Arizona Diamondbacks Start Rebuild and Accidentally Contend

Despite trading their biggest names, the D-backs held on to enough talent to stay competitive, and should be again in 2020. (Photo: Hayden Schiff)

“How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life.” – Marcus Aurelius, (translated from The Meditations)

The Arizona Diamondbacks didn’t enter last offseason with a plan to burn everything to ashes and then burn the ashes. After all, being able to choose how to rebuild is one of the benefits of not waiting until circumstances have eliminated more appealing options. Arizona remained in contention despite trading Paul Goldschmidt last offseason and shedding Eephus god Zack Greinke in July, and the club looks like a viable Wild Card contender entering 2020.

The Setup

The D-backs faced a Goldschmidt-sized conundrum after the 2018 season. The longtime middle-of-the-order slugger was a year from free agency, and the team couldn’t have been thrilled at the prospect of an extension for an aging first baseman, a deal likely to eclipse $25 million a year. The 2018 team went just 82-80 with Goldschmidt, and the improving farm system was still far from elite, so it made the decision to trade a single year of America’s First Baseman if the right package came along. The Cardinals made the winning offer in the form of Carson Kelly, Luke Weaver, Andy Young, and a Competitive Balance Round B pick; in Weaver and Kelly, Arizona received two players with the potential to contribute immediately in crucial roles, softening the loss Goldschmidt.

While there was some concern from the fan base that this move heralded the start of an old-fashioned fire sale, nothing quite so dramatic actually materialized. Endless rumors swirled around Greinke, but Arizona wasn’t, and the team was more than happy to have its ace return for the 2019 season. Arizona saw Christian Walker as the best candidate to replace Goldschmidt at first, and with Walker out of options, the team hoped he’d make a case for a starting job in spring training (he did).

The team didn’t make any other splashy moves in the offseason, looking instead for low-key upside plays that could keep the roster competitive without harming the future. If I were on a grand jury investigating VP/GM Mike Hazen, inking Eduardo Escobar to a three-year, $21 million contract extension after a 3.6 WAR season would be enough for me to return charges of grand larceny. Stealing a page from St. Louis’s handbook — no password from a former employee was required — the team lured former Rays farmhand Merrill Kelly back stateside for two years and $5.5 million, plus two team-friendly club options. Wilmer Flores was brought in on a one-year-plus-option deal, with the team hoping that his power upside would flourish outside of Citi Field.

It wasn’t the kind of offseason that wows fans, focused instead on incremental gains from value plays.

The Projection

ZiPS didn’t forecast Arizona to collapse, but the computer saw enough “ifs” on the roster to project the club for a 77-85 record with a 6% chance of making the playoffs. The computer had a lot of concerns about the outfield corners, and was skeptical of Walker’s PCL-driven offensive stats. The team’s upside was particularly hampered by its lack of depth; ZiPS saw few viable replacements if any key starters were injured and thought the bullpen was very shallow after the first few arms.

The bright spot of the projections was the rotation, with four starting pitchers projected for at least 2 WAR in 2019 and a fifth, Weaver, only missing by virtue of a 133.1-inning projected playing time.

The Results

As happens from time-to-time, the projections turned out to be overly pessimistic about a lot of things. Walker proved more than capable of taking advantage of baseball’s newly generous home run environment, and though not a star, he was a league-average starter at first base. In the end, swapping Goldschmidt for Walker only cost Arizona 0.7 WAR worth of performance. Carson Kelly (.245/.348/.478, 1.9 WAR) made up that margin by himself; Weaver’s solid 2019 (2.94 ERA, 3.07 FIP, 1.8 WAR) before his forearm strain was practically gravy.

But what ZiPS really, really, really, really, really (I could probably put in about 10 more of those) did not see coming was Ketel Marte becoming a legitimate MVP candidate. I did not vote for this award, so I’m not spilling any beans, but I don’t see a good case for putting Marte anywhere lower than fifth on the NL MVP ballot. He finished with a .329/.389/.592, 32-homer, 7.1-WAR line, and while his xSLG of .521 suggests some kind of regression is in order, he’s probably still a star slugging .450.

One thing the computer got right was its concern about the team’s depth. Steven Souza Jr. tore just about everything possible in his knee during the spring, practically forcing Arizona to play Adam Jones full-time. David Peralta’s shoulder was a constant annoyance that ended his season early, and Jake Lamb was ineffective for a second straight season (.193/.323/.353, 0.0 WAR) after returning from a quad strain.

Arizona finally found the right deal for Greinke, sending their veteran to the Astros for a package of Seth Beer, J.B. Bukauskas, Corbin Martin, and Josh Rojas at the deadline. Apart from Greinke not being a pending free agent, the circumstances mirrored those of the Goldschmidt trade. Just as in the earlier trade, they swapped a player of undoubted value in the belief they could make up a shockingly large chunk of the short-term production-loss elsewhere. Rojas may have been the most interesting player in the trade (not the best or most valuable, mind you) as he can likely contribute immediately in 2020 despite his weak 2019 cameo.

