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October 13, 2010

GM for a Day

Arizona Diamondbacks

by Ken Funck

It was a disappointing year for the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team expected to compete for the NL West title but instead plummeted to the divisional basement. Former ace starter Brandon Webb’s attempted comeback from labrum surgery was continually delayed and eventually cancelled, budding superstar Justin Upton didn’t build on his outstanding 2009 season, and a mediocre offense couldn’t overcome often poor starting pitching and a historically bad bullpen—ingredients that contributed to a 65-97 record and a mid-season pink slip for GM Josh Byrnes. Interim boss Jerry Dipoto immediately went into cost-shedding mode, shipping out veterans Dan Haren, Edwin Jackson, and Chris Snyder in exchange for prospects and payroll flexibility, before handing over the reins to former Padres GM Kevin Towers in late September. Given this and if I were Towers, what steps would I take to return the Snakes to contention--initially and in the long-run?

Well, I’ve spent a lot of time working in government, so I’ve seen more than my fair share of regime changes and have become intimately familiar with the various approaches executives follow when taking over a new organization. One thing they’ve all had in common is an initial focus on the same first step, for better or for worse: developing a mission statement. Below you can see what I’ve come up with for the Diamondbacks.

Mission Statement:To provide baseball fans of the American Southwest with an entertaining and competitive product through the prudent recruitment of a young, talented, and diverse workforce whose core competencies can be augmented and unleashed through intensive training and life counseling, under the direction of a forward-thinking management team dedicated to fulfilling this mission while increasing revenue and avoiding both fiscal and on-field losses, all within a safe, respectful, if somewhat arid and offense-oriented, environment.

Once that’s been widely distributed on all the standard cubicles and clubhouse tschotskes to ensure our employees have a crystal clear understanding of what we’re trying to do, we can move on to step two: identifying our assets and liabilities and assessing our current place in the market:

Assets: Power throughout the lineup, terrific offensive production up the middle, young starting pitching that shows promise, the third overall pick in next year’s draft, and a payroll judiciously pruned by in-season trades, leaving behind a relatively young and inexpensive group of core players.

Liabilities: Too much swing-and-miss in the hitters, not enough in the pitchers, no ace, young starters that don’t possess mind-blowing stuff, a bullpen so thoroughly doomed to fail that Diamondbacks games often became mere exercises in Lovecraftian horror, controversial local laws, and a proposed $50 million payroll target.

Market Assessment: The NL West has no single dominant competitor. The Dodgers have access to by far the most resources of any divisional opponent but are currently paralyzed by their tabloid-filling ownership, the Rockies have never won the division, and the Giants and Padres aren’t world-beaters and have payroll issues of their own. Despite a last-place finish in 2010, the Diamondbacks are close enough to their competitors that contemplating a playoff run in 2011 seems perfectly reasonable.

There’s reason to think a few smart moves could help the Snakes slither right back into contention. If the $50 million payroll target is real, there’s obviously no money for a big-ticket free agent spending spree, even with Eric Byrnes’ ill-advised eight-figure contract finally coming off the books—but there probably isn’t much need to cut any deeper. Here’s how I’d address the team’s needs on offense, in the bullpen and in the rotation:

Offense: Arizona had a middling offense last season, despite solid contributions by the middle infield combo of Stephen Drew and Kelly Johnson and a breakout year from center fielder Chris Young. Drew, Johnson and solid backstop Miguel Montero are all arbitration eligible, but even after some sizable off-season raises they’ll likely still be earning less than their value—they should be kept in the fold. Keep Young in center and expect a breakout year from Upton in right, who still has plenty of time to become the next big thing. Strikeout machine Mark Reynolds has become the poster child for everything fans say is wrong about Arizona’s lineup, and as he’s due for a $4.5 million salary bump, he’ll be a favorite topic of hot stove trade discussion. Trading him now, however, is probably not wise, as his value is at an all-time low. I’d keep him and hope he settles into a level of production between his 2009 peak and 2010 valley—if he does, he’ll earn the $13 million he’s owed over the next two years.

