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Fixing the Arizona Diamondbacks

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The Arizona Diamondbacks rode a young core of talent to the National League Championship Series in 2007, in the process, announcing themselves as the premier young team in the National League who was as good a bet as any team to be representing the NL in the World Series the next three years.  That team had 10 players with 100 or more total bases.  From most to least: LF Eric Byrnes (288), CF Chris Young (266), 2B Orlando Hudson (228), SS Stephen Drew (201), 1B Conor Jackson (194), 3B Mark Reynolds (181), C Chris Snyder (141), 1B Tony Clark (113), and utility-man Chad Tracy (103).

Having 10 different players with 100+ total bases isn’t amazing, it just means that the team has very few weaknesses, and didn’t get massacred by injury.  Those players were all plenty productive, and with the exception of Byrnes, Hudson, Clark, and Tracy, all very young.  What’s more amazing about the 2007 Diamondbacks is that sheer number the players who weren’t regulars on that team all managed to develop into strong major league players.

  1. OF Justin Upton
  2. OF Carlos Quentin
  3. 2B Alberto Callaspo
  4. SP Dana Eveland
  5. C Miguel Montero
  6. OF Scott Hairston

Upton was already a top prospect who was on the verge of being major league ready in 2007 (he was the first overall pick in the 2005 Rule IV Draft), but four of those players have gone on to be quality major leaguers with other teams.  Callaspo and Quentin were swapped for SP Billy Buckner and 1B Chris Carter in “your bench player for my prospect” deals.  Then Hairston was sent to San Diego for RB Leo Rosales and Eveland went to Oakland in the Dan Haren trade.  Haren has been everything the Diamondbacks wanted and more since entering their rotation in 2008, but the rest of that haul has been awful.  Buckner ate some innings for the D-Backs out of both the pen and the rotation, but he never got his ERA under 5.00 in any season, and was probably worse than his ERA suggests.  He was turned into Dontrelle Willis a month ago in a trade, which was nice enough, but Willis predictably couldn’t resurrect his career, and was DFA’d.  Rosales hasn’t helped record any outs in the majors, appearing in just 9 games this year.  Carter never played a game in the D’Backs system, and was sent to Oakland in the Haren deal, along with top prospects LHP Brett Anderson and OF Carlos Gonzalez.

As good as Haren has been, you could argue that Oakland won the trade (though they probably lost subsequent trades for players acquired in the Haren deal).  But with that core of young talent, it shouldn’t have mattered: the D’Backs should have been able to win immediately.  Trading Callaspo and Hairston hurt their own depth, but Upton came up and the team was still on the right track.

The D-Backs were able to improve their underlying performance in 2008, but they only scored 18 more runs than they did in 2007, and with the decline of Eric Byrnes, and the departure of all that depth, they now only had 9 players with 100+ total bases, and it was just the 9 teams that had the most plate appearances.  Unless the young talent could carry the team, 2008 spelled trouble beyond the fact that the D-Backs missed the playoffs: 720 offensive runs appeared to be a ceiling for the team as currently constructed.

Indeed, the offense produced exactly 720 runs again in 2009, this time with Felipe Lopez and Ryan Roberts combining to more than adequately replace the free agent Orlando Hudson in the lineup, and add some depth back to the lineup.  The D-Backs were prepared to win more games with the same offense as the year before.  The problem came in the form of something they couldn’t predict: 2008 Cy Young award winner Brandon Webb, maybe the best pitcher in all of baseball at the time, threw four innings on the year and hurt his arm.  Webb has not thrown an inning since.

Haren could have easily brought the Cy Young back to Arizona last year, instead finishing 5th in the voting.  But without Webb, the D-Backs featured a terrible rotation, in spite of Haren’s efforts.  They finished in last place, giving up 782 runs, with a bullpen that certainly wasn’t an issue.  Their starters just couldn’t get anyone out.  To solve the issue they doubled down on SP Max Scherezer in the offseason, turning him and reliever Daniel Schlereth (son of Mark) into SPs Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy.  Both have performed to expectation behind Haren and have helped strengthen the rotation to the point where — if Brandon Webb can return — it’s a strength of the team.

They’ve also rebuilt their offense, adding a veteran slugger in Adam LaRoche, whose kind has been missing in Arizona since 2007, and the D-Backs continue to excel at the defensive heavy positions of catcher (Snyder/Montero) and second base (Kelly Johnson).  The career year of CF Chris Young has made up for the slow start of Upton.  And what was started by their acquisitions, the decline of the overall offensive environment around them has finished.

