Making Sense of the D-Backs' Curious Madison Bumgarner Signing

Why did the Diamondbacks, of all teams, take the plunge on Madison Bumgarner? There's a lot to flesh out.
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The Diamondbacks are a modern baseball Rorschach test: Whatever pattern you see in their last year could say more about you than it does about them. (This is not a statement on their uniforms.)

Maybe you saw the Diamondbacks in a clear reload—headlined by deals to move their biggest names. Arizona had traded away Paul Goldschmidt, and seven months later, Zack Greinke. In the winter between, there were no flashy additions, and at the start of this offseason, there were few rumors of one to come. (Yet there were rumors of a trade for staff backbone Robbie Ray, which, naturally, only felt more like a rebuild.) But you could just as easily have seen this as a savvy foundation for contention. After all, in return for Goldschmidt, and, to a lesser extent, Greinke, they’d gone for players who’d have an immediate presence instead of young prospects with far-flung futures. They’d made the smart swap of Jazz Chisholm for Zac Gallen, and added Mike Leake, and, of course, actually been in contention for the wild-card. (Almost to the end of the season, at that!) Maybe you saw the team pulling off the delicate balance of contending-while-rebuilding, or maybe you saw them trying both while excelling at neither, or maybe you just found them weird.

Now Arizona’s made a move to shake up the entire picture: signing Madison Bumgarner to a five-year deal for $85 million. It takes one of the top remaining pitchers off the market—to a team that didn’t need a starter and therefore wasn’t considered a front-runner—and sets some expectations in the NL. So, then, what should you see here?

That They Acquired a Solid Pitcher

Obvious, sure, but it’s the main ink blot here. While it’s true that Bumgarner is not exactly the pitcher that he was in, say, 2014, he’s only recently turned 30, potentially with plenty in front of him, and has one of baseball’s best track records in terms of durability. (If the fact that Bumgarner had fewer than 130 IP in two of the last three seasons jumps out, so should the reminder that those came from a dirt bike accident and a line drive that broke his pinkie, rather than conventional arm issues. He’s had more than 200 IP in all seven of his other full seasons—and is fresh off an MLB-best 34 starts in 2019.) At his very worst, he’s been just above average, and as a guy who’s never relied primarily on notable velocity, he’s in a decent position to age gracefully. He’s never had an ERA above 4.00 or an ERA+ under 105, and he boosted his spin rate significantly in 2019, which could bode well for future adjustments.

In other words, Arizona has made a notable addition to its rotation, which was already fine, and could now easily be wild-card-worthy. Take Bumgarner with a standard year of Ray, a bounce-back performance for Leake, a full season of Luke Weaver, and some work from Merrill Kelly, and you have a solid set of starters.

That They’re About to Trade Robbie Ray

…Or you could turn that around. The Diamondbacks have acquired the best pitcher left on the market—mere hours after the top starter advertised via trade was dealt—which should only increase the asking price for a solid mid-rotation guy, such as Ray, and Arizona now has some more depth to deal from. Does that feel a little one-step-forward-half-step-back? It could. But, depending on the return, it could just as easily be well worth it, and given the state of the pitching market, that return could be serious. Dallas Keuchel and Hyun-Jin Ryu are still available, of course, but there are more than two teams who need another quality starter, and Arizona is now in a good position to play that up with Ray.

That Their Exact Position Is Hard to Pin Down—But the NL West’s Deal Is Clearer

Arizona’s core isn’t stellar, but it’s certainly solid, anchored by MVP-also-ran Ketel Marte. The rotation is strong. But the Diamondbacks were just on the bubble of serious contention before Bumgarner, and even after him, they still have more to do to move off of it. (Hello, outfield and ‘pen…) They have, however, made the situation a whole lot more certain in the NL West.

There was no other move that the team could have made to clear more within the division. Arizona ensured Bumgarner wouldn’t return to San Francisco or head to L.A., who was reportedly interested in acquiring him after missing out on Gerrit Cole. This doesn’t mean that these teams have switched the order of their final records from last season. In fact, it almost assures that they won’t: This creates more of a gap between the second-place D-backs and third-place Giants, without closing sufficient space between the D-backs and first-place Dodgers, to keep last year’s situation set (with the caveat that the Padres could overtake the Giants).

But it does mean that we know much more about what to look out for than we did yesterday—which, really, is all that you can ask for when you’re trying to understand what you see.