As the trade deadline looms large on the horizon, only eight days in the distance, the Diamondbacks have played themselves into a bit of a quandry. Despite playing some mediocre baseball recently, the team is still over .500 and is only two games out in the race for a Wild Card berth. So close to postseason baseball and sporting a +66 run differential, one would be excused for thinking that the Arizona fan base would be quite excited about a team that has, by record and run differential both, been one of the better teams in the National League this season. Baseball is a funny game though, and Arizona has a truly fickle fan base when it comes to its sports teams.
This past weekend the Diamondbacks completed a four-game home series against the Milwaukee Brewers, one of the two teams standing between them and a spot in postseason play (the other being Philadelphia). It isn’t until a week after the deadline that the Diamondbacks will host the Phillies for three games. It isn’t until the end of August that the Diamondbacks will head to Milwaukee to play three games there, finishing off any opportunities to directly influence the standings above them. All of that served to make this recently-concluded four-game series against the Brewers very important. It the Diamondbacks went 3-1 or 4-0 against the Brewers they would, today, be the second Wild Card team, just edging out the St. Louis Cardinals. who currently hold that spot. Such a placement in the standings would have put pressure on the Arizona front office to do something to bolster the team’s chances of holding tight to the slot.
The Diamondbacks didn’t have a winning series though. In fact, they didn’t even split the series. Instead, they went 1-3, squandering terrific, deep starts by Merril Kelly and Zack Greinke that should have both resulted in easy wins rather than infuriating losses. By virtue of following up that series with a win against the Baltimore Orioles, coupled with a Brewers loss, the Diamondbacks find themselves right back where they started, just with five fewer games left in the season.
For many, the series against the Diamondbacks resulted in the worst of possible outcomes, a nightmare scenario for Mike Hazen. On one hand, the Diamondbacks missed their best opportunity to make a case for being an October team. On the other hand, they remained close enough, with just enough games left against the teams ahead of them, to make trading way premium talent akin to throwing in the towel and quitting on a competitive team. The result to such a scenario being that the front office might miss its opportunity to turn current assets into future assets, setting them up for a better run at October in future seasons. Both scenarios would seem to represent a missed opportunity. But are either of them really a missed opportunity? Or, are they both just highlights of the changing dynamic of how teams evaluate their talent and how the schedule plays out with only a single trade deadline and two Wild Card teams?
The Diamondbacks and the Missed Playoff Opportunity
It was not that long ago in the grand scheme of things that there was only one Wild Card team. In those days, the magic number, so to speak, for making the playoffs was 90 wins. Sure, there is that season where San Diego made the playoffs with an 82-80 record to win the NL West. But even in that outlier of a season, the Wild Card went to the 89-win Houston Astros. 90 wins was a safe number. With the addition of the second Wild Card, the intuitive conclusion is that the number of wins needed to make the postseason as the final entrant would go down. The reality is that the average number of wins that is a “safe target” has not truly decreased much. The average win total of the seven teams that have won the second Wild Card is 89.7 wins. Granted, this is heavily influenced by the season in which 97 wins was the mark for the second NL Wild Card, but the fact remains, 89-90 wins is still the “safe” number.
Entering this season, Mike Hazen and the rest of the Diamondbacks’ brain trust felt that the assembled team had a chance to be a winning team and possibly even contend for the playoffs. It’s impossible to say what the front office was thinking with regard to the playoffs. Perhaps they took a long look at the field and came to an early realization that this year the wild card could be in play with as few as 87 wins. Even if that is the case though, the team, as assembled, looked like it would be pushing things to get to that “winning record” at 82-80, maybe even 83-79. As a best-case scenario, that left the team needing four more wins. Those four wins that Arizona was left looking for are the hardest, most expensive sort to find - the marginal wins. The thing about the cost of marginal wins is, the cost goes up higher and higher the deeper a team gets into the season. In April, four marginal wins may look like picking up Daniel Descalso to play as the super-utility player instead of relying on Ildemaro Vargas. It may not show up as 4 wins in WAR or WAA, but the overall cascade effect can still amount to four wins. On July 31st, four wins looks like adding Justin Verlander to the front of the rotation without selling off any pieces from the 25-man roster. One comes at a reasonable price that can be amortized over the length of the entire season. The other one potentially guts the farm system.
