In an article posted earlier this week, Jon Heyman wrote that the D-backs have seemed to other teams’ executives that the D-backs “seem just a little bit more cautious than usual now.” That could be more a consequence of the organization’s command structure than a change in philosophy, but with notes coming out that the D-backs are not hot to unload Martin Prado, it seems pretty clear that “measured sell-off” or “retooling” is the team’s strategy. Teams have reportedly been told that Paul Goldschmidt, Patrick Corbin, Chris Owings, A.J. Pollock, Archie Bradley, Braden Shipley and probably Brad Ziegler won’t be traded, and others have heard that Wade Miley is also off limits.

Miley is the canary in the coal mine in terms of “retool” or “rebuild,” as Jeff Wiser wrote. In some ways, it doesn’t really matter what the team actually does before the trade deadline; the Thatcher and McCarthy trades and the team’s statements to other clubs is all the indication we need that the D-backs are aiming to contend in 2015. I don’t know that that will necessarily work; RG had some doubts, I touched on it Monday, and on Wednesday Jeff Wiser examined the question of whether the D-backs are just too bad for retooling to work.

I do have my doubts in terms of feasibility, but as Jeff pointed out in that last piece, I also think that if a number of things go right, it could work. Every team has some kind of bad luck every year, but the D-backs could have good luck with bad luck. I agree with Jeff that we can’t pretend April didn’t happen, but it’s like when a pitcher picks up some velocity and starts doing better: at least there’s a reason to think that what’s recent is more indicative of the future. I do blame it in some measure on Australia. Not even necessarily the travel, but the early spring training dates, etc. After all, the Dodgers experienced a post-Australia slump, too. I also happen to believe that Patrick Corbin’s 2013 statistics unfairly downgrade his talent, given that he clearly tired at the end of the year, with 32 ER in his final 36 innings. Losing Corbin and replacing the 2013 version of Gerardo Parra with the version we have now could, on their own, explain the difference between the team’s record and the .500 team we expected.

But I won’t retread that ground. We know the team is trying to retool; we also have a pretty firm handle on the talent the team has on hand. So what can the D-backs do in free agency as part of this strategy?

Where the D-backs can upgrade with free agents

To be candid, this picture won’t be perfectly clear until the season is actually over. But with no position player prospects that are projected as regulars and on the cusp of the majors, the only meaningful changes to this list will be additions (if, for instance, Aaron Hill is traded).

Mark Trumbo may not have satisfied Kevin Towers’s thirst for power in the outfield, but unless Gerardo Parra gets moved in a trade and Cody Ross is traded or released, it would be hard to add an outfielder. Trumbo will man left, Pollock center, and Parra will still get most starts in right field. Finding out that David Peralta is exactly what trying to get lucky in a lost season looks like when it works. That’s all kind of a moot point if he doesn’t play, and as a lefty he can’t platoon with Parra. I’m assuming that Cody Ross is shown the door (although I’m not rooting for that outcome), but as you can see, even if that happens, we’re talking about stuffing four starting-caliber outfielders into three spots, with Ender Inciarte also on the roster as one of the very best fifth outfielders in the game.

As noted above, the infield could be in more flux. But even if the team successfully trades Hill or Prado, there’s no replacements needed at first, catcher, or shortstop, and there will be enough shortstops to cover either second base or third base, too. It’s also worth noting that there isn’t much help out there in free agency anyway; with Ben Zobrist‘s team (whoever that is) likely to pick up his 2015 option, the best second basemen available are scrap heap options like Kelly Johnson, Brian Roberts, or Alexi Casilla. Third base offers a significantly diminished Chase Headley, a risky Pablo Sandoval and an unaffordable Hanley Ramirez, and only scrap heapers after that.

If I had my druthers, the D-backs wouldn’t sign a single reliever in free agency; it’s just way too difficult to guess right on free agent relievers, and a team has a significant advantage when it can option its relievers to regain their form when something isn’t right. But this is hopefully a moot point, unless both Brad Ziegler and Oliver Perez are traded; the team has already installed Evan Marshall and Matt Stites this season, with Jake Barrett and probably Andrew Chafin on the way. Randall Delgado isn’t going anywhere (although if I were GM of another team, I would definitely check in on his price and try him in a rotation again, to see if it’s the D-backs curse at work), and it remains to be seen whether Daniel Hudson will be returned to the rotation or kept in the bullpen once he gets out there later this year. David Hernandez will most likely return soon after the season begins… you get the idea. Like the outfield, the D-backs bullpen is stocked.

The rotation, however, is a completely different story. A spot will be kept open for Patrick Corbin, even if he’s not ready at the outset of the season. Archie Bradley may be on a similar schedule, if he’s not brought up later this year (September, when rosters expand?). As we saw above, Wade Miley isn’t going anywhere.

After that, though, the D-backs are very flexible. We’ll know a lot more about Chase Anderson by the end of the season, but he appears to be a very solid option for the back of the rotation. Josh Collmenter could be returned to the bullpen, but could stay in the rotation and be an asset if his performance this season is any indication. Bronson Arroyo won’t be ready until the season’s second half, and is probably just a depth option if he’s needed. Vidal Nuno could be thrown away without much stress from anyone, and I tend to think he was intended to be a fill-in for the Corbin spot anyway. And if Trevor Cahill hasn’t done enough to interest any other club by the end of August, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll be released.

