The Phillies weren’t the only playoff contender to drop off the face of the earth in September. The land of the chimichanga fared no better in late-season play than the cheesesteak republic, leaving a foul aftertaste to what had been a solid season.
Arizona went a new direction after 2016, replacing the general-managerial meanderings of Dave Stewart with the more modern approach of Mike Hazen, formerly under Dave Dombrowski and Ben Cherington with the Red Sox.
Hazen worked quickly, acquiring Ketel Marte and Taijuan Walker from the Seattle Mariners for Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura, and prospect Zac Curtis. But the 2017 season was largely based around the previous core, with Arizona signing several role players — but no big difference-makers — in free agency.
The inherited rotation combined for a 3.61 ERA and 18.8 WAR, that total ranking second in baseball behind only the Indians. Hazen did make one gigantic contribution in the form of J.D. Martinez, acquired from the Tigers in July.
As in-season trades go, the Martinez swap went just about as well as anyone could have expected. The primary starter in left field, Yasmany Tomas, had gone on the disabled list in June with a groin injurym and in truth, the team was already on the verge of giving up on him as a starter. The team’s lack of outfield depth was already glaring, with A.J. Pollock out and Arizona resorting to a Gregor Blanco/Rey Fuentes timeshare in center.
So correctly identifying the team’s biggest problem, Hazen closed a deal on the solution and Martinez paid off, hitting .302/.366/.741 for the team, with a ludicrous 29 home runs in 232 at-bats. The fact that the team’s OPS only improved by seven points in the second half of the season even with Martinez should be a fairly good indication as to the straits in which the offense would have found itself without the pickup. That Hazen managed to bring in Martinez without eviscerating the already suffering farm system was a coup.
The winter of 2017-18 presented the team with a significant problem in the form of contracts. With 16 players in their salary-arbitration years and five in arbitration for the first time, the roster was set to become more expensive without actually improving all that much.
Going into 2018, the primary questions about the team were whether the offense could survive J.D. Martinez’s departure with only Steven Souza added to the roster and how much 2017’s rotation would regress the following season.
ZiPS didn’t see Arizona matching their 93 wins from 2017 but still saw them as the biggest threat to the Dodgers, with a projected 86-76 record and 13% chance of winning the division. The projections were generally optimistic about the rotation staying one of the top groups in baseball, but was much less sanguine about the offense, seeing it as a below-average unit despite Paul Goldschmidt’s best efforts.
In an abstract sense, Arizona had four seasons in 2018 rather than one, each with a different character and a grossly different set of results.
The Sprint (24-11)
The team started out absolutely blazing, not losing consecutive games until the back end of a four-game split with the Dodgers in May. The pitching went 20-8 with a 2.96 ERA and 280 strikeouts in 255.1 innings, almost looking like a Randy Johnson Cy Young campaign (though, technically, with fewer strikeouts).
There was one giant hiccup, though, in that the pitching was basically propping up the offense. The team won 24 of 35 because of that staff, but were hitting only .228/.311/.407 for the season, ranking 19th in OPS and 17th in runs scored. Those rankings were despite Goldschmidt’s .900 OPS and A.J. Pollock’s 1.021 OPS through the end of April.
What would happen to the offense without Goldschmidt and Pollock, even if they could maintain Cy Young-level pitching for an entire year? As you no doubt realize, I’m asking this question for a very specific reason.
The Wile E. Coyote (2-15)
One of the frequent gags in Wile E. Coyote cartoons features that same coyote — having just endured some mishap with an Acme-brand product — walking off a cliff into thin air and remaining aloft momentarily before realizing his predicament and plummeting to earth.
Pollock broke his thumb on the 15th, leaving the Diamondbacks again to scramble for a center-field replacement in-season. Fortunately, unlike past Diamondbacks teams, this one had prepared for such an event with the signing of Dyson the previous offseason.
It didn’t do the team any good in the end. Dyson didn’t hit at all, leaving a problem in center that wasn’t really resolved until Pollock’s return. But the larger problem was that nobody else hit, either. During these 17 games, the team slashed .182/.248/.291, and even Goldschmidt wasn’t much help.
