When the 2024 season begins, the Diamondbacks will be attempting to accomplish something they have only accomplished once before. Actually, they will be attempting to accomplish two things they have only accomplished once before. Of course, they will be attempting to go one step further than in 2023 and win the World Series. But they will also be attempting to make the postseason in consecutive years for the second time in franchise history, and first since 2001-2002.
From 1999-2003, the Diamondbacks were one of the most successful teams in baseball. They posted a winning record each year, easily the longest streak of winning baseball in franchise history (the only other time that even two winning seasons were put together was 2017-2019.) They won 100 games in 1999, and averaged almost 92 wins a year. They were so successful that, despite losing 97 games in 1998, they ended the 2003 season 76 games over .500 as a franchise, a truly incredible run for an expansion team. Of course, it all came crashing down in 2004, as they lost a franchise record 111 games. The usual narrative associated with this collapse is that ownership overspent to win in the first few years, leaving the franchise bankrupt and unable to sustain. This is not false, but neither is it the whole story. Yes, the Diamondbacks were unable to afford the free agent contracts that had lifted them to success in the first few years. However, the collapse was as much the fault of a catastrophic inability to identify and develop position player talent as it was financial, or of a failure to recognize when they had a talent and retain it.
Both expansion teams were allowed to draft starting in 1996, but both were to draft at the bottom of the round through 1998. Thus, the Diamondbacks held the 30th pick in the draft in 1996 and 1997. They would have also held that pick in 1998, but gave up their first two picks in the draft to sign Jay Bell (that signing certainly worked out) and Willie Blair (that one did not.) One thing that helped both the Diamondbacks and the Devil Rays was the violation of Rule 4E by several teams in the 1996 draft; that set free several players to sign with any team. Notably, the Diamondbacks signed Travis Lee, who had been the second pick of the draft, by the Twins. They also signed John Patterson, who had been the fifth pick, by the Expos. These two signings, and the expansion draft selection of Karim Garcia from the Dodgers, gave the Diamondbacks three players on Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list in 1998. Between the draft restrictions and loss of two picks, there had not been a lot of opportunities to add to the farm system, which was ranked 20th out of 30 teams. However, the Diamondbacks held the fourth pick in the 1999 draft.
Things started to go south well before the draft, though. In 1997, the Diamondbacks’ highest “affiliate” was the High-A High Desert Mavericks. After Travis Lee destroyed the California League for half the season, he was actually loaned to the AAA Tucson Toros (then a Brewers affiliate) to get him some action against a higher level. In 1998, the Diamondbacks still had no AA affiliate. Thus, the options for the players at High Desert in 1997 (who had won 83 games) was either to repeat the level or make the jump to AAA, where they would be competing for playing time with the collection of AAAA players the Diamondbacks had to round out their roster. A few, notably Jason Conti, were loaned to other organizations to play at the AA level. Because the Diamondbacks were attempting to win from the beginning, there wasn’t a lot of space for young players to make a mark, not even in 1998. The 1998 season really identified two players as potential building blocks: Lee and Tony Batista.
But the 1998 season should have also provided the first indication of the problems to come. For the Tucson Sidewinders finished 14th of 16 teams in the Pacific Coast League. Still, there was no AA team, so some of that might have been because of players playing above their level.
The 1998-1999 offseason saw action the likes of which will never be seen again. For the Diamondbacks acquired multiple key figures for their upcoming run. In addition to Randy Johnson, the Diamondbacks signed Greg Colbrunn, Todd Stottlemyre (key in 1999 but not in 2001), Erubiel Durazo, Steve Finley, and Byung-Hyun Kim. They traded for Luis Gonzalez. So far, so good.
