It would be natural to recognize a very young club that has the National League's best offense and second-best group of fielders—one that has far exceeded almost every prognostication for where it will finish in the league—as a rising power in baseball. But despite all of those successes, the Diamondbacks do not seem to be widely viewed that way. Maybe it's because they are still considered, on baseball’s Methuselahean timeline, to be an expansion team (even though it’s been 18 seasons), or maybe it's because they have recently been best known for not being known for much.
But things change faster in baseball than we often think; as many as seven of this October’s ten postseason participants will have had losing records just three years ago. The Diamondbacks, at 65–68, won’t be among those playoff teams, yet. But before we fully turn our attention to the push for the playoffs, it’s worth taking a look at what Arizona is building in the desert, which seems anything but a mirage.
It’s not just that the team's performance in 2015, as far as the hitting and fielding anyway, has been surprisingly good; it’s also that the fundamentals are strong. The Diamondbacks are the only club with two regulars who rank among baseball’s top nine in Wins Above Replacement. Even better is that those players, Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock, are both only 27 and do their work under extremely team-friendly contractual terms: Goldschmidt will make an average of $10 million through '19, and Pollock hasn’t even reached arbitration yet. If Goldschmidt has finally begun to be nationally acknowledged as the outright superstar that he is, Pollock shouldn’t be far behind.
Goldschmidt and Pollock will continue to be supported by a cast of players—most notably outfielder David Peralta (whose out-of-nowhere .881 OPS now ranks him sixth on the NL leader board), speedy leadoff man Ender Inciarte and Cuban import Yasmany Tomas—who each largely satisfy any general manager's dream trifecta: They are young, cheap and productive. Of the 10 regulars who have received more than 200 at-bats this year in the Diamondbacks' high-octane offense, just one, Aaron Hill, is older than 28, and half of them are 25 or younger. Coincidentally, only Hill can become a free agent before 2018.
Oh, right, the pitching. Something has to be done about the pitching! Despite their athletic fielding, the Diamondbacks rank ninth in the NL in runs allowed, which is the reason they’re currently playing out this season’s string, however encouragingly. There is, however, reason to think the staff might significantly improve as soon as next year, and it runs deeper than the fact that it already includes some promising young arms like 23-year-old Robbie Ray (3.72 ERA), 26-year-old Patrick Corbin (3.67 ERA in 11 starts since returning from Tommy John surgery) and 23-year-old rookie Archie Bradley (who had a 1.80 ERA through his first four big-league starts before taking a line drive to the face in late April).
The club’s front office leadership—especially chief baseball officer Tony La Russa and first-year GM Dave Stewart—has recently taken heat for a number of reasons, including not appearing to be as analytics-inclined as they should be. They were lambasted for trading their 2014 first rounder, 19-year-old pitcher Touki Toussaint, to the Braves in June in a transaction that seemed mostly designed to rid themselves of the $10 million or so they still owed injured starter Bronson Arroyo, whom Atlanta also took. They also were roasted for even considering the idea of acquiring relievers Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel at the July 31 deadline. Indeed, dumping a teenaged fireballer and thinking about (though only thinking about) adding a high-priced closer don’t seem to be sensible moves for most scuffling organizations who seek long-term health. Recently, though, La Russa explained to me the theory behind his pursuit of Chapman and Kimbrel.
“We set the criteria out really carefully,” he said. “If there was a deal that was going to improve us in 2015 only, we weren’t going to make it. I think it’s fair to say we are improving. A lot of it is because we have [Goldschmidt] as our core. We have four outfielders for three spots, play defense as good as anybody out there, run the bases as good as anybody out there. Our pitching is improving. The point is, everything going into July 31 was, if there was something that helps us now but carries over into '16, '17, that was really our goal. We were talking about Chapman and Kimbrel because not only are they dynamite closers, but they’re not just rent-a-players for the year.”
Chapman won’t become eligible for free agency until after next season, and Kimbrel is signed through at least 2017. That the Diamondbacks were only focused on pitchers who would be with them after this current season—if not for very long thereafter—provides insight into not only the fact that they fully realize they need some top-shelf arms, but also as far as their perceived window of contention.
That they would also sacrifice a raw talent like Toussaint should also be taken as a sign of what they plan to do this upcoming winter: You should expect them to be active players in a free-agent market that happens to feature one of the strongest classes of starters in recent memory, one that will include certified aces like David Price, Johnny Cueto and Zack Greinke, as well as legitimate second-tier options like Jordan Zimmermann, Mike Leake, Scott Kazmir, Jeff Samardzija, Yovani Gallardo, Wei-Yin Chen and Mat Latos. The $10 million Arizona saved by dealing Toussaint, a pitcher who might have helped them years down the line, could certainly—for a mid-market club like the D-Backs are—prove the difference in landing someone who will boost them as soon as next Opening Day.
And why wouldn’t the Diamondbacks think that next Opening Day might represent the start of a run as serious contenders? They already, quite obviously, have 2/3rds of a winning team, one that has already gelled and ought to continue doing so for several years to come. They have no reason to reboot their organization and start over, as the Astros and Cubs did years ago, or to throw a virtually entirely new team into a beaker and hope it produces some instantly explosive reaction, as the Padres did this past winter. All they appear to need is a few good pitchers.
Even if the Diamondbacks' tactics have been unpopular, they now seem to have the wherewithal to attain them. It should be no surprise if, as soon as 2016, Arizona proves to be the next bottom-dweller to rise into the bright lights of October, and to force baseball to take notice.