The D-backs threw themselves an enormous party earlier this month, unveiling new uniforms, signing Zack Greinke the next night, and trading for Shelby Miller the next week. The Greinke and Miller moves made more of a difference for the 2016 roster than any other move is likely to make — but cleaning up after the #DbacksEvolution party still takes some work. The D-backs have a capable but fragile complement of position players, made less stable by the loss of Ender Inciarte. The team continues to talk about upgrading the bullpen, as well. And to top it all off, the team has more starting options than they are likely to use (without falling out of the playoffs hunt anyway), and Rubby De La Rosa and Randall Delgado are out of options.
In broad strokes, the rest of the offseason looks a little like this:
- Explore ways to trade one or two extra starter options, especially RDLR and Delgado, but also including Chase Anderson and possibly Archie Bradley.
- Exchange depth in iffy relievers for an extra strong relief option or two, probably in separate moves.
- Sort out bench options for the 2016 season.
- Handle the arbitration cases of A.J. Pollock, Patrick Corbin, Shelby Miller, Welington Castillo, RDLR, Delgado, and Daniel Hudson.
- Explore creative ways to dump Aaron Hill‘s contract.
- In spring training, figure out infield playing time, backup catcher, whether to go with 4 or 5 outfielders and who the bench outfielders are, 5th starter slot and final 1-2 bullpen slots.
The “Aaron Hill is available” sign outside Chase Field is lit up well enough that teams will come calling if he can fill a role elsewhere. The only information that other teams are missing is the extent of the money that the D-backs are willing to eat. If the Trevor Cahill deal last year is any guide, it’s at least two-thirds; but if push comes to shove, Hill may end up being released at the end of spring training like Cody Ross was this last year. Chances are Hill will only get moved if a team develops a serious but short-term hole at second base during spring training — but even then, that team would need to have only sorry internal options to fill in. Since the game of musical chairs for bench players is just starting now, we won’t even get an idea of who those teams might be until spring training begins.
On the arbitration cases, the team can and should be exploring options right now; but that’s going to happen mostly in the shadows. We pitched in the Offseason Plan that the D-backs approach Pollock with a two-year deal, one that might limit his third-year arbitration salary, and one that probably works for Pollock but has little to no risk for the D-backs (even in the event of a very serious injury in 2016, the D-backs probably would tender him a contract for 2017 anyway). A two-year deal also makes sense for the team with Patrick Corbin, but not with Shelby Miller — even though there’s more to his 2016 season than luck and there’s ample reason to think he can be more than a #3 starter for the D-backs, pitching for Arizona has its toll, and the D-backs are more likely to be paying a 2017 salary based on 2016 than on 2015. More than anything, though, now is the time for the team to come up with its arb offer figures, and to stick with them, hell or high water; a transition to a file-and-trial strategy for arbitration still makes tons of sense.
The last bullet above is about sorting out playing time during spring training, but the extent of those options do at minimum inform the first three bullets, which are issues for right now. So: what remains to be done?
What’s Left: Pitchers
We’re here after a rotation makeover. I really don’t see Robbie Ray giving the team an excuse to pass him over, leaving one spot for Chase Anderson, Rubby De La Rosa and Archie Bradley to fight over. Given the team’s growing commitment to ground balls, I’d give the edge to Bradley — although, by the same token, we can’t rule Zack Godley out of that competition either. It’s always great to have an additional option or two, and Anderson might be more valuable as an injury replacement stashed at Triple-A than he would be in trade. Bradley could be expendable, but only for a clear upgrade at a place in the roster that can be upgraded. Still, RDLR and Randall Delgado have nearly nowhere to go in the current mix.
Among possible trade partners for the team’s back-end pitching, the Marlins, Phillies, White Sox might make the most sense, with the Pirates, Reds or Brewers also possibly in play. The Cubs are weirdly thin, but might only be open to picking up a pitcher with options, like Anderson — I’d put the Tigers and Orioles in the same boat. The Rockies can still use bodies as they try to retool, and Bradley might make a ton of sense for them. The Rays could be open to adding a starter (Delgado?), if they end up trading a higher-ceiling starter of their own. The Twins, but probably only if one of their mediocre starters gets hurt. The Rangers could use help, but you can see why the only interest that’s been reported is for Bradley; anyone they acquire would probably need to look like a better option than Chi Chi Gonzalez.
The D-backs front office has experience getting teams to take players other than the players they really want, but only at a very high price; that’s probably the way to look at the Miller trade. The bullpen may be the only part of the roster that can be upgraded without breaking roster bones, and it seems doubtful they’ll be able to do that using only the rotation depth. Delgado can be returned to the long relief role in which he excelled last season; as discussed last week, Josh Collmenter could be moved into a short relief role. Where that leaves Rubby De La Rosa is something of a puzzle, especially if the D-backs limit Patrick Corbin’s innings.
