Winter Report Card: Diamondbacks go for broke in bold, risky off-season
With less than five weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Arizona Diamondbacks. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
79–83 (.488), third place in National League West (Hot Stove Preview)
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
In an effort to shift from an accelerated rebuilding program into contention, the Diamondbacks have made not one but two of the biggest and most jaw-dropping moves of the winter, signing Zack Greinke to a six-year, $206.5 million deal and then acquiring Shelby Miller in a five-player trade with the Braves. The moves have certainly bolstered a rotation that ranked 11th in the league in ERA (4.37) last year, albeit at a heavy cost.
The Greinke signing more or less came out of nowhere, with Arizona snatching him away from the Dodgers and Giants in a matter of hours. In terms of total dollars, it's the fourth-largest contract ever given to a pitcher, behind the deals of David Price, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer, and it's the biggest in terms of average annual value ($34.17 million per year), although with a total of $62.5 million deferred, the present-day value of the contract is "only" worth $193.85 million. In the short term, the double whammy of adding a pitcher who supplied 222 2/3 innings of 1.66 ERA work en route to 9.3 Wins Above Replacement—the last two numbers are both league highs, and with his bat, that rises to 9.9 WAR, virtually tied with NL MVP Bryce Harper—and keeping him away from division rivals is a huge plus. The longer-term ramifications of how a 32-year-old righty with more than 2,000 innings on his arm will age aren't trivial, particularly on a team that has never sustained payrolls above $100 million in back-to-back seasons. In Los Angeles, Greinke wasn't shy about speaking his mind, but how will that match up with a managing general partner (Ken Kendrick) who has a Steinbrenner-esque penchant for calling out his own players when the going gets rough? Inquiring minds want to know.
Beyond the impact on the payroll, the Greinke signing cost the Diamondbacks the No. 13 pick of the 2016 draft, which carries an estimated value in the $20–25 million range. In isolation, that wouldn't be such a big deal—other teams sacrifice draft picks to sign free agents, too. But this is an Arizona team that punted its 2014 first-round pick, 19-year-old righty Touki Toussaint, to Atlanta in a trade last June so it could shed the roughly $10 million left of Bronson Arroyo's salary as he rehabbed from Tommy John surgery. The Diamondbacks' top 2015 selection, Dansby Swanson, is gone, too—and he was the No. 1 pick, a player on whom the whole organization had rallied around just six months earlier and who was signed to a $6.5 million bonus.
Swanson was sent to the Braves for Miller, but he wasn't the only big prospect in the deal. Also dealt was 23-year-old righty Aaron Blair, a 2013 supplemental first-round pick who came into 2015 ranked among the game's top 50 prospects (according to both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus) and held his own in a season split between Double A and Triple A. Before the trade, BA ranked Swanson and Blair as Arizona's top two prospects, and while they haven't revisited either team's list since then, Baseball Prospectus recently named Swanson, Blair and Toussaint first, fourth and sixth on their Braves prospect list. That's a whole lot of future talent sent elsewhere in a short time.
Also in the Miller trade was centerfielder Ender Inciarte, who in his age-24 season hit .303/.338/.408 with 21 steals and 29 Defensive Runs Saved en route to 5.3 WAR; he was at +23 DRS and 3.7 WAR the year before. He may not turn out to be anything beyond Gerardo Parra part deux, but he still had five years of club control remaining. That's more young talent sold off at a steep discount, even if it did open a regular spot in the outfield for Yasmany Tomas, the Cuban defector signed to a six-year, $68.5 million deal in December 2014. Tomas hit just .273/.305/.401 with nine homers last year, posting an ugly 110/17 strikeout-to-walk ratio and -16 DRS between third base and the outfield corners en route to -1.3 WAR. Even if his offense improves to the modest level of Inciarte (who delivered a 101 OPS+ to Tomas's 90), the D-backs could easily be three wins worse defensively next year in rightfield alone.
For their trouble, the Diamondbacks did get 20-year-old relief prospect Gabe Speier, who spent last year in Class A, as well as Miller, a 25-year-old righty whose 6–17 won-loss record in 2015 should be ignored. In his lone year in Atlanta, Miller delivered a 3.02 ERA and 3.45 FIP in 205 1/3 innings with 7.5 strikeouts per nine en route to 3.6 WAR, not to mention his first All-Star appearance. He's signed for $4.35 million this year, with two more years of club control remaining; the question is whether he can be a legitimate No. 2 starter (as Arizona appears to be banking) or more of a third/fourth starter (as much of the industry—including the pitching-rich Cardinals and Braves, who have both dealt Miller—believes). It may be a stretch to say that Blair could grow up to be Miller in short order, since the odds of even a good pitching prospect replicating the latter's first three seasons (a 3.22 ERA, a 3.82 FIP and 9.1 WAR over 575 1/3 innings) are long, but the gap between the two simply wasn't worth all that extra cost-controlled talent.
