The intended drop date for this piece was the first off day after the deadline. Alas, life comes at you fast and sometimes just gets in the way of the best-laid plans. Mike Tyson was right about people and plans. Anyway, here is the final installment, albeit a bit late.
In many ways, it is a bit fortuitous that this piece is somewhat delayed. It has allowed the dust to settle somewhat and for everyone to get a bit of a glimpse at what the team’s plans for the remainder of the season might look like. As has been the case for 18 months now, COVID and general injuries have taken their toll on the 26-man roster. Still there are some easily identified trends to focus upon.
As of today, here is the 26-man roster:
Brett de Geus
**10/15 - Day IL**
Clearly, the team is on the verge of making another move or two. After all, the team can hardly get by with only three starters. There is no telling how long Widener will be out. He was sent to the IL with an undisclosed injury and then to add to it, he stayed home after developing cold-like symptoms. Merrill Kelly is on the COVID-IL this time for actually testing positive, not as the result of contact tracing. Then there is the potential impending return of Luke Weaver to consider. Conventional wisdom would suggest that, given he will be fully rested, Humberto Castellanos will take a turn in the rotation in the next few days. If he covers tomorrow’s game, Bumgarner could then pitch Wednesday on normal rest. Still, the team’s pitching staff, already a questionable assortment of arms without injuries and COVID, now faces an even steeper challenge.
The trade deadline was able to provide little clarity for the Diamondbacks moving forward. Gone, as expected, is Joakim Soria - who promptly headed to the IL once being acquired by the Blue Jays. It is not entirely unlikely that there were zero suitors for Tyler Clippard. Clippard had only just come off the IL and still had not truly been tested. The biggest surprise may have been that the club elected not to trade Merrill Kelly. Opposite of Clippard, it is difficult to picture the scenario in which no one showed any interest in Kelly. Even if Kelly returns healthy and then resumes his place in the pitching rotation through the entirety of next season, he still is not contributing to the betterment of the club’s next window of contention. There is some credibility to the notion that the team might simply be waiting until the offseason to move Kelly, hoping to piece together the final months of this season’s rotation with Kelly as a big part of that. One has to wonder though, if the risks to injury or declining performance are worth that delay. His trade value is never going to be higher than it was at the deadline, though it may still be close to equal, assuming they move him before day one of the 2022 season. With the number of arms still to be tested at the MLB level, Kelly’s continued presence on the roster raises some concerns. However, it is undeniable that a healthy, productive Kelly could help bridge the gap to the end of the season. Of course, he needs to get healthy again for that to be a possibility. Given that his presence on the COVID-IL is for an actual positive test, the team is almost certain to be without his services for a minimum of three starts in total, with an unlimited maximum number.
The departure of Soria from the bullpen was a much-needed relief for the flexibility of the staff. Soria’s lack of future and lack of options made keeping him around untenable. Alas, the team has yet to do much with that newfound freedom. The major changes to the bullpen have not come from within, as one might have hoped, but have continued to come in the form of yet more reclamation projects. Most notably, the team has brought in Sean Poppen and J.B. Wendelken. To his credit, Poppen has an option year remaining and has been a fringe pitcher this year. While the team likely has similar players in-house, claiming Poppen and bringing him aboard is a zero-risk move by the team. Poppen’s biggest issue may actually be his age. At 27 and change, he is already likely coming into his peak, either now or within the next year. Still, this is the beauty of a bullpen pitcher still having an option year remaining. They can be sent back down to shuffle the deck some more if they are not as sharp as the front office would like.
The same cannot be said for J.B. Wendelken. Wendelken is the sort of rebound/reclamation project that would seem to have made a ton of sense at the beginning of the year. Now though, so late into the season, there are some questions surrounding the move. Hopefully, the team has enough data to make a convincing argument that his drop in performance from quite effective to AAAA-caliber is all related to his injury from early in the season. However, even if he bounces back, will it be enough to justify guaranteeing him a roster spot and paying him the steep increase he is going to see in salary through arbitration once the season is over? This move feels like a slightly different approach to finding a bargain-basement closer, which is something that this team, at this point in time, needs to stop relying on for future productivity. Here’s to hoping he finds his groove again and becomes the team’s closer for the next three years. If he doesn’t, those innings pitched might be better served going to the likes of the other J.B. - J.B. Bukauskas, or perhaps even Riley Smith. Father Time is not on Wendelken’s side. Neither is his contract situation.
