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Of Prospects and Rosters, Part VI: The 26-Man Roster (pitching)

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And why minor league options are so important for bullpen arms.

Chicago Cubs v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Here are the 13 pitchers currently on Arizona’s 26-man roster.

Starters
Madison Bumgarner LHP
Zac Gallen RHP
Merrill Kelly RHP
Caleb Smith LHP
Taylor Widener RHP

Relievers
Tyler Clippard
Brett de Geus
Jake Faria
Joe Mantiply
Matt Peacock
Noé Ramirez
Riley Smith
Joakim Soria


Madison Bumgarner
Would the real Mason Saunders please stand up? There isn’t much to be said about Arizona’s veteran lefty. When he is going right, he has been very good, with his best start in an Arizona uniform coming back on April 25th of this year when he threw a Manfred No-No. However, when Bumgarner is not going right, the Snakes are sending a dumpster fire to the mound. There have been numerous injury concerns since he signed and there have also been reports of issues between Bumgarner and the coaching staff. The Diamondbacks fan in me would like to write off all the rough outings he has had to those various issues, but there have simply been entirely too many of them to ignore. The team is still going to owe him $60 million over the next three seasons, so he isn’t going anywhere, regardless of his performance the rest of this season.

Zac Gallen
As things currently stand, Zac Gallen is the future of the Arizona rotation. He is a solid #2 pitcher who flashes #1 stuff from time-to-time. His success has been better than his peripherals would suggest, but he has shown the tendency to continue to perform better than the underlying numbers. He remains under team control through the end of the 2025 season. With Scott Boras as his agent, it is unlikely that the Diamondbacks are able to lock him up for 2026 and beyond before he tests the open market, he would still be under control for the first two seasons of what should be Arizona’s next window for contention. Should something happen to shift that window back, there will still be plenty of opportunity to trade Gallen for a large return should he continue to perform the way he has to this point.

Merrill Kelly
Merrill Kelly has been a refreshing surprise for the Snakes. He has pitched well out of the rotation despite being a borderline rotation/bullpen candidate since the day he arrived from Korea. In this injury-plagued season, Kelly has been the most consistent and reliable arm in the rotation, pitching as essentially a league average, innings-eating arm. For that level of production, the team’s option for 2023 is a team-friendly one, valued at a mere $5.25 million for his age 33 season. Alas, Kelly is a what you see is what you get player. His days of meaningful improvement are now behind him. While he may turn in another year or two of continued steady performance, once he begins to decline, it will not be long before he slips from stable innings-eating workhorse to a pitcher best-served retiring, since there is little left in the way for him to “play up” by moving to the bullpen. While Kelly is a very useful member of a 26-man roster today, his usefulness during the next window of contention for the Diamondbacks is basically zero. The best thing he can do to help the team in 2024 and beyond is to perform well now, increasing how appealing he is as a trade target. With the 2023 option being both a team option and an option which is affordable for either a #4 starter or bullpen workhorse, Kelly should rank as one of Arizona’s most attractive trade chips for the upcoming trade deadline. He’s not the sort of player to bring back an all-star impact prospect, but he has plenty enough value that the team should be able to find a quality return, one which is not tantamount to a salary dump. His trade value will never be higher, meanwhile any innings he pitches in Arizona for the remainder of 2021 or at all in 2022 are innings that could be taken by starting pitcher prospects, any of which may be, at a minimum, a league average pitcher, meaning that they would be providing the same value on the mound as Kelly. Keeping Kelly around comes with significant opportunity cost.

Caleb Smith
On some teams, those gifted with great pitching from top to bottom, Caleb Smith is a workhorse lefty out of the bullpen, able to get both lefties and righties out and able to pitch multiple innings when a starter has a rough day. On all those other teams (probably 25 or so), Caleb Smith is the very model of a back half of the rotation lefty starter. He’ll have some days where he make opposing hitters look silly, working his way towards the eighth inning. He’ll have a few days where he simply cannot find his slot and gets lit up, leaving the game before he completes three frames. Most of the time, probably 80% of the time, he’ll be a perfectly average starter that also happens to be an innings-eater. If he gets 33 starts in a season, Smith should have 180+ innings. That sort of workload has become an uncommon commodity. Besides being a lefty, Smith has two things working heavily in his favour. He has a bulldog mentality, willing and eager to take the ball and face any lineup without backing down. He doesn’t give in, even to the biggest hitters. If he gets beat, he gets beat. Baseball is a game predicated on hitters failing. He knows he has a high probability of coming out ahead. The second trait is that Smith is blessed with a short-term memory when it comes to adversity. When he gets rocked, he is able to put it behind him and bounce right back in his next outing. While that trait is more useful for relievers, it is still a fine quality for starters. The team has control of Smith through the end of the 2023 season. This means that, without an extension, he is unlikely to contribute to the next contending Diamondbacks team. Of the team’s non-Gallen starters, Smith likely has the highest trade value. There is less urgency to move Smith than to move Kelly though. For one thing, Smith is still showing signs of improving. Secondly, the team could potentially see their window of contention move forward to 2023. If that were to happen, Smith could play a major part in that. If teams are calling about Smith, they should absolutely be listening to the offers. However, his trade value should still remain high enough that the offseason likely poses a better opportunity to trade him. Worst-case they keep him until next season’s trade deadline when there is more clarity regarding the team’s competitive future.