So wither De La Rosa? A matchups role might suit him best, and yet he can’t be retrieved from the bullpen and returned to the rotation if needed if he’s pitching only partial innings. He can’t be stretched out in the minors unless he happened to be returning from injury on a rehab assignment. His best role, then, might be in long relief — where he can continue to try to improve against MLB hitters, but in low-leverage situations. Keeping him there while Delgado offers something similar almost definitely means that Collmenter becomes a short reliever. It also means a short relief crew of Collmenter, Brad Ziegler, Andrew Chafin, Hudson, and (hopefully) Silvino Bracho, with Matt Reynolds the lefty matchups man.
What I just described is an 8-man bullpen, and even with the rotation upgraded, maybe it’s reasonable to expect that the D-backs will start the year with an 8-man pen again in 2016. Injuries will almost definitely befall the club, but unlike in past years, the health fortunes of the bullpen and rotation aren’t necessarily linked. De La Rosa may bounce back and forth, but if Anderson awaits an opportunity at Triple-A, an injury there probably means turning to him; only in the event of a bullpen injury may we see Enrique Burgos, Evan Marshall, Dominic Leone, etc.
In addition to Collmenter, we looked at some bullpen options last week: the Will Smith trade that still makes sense to explore, using Adam Loewen as a two-way player, signing Cliff Lee if he’s open to a bullpen role. The trade market is definitely drying up, and in the wake of the Todd Frazier trade, it definitely looks like the White Sox would be less open to dealing David Robertson. Tyler Clippard is probably the only relief pitcher still on the board with a history of being better than mediocre. As far as free agents go, Tim Lincecum could be an intriguing option if the team could get him to try working as a short reliever; a slight uptick in velocity could benefit Lincecum considerably, and he may be willing to try out that transition at a manageable $8M salary for one year, or something along those lines.
It’s becoming increasingly clear, though, that the D-backs may be moving in a different direction. We explored last week how the D-backs are committing to ground balls, and how that ground ball preference manifested itself in minor league signings, in “extra arms” in recent trades, and in the June draft. The D-backs have continued to work in that direction.
I missed the Tim Stauffer minor league signing about ten days ago; Stauffer struggled mightily in 20.2 MLB innings in 2015, but sports a Delgado-esque 3.87 career ERA with the Padres. After missing a lot of the 2012 season, Stauffer was worked out by the Padres in relief, first at Triple-A and then for 69.2 MLB innings to the tune of a 3.75 ERA. He slightly improved that performance as a swingman for San Diego in 2014 (3.50 ERA in 64.1 innings) before struggling with the Twins in a similar role. He finished the season with the Mets, starting in the minors and working as a reliever in the majors. Why does it all matter? Because even though Stauffer’s ground ball percentages as a major league reliever have not been much to look at, as @baseballkrazy tweeted at me over the weekend, he was solidly ground ball oriented overall last year. As in, 58.5% GB% last year. And while that’s not quite at the supergroundballer level of some of the guys we looked at last week, this came largely as a starter — where even 55% GB% makes one a ground ball standout.
Maybe even more intriguing: Scott Rice, also recently of the Mets organization, who was banished to the minors in 2014 after an average-ish contribution in 2013. Rice was absolutely a supergroundballer, as mlbfarm.com has 63 of 92 batted balls as ground balls (68.5% GB%). What’s more, he had an element of what made Marshall great in 2014, and Chafin great last season: he still contributed strikeouts. His 26.1% K% would grade as elite in MLB, which made him something of a Triple-A equivalent of Zach Britton last year. Rice battled control issues that Britton wouldn’t understand, including a 17.0% BB% last season that was an improvement over the previous season. But you’ll take that many walks if it meant that many strikeouts — especially if the “mistakes” were ground balls. Rice finished his 39.2 Triple-A innings last season with a 1.82 ERA.
The D-backs are on the lookout for the next Brad Ziegler, and they haven’t yet signed him to an extension through the end of the Contention Window. Chances are that we’ll see them try to work in some supergroundballers this season if they can justify the experiment, with Rice maybe now at the head of the class (Kyle Drabek also fits in somewhere). The team would love to add someone who would close over Brad Ziegler, and if they can, they probably should. My guess, though, is that they’d be perfectly content to ride with the players they currently have, knowing that they have quite a few relievers waiting in the minors who might offer league-average pitching, and with this ground ball experiment running quietly in the background.
