Mike Hazen and the D-backs playing the Long Game

Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

Forget about a competitive window.

The last time the Diamondbacks felt they had a window to compete for the post-season and went "all in" might have been when they acquired Zack Greinke before the 2016 season to join Patrick Corbin, Robby Ray, and a lineup anchored by Paul Goldschmidt, who had four years of team control remaining before free agency. That signing was followed by a trade for a guy named Shelby Miller to be the #2 starter behind Greinke. The team was terrible in 2016 which was the last year for GM Dave Stewart and his management team. Under new GM Mike Hazen and his group, the D-backs made the playoffs in 2017 (won a memorable wildcard game but got swept in a forgettable NLDS), but fell back to mediocre in 2018. Goldschmidt was traded after the 2018 season and Greinke at the 2019 deadline. The signing of Madison Bumgarner a few months after trading away Greinke (and his remaining contract) feels more like an attempt to solidify a team with some talent than going "all in" toward a competitive window.

Other teams, particularly those at the low end of the payroll spectrum, have employed this strategy, too. When a core group of good players get to the big leagues at about the same time, teams will often do what they can to add talent around the core and try to compete for a playoff spot before the young players get too expensive in free agency for the lower payroll teams to afford.

Under Mike Hazen, the Diamondbacks have not looked for competitive windows. They even bristled at questions about "rebuilding" after the disastrous 2021 season in which the team lost 110 games. They seem to conflate "rebuilding" with tanking or intentionally fielding an inexperienced or inexpensive team in order to acquire draft picks and build toward a competitive window. This leadership team is building a franchise they believe can be consistently competitive – think St. Louis Cardinals or Atlanta Braves – rather than only during competitive windows. It will be interesting to see if the team can continue to draft well in poorer draft positions and if resources will be made available to maintain a competitive team in the Arizona market.

With the Hazen group’s draft picks beginning to form the core of the big-league team, the vision is finally taking shape. The signing of Corbin Carroll to a long-term contract this spring established a model for the way they would like to manage their top talent. It might have been done earlier with Zac Gallen. We assume the team has tried to extend his contract but that Gallen and his agent, Scott Boras, have declined. The next top talent expected to reach the big leagues is pitcher Brandon Pfaadt.

Pfaadt had a dominant season in the minor leagues last year and pitched impressively in spring training for the D-backs this spring. Despite this, he will start the 2023 season in AAA. Part of the reason for that is the fact that he’s not on the 40-man roster and wont have to be all season, meaning the team could leave him in AAA until late in the year and bring him to the big leagues for a few games in August and/or September in preparation for his full rookie season in 2024. Maintaining his rookie status for 2024 may be important.

Corbin Carroll is widely considered the favorite in the Rookie of the Year contest in 2023. That’s not only important for the prestige of the award for both player and team but the new collective bargaining agreement between owners and players rewards both player and team for such an award. The player gets $750,000. More importantly for this story, the team earns an additional draft pick for having a top three Rookie of the Year finisher as an incentive for bringing up good young players at the start of the season. Since Pfaadt is not on the opening day roster, he would not be able to earn the team a draft pick even if he were to pitch well and compete for the award in 2023.

The D-backs only incentive to bring Pfaadt up during this season is if he’s a better pitcher than the ones they already have on the 40-man roster. While that’s a significant incentive, over the long term, because teams have six years of contractual control over players they bring up, the D-backs have two incentives to leave Pfaadt off the roster for 2023. First, they will be choosing between having him on the roster from 2023 through 2028 if they bring him up this year or 2024 through 2029 if they wait. Considering the talent in the D-backs farm system, they are more likely to be competitive in 2029 than 2023 – and they already signed Zach Davies to pitch in 2023 only. Second, if they delay Pfaadt until 2024, he would probably be the team’s best chance in the Rookie of the Year contest.

In fact, the Diamondbacks could conceivably have a series of players compete for the ROY award. Getting way ahead of ourselves, as much as fans may like to see Brandon Pfaadt pitch the full season this year and Jordan Lawler play all of next year, and Druw Jones play all of the 2025 season, it would make sense for the Diamondbacks if each of these players stayed primarily in AAA those seasons and competed for the ROY in the following year. After all, Pfaadt will still only be 25 in his ROY challenge season of 2024, Lawler and Jones will each be 22 if they chase the award in 2025 and 2026 respectively, the same age Carroll is this year. Neither Lawler nor Jones will have to be added to the 40-man roster before their age-22 season. This sets up a situation for each, potentially, similar to Pfaadt’s situation this year – the player may not have anything left to prove in the minor leagues but the team will manage their service time to fit its long-term plan.

This is all to say that the Diamondbacks are playing a long game and not considering a sunset or a closing window on their competitiveness. Fans would do well to think in those terms, too, and temper expectations of the early arrival of future stars. If all goes according to Mike Hazen’s plan, this is just the start of long-term competitiveness for this franchise.