So What Do the Diamondbacks Do Now?

Heading into the season, there was probably no more polarizing team in baseball than the Diamondbacks. Despite adding Zack Greinke, Shelby Miller, and Tyler Clippard over the winter, our preseason forecasts pegged Arizona as a 78 win team, a win worse than they finished a year ago. The organization themselves saw a wildly different picture, and so many articles were written about the divide that I had to write a piece in March trying to dispel the notion that we had some kind of bias against the franchise.

You know what’s happened since then. First, the team suffered a devastating loss when A.J. Pollock’s lingering elbow issues turned into a season-ending injury right before Opening Day. Then Zack Greinke gave up seven runs in his first regular season start with the team, and struggled through a slow start to the season. Then Shelby Miller imploded, pitching worse than any other starter in baseball this year. And now it’s the end of May and the team is 23-30, already nine games behind the Giants in the NL West race.

But this isn’t a post gloating that we were right all along. In reality, some of the D’Backs optimism surrounding their team has actually been more correct than our pessimism about the team’s chances, if you look beyond the overall record, anyway. Our projections didn’t like the Diamondbacks because it had a negative view of their role players, thinking that this was basically a stars-and-scrubs team that relied too heavily on a few elite players. But so far, those role players have been carrying the team, keeping it afloat while the big names struggle.

Jake Lamb has been the team’s best player to date, putting up a 136 wRC+ and playing solid defense at third base. Jean Segura has justified the team’s belief that he could regain his power stroke, and while he’s cooled off after a hot start, he’s been a quality middle infielder for them. The catching tandem of Wellington Castillo and Chris Hermann have been among the most productive pair of backstops in the league. With +8.2 WAR, the D’Backs position players rank 8th best in baseball at this point, and that’s without getting a single game from Pollock; if he had stayed healthy and you add him to this mix, the D’Backs group of position players would again look like one of the best in the league, at least over the first couple of months of the season.

Of course, the pitching has been a disaster, but it’s not like Shelby Miller was obviously going to turn into a pumpkin overnight, or that Patrick Corbin was going to obviously regress after pitching well in his return from Tommy John surgery in the second half of last year. If Greinke, Miller, and Corbin were pitching to the level that our forecasts projected before the season instead of combining for a 5.15 ERA over 178 innings, the D’Backs would be north of .500, and right in the middle of the wild card race. It wouldn’t be fair for us to proclaim that we saw this coming when the D’Backs season has gone wrong for reasons that have nothing to do with why we thought the team would struggle.

But, regardless of what people thought of the preseason projections or our credibility at the time, the reality is that the D’Backs 2016 season is in trouble. With about 60 days to go before the trade deadline, the team is one more cold stretch away from likely admitting that they aren’t going to be in the playoff hunt this year, and their schedule to begin June is brutal: they play road games against the Astros the next two days, then go to Chicago for a weekend series against the Cubs before coming home to play the Rays, Marlins, and Dodgers.

Given that they also just lost Rubby de la Rosa to the DL at the same time they gave Shelby Miller a break from pitching, the team’s rotation is thin heading into a stretch that could easily put a nail in the team’s coffin. Given the quality of competition and the state of their pitching staff at the moment, the team shouldn’t be expected to win more than six or seven of these upcoming games, and a 4-11 or 5-10 stretch can’t be ruled out. If they lose twice as many as they win, they’d enter mid-June something like 28-40, and would very likely be double-digit games out of both the NL West and Wild Card races.

At that point, it would almost certainly be time for the D’Backs to admit that 2016 wasn’t their year, and begin to look to the future. But with Miller pitching himself into question mark status, Corbin looking less reliable than hoped for, and de la Rosa a health concern after another elbow problem, it’s not so clear that the D’Backs should just count on a return from a healthy Pollock to lead them back to the postseason in 2017. The team isn’t losing any huge free agents this winter — Brad Ziegler’s contract is up, but that’s about it — so they could return most of this roster and make another run next year, but the lack of expiring contracts means that they probably won’t have a ton of money to spend either; the savings from not having to pay Aaron Hill, for instance, could get eaten up by raises for guys like Pollock, Yasmany Tomas, and Paul Goldschmidt.

