Elegy for ’18 – Arizona Diamondbacks

AJ Pollock’s injuries have made things difficult for the D-backs in the NL West.
(Photo: Hayden Schiff)

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.

The Setup

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.

In the end, the 2018 team would cost $40 million more than the 2017 version, and that’s with under $20 million of total spending in free agency, primarily in the form of Alex Avila and Jarrod Dyson.

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.

The Projection

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.

The Results

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.

ZiPS Projection – Paul Goldschmidt
2019 .276 .385 .512 547 94 151 30 3 31 94 93 158 12 4 132 4 3.7
2020 .271 .377 .501 527 87 143 31 3 28 88 87 151 11 4 127 4 3.2
2021 .268 .371 .483 507 80 136 28 3 25 81 80 141 10 3 121 4 2.6
2022 .264 .364 .462 481 72 127 26 3 21 72 72 127 9 3 114 4 2.0
2023 .260 .354 .443 454 64 118 23 3 18 63 63 112 8 3 107 3 1.4
2024 .257 .342 .412 413 54 106 18 2 14 52 51 94 7 3 96 2 0.5

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.

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5 years ago

They should probably look to either extend or trade David Peralta, and maybe think about what they’re going to do with Souza, Ray, Bradley, and Lamb in terms of extending/letting them rebuild value for a trade (each only has two years of team control). Aside from Goldschmidt and Greinke (who should be traded) and Marte and Godley (who are around for a little while) that represents the entire set of players with value at the moment or in the future. There seem like multiple roads to put the team back into contention, but it seems awfully unlikely that they’re going to bounce back before 2021.

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I love Greinke, but that contract basically makes him untradeable.

He’s basically a $70K Mercedes financed with a loan that has a $90K balance.

They could put him on waivers and no one would claim him — no one will take over the payments.

5 years ago
Reply to  dirtbag

Yeah, right now he has negative value. But perhaps not forever–you can always hold him in the hopes that he will turn in another 5-win season. If he starts out strong, he’s tradeable because elite starting pitching is so rare.

Or you pay down the contract.

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The crowd seems pretty unanimous on the Greinke negative value train. I’m not entirely sure we’re right. If the DBacks made him available, he’d be the best pitcher on the market by a huge margin … and a lot of teams need pitching. Corbin, Keuchel, and Eovaldi have extremely short track records of being actually good, and they’re likely going to get paid extremely well. The fact that Greinke is still a good pitcher may even make his contract more palatable than when it was signed — paying him $100M now is probably more reasonable than paying him $200M three years ago was for a lot of teams.

5 years ago
Reply to  Groundout

The question is whether anyone would give him a $96M deal over any length of time (it’s actually less than that in actual value, since there are a lot of deferred payments, but that’s complicated). My guess is that no one would, which means he has negative value.

I also don’t think that it’s that far off. If he shows he’s a frontline starter again with a pace towards a 5-win season, I think someone would definitely trade for him, especially in-season where there aren’t a lot of other options. Last offseason Jake Arrieta got 3/$75M despite looking like Tanner Roark. Teams want to believe.

But there are several issues conspiring against a deal in the absence of a Greinke revival. The first is that teams don’t like the ops of looking like they gave away a productive player, but often don’t want to pay down the contract enough to get a good return. The second is the no-trade clause.