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Why the Arizona Diamondbacks should retool

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Let’s look to see if the current squad offers a basis which can be tweaked back into contention.

George Osborne On The Conservative Party Election Trail In The South West Photo by Matt Cardy/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. We are now digging into each approach in a bit more details, and making a case for them. Here’s the second of these, in which we cover hitting the reset button.

“Sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step of your life. Tiptoe if you must, but take a step.” -- Naeem Callaway

Why this approach makes sense.

Paul Goldschmidt and Zack Greinke. The Diamondbacks have two of the best players in baseball on the team right now, but that is only guaranteed for one more season. After 2019, they could lose the cornerstone of the offense, a perennial all-star who can, at times, carry this time on his own. Next season could be the last year of the Paul Goldschmidt window. Unlike the other approaches, in this approach it makes sense to extend Goldschmidt’s contract! And extending Goldschmidt makes sense!

The team is solid (except possible holes in center field (Pollock) and rotation (Corbin) from free agency). 25 games were lost by 1-run. The right tweaks could be a winner! “We have a solid core of talent on this team, and for the majority of the season we were in first place.” -- Mike Hazen

And the team has an awesome strength - defense! By a huge margin, the team leads the Majors in BIS Defensive Runs Saved Above Average (DRS-AA). Through 28 September, the D-backs had 120 DRS-AA. That compares well to Brewers (95 - ranked second), Braves (58 -ranked third), … and Dodgers(28).

This approach is consistent with the Diamondback philosophy and strategy. . “We’re trying to create that with everything that we’re doing from a coaching standpoint, from a teaching standpoint, building an infrastructure standpoint underneath, to acquiring impact talent underneath, to create that sustainable, consistent competition for a World Series championship.” -- Mike Hazen

In addition to this, the minor league system is still a work in progress. The soonest any of the impact position players will be ready is sometime in mid-2020. Most aren’t arriving until 2021 or later. A retooling just might keep this franchise relevant until then, so long as they can keep it together through 2019.

“The right GM (Mike Hazen) and right manager (Torey Lovullo) are in place to execute this approach. “…it takes COMPETENT management , and some good luck as well, to come out on or near the top.” -- Jack Sommers.

Lastly, although fan attendance is no longer a primary driving force behind payroll, Ken Kendrick and Derrick Hall have some serious work to do with mending fences with the fan base. Threats of moving the team out of state and the simply the general ugliness that has been the stadium dispute, has left the fans with a sour taste in their mouths. By showing a willingness to spend like a competitor and making a best effort to keep a sustainably winning product on the field, Kendrick can make a lot of those hard feelings a thing of the past.

How it would be implemented

The first, most obvious part of the plan is that Ken Kendrick will need to expand payroll yet again. It is unreasonable to expect that all of Corbin, Pollock, and Escobar can be retained. With Jake Lamb slated to return to third base and Patrick Corbin potentially lining up for a $100 million contract, A.J. Pollock makes the most sense to roll the dice on in terms of spending “big money”. With the down year he has had in 2018, he might just slide in under the threshold the Diamondbacks can afford to spend. Despite his injuries and his so-so performance this year, he’s still going to be the best outfielder on the free agent market not named Bryce Harper. He’s also pretty much the only free agent capable of playing center field at Chase Field and in the NL West. The Diamondbacks have no other options for the position in the minors, unless they can turn to Socrates Brito, a dicey proposition at best.

Jarrod Dyson is under team control for 2019, but they may want to take a run at another outfielder to push him for the 4th/5th outfielder slot, depending on how they feel about Brito and Patrick Kivlehan.

The team will still need at least one more starting pitcher, in addition to signing Pollock. This might be another veteran retread similar to Buchholz. There are a few candidates that will be available. Additionally, the Diamondbacks could elect to spend what little trade capital they have on acquiring a serviceable arm for the middle or back of the rotation.

The bullpen, as it has been for two seasons now, can be filled out inexpensively. This time though, the savings can be found by utilizing the arms already in the system. Keep Sherfy and Bracho up. Give Jake Barrett another stint in the majors. By adding these arms to the core of Bradley, Boxberger, Chafin, and Hirano, the team will have a serviceable bullpen that also features options, all at a low total cost. During the season, relievers with options can be rested by frequent optioning to/from the minors.

Implementation would include hiring a top-notch hitting consultant (to supplement the efforts of Robert Van Scoyoc, Tim Laker, and whoever replaces hitting coach Dave Magadan).

  • Develop more consistent hitting/run-scoring. “Going by position, table below is how the team stacked up in Batting Runs Above Average. They are DEAD LAST IN NL with -116. Batting runs.” -- Jack Sommers
  • Currently, Jarrod Dyson and Daniel Descalso are great pinch hitters (pinch ratio). Develop more pinch hitters from within the D-backs. “Like almost everyone else has said, Torey needs to start utilizing pinch-hitters more.“ -- Cumulus Choir .