Clearly, the Diamondbacks aren’t going to just give up and start trading veterans for prospects; they’ve invested too much into their win-soon plan to pivot after two bad months. But it’s also not clear how they’re going to take their current roster and turn it into a winner without some improvements, and with the farm system weakened by the winter’s big trade, there isn’t a clear path forward just from promoting prospects either. Getting this team into contention is going to take some creativity.

So, here’s one very off-the-wall suggestion; make Zack Greinke available in trade talks. The pitching market is thin at best this summer, and there are no real quality starters set to hit the free agent market this winter, so putting a high-quality starter on the trade block could put the D’Backs in an advantageous position. In a market devoid of rent-an-ace options, Greinke could have real appeal for a team looking to win in the short-term.

The contract, of course, would be a problem; no other team in baseball wanted to give Greinke $200 million just a few months back, of course, and he hasn’t exactly helped his stock by running a 4.71 ERA through the first two months of the season. But the remaining portion of the contract isn’t as onerous as the overall dollar figure; the D’Backs would remain responsible for the $18 million signing bonus, and because of the deferred salary, the calculated value of his future salaries is more like $160 million.

5/$160M is reportedly where the Dodgers and Giants were both willing to go in free agency, and roughly what he has left on his deal after accounting for the deferrals and keeping the signing bonus on the D’Backs books. Toss in the small-but-not-insignificant fact that trading for him now doesn’t come with the draft pick compensation that signing him over the winter would have cost, and I think there would be a few teams interested in at least exploring a Greinke deal.

The Red Sox would probably be the first team to call, with Clay Buchholz demoted to the bullpen, Joe Kelly remaining maddeningly inconsistent, and Eduardo Rodriguez raising some concerns with mediocre performances during his rehab. The Sox could certainly use another quality starter, and have the financial capability to take on most of Greinke’s remaining contract; adding Greinke to David Price would give the team the best chance to send David Ortiz off in style this October. With Buchholz wanting to start, a deal centered around swapping him and Greinke — with Boston sending other pieces as well, depending on how much of the contract Arizona wanted to keep on their books — could potentially benefit both sides.

For Arizona, moving Greinke a few months into a six year deal would bring instant criticism, but this is an organization that has been marching to the beat of their own drum for a while now. The negative public relations associated with trading a guy right after signing him to a long-term contract could be diminished if Greinke was on board with the move, which he’d probably have to be anyway, given he has some no-trade protection in his contract.

But if they made a deal where they got some major league players back and moved Greinke’s 2017 salary off the books, they could pitch it as a rational response to changing dynamics; they didn’t know they’d be without Pollock when they signed Greinke, so now they’re trying to put the best team they can on the field next year, and so acquiring a pitcher they could potentially control for 2017 at a lower cost could give them the ability to add some necessary depth. Especially if they’re going to be without de la Rosa and aren’t sure what Miller will give them, turning Greinke into a couple of pitchers and some available budget room could give them more flexibility for retooling their roster.

It’s probably too far out there even for Arizona, and Greinke could nuke the entire idea simply by invoking his no-trade clause, assuming he and his agents put all the teams that would take the contract on their list of teams to block deals to. But with the D’Backs 2016 season potentially a few weeks away from being all but over, the D’Backs should probably start at least thinking about whether they’d be better off moving Greinke now. Even if the answer is no, it’s going to take some out-of-the-box moves to get this team back on track, and they probably can’t just rely on guys playing like they expected.

The D’Backs have spent the last year doing exactly the opposite of the consensus. The normal path, at this point, would be to stand pat and hope things get better, but Arizona might be best served taking the unconventional road once again.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago

The Greinke trade is a great suggestion, but for the moment the Diamondbacks seem to think the way out of this mess is to have their GM yell at opposing broadcasters:

7 years ago
Reply to  Fnor

Hey, President of Baseball Ops, don’t be pulling rank

Dave Stewart
7 years ago
Reply to  Bip

Why am I not surprised?

Though the way this year has gone, I would happily yell at the other 24 opposing broadcasters in person.