Winter Report Card: Diamondbacks begin to dig out from 2016's disaster

Tuesday January 17th, 2017

Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Arizona Diamondbacks.

2016 Results

68–93 (.422), fourth place in National League West

Key Departures

C Welington Castillo, C Tuffy Gosewisch, OF Mitch Haniger, RHP Daniel Hudson, OF Peter O’Brien, 2B Jean Segura, OF Rickie Weeks*

Key Arrivals

OF Oswaldo Arcia, OF Jeremy Hazelbaker, C Chris Iannetta, SS Ketel Marte, C Jeff Mathis, RHP Fernando Rodney, RHP Taijuan Walker

(*free agent, still unsigned)

Off-season In Review

Well, the Diamondbacks definitely didn’t win this winter. Last year, Arizona was the talk of the league after a blockbuster off-season in which it landed the best starter on the free-agent market (Zack Greinke) on a six-year, $206.5 million deal and gave up a fortune for Braves righthander Shelby Miller in an attempt to overhaul the moribund franchise on the fly. But instead, the Diamondbacks fell apart: Star centerfielder A.J. Pollock was lost for most of the season in the waning days of spring training; Miller and Greinke were both awful, with the former losing his rotation spot for half the year and the latter finishing with a 4.37 ERA, his worst in 11 years; and the team lost 2015 No. 1 pick Dansby Swanson, who was sent to Atlanta for Miller and posted a robust .803 OPS and 115 OPS+ at age 22 for the Braves. The butcher’s bill from that catastrophe: the firing of general manager Dave Stewart, senior vice president of baseball operations De Jon Watson and manager Chip Hale.

The task of cleaning up the nuclear spill that was 2016 now belongs to new GM Mike Hazen and new skipper Torey Lovullo, both recently of the Red Sox; Hazen spent last year as Boston’s GM under president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, and Lovullo is coming off four seasons as manager John Farrell’s bench coach. For them (along with new assistant GMs Jared Porter, formerly of the Cubs, and Amiel Sawdaye, also last with the Red Sox), this winter has been about fixing the mess left by Stewart and Tony La Russa—who was demoted from Chief Baseball Officer to the more nebulous title of Chief Baseball Analyst/Advisor—while not damaging the promising core of Pollock, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and slugging third baseman Jake Lamb.

To that end, Hazen and company have moved the focus away from flashy marquee moves, with the Diamondbacks' biggest deal to date being the late November trade that sent Segura, Haniger and minor league lefty Zac Curtis to the Mariners in exchange for Walker and Marte. Cashing in on Segura’s bounceback season—the former All-Star hit .319/.368/.499 with 33 steals, a 124 OPS+ and 5.7 WAR (all career highs) in his lone season in the desert after being acquired on the cheap from Milwaukee—netted Arizona two hyper-talented young players who are under team control and cheap for the next several years.

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Each new addition carries risk, however. Walker, 24, is a former top-10 overall prospect who has long made scouts drool with his stuff. But the results have yet to match the hype: Over the last two seasons with Seattle, he struggled to the tune of a 4.41 ERA, 4.48 FIP, 89 ERA+ and 1.5 home runs per nine over 304 innings. The big righty struggles with efficiency and fastball command, though he still boasts plenty of swing-and-miss stuff. He joins a Diamondbacks rotation that, Greinke aside, is more potential than guarantee. Marte, meanwhile, is a switch-hitting 23-year-old who impressed in a brief stint with the Mariners in 2015 (.283/.351/.402, 112 OPS+, 2.3 WAR and solid defense) and was anointed the starting shortstop for last season. Tabbed as the future in Seattle, Marte instead crashed to a .259/.287/.323 line in 437 plate appearances and made 21 errors. There’s plenty of room for him to grow, but his shaky plate discipline makes him, like Walker, a project instead of a sure thing.

