When Mike Hazen and the new front-office arrived at Chase Field after the 2016 season, the Diamondbacks felt like a team some way off contention. They had finished the year 69-93, escaping the cellar of the NL West only by sweeping the Padres in the final series. The farm system had been gutted, the pitching staff had a league-worst 5.09 ERA, and it looked likely it would be several years before contention, never mind a playoff spot, would be achievable. But Hazen, new manager Torey Lovullo and the players themselves combined to engineer a 24-game turnaround, a post-season berth and a memorable victory in the NL Wild-card Game.
This has, inevitably, raised expectations for the coming year, though D-backs’ fans are used to disappointment: we haven’t had consecutive playoff seasons since 2001-02. But there is a sense that the team does have an unexpected window of opportunity in the next couple of years. After that, things might get tricky, as the current mainstays of the team proceed towards free-agency and beyond. The obvious focus there is Paul Goldschmidt: he has been the best position player in the National League by bWAR over the last five seasons. But the end of his current (remarkably team-friendly) contract is on the horizon, with Goldy currently scheduled to hit free-agency at the end of the year after next.
He’s not the only one, though there are core players who will be around for some time to come. Here are the current years of expiration, at the end of which the D-backs listed will enter the market:
- 2018: Patrick Corbin, Randall Delgado, Daniel Descalso, Jeff Mathis, A.J. Pollock
- 2019: Alex Avila, Brad Boxberger, Jarrod Dyson, Paul Goldschmidt, Chris Herrmann, Shelby Miller, Chris Owings
- 2020: Nick Ahmed, Andrew Chafin, Jake Lamb, David Peralta, Robbie Ray, Steven Souza, Yasmany Tomas, Taijuan Walker
- 2021: Archie Bradley, Zack Greinke, Ketel Marte
- Beyond: Zack Godley, Jimmie Sherfy, Braden Shipley
This does suggest 2018-19 are going to be the best shot the D-backs will have for a while. The farm system still remains bereft of “sure thing” talent, especially at the upper levels. While there is potential in the lower tiers, those players are a significant distance from being able to contribute, and naturally come with the usual caveat about prospects in general. Any gaps in the near future are more likely to be filled from outside the organization, and Hazen has shown a reluctance to trade away top prospects for short-term gains. This is probably wise: after previous playoff seasons in 2007 and 2011, Arizona GMs then went “all in”. It didn’t work, and the resulting rebuilds took a number of painful years.
The question of cash
On this basis, the success of 2017 is almost a little unwanted. Rather than being able to proceed on an expected process of steady improvement, Hazen and company now have to handle the pressure of putting out an immediately competitive roster, without sacrificing the longer-term goal of sustainable success. It’s a difficult balance to strike, especially for a mid-market team like Arizona, which has traditionally been in the lower half of clubs with regard to payroll. However, there is some indication the purse-strings are being loosened, and the team may now be benefiting from the long-term television deal with Fox Sports Arizona, signed in February 2015.
The team finished last year at a payroll around $105 million, and President Derrick Hall was warning fans not to expect any significant increase: “You’re not talking about $10 million.” It seemed likely the team might have to trade higher-ticket arbitration players, like Corbin, in order to balance the books, and had little or no chance of adding salary. However, perhaps as a result of the windfall received from the sale of MLB Advanced Media, payroll has gone up significantly. As well as retaining virtually all their arbitration candidates with their increases, the team brought in Brad Boxberger, Jarrod Dyson and Steven Souza. Baseball-Reference.com shows a 2018 payroll of $136 million.
But that still isn’t going to be enough, past this year. Even with the departures of Pollock et al mentioned above, and presuming they’re replaced only by minimum salary prospects, keeping the rest of the roster together for 2019 will cost almost $150 million. Some of that may come from the TV deal, whose income is reported to increase over the twenty-year course of the contract. But the team will face tough decisions, in which young players it wants to lock up, and which free agents it wants to re-sign. Letting Goldschmidt walk might be the most logical decision - he’ll be 32 by the time his current contract expires, and you’ll likely be paying for his decline. But the prospect of him playing anywhere else? Ick.
A potential road-map
Based on his one season in charge so far, Hazen did a stellar job, lifting the team from near the cellar of baseball into the post-season. However, other GMs in Arizona, such as Josh Byrnes and Kevin Towers, saw early success, only for it to prove unsustainable. The acid test will be if Hazen can follow it up, and keep the Diamondbacks in contention going forward. I can see this being quite possible for the next two seasons, while the players most responsible for last year’s success (Goldschmidt, Greinke and Ray) are all still present. But after 2019, the future looks increasingly murky.
In one scenario, the team falls out of contention this year or next, and is largely dismantled, with Goldschmidt and the remaining pieces of value approaching free-agency, traded for prospects. There would then be a number of lean years thereafter, while the farm system reloads the team. Eventually, as these cost-controlled pieces build into a credible framework for a winning team, Hazen then begins trading from surplus positions and/or signing free agents to one- or two-year contracts, to fill the gaps and create another window of contention. How long that may take, is anyone’s guess.
The more pleasant alternative for D-backs’ fans, sees the team repeat last year’s success, perhaps going deeper into the playoffs. The resulting revenue - both directly, and generated from greater local interest, in a state where sporting passions are driven by success - allows the team to extend core players to cover the gap until the next wave of prospects arrives. This will require Hazen to repeat his good work (and luck) in finding value: nothing exemplifies both better than the trade for J.D. Martinez, who cost some fringey prospects, and delivered the best second-half in franchise history. This team certainly won’t be able to out-spend the Dodgers any time soon. To compete, they’re going to have to out-think them.