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Will the Diamondbacks ever spend enough to be a World Series participant ?

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The last decade suggests not

Wild Card Workout Photo by Sarah Sachs/Arizona Diamondbacks/Getty Images

There was a very good article on Fangraphs today titled, Mookie Betts trade underscores NL West Imbalance that got me thinking about a number of things that started out as a comment and turned into an article.

A couple of excerpts that stood out for me:

Dan Szymborski took great pains to express that the ZiPS projections he’s cooking up are still under-baked and not yet fit for public consumption; that caveat aside, he has the Dodgers projected to win the NL West by 12 games without Betts. With him in the fold, that jumps to 16.

I’ve seen a couple of analysts both here and elsewhere doing straight up “WAR in WAR out” on the trade, but that’s not the correct way to look at this. Playing time and PA’s and IP get reapportioned, and the guys picking up playing time for LA in this beyond Betts and Price are not replacement level players. When you actually apportion ALL the playing time, and all the value projected to be produced, this alignment most certainly accounts for an extra 3-4 wins for the Dodgers in 2020. (on paper of course). This is close to what I calculated quickly the day of the Dan being right there too kind of validates what I was doing.

Also this:

The Giants and Dodgers have captured all but one division title since 2007. In that period, the Padres, Diamondbacks, and Rockies have only reached the playoffs five times combined, never escaping the NLDS. For the little three, the Dodgers are an immovable barrier blocking any real chance of sustained success. That’s a problem in a league that emphasizes postseason glory first and foremost, particularly in a sport that is primarily consumed locally.

Michael’s article from February 4th talking about a path to 90 wins was focused on trying to make the post season via the wild card play in game, not winning the division. It’s a realistic way to view things. Essentially every year Arizona is reduced to a LONG shot to win the division (Currently 9-1 at Vegas Insider) hoping against hope the Dodgers collapse and everyone on the DBacks out performs expectations.

While it was exciting to win a 1 game wild card in 2017, there are often teams that made the wild card multiple times just to get bounced out and not even make it to Division Series, like the Pirates in 2014-15, or the A’s in 2014, 2018, & 2019.

It seems that in even when low payroll National League teams manage to scrape their way into the Wild Card or Division Series, they just don’t make it to the world series. Notice I said LOW PAYROLL and not SMALL MARKET. Yes, there have been three NL Wild Card Teams to make it to the World Series in the past decade. (And one AL Team). But note that all three of those NL teams were actually upper level payroll teams within the NL. ] (See table below)

While some fans may take solace in the notion that “anything can happen” in the playoffs, the fact is unless you have roster DEPTH it just doesn’t happen all that often. I’m talking about the depth that is often made possible by having extra payroll budget to insulate a team from the inevitable injury and underperformance you may get, or by allowing them to make expensive mid-season additions to their team. As counter intuitive as it may seem, this seems to be even more the case in the NL than it is the AL, at least over the last 10 years.

This table really surprised. Over the last decade, only 4 of the AL Pennant winners were within the top 5 teams in the AL in payroll. Meanwhile, in the NL, 8 of the 10 pennant winners were within top 5 in payroll, including all three Wild Card teams to make the playoffs. The only team to be in the lower half of NL payroll to make the World Series were the 2015 Mets, who ranked 10th. In the AL, 6 of the 10 Pennant winners ranked in the lower half of AL Payroll, and two of them ranked 14th ! This really surprised me quite a bit to see such a disparity when broken out by league.

Ultimately, it has to be the goal to make it to the World Series. Mike Hazen said that the organization will be evaluated not only on making the playoffs, but on advancing in the playoffs. I know for a fact HE cares deeply about winning. I’d like to think that ownership cares just as much. But their comparative payroll rankings in the chart above suggest that just isn’t a priority. The bottom line is that unless it’s a lightning strike, one off type of thing that you just can’t account for, they need to spend more than they have been to really have a good chance. They’ve just not done so.

While I’m sure there will be some lower half payroll team(s) from the NL to break through sooner or later and win the Pennant, Diamondbacks GM’s, no matter who they’ve been, have been fighting with one hand tied behind their back for almost the entire decade. Perhaps there is some negative reinforcement going on in the fact that the two times the DBacks made the playoffs in the decade, 2011 and 2017, were also years they ranked 13th in NL payroll. Perhaps ownership has misled themselves into thinking the possibility of winning a Pennant with a lower half payroll is more likely than it actually is ?

The 2020 payroll looks to be around where it was last year. That means it’s still going to be well within the lower half, and probably won’t move up from last year’s 12th of 15 ranking. Preliminary projections have Arizona around an 84 win team, give or take a win. If many more things go right than wrong, they can get up to or even over 90 wins. But even if that happens will they have the depth in the roster to be a threat to get through the NL playoffs and into a World Series ? The seeming correlation between spending and World Series appearances for NL teams over the last decade may be a small sample size fluke. But there is little doubt that increasing payroll from 120M to say 150-160M and getting into the upper half of the NL would increase their odds.