Mike Hazen’s First Big Decision

Yesterday, the Diamondbacks introduced Mike Hazen as their new general manager and head of baseball operations, who is taking over for Dave Stewart after a two-year failed experiment in their front office. Hazen was most recently the GM in Boston, serving as Dave Dombrowski’s second-in-command, and has been an integral part of a Red Sox front office that built one of the best young cores in baseball. The Diamondbacks are hoping Hazen will lead them in that direction now, and allow them to build a sustainable winner in Arizona.

But before he can do that, Hazen and his staff will have to determine their course of action this winter, and whether the team is going to try and retool a roster that just lost 93 games or if he’s going to pivot away from the team’s attempt to contend in the short-term in favor of acquiring assets for the long-term. When asked about this at the press conference, Hazen demurred.

“I don’t have a defined view just yet,” Hazen said. “It would be irresponsible for me at this point to sort of say exactly how we’re going to attack the roster.

“We want to bring a championship to this city and state, but we also know that there’s going to be decisions that need to be made. We’ll have more concrete answers on that as we move through the offseason. We’ll see what the landscape is in the marketplace.”

That’s a nifty non-answer, but in reality, it’s also likely the correct one. It doesn’t really make sense to be committing to a certain path on your first day on the job, for one, but also, despite the dumpster fire that was the Diamondbacks 2016 season, it isn’t actually clear what the Diamondbacks should do this winter, and they probably do need to explore both paths.

On the one hand, the argument for rebuilding is a pretty easy one to make. This wasn’t just a bad-luck 93-loss team; their BaseRuns expected record was 71-91, putting them at the same level as the Braves, Twins, Angels, and Athletics. Trying to get from that spot past the Dodgers — a behemoth stocked with young talent — is no small task, and the franchise can’t afford too many more years of wasting valuable assets in failed attempts at making unrealistic postseason runs.

Given the team’s financial position — they are on the hook for $60 million in guaranteed salary to just four players, plus have another ~$25 million in arbitration payouts to a half-dozen players, depending on non-tenders — they are unlikely to have a lot of money to spend in free agency this winter, and it’s not like this is the kind of free-agent class you can use to rebuild a broken roster anyway. With limited money to spend, a barren wasteland of marginal improvements passing as the crop on the open market, and a farm system depleted through unwise trades over the last few years, it’s not really clear how the Diamondbacks would put together a contending team in 2017.

And if you’re not contending, there’s a pretty good argument to be rebuilding, especially with the Dodgers and Cubs looking like formidable opponents in the NL for the next few years. The team only controls Paul Goldschmidt‘s rights for three more seasons, and A.J. Pollock’s for two more, so if Hazen doesn’t see a realistic path to contention in the short-term, this might be the time to cash in their value for long-term assets. With few quality free agents available, the Diamondbacks could likely get significant hauls for both players, as teams looking to upgrade won’t have the alternative of just throwing money at their problems instead of paying a high price in trade. I can imagine Hazen might have a fun conversation with his former boss in Boston about what Dave Dombrowski would pay for Goldschmidt, for instance.

But while the argument for blowing it up is easy to make, I’m not actually sure it’s the right path, at least until Hazen hears what other teams would be willing to offer, because the team has several key assets that they should probably hang onto this winter. Zack Greinke, Shelby Miller, and Patrick Corbin were supposed to front an upgraded rotation, but instead, all three turned in highly disappointing years, and their values are all significantly diminished from where they were a year ago. Trading any of the three this winter would be selling low relative to their talent level, and it seems likely that the D-backs would be able to get more in return by holding them until the trade deadline, when they will hopefully have better recent performances to sell, and the price of pitching is always nutty.

That isn’t to say that there won’t be a deal for one of those three pitchers that makes sense right now, but given what they did in 2016, it seems likely that teams buying any of those three are going to be looking for bargains. And there’s no real reason for the D-backs to be selling guys with upside for discounted rates; one of the best things non-contenders can do is use the fact that they don’t have to win to give players a chance to rebuild their trade value, so keeping Greinke, Miller, and Corbin is probably a better course of action for the team than dealing them while their value is diminished.

So if you’re mostly keeping the rotation together and hoping to rebuild some of their value, does it make sense to simultaneously blow up the team’s defense even more than it already has been? While Goldschmidt and Pollock would fetch big returns if the team went into a rebuilding programming, the team doesn’t really have internal replacements for either one, and the defensive downgrade could limit the likelihood of a rebound from the very pitchers you’re trying to build back up; it isn’t a coincidence that many of the team’s pitchers went the wrong way the year after the D-backs dumped Ender Inciarte and ran a rotating wheel of disasters in the outfield.

