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The Diamondbacks in 2004 vs 2021: Before the storm

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Was this a case of history repeating itself?

View of approaching ‘haboob’ during dust storm

It’s not common for a team to lose 110 games, as the Diamondbacks just did. Indeed, in the National League, the only other side to do so in the past fifty years, were... the 2004 Diamondbacks. This obviously merits comparison. How did the two teams manage this unwanted feat? Did they go about achieving an abject level of suckage the same way, or were there different approaches taken? There were some aspects where I was particularly struck by the similarities - yet in other areas, the disparity was equally marked. But before we take a deeper dive into the seasons, let’s take a look at how things got to the point where the two teams stood on Opening Day.

2004 vs. 2021

Stat 2004 2021
Stat 2004 2021
Previous year 84-78 25-35
Salary ($m) 70.2 89.1
Salary rank 13th 19th
Departures Raul Mondesi Junior Guerra
Mike Myers Jon Jay
Miguel Batista Mike Leake
Curt Schilling Hector Rondon
Chris Capuano Silvino Bracho
Craig Counsell Kevin Cron
Chad Moeller
Lyle Overbay
Jorge De La Rosa
Junior Spivey
Rod Barajas
Arrivals Elmer Dessens Tyler Gilbert
Casey Fossum Joakim Soria
Brandon Lyon Tyler Clippard
Richie Sexson Humberto Castellanos
Shane Nance Asdrubal Cabrera
Roberto Alomar Bryan Holaday
Shane Reynolds
Steve Sparks
Juan Brito
Scott Service
Randy Choate
Brent Mayne

The 2004 team were clearly coming off a better season. Though they finished sixteen games back of the 100-win Giants, they were only seven behind the wild-card Marlins. While that 84-win campaign was fourteen down on 2002, Arizona were one of six teams in the National League to finish in the 83-87 win range. You didn’t have to squint too hard to see a path back to relevance. GM Joe Garagiola Jr. didn’t mess around, making a lot of changes - two in particular stand out.

One was the departure of Curt Schilling for Boston. The pitcher was in the final year of his contract, and had gone 8-9 with a 2.95 ERA in the 2003 season. I think it’s safe to say, this one worked out considerably better for the Red Sox, being a key factor in letting them win their first World Series in 86 years. There was no SnakePit in those days, so we can’t assess fan sentiment at the time. But it seems odd for a team that wanted to content, dealing an ace like Schilling for... Mike Goss (who never reached the majors), Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon and Jorge De La Rosa. Even with just a year of team control, that feels like a very light return.

Just three days later, the team pulled the trigger on the other trade, which saw half a team go to the Brewers: Chris Capuano, Craig Counsell, Chad Moeller, Lyle Overbay, the newly-arrived Jorge De La Rosa and Junior Spivey. Conversely, that seems a very HEAVY price for one season of control, even of an All-Star like Richie Sexson. Okay, the D-backs also got Shane Nance and the wonderfully-named Noochie Varner - but you’d be hard-pushed to claim either moved the needle on the deal much. For comparison, in 2003 Sexson was worth 3.2 bWAR, a win and a half less than Schilling’s 4.7 bWAR production, even though Curt missed two weeks with an appendectomy and six more after breaking his hand.

To replace Schilling, the team opted to bring in a slew of journeyman starters, opting for depth over ace-iness. The team still had Randy Johnson and Brandon Webb. and rounded out the rotation with Elmer Dessens, knuckleballer Steve Sparks and Shane Reynolds. With a 1-2 like Johnson/Webb, it’s possible to squint and see how that could have seemed like it might have worked. On offense, alongside Sexson, the team signed future trivia answer (“Who was the first Diamondback player to make it into the Hall of Fame?”) Roberto Alomar to a $1 million deal. They had an Opening Day payroll of $70.2 million, which is $126.7 million in 2021 value, when adjusted for baseball inflation.

In comparison, the Diamondbacks after 2020 were much more restrained. That was despite the team finishing in the cellar of the NL West. It had been a weird season, the schedule truncated to 60 games due to COVID-19. GM Mike Hazen felt that the 25-35 record posted was not a true reflection of team talent. They had a winning record 40% of the way through the season, but then imploded, losing eighteen of the next twenty games. Outside that stretch, the D-backs went 23-17. The team had seen the departures of Archie Bradley, Andrew Chafin and Starling Marte at the trade deadline. But few if any of the end-of-season departures could be said to have had a significant impact on the 2021 team.

The team made some moderate free-agent signings. Utility infielder Asdrubal Cabrera signed an incentive heavy $1.75 million deal, with over a million more in potential bonuses. And the team added veteran bullpen arms Joakim Soria ($3.5 million, plus another million in incentives - and a hotel suite on road trips) and Tyler Clippard ($2.25 million guaranteed, including a $500K buyout for 2022). These relievers followed the standard Hazen pattern, of signing veterans with closing experience who were not current closers. Both men had posted 30-save seasons in their careers. But in general, the team was looking for bounce-back seasons from the likes of Ketel Marte and Eduardo Escobar to drive improvement.

Below, you’ll find a table listing the Opening Day rosters for both clubs. Note: for 2004, this is an approximation since I couldn’t find any explicit listing of that information. There is also an extra spot on the 2021 team, with it now being a 26-man roster. Looking at these, who would you have said was the better (or worse!) team?

2004/2021 Opening Day Rosters

Position 2004 2021
Position 2004 2021
C Brent Mayne Carson Kelly
!B Richie Sexson Christian Walker
2B Roberto Alomar Eduardo Escobar
SS Alex Cintron Nick Ahmed
3B Shea Hillenbrand Asdrubal Cabera
OF Luis Gonzalez David Peralta
OF Steve Finley Ketel Marte
OF Danny Bautista Pavin Smith
.
Bench1 Bobby Estallela Stephen Vogt
Bench2 Matt Kata Josh Rojas
Bench3 Carlos Baerga Josh VanMeter
Bench4 Greg Colbrunn Tim Locastro
Bench5 Donnie Sadler Wyatt Mathisen
.
SP1 Randy Johnson Madison Bumgarner
SP2 Brandon Webb Merrill Kelly
SP3 Elmer Dessens Riley Smith
SP4 Casey Daigle Taylor Widener
SP5 Steve Sparks Luke Weaver
.
RP1 Matt Mantei Joakim Soria
RP2 Jose Valverde Stefan Crichton
RP3 Mike Koplove Kevin Ginkel
RP4 Oscar Villarreal Yoan Lopez
RP5 Andrew Good Chris Devenski
RP6 Stephen Randolph Taylor Clarke
RP7 Randy Choate Caleb Smith
RP8 Alex Young

Next time, we’ll take a look at the overall performance of the two teams from a high level, and figure out how they both reached 110 losses.