If the front office truly believed that the 2019 team could contend for the playoffs, the “missed opportunity” was not investing in the team in the offseason, giving the team reliable depth across the board instead of running out a rotation and an outfield that would both be working without a safety net in the event of injury or underperformance. It was then, in April, that the team missed its chance. Now, here in July, with the team still unable to win games it is supposed to, but hanging around in the standings because no one else can either, the cost to fill the team needs to make a push would be prohibitively high, endangering the long-term success of the franchise.
When Mike Hazen came on board, he immediately took to improving the team’s long-term future. Possibly the most difficult part of that task is staying the course. The talent takes years to develop. The hard part is waiting for it to do so and not getting impatient, resulting in trades that address current concerns without also addressing the concerns of the future. To his credit, Hazen has, thus far, stayed the course.
The Diamondbacks and the Missed Opportunity to Sell Early
Some believe the Diamondbacks should have been more aggressive in the offseason, selling off more of their players to get returns for the future. The problem was, the team only had a limited number of players with any sort of positive trade value. Robbie Ray, David Peralta, Eduardo Escobar, and Ketel Marte were likely the entirety of the list. Zack Greinke looked like an attractive player to trade, simply because it would free up salary, but for no other, productive reason. It is fairly accepted that the team would have been burning bridges of all sorts, both current and future had they elected to trade Escobar. The return on a trade for Escobar was never going to come close to the cost in that regard. Ketel Marte was just recently extended and is the cornerstone of the team’s future. That left Robbie Ray and David Peralta. Trading away Peralta was more difficult than it sounded though. First, the market was not a robust one for an aging, left-handed, slightly above average LF. Second, the team was already short of bodies to fill the outfield section of the roster. The spring performances of any likely replacements all came up wanting, in major ways. So bad was the outfield situation that Adam Jones was brought in just to make sure the team was fielding MLB-caliber talent in all three outfield slots.
The team had a similar problem with trading Robbie Ray. While Ray would have drawn a solid return in the offseason, his stock was not terribly high. The team was also already looking at a rotation of Greinke, Ray, Weaver, M. Kelly, and Godley. The depth beyond that was questionable at best. Trading away on of the two arms that could reasonably be relied on to provide 160 league average innings of starting pitching would have been tantamount to raising the white flag before the season even started, something that this front office is clearly not inclined to do. It is one thing to go into a season as a longshot. It is another thing entirely to go into a season announcing that you are a team expecting to lose 100 games. The latter drives away fans and can take its toll on the team as well. After all, who wants to play for a team that is not interested in trying to win at least a little bit?
The Diamondbacks and the Missed Opportunity to Tear Down
This comes in two parts. The first part is a very short one. The real opportunity for a complete overhaul was before the 2017 season. The front office elected to tinker around the edges and, quite adeptly, found themselves probably something close to 10 marginal wins. Instead of a full rebuild, the team went to the playoffs. I still wonder what happens in 2017 if Patrick Corbin pitches against Colorado instead of Robbie Ray. Are the Diamondbacks still swept? Do they make a series out of the NLDS? We’ll never know. Regardless, the offseason between 2016 and 2017 was the time to rebuild from the studs up. THe team weant a different direction. Was it a missed opportunity? Or was it a calculated gamble that paid off in an unexpected playoff appearance that has already worked to change the expectations of the team? Probably a bit of both.
That brings us to the second part. The second part is playing out right now and will conclude at the end of the month when the trade deadline arrives. Given the combination of team performance, payroll restrictions, and major injuries, the Diamondbacks are positioned to be sellers of some sort at the trade deadline. A very popular opinion seems to be that the team should be looking to sell off every player with under two additional years of team control. The rationale for the process is that the team will be in mostly the same place again next season and probably worse off in 2021 after the team loses a large number of roster regulars to free agency. The hope in this case, is that the Diamondbacks will be able to add even more talent to an already improved farm system, making them even stronger contenders in 2022 or 2023. Many seem to feel that if the team simply holds on to players from the list of those with under three or more seasons of control, they are simply wasting resources, since the team is unlikely to be in a position to consider themselves a strong contender when compared to the likes of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
While the intention is a sound one, the market reality for the Diamondbacks may throw cold water on the entire concept. For one thing, the injuries to David Peralta and Jake Lamb, along with Taijuan Walker continuing to recover from Tommy John surgery, leave the team with precious few players who can be expected to bring back any sort of return that is more than a longshot flyer in the lower levels of the minors.