And yet, the Diamondbacks are still losing.  This time, they are on pace to finish last in runs against by a margin that leads baseball — even though 93% of their games are played with the pitcher batting.  The culprit, if not the rotation, must be the bullpen.  And what a job they’ve done.  While ERA is a poor stat to evaluate a bullpen, I merely need to use it to tell a story that writes itself.  The OPS+ of the 8 players with the most IP pitched out of the bullpen: 122, 59, 89, 56, 84, 43, 68, 57.  Ouch.

Chad Qualls and Esmerling Vasquez have pitched well enough to hold spots in the bullpen in the future, both appear to be incredibly unlucky with their ERAs.  Sam Demel, who was acquired from Oakland in the Conor Jackson dump off, is probably the third piece of the bullpen after all the other pieces are pushed out.  I’d also like to give Carlos Rosa a season long look in the bullpen, but he appears to have “5th starter” written on his career at this point.  But that’s it.  Aaron Heilman’s contract expires at years’ end and he’s got the only good fortune in the entire bullpen going for him right now.  He should not be resigned based on that.

A big problem with Diamondbacks pitching is that everyone throws from the right side.  They messed around with Dontrelle Willis for a month, but he’s out.  They have a pair of lefties in the farm system: Wade Miley, and Leyson Septimo, but that’s it in the entire organization for pitchers that throw from the left side.  When opposing teams can load the entire lineup with left handed hitters, or at the very least hold platoon advantage at any point in the game they wish to, the D-Backs are fighting a losing battle.  They need to acquire a pair of lefties before opening day 2011.  It is their greatest need.

To do so, they will likely have to let Brandon Webb walk in free agency.  Webb may or may not be able to pitch again this year, but his contract expires, and someone is going to give up eight figures for a one or two year “prove your health” deal.  While the Diamondbacks have the money to do this, Webb is a righty (albeit one without a large platoon split).

I’m advocating that the Diamondbacks don’t tear down their offense, and probably should hold onto their catching depth (Montero and Snyder are both raking this year) at least until next year’s trade deadline, when they might be forced by finances to pick one or the other (it will be Montero — I think).  But Kelly Johnson is under team control just through 2011, and probably won’t come at a value price next year (they’re looking at a $3-4 million investment), and would probably be worth a mid-level prospect at the deadline.  I would trade that contract.  I would also try to trade LaRoche at the deadline, though he’s not worth quite as much as Johnson (because he’s a free agent in the offseason).

Targets who can fill the need of a lefthander for the D-Backs include: Jorge de la Rosa and Jeff Francis (both free agents from the Rockies), Cliff Lee, Ted Lilly, Jamie Moyer, Andy Pettite, Brian Fuentes, Arthur Rhodes, Pedro Feliciano, and Joe Beimel.  They might have to increase payroll to go after Lee, but every other player on that list is within reason.

In a division like the NL West, the Diamondbacks don’t need to tear down, but they appear to be headed for last place for a second straight year.  With a few lefties, the prospectus for both their bullpen and their rotation looks a lot brighter, however they must find a replacement somewhere for Chad Qualls, who hits the free agent market in November.  The final step for next year will be finding a left handed bat who can hit in the middle of a lineup that features plenty of power with SS Stephen Drew, Chris Young, Justin Upton, and Mark Reynolds all under contract (all but Drew, long-term contracts), and offensive catchers Miguel Montero and Chris Snyder.  They have an opening at left field and at first base in 2011.

The pitching, however, will need to be bolstered from the outside if they want to contend with the current group.  The D-Backs have plenty of financial resources, and with Webb’s contract coming off the books, they don’t have any money due to non-contributors.  The biggest decision the organization must make is whether to spend heavily to make a run with the current group, or sit back and slowly sell off pieces in order to rebuild a farm system that’s seen better days while the D-Backs rebuild through the draft.  There’s no easy answer, but right now, a talented but incomplete roster isn’t winning in the NL west, and Arizona isn’t a large enough baseball market to do both.

Former GM Josh Byrnes was fired for riding the fence too long.  There’s no better time than now to officially enter a rebuilding phase, as the team features enough young stars to turn a profit as they go for broke in 2013 and 2014.  Or they could spend that money available to go towards their future on some bats and left handed arms to be the favorite to win the West in 2011.  Whatever they do, their hire will have to reflect ownerships choice.  Don’t be surprised if they throw fundamental team building to the wind, and if the Diamondbacks are one of the big players in free agency in 2011, replacing the Dodgers as the new, veteran-laden team on the block.

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