The Diamondbacks were an average club in 2013. Literally, they were average as their winning percentage was exactly .500. Figuratively, they were pretty average, too. They seemed to balance out fits of poor offense with great pitching and when the bats came around, the staff couldn’t make outs. Arizona had Paul Goldschmidt, an NL MVP finalist, but balanced his contributions with 267 horrendous Jason Kubel at-bats and 114.2 ugly innings from David Hernandez, Tony Sipp and Eury de la Rosa in the bullpen. For every up, there was seemingly a down in 2013. We know for a fact that for every win there was a loss, but it felt like the team could never get it’s steam going.
I’ve heard some folks argue that the Diamondbacks were just unlucky last season. With all of the injuries, the Diamondbacks were a bit snake-bitten (pun intended). But another way of looking at the teams performance is in terms of pythagorean win expectancy. Arizona was, amazingly enough, a .500 team according to pythagorean win expectations and actually finished .500 in reality. When looking at the rest of the league, no other team nailed it’s pythagorean win expectancy in the way the Diamondbacks did. Every other team finished a handful of wins or more away from expectations based on Bill James’ formula, but not the Diamondbacks. Although this points to the fact that Arizona wasn’t unlucky, pythagorean win expectancy isn’t the only way to look at this team.
While league ranks aren’t a perfect science, it’s worth noting that the ranks support these notions of “average.” Offensively, the team finished 14th in WAR, 15th in wOBA and 19th in wRC+. Essentially, they were middle of the pack. On the pitching side of things, the team finished 22nd in FIP and 21st in WAR. The defense is the one area where the team can celebrate as they led the NL in defensive runs saved and UZR. Two gold glove winners in Goldy and Parra, plus a number of other strong defenders (Pollock, Gregorius, Hill), certainly back that up. While the accomplishments of the defense are something to be excited about, it was clearly not enough to save the season.
The roster is currently littered with average-ish players. Goldy, Hill, Corbin and Parra are all above average, while most others starters were right around 2-wins, the average number for a big league starter. A few other full time starers were below that threshold and could be seen as areas for upgrade, but by and large, the players the Diamondbacks have are pretty average.
And here’s what it boils down to: if the current roster is good for 81 wins and the team likely needs 89 or 90 wins to make the playoffs, Arizona is in need of an additional eight or nine wins. Those wins are known as “marginal wins” and are the most precious wins that the team can come by. Eight or nine marginal wins are what Towers and the front office are looking for as the offseason is really a search for marginal win upgrades.
This is why hearing whispers of the Diamondbacks having interest in players like Nate Schierholtz are troubling. Yes he’s a corner outfielder and yes he hit 21 home runs in 2013, but he does not represent a marginal upgrade because his at-bats would have to come at the expense of someone else’s. As a corner outfielder, he’s likely be taking opportunities away from Gerardo Parra and/or Cody Ross. Schierholtz has a career wRC+ of 98, signaling that he’s essentially average at the plate. The defensive metrics don’t like him although he’s not terrible in the field. So why take away at-bats from Cody Ross (career wRC+ of 106) or Gerardo Parra (two time gold glove winner) for Nate Schierholtz? I don’t have an answer for that. If anything, the Diamondbacks could consider platooning Schierholtz and Ross in left while giving Parra the full time reps in right. That would make some sense, but using him as a full time starter is not an upgrade and does not get the team closer to 90 wins.
Similar sentiments can be said for the team’s interest in Jeff Samardzija. He’s a nice pitcher who has out-pitched his ERA each of the last two years. If he were a Diamondback, he’d likely be the best pitcher in the rotation, although Corbin could give him a good run on that. But remember, the rotation is already full. So someone has to get subtracted to add Samardzija. Twitter responses indicated that folks would like to see either McCarthy or Cahill find somewhere else to pitch and Samardzija could replace one of those two. If McCarthy and Cahill are essentially 2-win pitchers going forward, and Samardzija replaces one of them, the Diamondbacks are looking at a 1.5 to 2-win upgrade. That’s two wins closer to 90, and that’s good, but what is the team going to have to give up? What parts of the potential future will they need to mortgage to acquire two wins? Wins are wins, but based on this possible upgrade alone, there’s still a long way to go before the team is playoff-caliber.
There were some under-performers on the roster last season, guys who didn’t come near their career averages. If they regress to the mean, the team could pick up a few wins there. With a couple other calculated trades and some strong performances from young players, there’s potential for a couple more. But the team needs more than a couple extra wins and acquiring relatively average pieces like Nate Schierholtz, even if effectively platooned, won’t put this team over the top. Samardzija is a start, but he’s far from Arizona’s saving grace.
All in all, the Diamondbacks are in a really tough spot. They need the additional wins mentioned above and don’t have a lot of cash to work with. The deals that get done will have to come at the expense of prospects. When you put these moves in terms of marginal upgrades, ditching players like Tyler Skaggs or Chris Owings in return for two wins seems like like the club is under-selling. But this is the life of a mid-market team with limited resources. We know one thing, and that’s that the club can’t stand pat and do nothing or we’ll be looking at .500 all over again.
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