Instead, the place to cut costs is at first base, where incumbent Adam LaRoche should be bought out for $1.5 million, eschewing his $11 million option. Rookie Brandon Allen, who’s probably a better hitter than LaRoche right now, can be plugged in at a fraction of the price. That leaves left field as the only lineup spot open, and if Gerardo Parra isn’t the answer, this is where we can do a little shopping--someone not too expensive, that won’t be a disaster in the field and sounds less like a windmill at the plate. Coco Crisp comes to mind, if the A’s don’t pick up his option and the price is reasonable. Or you can see if Brad Hawpe has enough slug left in his bat to overcome his inanimate defense and strikeouts. If there’s one lineup hole to fill, it’s a lot easier to find someone this far down the defensive spectrum—just don’t sign anyone to a long-term deal.

Bullpen: As Ben Lindbergh recently pointed out, Towers has shown a definite knack for spinning cut-rate pitching straw into gold—so if I get to be Kevin Towers for a day, I’d look at myself in the mirror and yell “Rumpelstiltskin!” There are a number of quality veteran relievers on the market, but again, I wouldn’t give up my firstborn for a top-notch bullpen arm, unless someone like Rafael Soriano or Joaquin Benoit becomes available for well below market rates. Arizona’s pen was Singing-Shatner-level bad last year, so even average production will realize a large gain in the win column. Chase Gharrity has already done a fine job of identifying a few useful parts that are already on hand (e.g., Sam Demel, Esmerling Vasquez, Juan Gutierrez, perhaps even Blaine Boyer) and identified a few undervalued assets that perhaps could be had on the cheap—personally, I like the Bobby Jenks idea. Put out a spring casting call for minor league free agents, independent league arms, Triple-A relievers, vipers, snipers, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, and let the development staff sort them out. It can’t get any worse than it already is—and keep in mind that prospect Jarrod Parker might be able to provide some relief down the stretch.

Starting Rotation: If there was a bright spot on the Arizona roster this September, it was the success of their young rotation. Ian Kennedy showed he can be a solid fixture going forward. Barry Enright put up a lot of zeroes despite a sub-par strikeout rate. Daniel Hudson’s work in Arizona after arriving in a trade for Edwin The Enigmatic was reminiscent of CC Sabathia’s Beer City sojourn (go ahead, look it up). None of these guys are likely to be the ace of a championship rotation, however Hudson could be a top-flight second starter, Kennedy a decent third starter, and Enright, well, with luck he can stick at the bottom of the rotation. Joe Saunders, acquired as part of the somewhat scant Haren haul at the deadline, is fine as the fourth starter. The future ace is Parker, who has top-of-the-rotation stuff but won’t be ready next year after missing all of 2010 rehabbing his elbow.

With Parker in the pipeline and even without strict payroll restrictions, I’d shy away from signing an expensive veteran starter to complete my rotation—usually a bad idea in any case—and instead sign a high-risk, medium-reward veteran. Perhaps Jeremy Bonderman can thrive after a move to the lesser league, or Chris Capuano could build on his late-season competence in the Brewers rotation. If Webb wants to sign a heavily incentivized contract, that’s a raffle ticket worth buying, but the key is to keep from handing out any big contracts and hope the youngsters are as good as they’ve looked. If so, that might be enough.

 Without a dominant team in the division, the Diamondbacks’ best play is to make a few small moves to improve their biggest problem areas (the bullpen, left field), and “limp in” to the NL West pot. If the young starters continue their good work, if Upton takes the big leap his older brother never has, and if the bullpen can be more of an asset than a Holocaust Cloak, Arizona could well find itself in contention come July, at which point ownership may be more willing to pony up funds for the stretch run when it’s likely to provide a good return. If not, the payroll is still small enough to try the same gambit in 2012 before blowing things up and rebuilding around Parker and this year’s top pick. For a team coming off such a dismal year, it’s surprisingly sunny in Arizona.  

Ken Funck is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ken's other articles. You can contact Ken by clicking here

Related Content:  Arizona Diamondbacks,  The Who,  Arizona,  Contention

21 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Benjamin Harris

Don't forget, the Diamondbacks also have the 7th overall pick as compensation for not signing Barret Loux this year. Two picks in the top 7 could be a major boost to a lackluster farm system.