For hints how to pinch hit better, let’s look at Tommy La Stella, the best pinch hitter in baseball. He has three characteristics that are key to his success:

  • “First and foremost I don’t want to expand my zone.” Because he doesn’t care whether he swings, he leads the Majors in pinch-hit walks
  • “The thing I found is I put together my best at-bats when I had my simplest thought process.” That means simple mechanics, simple thoughts between pitches, and he simplifies what he does best.
  • Maddon, his manager said, “The best quality is he’s a really calm human being. He doesn’t overthink it, he doesn’t overwork it.” Meditation is “part of his game.”

Early in the season, implementation would include a formal confirmation that the approach is working. The first ten series will tell the story because they include 6 series against first/second place teams plus 2 series against the talented and fast-rising Padres. If success happens, the retool approach is validated. If failure happens, modify or revisit the retooling decision.

What needs to go right for it to work

The “starting team” would then look similar to what it does now.

  • Paul Goldschmidt -1B
  • Ketel Marte - 2B
  • Jake Lamb - 3B
  • Nick Ahmed - SS
  • David Peralta - LF
  • A.J. Pollock - CF
  • Steven Souza, JR. - RF
  • Alex Avila - C
  • Bench: Descalso, Dyson, Mathis, Murphy, and Christian Walker.

This means that several things need to break Arizona’s direction. Marte, who is “knocking on the door of stardom,” will need to break out. And Marte will need to find some consistency. Ahmed, who has recently added hitting (1.2 oWAR in 2018) to his great defense, will need to continue being Ahmed. Lamb will need to return healthy and perform like he did when he was a borderline all-star (2017). Pollock will need to have a bit of an offensive bounce-back (like his 2 home runs in the last series against the Dodgers) and, more importantly, remain on the field. Souza, fully recovered from his injury, will need to find his 2017 bat. It would also help if Avila found his OBP mojo again (.387 in 2017), whether he actually hits much or not.

The starting pitching begins with Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray. Taijuan Walker will be back sometime around the all-star break and needs to be at least 2017 good once he is back. Zack Godley will need to find the surprisingly good form he demonstrated in 2017. Added to all of that, at least one of Jon Duplantier or Taylor Widener will need to step things up and have a solid MLB debut, probably no later than the break.

The rotation will look something like this:

  • Zack Greinke
  • Robbie Ray
  • Zack Godley
  • Jon Duplantier
  • Taylor Clarke or, better yet, a pitcher acquired over the winter.

During the season, implementation will plan on using 7 pitchers who are effective starters. In addition to the five named above, at least two of the following need to pitch well: Taijuan Walker, Taylor Widener, Shelby Miller (if he returns on a minor league deal), Matt Koch, Matt Andriese, Braden Shipley, and Clay Buchholz (if he is healthy again by Opening Day and gives Arizona the chance to hire him on yet another “prove it” deal).

The bullpen needs to not get taxed the way it did in 2018. Having more arms with options will help with that, but the team will also need to pitch in fewer high-stress games. Bradley will need to rediscover his 70-grade curve. Boxberger will need to bounce back to being the guy he was over the first half of 2018. Chafin will need to settle in better, finding the same or better success without first increasing the stress of the situations he is brought in to face. Beyond that, the bullpen simply needs to perform more or less as expected.

AAA Bullpen pitchers who may be ready to be called up include: Jake Barrett, Joey Krehbiel, and Jimmy Sherfy.

The risks of failure.

Risk is high. However, the risk will be mitigated by a relook after the first 10 series, and again at the All-Star break. At those points, the approach can be modified.

As a big damn hero once said, “I smell an awful lot of “if” coming off this plan.” A number of things need to break right for the Diamondbacks, without much in the way of breaking wrong. Health will be a major factor for the team. That plan is not for the faint of heart.

Should this plan not pan out, the team will have squandered its chance at a proper rebuild. Paul Goldschmidt may well be gone. David Peralta’s value on the trade market will be one year of control less. Payroll may well run in the red, rather than money being socked away for future spending. The team will be older by a year and there will be precious little,if any, money or talent to supplement it or outright fix things should the plan not work.

On the other hand, one big takeaway is this:

The team should at least be a competitive one in 2019, one that has as reasonable a shot at the playoffs as this season’s team did. That brings the team to the 2020 season. At worst, that season turns into something of a mess as the team tries to continue juggling arbitration players and low-cost acquisitions. However, during the latter portion of that season and throughout the 2021 season, those prospects that are viewed as impact prospects should begin arriving. That means, retooling should, at the very least, create a serviceable bridge to the next “competitive window”.