So the D-backs could fill two rotation spots with free agents if they wanted to, or one, or none. But other than some complementary parts (of which the D-backs have plenty), no other roster spots can be bolstered through free agency unless the injury bug intervenes.

Spending money

Projecting the 2015 payroll could be (and probably will be) the subject of a post on its own, but before we go having the D-backs sign all of the top free agent pitchers, we should get an idea of how much they might be able to spend.

Let’s start with the premise that if the D-backs have confidently chosen to retool for 2015, they understand that it will be a bit more expensive to double down than it was to make the original bet for 2014. The team set itself up for $112 million in 2014, but let’s assume that the team will be loathe to surpass the $120 million mark.

Gone from the payroll is Brandon McCarthy‘s $10.25 million salary, as well as $7M for J.J. Putz, $3.5M for Eric Chavez, and just under $2.5M for Joe Thatcher. That’s just a bit over $23 million off of the books, bringing us down to $89 million in commitments. But some D-backs players under contract for 2014 are due raises: Cahill $4.3M, Goldy $2M, Montero $2M more, Hill an extra $1M, Perez $750k and both Collmenter and Ziegler $500k. There will also be some significant arbitration raises for Miley, Trumbo, Parra, and Reed ($12M combined?), and minor raises for Hernandez and Hudson.

All told, that’s a net change of the payroll going up by about a million or so, assuming that Cliff Pennington is non-tendered (what is Nick Ahmed for, if not to cover that roster spot?). Again, something else could happen, like the team trading Hill or Prado. But from where we stand right now, it looks like the D-backs’ only flexibility for signing free agent starters would be its comfort level with raising the payroll beyond its record-breaking mark this year.

Starting pitcher options in free agency

It seems unlikely, then, that the D-backs will have the freedom to sign one of the free agent market’s marquee offerings. Jon Lester, Hisashi Iwakuma, Max Scherzer, and James Shields are the best starters that are likely to be available this offseason, but all are likely to make around $20 million per year in salary. So the question becomes: do you think the D-backs can stomach a $135M payroll for 2015?

It’s more likely that the D-backs will add from the next tier of free agents, hoping for someone with #3 starter quality output. That means you, Jason Hammel, or Jake Peavy, Edinson Volquez, Kevin Correia, Josh Beckett, Gavin Floyd, or Scott Feldman. Dan Haren, Brett Anderson, or Yovani Gallardo, if their options are declined. Starters that might be due $12M like Peavy or Hammel might even be a stretch.

Things could change, if the D-backs move part of the financial commitments to Cahill or Hill, or if some key players get hurt. But considering the ways in which free agents could help the D-backs seem few and considering payroll limitations, it seems unlikely that free agents will be a big part of the D-backs’ efforts to retool for 2015.

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5 Responses to How Can the D-backs Use Free Agency to Retool?

  1. Jeff Wiser says:

    The long term deals doled out over the last few years have clogged this roster, as has been pointed out at this site before. I’m afraid that there won’t be enough significant movement, either in terms of the roster or the payroll threshold, to radically change this team’s output. There are moves to be made if the team is willing to swallow its pride, but I’m not holding my breath. Hope I’m wrong on this one.

  2. Colin says:

    My biggest Dback future question is regarding Peralta. Is this the type of batter he is? OR Is he just enjoying a longer than usual honeymoon period before his weaknesses are exploited? Usually rookies that come out hot like Peralta or another example Gregorious at the beginning of last season. The thing is these hot streaks usually end around the 20 game mark(like Gregorious). So my big question is Peralta really this good of a batter(with him being well over 40 games)? If so we seemingly have a cheap .300 batting, fairly young outfielder to build our OF core around. I guess only time will tell what we have

  3. Anonymous says:

    im looking foreward to watching JC take on cliff Lee. How come you guys never talk about some of the moves you’d make ie block buster trade move. Play fake gm for a week.

  4. Paulnh says:

    We NEED Big Game James. I said it before, but this free agent pitching class is deep in my opinion. We can go out and sign one of the top pitchers preferably James Shields. We won’t be tied to a first round qualifying offer pick this offseason, so if there’s a time to sign someone it’s now. It’s hard to estimate how much money we’ll be able to spend because of arbitration and Mr. Kendrick’s pockets, but your guess is certainly better than mine. It’s definitely fair to say though, that if we’re going to sign James Shields, we’re going to have to move some payroll.

    I’m not sure if we could be able to pull this off, or if we’d even want to, but I was thinking of a trade like the David Holmberg trade but to a larger degree. I’m thinking we could trade someone Cody Ross, Trevor Cahill, and Jake Lamb for salary relief. We might go even bigger, like Ross, Cahill, Hill, Arroyo, and Braden Shipley for money. I don’t who could pick up that kind of money but it’s just an idea. It would certainly clear up money for James Shields, but I don’t know who could take on those kind of contracts (not so much could as much as want to). It’s just another brilliant idea to sign James Shields.

  5. […] there, and the $11M owing to Prado is also not there. In advance of the deadline, I took a look at whether the D-backs could use free agency to help them retool for 2015. Then, I concluded that if the D-backs kept the 2015 payroll at 2014 […]

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