From 1996-1998, the Diamondbacks had drafted the following position players who would eventually reach the majors: Rob Ryan, Jason Conti, Junior Spivey, Jack Cust, Ron Calloway, Brian Gordon (who would only reach the majors after converting to a pitcher), Alex Cintron, JD Closser, and Robby Hammock. Only Cust and Closser were taken in the first five rounds of the draft. Apart from Cust, the highest selection that would manage positive career WAR as a position player was Hammock, taken in the 23rd round, with his career total of 0.6 bWAR. In those three drafts, the most valuable position player the Diamondbacks selected was Spivey. However, they were much more successful on the pitching front. They had taken Brad Penny in the fifth round in 1996, and entering 1999 he was a top-five prospect. They still had Patterson, now ranked #15. They had Nick Bierbrodt, who had been their first ever draft pick. While ultimately, only one of those pitchers would go on to have a great career, it was easy in 1999 to say that they had a solid future rotation. And they had the fourth pick in the draft.
The first pick was Josh Hamilton, as was widely expected. The second pick was Josh Beckett, who would have the best career of any of the first round picks. After the Tigers continued what was a 90s tradition in the draft of reaching for catchers, the Diamondbacks selected Corey Myers, a local product. This was considered a reach at the time, even if it was a slightly justifyable reach, in an effort to appeal to local fans. He also came cheaper than the surrounding picks. Another factor that makes things look a little better for Diamondbacks fans was that the Twins selected B.J. Garbe with the following pick, who never even reached AAA, and cost $750,000 more than Myers. The Blue Jays might have also been considered to be reaching when they selected Alex Rios 19th, and signed him for under $1 million. Yet he would wind up being second only to Hamilton among first round position players when it came to value.
The Diamondbacks also had a supplemental round pick, as compensation for losing Devon White to the Dodgers in free agency. They used this pick on Casey Diagle.
When the Diamondbacks picked, the second-most valuable first round pick (Barry Zito) was still on the board. For their supplemental pick, Brian Roberts, who would provide more value even then Hamilton, was still on the board. Both signed for substantially less than the Diamondbacks spent on Myers and Daigle. Carl Crawford (52nd pick) and Brandon Phillips (57th pick) were both players the Diamondbacks passed on twice who would go on to excellent careers. The Diamondbacks went pitching again in the second round, and drafted Jeremy Ward, who would not reach the majors. The signing of Greg Swindell cost the Diamondbacks their pick in a third round that saw Justin Morneau and Hank Blalock taken. In fact, the Diamondbacks would not get another pick until the sixth round, when they selected Justin Maureau (not Morneau) but failed to sign him. When it was all said and done, the Diamondbacks had drafted 48 players. Five would reach the major leagues. Only two would provide positive value. Those two were Lyle Overbay and Chris Capuano. Granted, drafting is, and always has been, somewhat inexact. And while it is nice to imagine that the 1999 Diamondbacks could have been the team to draft Albert Pujols, every team passed on him, multiple times (just as every team would pass on Yadier Molina multiple times in 2000.)
To be fair, it wasn’t just 1999. 1999 was the conclusion of a series of poor drafts. Between 1999 and the two previous drafts, just 15 players were selected and signed who would eventually make the majors. 1997 featured just 4. By comparison, the 2009 draft, even with top pick Bobby Borchering never making it, featured 12 players who would sign and eventually make the majors, even if not all of them were with the Diamondbacks. To find a worse draft, you have to go all the way to 2012, when the Diamondbacks signed just three players who would eventually make the majors. By comparison, three of the players selected in the five round COVID draft have already reached the majors.
But the 1999 Diamondbacks had a problem, and one which certainly seems familiar to Diamondbacks fans. The bullpen was a significant weakness. The first week of the season illustrated this perfectly. In the six games played, the Diamondbacks lost by walk-off four times. Gregg Olson blew three saves. Despite the best offense in franchise history, the Diamondbacks were narrowly in first place at the beginning of June. Joe Garigiola Jr. began to look elsewhere. And he found a match in Toronto.
