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.