Taylor Widener
Taylor Widener displays a frustrating mix of solid #3-like results, combined with bullpen arm peripherals. Widener’s boogeyman always has been and likely always will be, his ability to suppress home runs. Or, in his case, his inability to. Simply put, Widener gives up too many of them. He doesn’t have the other peripherals of Curt Schilling, who led the league in home runs allowed when he was the Cy Young runner-up here in the desert. Widener allows too many base runners to get away with surrendering as many home runs as he does. However, when Widener does keep the ball in the park, his aggressive nature and his ability to strand runners makes him an effective starter. Like Gallen, Widener does not become a free agent until 2026. Whether he sticks in the rotation or he pitches out of the bullpen (where his stuff might actually be more effective), there is no rush to move Widener. He has the tools and the minor league options to remain a valuable player for the Diamondbacks into their next window of contention. Given the wildly divergent nature of his results from his peripherals (primarily the HR-rate), he is unlikely to draw too much in the way of trade interest. If someone comes calling for Widener, it makes sense to listen, but he likely has more value, both now and in the future, for the Diamondbacks than he would a current contender looking for an upgrade.


Tyler Clippard
Tyler Clippard is a very solid relief pitcher that nearly any contending team would appreciate having on their roster. His worst season was 2017. In that year, he was still only slightly below league average. In all other seasons, he has been well above average and has been a horse. That’s why it was such a surprise when Clippard went to the IL to open this season. IL stints are something that Clippard has never before needed to deal with. Clippard has now just returned from the IL. His lack of any significant demonstration of innings, along with his age and the fact that he did have his first injury (a concerning shoulder one at that), will likely dampen any enthusiasm for trading for Clippard at the deadline. He does have a bit over a week to open some eyes and show he is healthy. Here’s the thing, the Diamondbacks likely should have never signed Clippard in the first place. He’s a great fit for teams that have truly reasonable expectations of contention. For a team like the Diamondbacks, a team that was hoping to win the lottery to contend, Clippard provides very little value beyond the veteran mentorship he can provide the younger arms in the bullpen. At this point, the best outcome for the Diamondbacks is that Clippard can get himself into three to five more games and that he is as close to flawless as possible. If he can do that, moving him at the deadline should still be a very real possibility. Otherwise, the Diamondbacks are likely saddled with him through the end of the season. That may not be the worst of possible outcomes, as the bullpen is in dire need of veteran leadership. That’s not necessarily the role that all veterans are cut out for though and there is no telling if Clippard is or not until he is thrust into the role.

Brett de Geus
Brett de Geus is a dynamic right-hander with good strikeout stuff and somewhat above average command. He’s also woefully over-matched at the MLB level. That is the sort of thing that happens when a pitcher is only 23 and makes the jump from A+ to MLB with no stops in between. Welcome to the life of a Rule-5 selection. In 10 games with the Diamondbacks, de Geus has had a fair bit of success. That success is smoke and mirrors, as his peripherals all indicate that the results he found while pitching for the Rangers are far more likely. He is still learning and developing and he is doing it at the top level. Once the season is over, there is little doubt that the first of his three option years will be exercised and de Geus will be headed down to Amarillo. On the plus side, there is plenty to like about the young man’s makeup and every reason to be hopeful that he will make his way back to the Majors in short order. de Gues is not going anywhere, at least not for now. His status as a Rule-5 arm all but seals it.

Jake Faria
Jake Faria is what happens to a team when injuries, ineffectiveness, frugality, and lack of aggressive promotion all come together in one place. Faria is a limited upside middle reliever who probably doesn’t make the 26-man roster for any other team in baseball. Yet, the Diamondbacks have him around to eat up innings, some as an opener, others as a middle reliever. Being out of options, the team is saddled with him, unless they simply pony p a small bit of cash and cut him loose. Right now, the biggest assistance Faria is bringing to the table is his ability to shield the team from throwing younger prospect arms into the fray. In a lost season like this, that is a dubious distinction as those innings could be used to help groom and develop talent that is borderline MLB ready now. At the very least, those innings could go to a pitcher with minor league options remaining, allowing the team to have flexibility with the roster when the bullpen get gassed or injured.

