Wait 'Til Next Year: Diamondbacks' mistakes pile up in trainwreck year
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it's only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait 'Til Next Year series.
Current Record: 59-87 (.404, tied for fourth in the NL West)
Mathematically eliminated: Sept. 11
What went right in 2014: For the first four months of the season, Paul Goldschmidt was as good as he had been last year, when he finished second in the National League MVP voting. Rookie Chase Anderson established himself in the rotation at the age of 26, while independent-league find David Peralta, who turned 27 in August, proved to be a viable major league outfielder. Since being acquired from the Yankees for Brandon McCarthy on July 6, 26-year-old rookie righty Vidal Nuno has posted a 3.16 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, and 3.86 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 11 starts, largely replicating McCarthy's peripherals and exceeding expectations. Daniel Hudson returned from his second consecutive Tommy John surgery to throw his first major league pitch since June 2012.
Most significantly, in mid-May, the team hired newly-minted Hall of Famer Tony La Russa to be its new Chief Baseball Officer. In early September, as part of a re-organization of the front office planned by La Russa, the team fired general manager Kevin Towers, whose disastrous trades and fostering of an organizational culture focused on "grit" and on-field retribution had turned the team into an embarrassment.
What went wrong in 2014: When firing the general manager is one of the things that went right for your team in a given season, you know it wasn't a good year. The Diamondbacks' 2014 got off to a brutal start, as they lost their best starting pitcher from the previous year, 24-year-old Patrick Corbin, to Tommy John surgery in March. Arizona was 0-2 before playing a single game in the Western Hemisphere and went 8-22 (.267) in its first 30 games, including a 1-7 record against the Dodgers. By the end of April, the Diamondbacks were already 9 1/2 games out in the NL West. They were actually one game over .500 from that point through the end of July, but the damage was done, and the team collapsed again in August. Since the first of that month, Arizona has gone 11-26 (.297), with the loss that eliminated them on Thursday extending their current losing streak to six games.
The team's biggest offseason acquisition, ill-fitting slugger Mark Trumbo, had a disastrous season. He broke his foot in late April, missed 71 games, proved overmatched in leftfield and has slugged just .375 to this point in the season to go with a far more characteristic .297 on-base percentage. Injuries also hit the team hard elsewhere. Centerfielder A.J. Pollock, charged with replacing Adam Eaton in the team's plans, broke his right hand on May 31, missing 79 games. Rookie Chris Owings beat out Didi Gregorius for the shortstop job only to strain his shoulder in late June and missed 56 games. Bronson Arroyo, in the first year of a two-year contract, made just 14 starts before going under the knife for Tommy John surgery, which will wipe out most of his 2015 season, as well.
Even the team's best player wasn't safe from injuries. On Aug. 1, Goldschmidt was hit by a stray pitch from Pirates reliever Ernesto Frieri, resulting in a season-ending fracture in his left hand and costing him an outside chance at the MVP award. Not content to see just one MVP candidate go down, the Diamondbacks intentionally threw at Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen the next day; McCutchen soon hit the disabled list with a rib injury that may have been a result of his efforts to avoid the pitch.
Less significantly, outfielder Cody Ross missed 54 games due to offseason hip surgery and a calf strain. In the second year of the three-year contract Towers signed him too, Ross has posted a 71 OPS+ and been largely relegated to the bench. That's despite Trumbo shifting to first base in Goldschmidt's stead, Gerardo Parra being traded, and Pollock only recently returning from the disabled list. Infielder Cliff Pennington lost 54 games to a sprained thumb. Eric Chavez spent 42 games on the DL for a left knee sprain, the ninth consecutive season in which he lost time to injury, then retired at midseason.
Among the healthy, Trevor Cahill — acquired in yet another questionable Towers trade in December 2011 — pitched his way out of the rotation in April, off the team in June, and has gone 2-5 with a 4.91 ERA in 10 starts since being re-instated out of necessity after the All-Star break. Wade Miley struggled to find consistency, posting a 4.78 ERA through the end of June and walking almost four men per nine innings thereafter. Parra, Aaron Hill and Martin Prado (acquired in the deal for Justin Upton before the 2013 season) all had lousy seasons at the plate, with Prado and Parra traded at the non-waiver deadline to the Yankees and Brewers, respectively, for middling prospects. Things got so bad, the Diamondbacks dug up former third base prospect Andy Marte, now 30, for his first major league action since 2010, only to cut him after six games.
On top of all of that, the team's top prospect, Archie Bradley, who opened the season at Triple-A and was considered a potential reinforcement for the major league rotation, had a lousy year interrupted by a flexor strain in his pitching elbow. Bradley finished the year a level below where he started, with a 4.12 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, and 5.9 walks per nine innings in 12 Double-A starts.
Overall outlook: Hiring La Russa and allowing him to fire Towers were important first steps in changing a poisonous team culture, though team president Derrick Hall and manager Kirk Gibson were equal partners in Towers' prioritizing of attitude over talent in an attempt to build a team of red-asses bent on vigilante justice between the lines. It will take a long time for the next general manager, whoever he or she may be, to undo the damage Towers did to the roster in trading talented young players for poor returns and handing out multi-year deals to middling veterans.
Outside of Owings and third-base prospect Jake Lamb, both of whom are 23, few of the team's players are all that young. Towers' one masterstroke was the team-friendly extension he signed Goldschmidt to prior to the 2013 season. That gave the Diamondbacks a true superstar to build around, but, even with everyone healthy, this team is no better than the .500 record it posted in each of the last two years. Regaining relevance in a division dominated by the Dodgers and Giants will take serious work.