overview of the possibilities. The poll attached showed no clear consensus among fans: rebuild was the most popular option, but fell short of an overall majority. Over the next three days, we’ll be digging into each approach in a bit more details, and making a case for them. Here’s the first of these, in which we cover hitting the reset button.

Why this approach makes sense

Wesley: The Diamondbacks have to compete with the Yankees of the NL, the Dodgers. The only way they can compete with a team like that is to build from within. We missed our window of contention, and although we could spend a bunch of money to try and compete next year, it is probably for the best that we trade away the valuable pieces we have now. Eleven players will become free agents, including some of our best players. All though there is an impressive free agent class this off-season, it’ll be tough for our small-mid market team to hang with the big boys. We’re closer to the Astros than we are the Yankees, Dodgers, or Red Sox, and we need to build our team accordingly.

Jim: The team is losing 11 free agents in the coming weeks, including their best pitcher (Patrick Corbin) and an All-Star outfield (A.J. Pollock). Here’s the full list

  • Patrick Corbin (4.6 bWAR)
  • Randall Delgado (-0.1)
  • Daniel Descalso (1.1)
  • Jake Diekman (-0.8)
  • Eduardo Escobar (1.0)
  • Neftali Feliz (0.0)
  • Jon Jay (0.0)
  • Jeff Mathis (0.2)
  • A.J. Pollock (2.5)
  • Chris Stewart (0.0)
  • Brad Ziegler (0.1)

Even with all these players, the team ended the year at around .500. Replacing the total 8.4 bWAR production they gave the team in 2018 is going to be difficult, if not impossible, and the team would still be at least six to eight games short of a postseason spot. With a farm system severely deficient at the higher level, there won’t be much help directly coming from there, and it also offers limited opportunity to trade for talent which would move the needle significantly.

Put bluntly, this team is likely going to get worse in 2019, and significantly worse still in 2020, if Paul Goldschmidt leaves as a free-agent. Rather than chasing the illusion of playoff baseball, which would require the team to pick up around fifteen wins over the current roster for next year, it makes more sense to cash in the remaining players to improve the farm system, and work toward opening another window of contention, a few years down the road.

Alexander: Like Jim previously stated, 11 free agents means that you’re probably going to lose 2/3rds. However, I would say they should scrap every one of these players. The only exceptions would obviously be below market deals, but with teams having saved salary cap for this offseason it seems as though a lot of dough will be thrown around.

Like the last sentence states, the big boys sat idle during the last offseason to stay below the luxury tax. THIS was the year with the Dodgers especially following this path. The pocketbooks of the rich will go back to obliterating what the D-backs can afford to spend this winter.

How it would be implemented

Jim: The first step is for Mike Hazen and the front-office to figure out when that window will be. Looking at what we have in the minors currently, I’d say we are likely looking at a period beginning in 2022, when players like Jazz Chisholm should be able to contribute at the major-league level. Those currently higher up the system, like Taylor Widener and Jon Duplantier, will still comfortably be under team control and reasonably affordable.

The next step is trading every one of the established players who won’t be around and able to help at that point, for prospects who will be part of that roster. For example. setting 2022 as the reset point, if a player is a free-agent before then, the D-backs should be open to them being traded. From what I can see, the players who appeared for Arizona this year who will still be under contract for 2022 are:

Position players

  • Ketel Marte
  • Socrates Brito
  • Christian Walker
  • Ildemaro Vargas
  • Patrick Kivlehan
  • Deven Marrero

Starting pitchers

  • Zack Godley
  • Braden Shipley
  • Matt Koch

Relief pitchers

  • Jake Barrett
  • Silvino Bracho
  • Jimmie Sherfy

A couple of the above position players are fringe, shall we say. Do we really expect Marrero, with all respect, to be a part of any meaningful rebuild four years down the road? But whether they stay or go is likely not going to move the needle very much.

Everyone else? Trade for prospects, ideally ones who will be maturing to the major-league level at or near the targeted window. The sooner the better, on the basis that the more control the likes of Paul Goldschmidt, David Peralta, Robbie Ray, etc. have left, the greater the return for them would be. What the specific return would be will depend on what holes the team views as needing filled: catcher, for example, seems an area where the existing farm system is weak. I’d favor a mix of some blue-chip talent and lottery tickets: with prospects, it’s probably a numbers game to a certain extent. The more you have, the better the chances of some eighth-rounder blossoming into a perennial MVP or Cy Young candidate.

Wesley: Jim summed it up in a concise manner, but I have a few more thoughts. In the game of prospects, the vast majority will not make the major leagues, and will not reach their potential. So the best way to go about ensuring your prospects make it is quantity over quality. (although if you can acquire quantity AND quality, that’s even better). I disagree with Jim about catcher being a weak area in our current farm system: In addition to Daulton Varsho, we have had guys like Dom Miroglio have had breakout seasons last year. However, it does seem wise though to focus on positions that are generally weak areas, catcher, shortstop, second base, third base, and centerfield. It’s a lot easier to find a bat at left or first then the positions i just listed, so by shoring up those positions, you’re building from a position of strength. Also, pitching, pitching, pitching.

What needs to go right for it to work

It all comes down to the team being able to make the right deals, both in trades and when it comes to the June draft. Hazen has shown some sharpness in terms of picking up bargains for major-league talent (Hirano, Martinez, Buchholz), but has also had his misses (Souza, Diekman). What’s largely untested, simply due to time, is whether he and his team are any good at evaluating minor-league talent, and that’s going to be the key for a rebuild to succeed.

We need to be able to assess not just college/high-school players in the draft, but also look at other teams’ minor-league systems and decide which players to target and at what cost. It’ll involve striking a balance between age, level, talent and potential ceiling. However, that does not mean the team should abandon all other routes. Latin America, the Far East and anywhere else should also be mined, and we shouldn’t forget more traditional avenue to build a competing roster either. If you look at the 2017 Astros, of their top nine position players by PA, three were drafted, two were amateur free agents, two were traded for and two signed as free agents. That’s the kind of balance Hazen will need to find:

Tankapalooza should be in full effect, to improve the draft slots available to the team, because a top three pick has a much greater chance of success than something in the #10-15 range. Mediocrity is not what we want. There is little to be gained from winning 75 games compared to 60.

The risks of failure.

The 2001 Seattle Mariners won 116 games, among the most ever in baseball. They haven’t been back to the post-season in seventeen seasons since. The D-backs are starting from a far lower mark, and if the team doesn’t hit paydirt with its prospects down the road, there could be a downward spiral of failed contention, declining local interest and reduced revenues. We could turn into Miami, who just completed their ninth consecutive losing season, and with 98 losses this year, the end isn’t exactly in sight for their fans.

Even if everything goes according to plan, it IS all but certain to be ugly for the next few seasons. Perhaps not quite Baltimore ugly, but Marlins or Reds ugly is very possible, and indeed probable. Going this route will likely mean multiple losing seasons before the corner is turned again. That’s something local fans are just going to have to accept, and keep their focus on the longer-term picture. The Astros lost over 100 games, three years in a row, peaking at 111 in 2013. Four seasons later, they won the World Series. If the D-backs can do that, all will be forgiven. But it’s very much an “if”, and there are no guarantees to this scenario.