Early in the season, both Adam Jones and Greg Holland were performing well enough that it was reasonable to think that a contending team might have some interest in them. Recent performances by the two, especially Holland, have sunk their trade values to near-zero. Alex Avila and his expiring contract is probably only appealing to a contender if that team suffers an injury at the catcher position. The rest of the Diamondbacks bullpen has been very suspect all season. A team may take a chance on Archie Bradley, but probably not at the deadline. Teams looking for bullpen help at the deadline are looking for freshness and reliability. Bradley is neither of fresh or anything close to reliable at this point.
The team finds itself in an exaggerated scenario of where they were at the beginning of the season. Any trades from the 25-man roster at this point leave the team with serious questions as to how they will field anything approaching a MLB-caliber team to complete the season. Furthermore, if the team begins to trade from those with yet one more season of control, players such as Nick Ahmed, Jake Lamb, Andrew Chafin, and Taijuan Walker, the team is almost certainly putting up a white flag now for the entire 2020 season. It would seem out of character for Mike Hazen to simply settle for going into 2020 with a strong chance of losing 100 games. If the team is fortunate to find someone who truly has a high value figure for one of these “short-timers” it makes sense to trade them. But, simply trading them away to save money and to pick up low-minors lottery tickets makes little sense. Prematurely throwing in the towel on the next one or two season is not going to help this team to lure the free agents it is going to need. Nor is it going to help convince players under team control to sign extensions to stick around.
The two caveats to all this are Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray. Trading either of these players will catastrophically cripple the rotation for the remainder of 2019. The returns of Taijuan Walker, Luke Weaver, and Jon Duplantier could help the team recover from trading one or the other in 2020 though. Trading both of them would put the Diamondbacks back into the high-risk category with their rotation, featuring a cast of untested pitchers and pitchers with massive health concerns looking to make it through the entire 2020 season without under-performance or injury. However, given Zack Greinke’s contract, including the no-trade clause, it is highly unlikely he is traded before the offseason.
That leaves Robbie Ray. Would the team electing to not trade Robbie Ray be a missed opportunity? Possibly. It depends on the return. It is difficult to gauge what the true market for Robbie Ray is. The Diamondbacks are known to have been scouting the Yankees A-club. Although, when the Yankees are mentioned, the name that often comes to the forefront is Clint Frazier. Some even suggest With another full season of control, Robbie Ray may fit the threshold for the Yankees to consider trading Frazier, though it still seems unlikely. Thoughts of Johnathan Loaisiga being part of the return are, I suspect, simply dream-casting of trades by fans of the Diamondbacks who assume the Yankees are always willing to overpay for talent. Yet, if the return for Robbie Ray is indeed something less than Clint Frazier in terms of quality of return (regardless of which team Arizona deals with), are the Diamondbacks honestly missing much of an opportunity if they decide to keep him? Is there more value in trading him for anything other than a true impact player over simply making an offer to Robbie Ray in order to extend him? Robbie Ray has made himself into the early poster-child for the typical MLB starter. He pitches to league average innings pitched. He has elite strikeout numbers. He throws from the left side. He still flashes brilliance in a few games here and there. He is a reliable 160 inning out of a slot in the starting rotation. The team can use that next year again.
In short, the team has very little to offer other teams in a full tear-down. Short of Robbie Ray, the players available (leaving Marte, Carson Kelly, and Escobar in the untouchable category) simply do not bring back enough of a return to justify a complete sell-off. Even trading Robbie Ray comes with extreme risk, given how thin the organization is with starting pitching.
The Diamondbacks have now firmly entered the most difficult part of rebuilding a team from within. The team is mediocre, but has an improved farm. Gutting what is left of the team does not truly help that improve farm any. In fact, it could result in forced acceleration of some players that ends up being detrimental to development or team control. The hard part of the process is staying the course. This may result in two more mediocre teams in 2020 and 2021. Still, two more seasons of mediocrity may well be far better for the organization than a minimum of two years (with no set maximum) of horrible teams.