Stern lecture aside, Miller should be an upgrade over Jeremy Hellickson. After delivering a 4.62 ERA in 146 innings last year, Hellickson was traded to the Phillies for 20-year-old righty Sam McWilliams, who stands 6'7" but hasn't pitched above Rookie ball. That leaves some combination of Patrick Corbin, Robbie Ray, Rubby De La Rosa, Chase Anderson and prospect Archie Bradley—who could grow up to be Shelby Miller or better, lest you think this team had particular urgency to add a starter—to round out the rotation; another top prospect, Braden Shipley, will likely begin the year at Triple A.
Gone from the stable are Allen Webster and Jhoulys Chacin, who combined for nine starts for Arizona last year. Webster has moved from prospect to suspect over the last three seasons, racking up a 6.13 ERA in 120 1/3 innings; he was picked up by the Pirates after being designated for assignment, but then released just weeks later. Chacin, who pitched pretty well for the Rockies from 2010 to '13 but has thrown just 90 big-league innings over the past two seasons due in part to shoulder woes, signed a minor-league deal with the Braves. The bullpen, meanwhile, will be without David Hernandez, a former late-inning workhorse who made 40 appearances totaling 33 2/3 wobbly innings in his return from Tommy John surgery; he signed with the Phillies, who may use him to close.
As for the other moves of note, gone is Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who hit .251/.332/.474 with eight homers in 194 plate appearances after being plucked off the waiver pile to shore up a dire catching situation; he signed with the Tigers. Replacing him is Chris Herrmann, who hit an abysmal .146/.214/.272 in 113 PA for the Twins. He'll press Tuffy Gosewisch for the backup catcher spot behind Welington Castillo, unless the team decides that 25-year-old Peter O'Brien, who hit .284/.332/.551 with 26 homers at Triple A Reno but carries considerable questions about his ability to remain behind the plate, is ready for the big time.
Unfinished Business: Sorting out the infield
Beyond Paul Goldschmidt, the rest of the Diamondbacks' infield is no great shakes, but they don't lack for options. As a rookie, shortstop Nick Ahmed was 20 runs above average according to Defensive Runs Saved, but he hit just .226/.275/.359 for a 70 OPS+ and is heading into his age-26 season. Twenty-four-year-old Chris Owings, who was solid on both sides of the ball as a rookie shortstop in 2014, moved to second and wilted to a .227/.264/.322 (58 OPS+) line with -4 DRS—though to be fair, he was coming off left shoulder surgery and trying to adjust to new mechanics. Twenty-five-year-old Jake Lamb, who took over third base when it was apparent that Tomas had no business there, hit .263/.331/.386 for a 94 OPS+ and +7 DRS. All three are inexpensive and have room to improve, but can they do so quickly enough for a would-be contender?
Also in the infield mix are Phil Gosselin, Brandon Drury and Aaron Hill. Gosselin was acquired in the Toussaint deal and hit .311/.373/.500 in 118 plate appearances; second base is the 27-year-old's primary position, but he can play elsewhere. Drury, a 23-year-old who played 20 games for the Diamondbacks last year, is a legitimate prospect who hit .303/.344/.412 split between Double A and Triple A and who can play both second and third. Hill, who hit .230/.295/.345 in 353 PA for Arizona last year, is a $12 million albatross who hasn't been above replacement level since 2013.
The Diamondbacks can give Drury more time to develop at Triple A, but at some point, they'll have to make decisions as to what makes for their best 2016 team, since the Grienke and Miller moves shift them into win-now mode. Roughly speaking, the template is their acquisition of Ray in the three-team Didi Gregorius deal from December 2014: trading an underwhelming but young and cost-controlled player from the Owings/Ahmed/Drury/Lamb surplus to fill a different area of need. Hill is best used in a trade for somebody else's expensive mistake, since nobody's looking to absorb $12 million for such roster ballast. The fear, though, is that the team will instead part with actual talent merely to free themselves of the cash commitment, as they did with Arroyo and Toussaint.
Preliminary Grade: B-
The Diamondbacks have certainly made waves this winter, improving enough for 2016 that they could contend for a playoff spot, and they still have some good prospects in their system. Still, the massive overpay in the Miller deal raises questions about what general manager Dave Stewart and head of baseball operations Tony La Russa are doing, and how much pressure Kendrick is applying in order to get results sooner rather than later.