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Could the Diamondbacks’ 2021 be over before it started?

The NL West looks to be a two-horse race once again. Should Arizona even bother to try?

1960s Pattern Photo By H. Armstrong Roberts/Classicstock/Getty Images

Over the past few days, the San Diego Padres have made a series of moves which have significantly boosted their hopes for next year. Firstly, they swung a deal with the Rays for starting pitcher Blake Snell, in exchange for four prospects, including one of their top pitchers, Luis Patino. Then they signed Korean shortstop Ha-seong Kim, who batted .306 with 30 home runs and 23 stolen bases this season. And finally, they dealt for Yu Darvish (and his personal catcher Victor Caratini) with the Cubs, again sending a package of prospects to Chicago, along with pitcher Zach Davies. The farm players in this deal were all very young, and not among San Diego’s top prospects by most accounts.

The impact on the Padres going forward will be immediate, and certainly has narrowed the projected gap on the Dodgers in the NL West. Indeed, they have closed things up to the point that, according to Mike Petriello, “It’s more or less a dead heat. It’s a rounding error. It’s a tie.” Here’s where they stand in predicted fWAR for 2021 after these moves, along with every other team in the majors:

Yes, this makes our divisional rivals, not just the two best teams in the NL West, or even the National League as a whole, but the #1 and #2 in all of baseball next year. They look to be about eighteen games ahead of the next-best NL West team. the Giants, and probably twenty or so ahead of the Diamondbacks. Now, there are still several months to go before Opening Day: nobody else in the division has made any significant moves as yet, so the picture could certainly change between now and then. There is also the fact that these are predictions, which will not perfectly match actual 2021 results. But how big does the gap have to be, before the Diamondbacks’ front-office decide it’s not worth bothering?

You’ll never get Mike Hazen, Torey Lovullo or anyone connection with the team to go on the record and say so, but there is definitely a case to be made for tanking 2021. Or, at least, not spending resources (either financial or prospect), in pursuit of San Diego and Los Angeles. To some extent, we saw the first signs of that with the trade of Starling Marte (under team contract next year) at the deadline. With no obvious replacement to hand, beyond “Let’s move Ketel Marte back there”, it’s not a move you would generally expect a “reloading” team to make, if they wanted to contend in 2021.

Even if the expanded playoff structure from the year is retained - and I think it probably will be - it remains not easy to see a path for Arizona to the postseason. On the chart above, they rank 12th in the NL, ahead of just the Marlins, Pirates and Rockies (man, Colorado is a complete dumpster-fire right now. Their off-season plan appears largely based on their existing roster just playing better, presuming they retain Arenado). So, given an eight-team bracket in the NL, the D-backs would need to outperform at least four of the teams rated ahead of them, simply to squeak into the playoffs. The closest are the Phillies, Giants, Reds and Cubs, but the good news is, adding about three wins would be enough for the D-backs.

That’s certainly considerably more plausible than the yawning chasm which separates them from the Padres and Dodgers in these projections. Hell, a bounceback year from Madison Bumgarner, could just about provide those three wins, by himself. And then there’s the hope for the same from Eduardo Escobar, Marte and Luke Weaver, all of whom certainly have room for improvement, to put it mildly. So it is probably a little premature to throw in the towel, especially before the old calendar has even been tossed into the trash-can. But recent events in the division have definitely not made Hazen’s task any easier, especially for the coming seasons while we await the arrival of our top prospects.

That said, I do think the next couple of seasons are going to be ones where I’ll be reining in my expectations. Eventually, it would be nice to be in a place where the D-backs can make similar moves to the Padres, to put them over the top. But recent results, even over a shortened season, indicate that the team is nowhere near the same stage in their cycle of contention. If the Diamondbacks do little or nothing over the rest of the off-season, beyond bringing in the usual veteran relievers and bench players, I think it would probably be understandable.