Normally, there needs to be a lot of suck to go around when losing 15 of 17, but the pitching was absolutely fine. Not at April levels, but pretty good. The 2-15 record and 3.87 ERA they produced has a similar look to Jacob deGrom’s full-season line.
The Surprisingly Normal Period (48-35)
After a carnival-ride first two months came a decidedly normal stretch of the season. The rotation ranked 10th in ERA during this period, a little below where ZiPS pegged them, but amply compensated by the 3.44 ERA from the bullpen.
Even the offense showed a pulse. While Pollock struggled after his return from his thumb injury, hitting .234/.276/.318 through the end of August, the team had six players with at least 100 plate appearances and an .800 OPS in this mini-season: Goldschmidt (1.087), David Peralta (.978), Ketel Marte (.858), Steven Souza (.819), Daniel Descalso (.818), and Eduardo Escobar (.813). This was enough to rank Arizona eighth in runs scored, behind only the Dodgers, the Coors-inflated Rockies, and the Cardinals among NL teams.
The September Collapse (8-19)
On the morning of September 1st, Arizona was still leading the NL West by a single game. This was their last lead of the season, however — and, by the time they went to bed on the 2nd, they were in third place. On only one occasion did Arizona win consecutive games in September, helping the Rockies catch up to the Dodgers in the last week, but long past the point at which they could help themselves in any meaningful way.
Arizona hit .214/.287/.374 in September, Ketel Marte representing the team’s only bright spot at .301/.373/.562. The bullpen collapsed, allowing a .795 OPS en route to a 5.52 September ERA. As before, the starting rotation largely held up its end of the bargain — with the exception, at least, of Zack Godley, admittedly the rotation’s weak point most of the season.
What Comes Next?
The biggest problem the team faces is that the fundamental problems still remain. They still need to improve the offense while navigating significant payroll constraints. The farm system will take years to repair, so they can’t look for many quick fixes from that source.
Arizona already starts with a roster that’s somewhere around $140 million after the re-signing of Eduardo Escobar. This will come down somewhat with Shelby Miller almost certain to be non-tendered and Brad Boxberger a probability to follow Miller to free agency.
Even if we call it a $120 million payroll for the same team as last year but without Patrick Corbin and A.J. Pollock, that’s a dreadful place to begin an offseason.
The general feeling around baseball, one Arizona has done little to rebut, is that the team is headed for a rebuild. Goldschmidt is unsigned past 2019, and aging first basemen have a tendency to result in terrible contracts for the signing teams. Greinke’s survived the loss of velocity on his fastball, but he’s also a very expensive 35-year-old on a team without much payroll flexibility.
A lot of people are unhappy about the prospect of Arizona and Seattle entering rebuilding phases right now after their competitive 2018 campaigns, but they both share a similar set of problems: payrolls near their maximum willingness to spend combined with minor-league systems that can’t bridge the short-term gaps. Arizona can’t afford even to re-assemble the exact 2018 roster that finished barely above .500.
I don’t expect a full rebuild for the team to be as painful as these sometimes go. The club does have players that can be part of the future around which they build, including Marte, Walker, Robbie Ray, etc. Rebuilds like Houston’s are especially difficult because they weren’t started until after everything of value was gone.
Whether Arizona chooses to go the “let’s call a contractor” or the “cool, check out this WWI-era flamethrower we found!” path, the team is likely to finish 2019 with fewer wins than 2018.
Way-Too-Early Projection – Paul Goldschmidt
It’s not 2019 that’s possibly scary for Arizona and Goldschmidt; the short-term is not the question. What is scary, if Arizona did extend Goldy rather than trade him, is what his decline phase looks like. Age hasn’t been brutal to Joey Votto, but it’s taken a lot of star first basemen very quickly — and not just average guys, but legitimate mega-stars like Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera.
The projection highlights the quandary Arizona’s in. Goldschmidt has been — with the exception of a brief appearance from J.D. Martinez — the centerpiece of the D-backs offense. Losing him would be really tough. On the other hand, if Arizona’s internal projections are anything like ZiPS, they probably can’t sign him either — unless he’ll agree to a Carlos Santana-type deal rather than an Eric Hosmer one. So the idea of Goldschmidt starting 2019 wearing new threads is not far-fetched.
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.