The D-backs also acquired Mike Leake’s contract, and sent Jazz Chisholm to Miami for Zac Gallen, a pitcher who was already contributing to the Marlins. Leake’s 10 starts for Arizona added up to a bleak 6.26 FIP, but Gallen didn’t miss a beat, striking out 53 batters in 43.2 innings for a 2.89 ERA, 3.65 FIP, and 0.8 WAR.

Just as they did after the Goldschmidt trade, the D-backs defied expectations following Greinke’s departure; Arizona went 31-23 to finish the season and was one of the last teams eliminated from contention for the National League’s final playoff spot.

What Comes Next?

I hate the term “payroll flexibility.” So many franchises now are prone to imposing artificial constraints on themselves, the grownup equivalent of when you’re six and playing “the carpet is hot lava” with your friends. But given the limits the D-backs have imposed upon themselves, they’ve basically jumped from the living room coffee table to one of the dining room chairs. Several key contributors, like Marte and Gallen, are either locked up long-term or still on their first contract. The D-backs look to have a competitive roster right now with a payroll in the $100-$110 million range, and their farm system should be able to supplement the big league club as a few players on their existing roster hit free agency in 2021. In a world where signing non-elite free agents is almost passé, the team has plenty of opportunity to devote some of its payroll savings to addressing the team’s weaknesses.

And without falling out of contention, Arizona has accomplished the difficult task of overhauling their farm system. Practically empty when Hazen took over after the 2016 season, the team’s farm now ranks fifth in baseball in future value on THE BOARD, up from 13th before the 2019 season aided by a potentially franchise-altering draft this past June. The Snakes are still missing elite talent, but they have a whopping 13 prospects with a 45 future value or better. A deep farm not only gives Arizona some of that dreaded payroll flexibility in future seasons, but also provides the team the currency needed to add in-season reinforcements, something it has missed.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the D-backs is just how sustainable 2019 feels. With the exception of some possible regression from Marte, nothing about the 2019 squad’s performance was all that freaky. Only three players on the roster had three-win seasons: Marte, Greinke, and Escobar, who more or less just repeated his 2018.

There’s still work to do, but Arizona has the potential to enter 2020 as one of the NL’s primary Wild Card contenders.

The Absitively, Posilutely, Way-Too-Early ZiPS Projection – Ketel Marte

I talked a little about regression and Marte above, but it would be kind of scummy if I didn’t actually post the (preliminary) projection, wouldn’t it?

ZiPS Projections – Ketel Marte
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2020 .298 .358 .515 573 88 171 34 9 24 78 52 89 10 121 3 4.3
2021 .295 .356 .525 549 85 162 34 10 24 76 51 88 9 123 3 4.3
2022 .292 .355 .521 537 83 157 33 9 24 75 51 89 8 122 2 4.1
2023 .292 .356 .520 521 80 152 32 9 23 72 51 83 7 122 2 3.9
2024 .293 .355 .519 509 77 149 31 9 22 70 48 79 7 121 2 3.7

Even without reaching the heights of 2019, Marte projects as a legitimate All-Star for the entirety of his contract. And with his deal maxing out at five years and $34 million with Arizona’s two club options, if Escobar’s contract is grand larceny, Marte’s contract may be the Lufthansa Heist.

To illustrate the extent of Marte’s improvement, I asked ZiPS to project him with every home run he has hit over the course of his career turned into a single, while robbing him of the ability to ever hit a long ball again.

ZiPS Projection with Jason Tyner Transmogrification – Ketel Marte
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2020 .292 .352 .384 568 85 166 34 9 0 68 51 88 10 90 3 2.0
2021 .289 .350 .390 546 81 158 35 10 0 66 50 87 9 91 3 1.9
2022 .286 .350 .386 497 74 142 32 9 0 60 48 79 7 90 2 1.6
2023 .288 .351 .387 476 71 137 31 8 0 58 45 74 6 90 2 1.5
2024 .286 .349 .382 461 68 132 30 7 0 55 43 70 6 89 2 1.4

Even in this rather unrealistic scenario, Marte still projects as a contributor. Regression may come for him, but even if it does, the Diamondbacks will be glad to have him.

We hoped you liked reading Arizona Diamondbacks Start Rebuild and Accidentally Contend by Dan Szymborski!

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Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Matt Wallach
Member
Matt Wallach

I’ve loved most of what the D-Backs have done the past 12 months so much. They have gobs of young pitching, and now it’s time to see which ones will stick, and which position players they’re going to bring in to supplement Marte and Escobar. I’d love to see them be big players in free agency, but that is unlikely, and it’s probably more of the same as last season when it comes to free agents, I’d guess. But still, the D-Backs are in a good spot, and their rotation could be outstanding next season.