The Diamondbacks lost 8-0 on Monday night. The game was in Arizona. The opponents were the lowly Phillies. From the ninth spot in their batting order, Philadelphia got two extra-base hits (doubles by pitcher Vince Velasquez and substitute left fielder Cody Asche). The Diamondbacks didn’t manage any extra-base hits, from any place in the batting order. With the loss, they fell to 36-43. They’re 13.5 games back of the Giants, and after hard-fought wins over good teams for both the Dodgers and Rockies, Arizona trails those teams by 6.5 and 2.5 games, respectively. The Dodgers, seven losses clear of the Diamondbacks, hold the second Wild Card spot in the NL, and four teams (including three who are demonstrably better than Arizona, in St. Louis, New York, and Pittsburgh) stand between the two clubs. We credit Arizona with Playoff Odds of roughly 2.5 percent. Things are bleak, for a team that had high hopes (however unfounded those hopes might have been).
Lately, it seems like we talk an awful lot about the dangers of getting caught in between. We want to see teams follow the Cardinals’ model of excruciatingly patient investment in long-term success. We want to see teams follow the Rangers’ model, blending a strong preference for high ceilings in amateur talent acquisition with an open checkbook and a taste for mammal blood. We want them to follow the Cubs’ model, maybe most of all, forsaking slow slogs through seasons of 75 and 76 and 79 wins for ones much more miserable, with the end goal of building a truly special something, instead of just trying to get back into the mix.
The Diamondbacks haven’t been doing things in any of those ways. When they sensed an opportunity just to be in the NL West mix, they lunged at it, perhaps getting a bit out of balance in the process. They swapped a whole bunch of future value for present value. They jettisoned the player they’d just drafted first overall. They bet heavily on their core, and it’s not going to pay off this season. I have to admit, I’m tempted to call for a proactive sell-off, a sort of reset button that might wipe away the damage done over the last 15 months by a penurious and somewhat backward front office. I’ve called for the same from recent teams who have tried this same surge to relevance, and failed: the 2015 Padres and Athletics, the 2015 and 2016 White Sox.
In this case, though, I think the Diamondbacks ought to ride it out. That’s not a controversial take. Pretty much everyone acknowledged, entering this season, that Arizona was playing for a three-year window. If this is Year One, then there will be Year Two, and maybe in Year Two, A.J. Pollock will be healthy, Shelby Miller will be fixed, and/or Dave Duncan will come back to the dugout and teach Robbie Ray or Patrick Corbin how not to give up a home run every six innings. If this is Year One, imagine what Jake Lamb will do in Year Three. In 2017, the Diamondbacks have:
- Zack Greinke (for $34 million)
- Paul Goldschmidt (for $8.88 million)
- Pollock (for $6.75 million)
- Yasmany Tomas (for $9.5 million)
- Tyler Clippard (for $6.15 million)
- Welington Castillo, Corbin, Robby De La Rosa, Randall Delgado, Miller, Chris Owings, and Jean Segura, controlled but eligible for arbitration; and
- Nick Ahmed, Archie Bradley, Socrates Brito, Brandon Drury, Philip Gosselin, Jake Lamb, David Peralta, Ray, and Tyler Wagner, among others, at more or less the league’s minimum salary.
Of the key contributors to the current Diamondbacks, the only one who will be gone even by 2018 is Castillo, and his poor defensive skills wash out whatever positional value he adds at the plate, anyway. I believe that Greinke, Goldschmidt, Lamb, Pollock, Peralta, Corbin, and Ray form a solid base upon which a contender can be built, especially given that the two most vital cornerstones there (Goldschmidt and Lamb) are very much in their prime. The key questions for the Diamondbacks are how much they can get out of Miller and Bradley, and whether any of Ahmed, Segura, and Owings are ever going to assert themselves as first-division regulars in the middle infield. I’m optimistic about the arms. Given what should be a little bit of financial wiggle room going forward, the front office should be able to find one starter in either free agency or the trade market, and I would bet on one of Miller and Bradley being a good pitcher in 2017. The middle infield, though, is a muddle.
The 2017 Diamondbacks have to be better than the 2016 version in two major ways, if they want to be a more serious playoff contender. They have to get more out of their middle infielders, especially shortstop. Ahmed is a really solid fielder, but just can’t hit enough to be worth a regular job, let alone to be an asset for a team shooting for the playoffs. They also need more and better pitching depth, especially relief depth. I’m not sure what the best avenue through which to address those shortcomings is. It might mean, paradoxically, trading the solid relievers they do have this July, since two of them (Brad Ziegler and Daniel Hudson) will be free agents this winter, anyway. Dealing away both of those hurlers, plus Clippard, might yield a whole bunch of high-upside arms to add to the organization’s stockpile. It might also mean shopping Segura, if the team doesn’t think he can slide over and handle shortstop duties regularly, because he’s the kind of asset who might bring back a player with plus potential in 2017 or 2018. (Just look at what Dave Stewart gave up to get Segura before the season.) If some team is desperate enough for catching help, Castillo might even bring a healthy return, though pulling the trigger on that kind of move would amount to a high-stakes wager on the Diamondbacks being able to sign Jason Castro or Matt Wieters this winter.
The path forward is kind of rocky for Arizona. They didn’t put themselves in a good position to reload and reinforce themselves for the medium term, with the way they did their business over the offseason. As good as they still could be, though, they have to stay the course. Dumping talent this impressive wouldn’t improve the outlook for any organization. They’ll just have to be a little smarter with their long-term assets from here forward.