Lastly, there is the elephant in the pitcher’s room - Tyler Gilbert. Gilbert was picked up by Arizona in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 Draft. That alone says something about his pedigree. At the same time, he did just throw a no-hitter, something that Curt Schilling never even managed to accomplish, and he was a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher. It doesn’t matter that the leading candidate for the NL MVP was not in the lineup that night. He still bested the opposition of MLB players for 27 outs. Even more impressively, he did it as essentially a two-pitch pitcher. While Gilbert’s future may very well still be in the bullpen moving forward, pitching a no-no has, at the very least, earned him another handful of starts, perhaps even enough to see out the rest of the season. At worst, he’s a leading candidate to secure a role in next season’s early-season bullpen. At best, he demonstrates the stamina and the stuff (along with a third pitch) that allows him to stick as a back-of-the-rotation starter. Gilbert is not the sort of player that usually gets the chance to pull off the feat he did. But then, few teams are ever in the combination injury/performance situation Arizona finds themselves in right now. However, Gilbert’s performance is also something of a blazing reminder; that this lost season is the perfect time to take chances on players in the system to see if there is anyone who can step up and surprise and/or impress.
Somehow Bryan Holaday, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Christian Walker, and David Peralta are all still on the roster and all still finding playing time of a not-insignificant amount. These are ABs coming at the expense of the likes of Pavin Smith, Daulton Varsho, Josh Rojas, and Josh VanMeter. Further complicating the situation, the team has recently gone out and picked up Jake Hager. Hager has been knocking around professional ball for ten years now. This is the first season he has cracked an MLB roster. That he is already playing for his fourth organization in this season alone should say something about how well that has gone. At 28-years of age and having not had even an average season in the minors since his time in AA in 2018, it is difficult to see clearly what the organization is hoping for out of Hager. What it does do, is make it even less likely the team shifts Ketel Marte back to where he belongs at second base, while also making it more difficult to get Josh Rojas and Josh VanMeter MLB at-bats. Even VanMeter, who has limited upside potential, has been a far superior player every season since he started playing professional ball back in 2013, which was Hager’s third professional season.
On the plus side, the trade of Eduardo Escobar has cleared the deck for Drew Ellis to take his shot at the majors. Though the sample size is still small, it appears that the reports of his improved glove work at third are not exaggerated. If this continues to hold true, then there is little reason not to hand Ellis the starting third base job for the remainder of the 2021 season. If he falls flat on his face, the team can use spring training to find another candidate to play third. Perhaps they will even consider Ketel Marte for the position (though I wouldn’t bet on it).
While Kole Calhoun’s recent injury has opened up playing time in RF, there is a very real chance that Calhoun is healthy and ready to play again (and wanting to prove his health to potential free agent suitors) before the season is out. From the standpoint of not burning bridges with current and potential future personnel, it will be difficult for the team to flatly deny him such an opportunity. On the other hand, there is nothing at all left to be gained for the club by running Calhoun out there again this year, unless further injuries ravage the team and make Calhoun one of, if not the only, viable right field option.
The disconnect between what the front office says about fielding a team and what is being run out on the 26-man roster is vast. The messages coming from the organization are wildly inconsistent. On one hand there is an acknowledgement that there are important developmental at-bats and innings to be had in this part of this particular season. On the other, the team continues to field a bunch of veteran players with no future in the organization, or possibly even in baseball at all. The team is continuing to make more of the same sorts of decisions that put them in this position in the first place, namely trying to polish cast-offs from other organizations, hoping to find inexpensive diamonds in the rough. This holds true in both the bullpen and on the field. Additionally, they continue to double down on experiments that have already proven, time and again, that they will not work, most notably the deployment of Ketel Marte and Pavin Smith in center field. That Bryan Holaday is still on the roster is quite confusing, though there is at least a saving grace there in that he has not had a single AB since 4 August and counting, so it isn’t like he is actively taking time from developing players. He is, however, still passively preventing other players with at least long shots at a future of even having the opportunity to play, by taking up a valuable roster slot. It’s time the organization gave serious consideration to designating Christian Walker for assignment. He’s 30 and trending in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, Pavin Smith is playing out of position to get him ABs and Seth Beer continues to wait for his turn down in Reno.
The team has a very real opportunity to start preparing this team for the future. Rather than do so, potentially taking some extra lumps along the way, the team has decided to double down on a number of questionable, even poor decisions while playing for pride, rather than for the betterment of the team in the long run.
Mike Hazen was not wrong when he said that a team that gets used to losing will find it difficult to turn off the losing switch and to get back into a winning frame of mind. A very real case can be made though that the team that Torey Lovullo is being forced to field the remainder of the way is built to lose more games than it will win and that it will only harm the 2022 club along the way, by not allowing the team every opportunity to prepare that it has being handed.
It’s time the organization started making some hard decisions, even if they aren’t popular ones.