Oct 13, 2010 04:47 AM
rating: 0
Michael Hessling

Outstanding example of a turgid mission statement.

Oct 13, 2010 08:24 AM
rating: 2
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

Turgid? I, and the committee which helped draft it, prefer to think of it as "comprehensive".

Oct 13, 2010 18:32 PM

Yeah, I want to use that mission statement myself! As for Kevin Towers, as a Met fan, I'm envious- Towers is what the Mets need, not whoever they wind up signing (unless its Sandy Alderson). The Snakes would also do well, as you suggest, to see what sort of incentive deal they can work out with Webb- they have a lot invested in Webb, be a shame to walk away from him. Could he be the rotation anchor they need? Probably not in 2011, Webb may need to learn how to pitch all over again- so I encourage them to go after an older, non-no. 1, staff leader type- I'm thinking of Jamie Moyer?

Oct 13, 2010 09:41 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

I don't think he'll get the job, but I think Rick Hahn would do a great job for the Mets. He answered questions at the Baseball Prospectus event at The Cell last year, and he really impressed me.

Not sure if Moyer has anything left in the tank.

Oct 13, 2010 18:38 PM

The bullpen WAS historically bad. The good news for the D-Backs is that for relatively small dollars, more competent relievers should be able to be found/acquired, and the odds are that whoever AZ has in the bullpen won't be as bad as what they ran out to the mound in 2010.

I think Upton's upside going forward will more than offset Johnson's likey regression -- Upton "should" be at least a 25-100-100 player and hit .280/.350/.475 (.500 is not a stretch if he is healthy). Johnson is probably a 20 home run, .280/.350/.450 player. Drew could be assumed to repeat his 2010 numbers, and a healthy Montero, a mean-reverting Reynolds, and similar year from Young should form a solid core.

If I were GM, I might try to trade for someone like Seth Smith (who I believe is better than he showed this year and with a full time job could be a .280/.350./.475 guy without quite the power or speed of Upton); or maybe look to trade for someone like Ryan Kalish or Daniel Nava, either or whom would be an improvement over Parra in LF.

The Snakes are really 3 players away from having a good chance at the wild card -- they need one more solid starting pitcher, a reliable reliever, and a solid LF.

I think the Rox signficantly underperformed their talent, and to me should be heavy favorites to win 90+ games and win the division in 2011, although the Giants' pitching seems very very good and enough to keep them in contention almost regardless of who they run out on the field, assuming a full season of Posey and some improvement from Sandoval, who is not as good as he looked last year but is not as bad as he looked this year.

Oct 13, 2010 10:15 AM
rating: 0

Left field is the least of the D'backs worries. Rebuilding the bullpen and adding a real good closer is the first priority. In order to get that person a trade for a Heath Bell or a Craig Kimbrell might be done for Reynolds and a mid prospect or someone like Parra.
A starter who eats innings and can throw ground ball outs would take the pressure off a very young rotation while the even younger ones in the minors develope (I'm thinking Westbrook could fill that bill and not cost a draft choice.)This should be the second order of business.
Say goodbye to LaRoach and Reynolds and your strikeout problem fades. Allen would be the first option at Firstbase until some younger player developes to take over.
Left field could have a place holder ubtil the first 2 items are taken care of and while some of that young talent in the minors proves if they are really prospects and not suspects.

Oct 13, 2010 13:11 PM
rating: 0

For what it's worth, Bell isn't worth giving up anything substantial for given the amount of money he's going to be making in 2011, his third arbitration year. He may actually wind up being paid more than he's worth, so I'd give up one fringey low-level relief arm or walk away from that deal.

Oct 14, 2010 15:41 PM
rating: 0

Oh by the way, the Mission Statement should read

Win Games, draw fans, make money.

Everything else is just fluff!

Oct 13, 2010 13:16 PM
rating: 0

The mission statement should include something about China and/or 3-D, shouldn't it?

3-D Jumbotron = $100 bleacher seats. You can have that one for free, D-Backs.