What’s Left: Position Players
The D-backs made great use of time shares in 2015, with excellent results. The departure of Inciarte might signal a different approach in 2016, though: one that features full-time starters more prominently. In the outfield, we know that will be David Peralta, Pollock and Yasmany Tomas, the main question being whether Tomas will take a big step forward. In the infield, there’s a chance that Jake Lamb will start more games — and we should expect that Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings will get the lion’s share of playing time at short and second as the team continues to focus on ground balls. Maybe Brandon Drury will also be featured as part of a four-man, three-position time share (fingers crossed), but Phil Gosselin is also likely to get some playing time.
Can and should the team get a little more left-handed on the bench? For much of the season last year, neither Peralta nor Lamb was starting against LHP — which gave the team two very good lefty pinch hitter options later in those games. That is likely to be less true in 2016. There’s a non-zero chance that the team will hope Evan Marzilli can be its Inciarte replacement, and Marzilli hits left-handed. Beyond that, though, we’re looking at Socrates Brito — who would be in a bench role if with the club — and Chris Herrmann, who is currently slated to battle Tuffy Gosewisch for the backup catcher role.
We saw Brito’s promise in his 18-game cameo in 2015. He started only five of those games, and yet finished the year with a 0.4 WAR. He may be unlikely to repeat his 106 wRC+ next season, but it might be hard to deny him the opportunity. Brito has just one season above High-A, tearing up the Double-A Southern League with a .300/.339/.451 slash line. The man might actually be Ender Inciarte, in skills, results, and in awesome name status — but probably not in hitting lefties. In 2015 at the Double-A level, Brito slashed just .232/.304/.293 against LHP, along with a very good .313/.344/.484 line against RHP. Platoon splits are no great problem for part-time players. Although one would probably still hope for a right-handed option to be the guy to spell Peralta, you can easily justify starting Brito for a healthy chunk of the team’s games (40%?) and using him as a primary pinch hitting/defensive replacement option in the games in which he doesn’t start.
Herrmann can play a little outfield, but he does not make sense as a Peralta handcuff. Herrmann also has a hilariously bad 46 wRC+ for his career (and Steamer charitably projects 65 wRC+, maybe in part because it steers away from extremes). Last year, Herrmann had a 41 wRC+. The year before, it was a 31 wRC+. Maybe we would have been better off trying to convert Daniel Palka to catcher? Gosewisch was no stud at the plate himself, with wRC+ marks of 44 (2015) and 47 (2014) that make Herrmann look playable. I think there’s some risk Herrmann makes the 25-man just because he’s left-handed. He’s definitely better against RHP… but for his career, he’s had a 55 wRC+ against RHP. “Better” doesn’t mean “good,” as Herrmann’s .191/.262/.298 slash line against RHP attests.
The team has one strong lefty bench option in Brito, then, but not two. And while a lefty catcher would be ideal, especially given Castillo’s large platoon splits, that guy is hard to find; the Mariners recently gave up Mark Trumbo to get one in Steve Clevenger, while Josh Thole and Alex Avila were locked up early in the winter. Hell, switch-hitting Brayan Pena got a two-year deal from the Cardinals despite closing in on his 35th birthday. Maybe that’s something to keep in mind with respect to lefty-hitting catchers like Miguel Montero: it’s a lot easier to find them a backup who really fits.
If Lamb is a starting player to the point that the team isn’t looking for more playing time for him through pinch hitting, the infielders who happen to be sitting on a particular day will most likely be right handed: Gosselin, Owings, Ahmed, Drury, and even Hill. Among infielders, old friend Kelly Johnson makes some sense, but probably only fits if Drury is destined for the minors and at least one of Gosselin or Hill is not going to make the 25-man. A reunion with Stephen Drew also might be biting off more than the D-backs could chew, although a carousel of Drew, Ahmed and Owings up the middle does seem pretty attractive. More likely, the team will explore minor league deals with non-roster invites for one of Skip Schumaker or Maicer Izturis.
As much as the D-backs are in for 2016, though, it’s hard to see them locking themselves up with a guaranteed contract to an Inciarte replacement; strong lefty hitting options like Matt Joyce or David Murphy only make sense if Brito is destined for the minors to start the year. Craig Gentry would have made sense at the $1M that the Angels gave him on a split (non-guaranteed) contract. As on the infield side, minors deals with David DeJesus or Nate McLouth could be worth locking down for the D-backs.
Not much to do on the position player side, then, unless the D-backs decide to flip the apple cart over again with an offer to Daniel Murphy. All there is to worry about is Brito’s development (he’s slashing .245/.289/.410 in the Dominican winter league so far, in 35 games), and extending non-roster invitations to spring training for a few complementary players. The team will be very right-handed again at the plate, but probably won’t regret that. It doesn’t hurt that the Dodgers are currently lined up with four LHP in their rotation.
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