Maybe the offers for Goldschmidt and Pollock will be so overwhelming that the D-backs would be foolish to pass on them, and they can cobble together a decent enough defensive squad to support Greinke, Miller, and Corbin even without those two. Yasmany Tomas could play first base, for instance, which would upgrade the outfield just by not letting him go near it again. Maybe the team could find a light-hitting speedster to cover ground in center field, install Nick Ahmed as their starting shortstop, and put a solid defensive group behind their pitchers even during a big rebuild. But with three potential starting pitchers to trade at the deadline if the team isn’t contending, the team should likely prioritize efforts to make those three look as strong as possible, and keeping Goldschmidt and Pollock around for another year is likely easier than making a long series of moves.

Especially because Pollock is coming off an injury-filled year himself, and could also fall into the category of a guy who could increase his value over the next year if he shows he’s healthy. If you don’t think the return is likely to go down significantly even as he gets closer to free agency, keeping Pollock around to help his teammates could be a better option, even if the Diamondbacks plan is to look more long-term than trying to maximize their chances of winning in 2017.

And you never know; if you keep the team together, maybe things click. Maybe you find a few more breakout stars, Hazen pieces together a reasonable bullpen this winter, and the team makes a run at a Wild Card spot next year, putting the entire notion of needing to blow up the roster off entirely. By keeping this group together for at least the first half of the year, there is some chance that the team could eschew the need to rebuild entirely, if enough things break their way. And if things don’t go that way, then hopefully you at least have a few starting pitchers coming off strong first halves to sell, and Goldschmidt and Pollock are likely still highly-valued assets at midseason as well.

But, of course, that plan also comes with some risk. Goldschmidt could get hurt. Pollock could get hurt again. The pitchers could fail to bounce back, and lose even more value. The team has some assets that are highly valued now, and they could end up losing their opportunity to turn them into pieces that could be big parts of the next good Diamondbacks team; they only have to look west to San Diego to see what can happen if you hold onto potential trade chips too long.

So the decision probably does need to depend on what the market price for the D-backs stars looks like this winter. If Dombrowski, or another GM looking for an elite first baseman, is really willing to pay an exorbitant cost to acquire Paul Goldschmidt, then perhaps Hazen’s first job in Arizona will be to oversee a total teardown of the roster with an eye on the future. But if there’s not big blockbuster offers there for Goldschmidt and Pollock, then it’s probably worth keeping this group together for at least the first half of the year, and hope you can rehab the pitcher’s values enough to control the deadline prices.

The Diamondbacks appear to finally be in good hands, and the hiring of Hazen should put them on a better path towards winning. Whether that path requires a total rebuild will likely be the first big test of Hazen’s career as the guy who has to make the final call.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

28 Comments
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Outta my way, Gyorkass
6 years ago

I think the Brewers showed with Jonathan Lucroy, that it makes a lot of sense to hold on to a guy like Pollock who is in all likelihood at a relative low in terms of player value right now, give him half a season to rebuild his value and show he has moved past his injury issues, then reap a haul at the trade deadline for 1.5 years of control.

Of course, there’s the downside that he sucks coming back and loses more value too, but that’s something Hazen will have to make an educated decision on with his training staff.

Goldy on the other hand – let someone blow you away. He’s still got 3 years, and there is always the deadline premium you can get on 7/31.

JediHoyer
6 years ago

If he gets hurt again, then this is Tyson ross 2.0. Went from possible franchise changing prospects to nothing.

You still pay players while you keep them, they are due roughly 10 mil before the deadline. This money could be allocated to say j2 signings which for a medium market team could be the best use of resources.

Lastly I know everyone hates the word tanking but you can’t argue how beneficial having a bigger draft pool is. These guys might win you too many games and you are kind of in at the break and can’t move them and still finish the season 10 games out.

HarryLives
6 years ago
Reply to  JediHoyer

Tyson Ross is a pitcher. Pollock is not. Don’t compare apples to oranges.

semperty
6 years ago
Reply to  HarryLives

Because there’s never been an instance of injury derailing a position player’s career, right?

HarryLives
6 years ago
Reply to  semperty

The likelihood of an injury derailing a pitcher’s career and the likelihood of an injury derailing a position player’s career aren’t even close. Thus, it’s like comparing apples to oranges. There is nothing controversial about this statement.

JediHoyer
6 years ago
Reply to  HarryLives

He’s had the same season ending surgery twice already. Ok not season ending, just 6+ months.

HarryLives
6 years ago
Reply to  JediHoyer

Pollock’s played with the same f—ed up elbow for most of his career, and he’s been awesome. The fact that it’s an injury he’s had and still managed to play at a high level with makes it less likely, not more likely, that the injury will derail his career going forward.

JediHoyer
6 years ago
Reply to  HarryLives

Tough to play at a high level on the dl.

jianadaren
6 years ago
Reply to  JediHoyer

Going on the DL isn’t what tanks your trade value: being perceived as having significant risk of not being able to fully recover is what tanks your trade value.