Tony Batista, after having a great year in 1998, had gotten off to a disappointing start. He had hit just 5 home runs. However, looking more closely at his statistics, he was still clearly seeing the ball well. He had 16 walks against 17 strikeouts. But on June 12th, Batista was packaged with John Frascatore in exchange for Dan Plesac. Plesac was part one of stabilizing the bullpen, and he did fine. He wasn’t great, but he was an improvement. But Batista went on an absolute tear after being traded, hit 25 home runs over the remainder of the season, and would become an All Star the following year. (He would also make an All Star team in 2002.) But the Diamondbacks were not done. On July 8th they would make what would eventually turn out to be one of the worst trades in franchise history: they traded Brad Penny, Vladimir Nunez, and Abraham Nunez to the Marlins for Matt Mantei. Ironically, Vladimir Nunez had been one of the better bullpen options, and would eventually become the Marlins closer in 2002. Meanwhile, Mantei was solid throughout the remainder of 1999, but injuries and ineffectiveness would plague him for the remainder of his Diamondbacks tenure.
Meanwhile, down on the farm, the Sidewinders were slightly better, but still a last place team. Jason Conti had taken an obvious step back. Bierbrodt and Patterson were lit up. The El Paso Diablos were also in last place. High Desert? Third in the division and sixth in the league. South Bend? Third in the division and ninth in the league. The only affiliate that managed a winning record in 1999 was Rookie League Missoula. While success at the minor league level does not indicate future success in the major leagues, failure to win at any level should probably be an indictment of the talent level on the farm.
In 2002, with the bullpen still an area of weakness, the Diamondbacks packaged Jack Cust and JD Closser for Mike Myers.
In December of 2002, Luis Ayala and Javier Lopez were both lost in the Rule 5 draft. The two would combine for almost three WAR out of the bullpen in Montreal and Denver, respectively. Lopez would go on to an excellent career as a LOOGY. To be fair, the 2003 Diamondbacks had one of the best bullpens in the league. But they had the second-worst group of position players. The following year, the bullpen would be the second-worst in baseball and the position players would be the worst.
Even now, in the entire history of the franchise, the Diamondbacks have drafted just one player who went on to post more than 15 bWAR with the club: Paul Goldschmidt. But the first they ever drafted to be worth even 10 bWAR with the club was Stephen Drew, in 2004. Meanwhile, the list of players they passed on who went on to great careers is far longer than the names mentioned above. Another notable who has an outside chance at the Hall of Fame is Jimmy Rollins. By 2004, he was a 5 WAR player and a two-time All Star. In 2004, Lyle Overbay was leading the league in doubles. A 2004 Diamondbacks team with Rollins, Roberts, Overbay, Capuano, Penny, Zito, Lopez, and Ayala doesn’t lose 111 games. It’s a legitimate contender (and Randy Johnson gets the Cy Young he deserved.) The complete story of 2004 has to include the failure to identify and develop position player talent, and the failure to retain players who would have been key pieces in the name of minimal gains.
Yes, hindsight is 20/20. But, until now, the fault for the 2004 collapse has been placed on money, when the reality is that there was also an organizational failure to identify and develop position player talent that was basically universal under the Colangelo ownership and Garigiola front office. When they did have a useful position player, he was often traded away in search of short-term improvement. Average and power were emphasized over on-base percentage, which led to one of the worst hitters in the league at getting on base batting leadoff.
What does this mean? It means that chasing a bullpen improvement isn’t worth trading away top players, and certainly not top-five prospects. Bullpen improvements can come from players that are deep on the roster. It means that, even if Ken Kendrick is willing to spend money this offseason, it is still imperative to identify and develop talent. Hazen’s position player draft record is excellent; he has struggled thus far developing pitching, but we may be finally starting to see that turn the corner.
The story of 1999 remains the story of great on-field success. But at the same time, 1999 finished laying the foundation of the 2004 team. As we bask in the success of 2023 and hope for further success in 2024, it is important to remember that the decisions made involving players currently in the minor leagues will have vast implications for 2028 and beyond.
Also, this is why it is important to tune into the minor leagues. You’re seeing the preview of what the Diamondbacks will look like in 3-5 years, for good or ill.