The 2019 Arizona Diamondbacks outperformed expectations. Despite the losses over last winter of Patrick Corbin, Paul Goldschmidt, and despite trading away Zack Greinke at the deadline, the team still finished with a record three games better than in 2018. Previously, we looked at the various positions around the diamond to see how this season’s team compared to its predecessor. But now let’s take a deeper dive, down to the individual level, and see what changed between 2018 and 2019.
There are going to be a total of six sections to this: three categories, each divided into position players and pitchers. We begin with the players who were part of the 2018 team, but were not in the Diamondbacks organization for 2019. Then we’ll move on to look at those who were (for part or all of the season) included in both roster. And finally, we run the rule over the new arrivals, who did not contribute in 2018 (they may have been part of the organization, such as prospects).
The table below lists the position players in the first category, those who were on the D-backs at some point, but left or were traded away, and so didn’t take the field for Arizona in 2019. I’ve given both their bWAR last year and this, so we can assess whether or not they were a significant loss to the team.
Position players lost
There’s a good argument to be made, that among the talents necessary for a good GM, is not only knowing what players to acquire, it’s know which ones to let go - and when. Ideally, you want to buy low and sell high (whether trading or offering contracts), in order to get maximum value. Looking at the above table, it seems that Mike Hazen did remarkably well in this category. Paul Goldschmidt is the name which stands out, obviously. The team’s decision to trade Goldy for prospects was the biggest move of last winter - and likely among the biggest of all-time. Dealing your team’s best-ever position player is never an easy decision, or one likely to be popular with the fans.
It was a move I didn’t like, but whose necessity I understood. He was likely only here for one more season, and getting long-term solutions, filling immediate positions of need, in Luke Weaver and Carson Kelly, made sense. What seemed at the time the relative cheap extension Goldschmidt signed, did give me pause for thought. However, In the long haul, I felt the trade would end up favoring Arizona. Turned out to be considerably quicker than that, mostly because Goldschmidt went from perennial All-Star and MVP candidate to merely good, in his first season with St. Louis. We don’t know how things will play out down the road. But for now, it seems the D-backs may have dodged a bullet in not extending Paul.
The comparison was even more stark across the other players not retained by Arizona, who almost without exception, declined this year. Together, they were non-trivial contributors last season, totaling 3.3 bWAR. But in 2019, they combined for almost five fewer wins, and were well below replacement level at -1.6 bWAR. Kris Negron and Deven Marrero were the only players who had more productive years. In both casse, that “improvement” can safely ascribed to playing time. Negron received just three plate appearances for the D-backs in 2018, compared to 82 across Seattle and Los Angeles. Conversely, Marrero went from 85 to 5 PA, so simply had less opportunity to be below replacement level.
Elsewhere, there are four players who had particularly significant declines in output after leaving the Diamondbacks. Let’s look at that quartet in a bit more detail.
Descalso literally had a career year with Arizona in 2018. Over 2010-17, including his first season as a D-back, he was worth a total of just 0.8 bWAR. He surpassed that and more last year, reaching 1.1 bWAR. That got him the richest contract of his career with the Cubs, guaranteeing him $3.5 million. But Declutcho regressed back to and beyond career norms, posting an OPS+ of just 37 over 194 PA in Chicago. That ranked him 408th of the 411 players to get 150 PA this year (we’ll get to most of those lower still, shortly). Even his well-documented propensity for getting the big hits took a significant knock, as Daniel’s ‘Clutch’ rating on Fangraphs dropped from 1.69 (5th) to 0.69 (67th).
You won’t be surprised to learn that Mathis came in dead last of all hitters with 150 PA this year. with an OPS+ of 11. Indeed, that’s the lowest in the majors by any batter with as many PA as Mathis (244) for more than a century, since Bill Bergen reached -4 in 1911, during the dead-ball era. Now, there’s some argument that bWAR doesn’t accurately reflect Mathis’s value, particularly on defense. But we are still comparing like with like here, and Jeff’s bat, never a strong suit, effectively looked like he was going up there with a toothpick this year. We were concerned how Mathis’s departure might affect Zack Greinke, but he had a sub-three ERA in 2019. Perhaps Mathis needed Greinke, more than Greinke needed Mathis?
In at #410 on the list, just above Mathis, and with an OPS+ which is still not old enough to vote (17), we find the sad tale of Owings. There was a point when he seemed set to become the second-baseman of the future in Arizona, with a 95 OPS+ during his rookie season of 2014, as a 22-year-old. But it was all downhill from there for CO, until a 53 OPS in 2018, saw him non-tendered. He received a $3 million contract from the Royals, but batted a feeble .133 over 30 games and was released in June. When a team which loses over a hundred games can’t use you... He was picked up by Boston, but hit little better there (.156). A minor-league contract may be about all Owings can hope for this winter.
I think many Diamondbacks fans are enjoying a little schadenfreude over Pollock’s terrible post-season: he’s currently 0-for-11 with NINE strikeouts. That comes on the heels of an underwhelming, to put it mildly, season for the Dodgers. where - and this is my unsurprised face - he missed two and a half months due to injury. Even when playing, he wasn’t very good, though surprisingly it was his defense which dragged A.J.’s overall value down. There’s three more years on the contract, plus a player option for 2023, and it’s already looking like an albatross that will end up costing the Dodgers $56 million. It’s comforting to realize that the Los Angeles front-office are not as infallible as they sometimes may seem.