Oct 13, 2010 16:56 PM
rating: 1

Not to be a downer because I've always like Young, but a 793 OPS in Arizona hardly seems to qualify as a "breakout".

Oct 13, 2010 18:04 PM
rating: 0
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

For a centerfielder with a solid glove, I'll definitely take that--especially when compared to his former struggles at the plate. He earned 4.8 WARP this year, after a career total 4.7 WARP going into this season.

Oct 13, 2010 18:46 PM

Good work, Ken. Asked and answered! Love the format and your thoughtful analysis. So, what do you think of DiPoto's plan (lame-duck as it was)? Smart to trade high on Edwin Jackson (I thought it was a solid trade)? I was a bit confused by the Haren deal - pretty weak return (and frustrated that the Twins did not offer a Saunders-alike - pick one utility 4-5 strike-thrower - Blackburn, Slowey, etc.). And hold on Stephen Drew? Seems like lots of noise about dealing him. Thanks again. Looking forward to the series!

Oct 13, 2010 19:44 PM
rating: 0
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

Solid plan, iffy execution.

The Jackson/Hudson deal probably worked for both teams, since the Sox wanted and could afford a veteran, and Hudson was a good return for the D'backs.

I happened to do a chat right after the Haren trade, and I actually said exactly what you say here -- the Twins are drowning in Saunders types, so they could have (and shold have) easily matched the Angels' offer. But Haren should have netted Arizone more, I think.

I'd be loth to trade away any SS that can hit, since they're so rare and can give you such a competitive advantage. I think it would be a mistake to trade him now, unless the return was astronomical.

Oct 14, 2010 06:45 AM

Thoughts on moving Reynolds and his spotty 3B play and erratic arm to 1B and signing/trading for a 3B? I know it's easier to get a 1B than a 3B but doing that just exacerbates the problem of a running out a middling IF defense on a GB dependent staff.

Oct 14, 2010 12:32 PM
rating: 0

For one, the staff is not at all GB-dependent. All four of the starters - Kennedy, Hudson, Saunders, and particularly Enright - all have fly-ball tendencies. Jarrod Parker or Wade Miley will instantly become our most ground-ball-oriented rotation member the moment they're called up in 2011.

Further, Reynolds' D isn't that bad. Whether due to LaRoche being at first or not, he made some nice strides at the corner in 2010. Also, 1B is already presumably locked up by Allen, as running him out in LF is a significant risk.

Oct 14, 2010 15:48 PM
rating: 0

Sorry, but Reynolds' defense is bad, both statistically and anecdotally. He's about 15 runs worse than one of the best 3B (Beltre) and according to Rtot in Baseball Reference about 5 runs worse than one considered average or worse (Pablo Sandoval). Being in AZ and having watched many DBacks games, most of his errors are of the unforced variety (i.e., routine) and he tends to take his frustration over his AB's to the field with him. At least at 1B he could be Adam Dunn -lite. I'm not saying it's perfect but it's better than what we have (a below average 3B AND a below average, albeit cheap 1B in Allen). It seems as though the organizational advocacy the DBack's espouse is "What we lack in above average players, we make up for in quantity (of below average players)".

Oct 15, 2010 11:00 AM
rating: 0

The standard of offense is so much higher there. If that's the plan, you deal him.

Oct 15, 2010 06:38 AM
rating: 0

It's worth noting that Adam LaRoche's mutual option for 2011 is worth $7.5MM, with a $1.5MM buyout. Certainly not $11MM. Nonetheless, saving $6MM by plugging in Allen seems like a fairly easy decision.

Oct 14, 2010 15:50 PM
rating: 0
The Game Is On

Chris Young's Home/Road splits show a .235 OPS difference:

Home .283/.361/.549/.910
Road .230/.321/.354/.675

Take him out of Arizona and an overall .793 OPS would only happen in his dreams.

Oct 14, 2010 18:50 PM
rating: 0

Ken - Parker's rehab is going exceptionally well. His velocity has returned and he's added a 2-seamer. If he regains his command quickly in Double A, he may be up sooner than you think.

Oct 14, 2010 20:32 PM
rating: 0
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