Joe Mantiply
Mantiply is another limited upside middle reliever. The biggest thing going for Mantiply is that he throws from the left side. This season, Mantiply has shown an uncanny knack for stranding inherited runners. Unfortunately, he is not as gifted at stranding his own base runners, and there tend to be entirely too many of those allowed. He gives up a bit too much hard contact, which has resulted in some bad luck with BABIP. On the other hand, he is surrendering home runs at an unsustainably low rate, especially for a guy pitching in the NL West. The end result is that his peripherals suggest that he is exactly who he appears to be on the mound, which is a roughly league average lefty reliever who, thankfully, has all his minor league options still intact. At age 30 though, there is plenty of reason to question whether or not we are already seeing the best Mantiply has to offer. If he wasn’t throwing lefty, it would be an honest question as to whether or not he would be on anyone’s roster.

Matt Peacock
Matt Peacock is precisely the sort of pitcher one would expect to see on the 26-man roster in a lost season. Promoted straight from AA-Amarillo, Peacock is a groundball inducing right-hander who has both started and worked in middle relief. He is best suited for the bullpen, though the team has looked to Peacock to pick up some openings/starts in order to help patch over their rotation injury woes. As is not uncommon for a groundballer, Peacock is prone to giving up home runs when he misses his spots. At the MLB level, that has been too often so far, resulting in a HR/9 rate of 1.59. His peripherals suggest he has been both unlucky and also miscast in his role. Improved defense might just help that. Peacock has a very good slider when it is on. The consistency is just not there yet. The future still looks bright for Peacock if he can survive having been tossed right into the deep end of a terrible season with a team of defensively questionable players behind him.

Noé Ramirez
When Ramirez is on, he looks great. When he isn’t he is downright terrible. Ramirez has enjoyed some limited success in Arizona, but it is another case of smoke and mirrors. His peripherals suggest he is performing in excess of two runs better than he is pitching with an ERA of 3.31 (perfectly acceptable) against an xFIP of 5.54 (decidely less so). Ramirez’s success in Arizona has come from an unlikely 0.846 WHIP, thanks to a .239 BABIP. Those numbers are not going to stay at those levels. If they did, he would be rivalling Jacob deGrom as a pitcher. When his numbers begin their inevitable regression, he is an older, less effective version of Jake Faria above, complete with lack of options to support flexibility.

Riley Smith
Another pitching prospect getting a taste of the Majors in a lost season, Smith is a middle relief prospect who may well have already risen to the level of his ability. He is far more likely a AAAA pitcher than he is an effective MLB reliever. Like Peacock, Smith likes to work down in the zone to create groundballs off of his sinking fastball. He simply does not have the pure stuff of Peacock though. Smith is a pitcher who cannot afford to miss on location at all. If he does, big league hitters will send the ball over the fence. At age 26, this is likely Smith’s last best chance to show what he has to offer before he becomes a journeyman minor league reliever. However, he has minor league options which allow the team to move him back and forth between the 26-man roster and the minors. In a lost season like this, finding out what the team has waiting in the wings is important, even if it is finding out that one of the prospects isn’t going to pan out.

Joakim Soria
Soria is a 37-year-old high leverage reliever. Pretty much everything written about Clippard above applies here as well, with the difference of Soria not having the health history that Clippard does. Soria has also started to show a decline in performance since 2019, but he has still been effective by and large. So far this season, Soria has put a rough start behind him and settled in as a still effective late-inning reliever. This settling in comes just in time to move him at the deadline. There is simply no reason whatsoever for Soria to be on the 26-man roster come 1 August.


TL/DR

The Diamondbacks have some work to do on the pitching portion of the 26-man roster. Currently, there are four ageing arms in the bullpen which have no minor league options and are providing limited at best value to the club. Additionally, the team has at least one starter, Merrill Kelly, who has more value for this team as a trade candidate than he does as a starter for the club. Then there is Madison Bumgarner, likely a sunk cost of crippling proportions for the next two seasons.

By the time the trade deadline passes, the team should be without the services of Merrill Kelly, Joakim Soria, potentially Clippard, and possibly even Caleb Smith, though that last is unlikely given his value and the deadlline market. The team also has two pitchers in Ramirez and Faria who could (and should) be parted with sometime very soon. Joe Mantiply is on borrowed time, though his left-handedness will keep him employed at the MLB level for the remainder of the season.

Lost seasons like this are opportunities for young players to learn and develop the necessary skills to help the team down the road. Right now, this team only has two relievers and two or three starters who fit the bill.

Up next: 26-man roster (position players)