Elsewhere, the Diamondbacks filled in on the margins. The biggest turnover came at catcher, with Arizona ditching both its starter in Castillo and his backup in Gosewisch. The 29-year-old Castillo can rake, but his free-swinging ways and poor defense made him expendable; he was non-tendered in December and landed a one-year deal with the catcher-needy Orioles. Gosewisch, 33, has a wonderful name and plays solid defense but can’t hit at all; he was waived in November and claimed by the Braves. Iannetta and Mathis, both 33, will step in as veteran options alongside 28-year-old Chris Herrmann (who can also play the outfield). Iannetta is coming off a second straight season of weak returns offensively, hitting .210/.303/.329 for Seattle in 2016, but he landed a one-year, $1.5 million deal thanks to his defense. Mathis is the ur-backup despite the fact that he has been a severely below-average hitter for a decade. Long valued for his defense, game-calling, leadership and other such intangible qualities, Mathis—who is one of Mike Scioscia’s horcruxes—somehow scored a two-year deal.

Arizona also shook up its backup outfield slots for 2017. Former super prospect Weeks provided some pop off the bench in his age-33 season but offered little else. Haniger, sent to Seattle for Walker and Marte, has hit well in the minors and got a brief taste of the majors as Arizona’s centerfielder late last season; he could emerge as a valuable reserve for the Mariners. O’Brien, a catcher-turned-outfielder thanks to his lousy defense, is basically Rob Deer reborn, boasting plus power and a lot of strikeouts. He’s now with the Royals after being DFA’d in early January. That trio will be replaced in part by Hazelbaker and Arcia. The former is the latest black-magic product of the Cardinals, who somehow turned the 29-year old minor league journeyman into a league-average hitter last year. The latter was once a top prospect for the Twins, but his total inability to manage the strike zone (339 strikeouts in 1,075 MLB plate appearances) cost him a job in Minnesota; last season, he bounced from the Twins to the Rays to the Marlins to the Padres. Both will provide depth but shouldn’t be starters unless something goes terribly wrong.

In the bullpen, Arizona more or less swapped out Hudson (who signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the Pirates) for Rodney, who joins the D-Backs on a one-year, $2.75 million pact. Hudson, who battled his way back from two Tommy John surgeries, struggled to a 5.22 ERA as a setup man and occasional closer last year, though his peripherals (8.7 strikeouts per nine) suggest some bad luck there. Rodney’s 2016 was a tale of two seasons: He was brilliant with the Padres (0.31 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings), then awful with the Marlins (5.89 ERA in 36 2/3 frames). The 40-year-old righty is one of the game’s more fun personalities, but his abysmal control (5.1 walks per nine last year) makes him a shaky bet for future success. Despite that, he’ll likely open the year as Arizona’s closer.

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Unfinished Business: Bullpen, bolstering the farm system

As noted above, the Diamondbacks will start 2017 with Rodney as their closer, which is the ninth-inning equivalent of a team shrugging its shoulders. Behind him, there isn’t much depth: Righties Randall Delgado (4.44 ERA, 4.3 walks per nine in 75 innings last year) and Enrique Burgos (5.66 ERA, 5.0 walks per nine in 41 1/3 frames) scare no one, and the unit’s only lefty is Andrew Chafin, who was torched for a 6.75 ERA and 11 walks in 22 2/3 innings. Righthander Jake Barrett impressed in his rookie year, striking out 56 in 59 1/3 innings, but Arizona will need more than just him and Rodney if it hopes to hold onto any leads.

Aside from improving the major league roster, Arizona’s new front office will also have to find a way to infuse the farm system—one of the majors’ weakest—with fresh talent. The previous regime has left the cupboard bare: The D-Backs lost Swanson and righthander Aaron Blair in the Miller deal and also gave away 2014 first-rounder Touki Toussaint in a bizarre trade with the Braves that was seemingly engineered solely to save money. The Diamondbacks don’t have much to offer in trades, however, unless they can sell another team on hacking outfielder Yasmany Tomas or decide to sell low on Miller or one of their excess starters. Hazen and company will have to nail their first draft, which they’ll enter with the No. 7 pick, and hope for some breakout years in the minors.

Preliminary Grade: B-

Given as difficult a task as any in the majors, Arizona’s new front office has done well with its first moves, but the current roster still has some notable holes and a worrying amount of risk with little guaranteed production aside from Goldschmidt, Pollock, Lamb and Greinke—and, thanks to the latter’s monster contract (he's owed a staggering $172.5 million through 2021), Arizona doesn’t have much financial room with which to operate. It will take more than one winter to undo all the mistakes Stewart and company made, but this off-season was a positive (albeit small) step in the right direction. Just don’t expect much out of the Diamondbacks in 2017.

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