Going in to the winter, the National League champion Diamondbacks were clearly not going to sit on that pennant. Speaking at the end of an unexpected, but very pleasant playoff run, GM Mike Hazen made it clear there was a significant amount of work to be done this off-season. “I think the 84 wins during the regular season highlighted some of the areas where I feel that we need to make improvements, to be even better next year. We know we have a lot of work to do. We know there are areas of our team that we want to try to improve.” It was hardly a secret that those included getting a third baseman, a starting pitcher, and a right-handed bat, possibly as designated hitter.
Rotation spot filled
The hot corner position was filled by the trade for Eugenio Suárez with the Seattle Mariners. But to strengthen the Arizona rotation, Hazen opted to go into the free-agent market, signing left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez to a contract of four years and $80 million, with a vesting option for a fifth season. This sets up the Opening Day rotation to be Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly, Rodriguez, Brandon Pfaadt, and one spot to be decided. Right now, Tommy Henry is probably the most likely, but we are still almost four months from that point. A lot could change between now and then. As ever, depth matters, with the odds being that the Opening Day rotation will do well to survive intact much into May.
It's an area of the D-backs which could certainly use improvement. In 2023, Arizona’s starting pitchers ranked 21st by ERA (4.67), 16th by FIP (4.36), 20th by xFIP (4.42), 14th by fWAR (10.8) and 23rd by bWAA (-1.0). It would have been a lot worse if not for Gallen and Kelly. Together, those two went 29-17 with a 3.39 ERA. Everyone else? 17-34 with a 5.77 ERA. Two-fifths of the Opening Day rotation, Zach Davies and Madison Bumgarner, combined for two wins in 22 starts, while earning $26.6 million between them. But that last point is perhaps why I have a little PTSD about Mike Hazen's free-agent signings, especially of starting pitchers.
What does this mean in terms of payroll for 2024? As a starting point, let's start with Jack's assessment of the situation, from about a month ago. At that stage, he concluded the team had a nice, round $100m on the books. Off that, we need to subtract the contracts of Austin Adams and Kyle Lewis, both of whom were non-tendered. That saves $2.7m. You then need to add on the contracts of Suarez ($11.3m) and Rodriguez. I've not seen a breakdown of his contract, but assuming for now, it's an even $20m per year, that takes Arizona’s payroll for next year to $128.6m. That's just shy of the all-time high here, the $131m in 2018, - not coincidentally, the year after the last playoff run.
Is there room for more? Possibly. The 2018 figure, fuelled by an equally unlikely (though less deep) post-season appearance, represented a 41% increase over the Opening Day payroll on 2017. Applying the same multiplier to this year's Opening Day payroll takes us to $164 million. Seems unlikely though I would love to see Ken Kendrick and the other owners buying in to the success. But 2018 was in the early days of the deal with what was then Fox Sports Arizona, before the harsh realities of a new broadcast landscape came into focus. Money is likely tighter now, at least until the rights issue is resolved. With $30m added in a couple of weeks, where are all the "Ken Kendrick will never spend" haters now?
Work still to do
I doubt Hazen is now taking the rest of the winter off. The right-handed hitter still needs to be obtained, and that will either require money or prospect capital. The latter might be the most likely route, since he has managed to fill two of the three main needs without sacrificing much prospect capital. I can see some more money being spent, say, to get a backup catcher behind Moreno, but that will not cost a great deal. Hazen said he envisages Moreno starting 110-120 games in 2024. So the backup will be very much a minor partner, and cost accordingly. Perhaps another bullpen arm too? Can never have too many.
As a right-handed bat, Hazen is leaving his options open. Or, perhaps, simply being Hazen, and keeping his cards close to his chest. He said, during the winter meetings, “I wouldn’t say a right-handed-hitting outfielder. A right-handed bat is somebody that would help fill out our lineup. There are options and various places to get that. Depending on who that was, where that landed, how that fit, I think we would have more flexibility for how the rest of it would come together.” However, the team needs to replace Tommy Pham and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Right now, the outfield is all lefty. Jake McCarthy and Alek Thomas had OPS+ of 77 and 75 respectively, so there is room for offensive improvement there.
There have been reports linking the D-backs to a number of free agents who could fit the bill, including J.D. Martinez and Justin Turner. The commitment to Rodriguez probably makes that less likely, though without knowing the payroll limit, we can’t be sure. The trade options are obviously greater in number, but a lot harder to pin down. The main name mentioned there has been the Rays’ Randy Arozarena, though Jack went over a possible red flag with the player. Certainly, you have to ask why Tampa would want to trade a player worth 3.5 bWAR last year. As Jack said to me, “When shaking hands on a deal with the Rays, always be sure to count your fingers right after...”