There are very few circumstances in which it makes sense to stand pat during any trade season, be it in the offseason or in July. This July, however, the D-backs are about as far on that end of the spectrum as a team can be. Currently sitting in 4th place in the NL West and in need of an historic winning streak just to work its way back into the Wild Card picture, it’s time to turn attention to 2017 — and yet in reshaping this team before the 2016 season, that’s largely what the D-backs front office had already done. There’s little reason to try to sell what little there is left to sell for a few extra wins in 2016. But at the same time, there is every reason to think that gearing up for 2017 and 2018 is still the most appropriate plan, and the team has very few departing free agents.
We entered this process with the general idea that players important to the team in 2017 and 2018 would not be moved, that strategies with respect to free-agents-to-be Brad Ziegler and Daniel Hudson were necessary, and that the team would mostly stay on course. At the same time, however, we acknowledged that even if all players return healthy in 2017, the team’s total talent level still falls short of where it probably needs to be for 90 wins next season. Additions will also be challenging, as there aren’t many bullets left to fire: after trading Dansby Swanson, Aaron Blair, Ender Inciarte and Touki Toussaint, the minor league cupboard is nearly bare, and there is little overlap on the major league roster to borrow from.
No new direction is required, but the way this roster is built largely ignores some Arizona realities about playing in the NL West. Those realities guided us in our attempt to tweak the D-backs roster with our suggested moves, fashioned from an analysis of not only the D-backs but all 29 other organizations. We can’t conjure extra player value from thin air. But what we can do is make sure player value is maximized, given certain realities about what it means to play baseball in the unnatural Chase Field environment and in the unusual NL West. Some of the more important realities we relied on in this process:
Position Player Realities
Chase Field makes most hitters look better, but some more than others, and some may actually be hurt by that environment, especially in conjunction with the other large parks of the NL West.
- High contact rate hitters are good. From Jean Segura to Ender Inciarte to Martin Prado, good contact skills have played up for the D-backs, due to large outfields — and that’s been an important part of the Giants’ and Royals’ runs of successes.
- Low contact rate hitters are bad. Chase Field encourages singles, doubles, triples, and (to a lesser extent) home runs — the only way to take no advantage of that is to not put the ball in play regularly enough.
- Line drive power plays better than fly ball power. Paul Goldschmidt and now Jake Lamb have shown us that a high frequency of hard hits pays enormous dividends for the D-backs — those turn into singles, doubles, triples and even home runs even more often than they do at other parks, enough to make up for a dip in contact rate.
- Outfielders’ defensive capabilities are magnified. When you play 119 games in NL West parks and all of them are particularly large, great defense helps you even more than it would elsewhere — and poor defense by outfielders hurts more than it would elsewhere.
- Hitters tend to see their perceived value increase. But for some prominent low-contact hitter examples, most position players do better with Arizona, and prospects tend to outperform expectations. That’s a recipe for recruiting other teams’ hitters, but also for signing homegrown hitters to extensions very early in their tenure.
Just as some hitters fare better at Chase, the combination of high heat, dry baseballs and large outfield confines make for a situation in which pitchers almost always fare worse than they do elsewhere.
- Contact managers are bad. From Jeremy Hellickson to Zack Greinke and everywhere in between, pitchers who may have thrived elsewhere by generating lots of weak contact find that weak contact doesn’t turn into outs as frequently as elsewhere.
- Middle-of-the-road batted ball profiles are bad. Pitchers who generate outfield contact at a normal or higher than normal rate get burned; normally a large outfield means more hits but fewer home runs, but that’s just not the case at Chase.
- Extreme ground ball tendencies are good. One way to avoid the hit- and homer-prone nature of Chase: avoid outfield contact at a very high rate. Brad Ziegler has thrived for the D-backs, although other pitchers who are not as extreme in ground ball rate have not.
- Strikeouts are especially important. Just as contact rates make for successful hitters at Chase, the unusual hit- and homer-prone environment makes the gap between non-fielding outs and fielding outs even greater.
- Left-handed pitchers tend to do better. The NL West is stacked with lefty bats, and whereas Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray have held their own, most other D-backs pitchers have disappointed to a larger extent. Righties who are especially susceptible to platoon splits have done especially poorly.
- Going year to year with pitchers on contracts is wise. A pitcher brought into the organization from elsewhere is likely to worse, and his price is likely to stay down. It’s always beneficial to go year to year with pitchers, who suffer more long-term injuries that can suppress salaries — it’s even more beneficial for Arizona.
With this out of the way, let’s move to the Midseason Plan proper:
Offer a $4 million, 1-year extension to Daniel Hudson with a $5 million vesting option for 2018
Offer $12.5M, two-year extension to Brad Ziegler
Offer $36.5M, five-year extension with a $15M option ($2M buyout) to Jake Lamb
Despite trade interest, hold on to Robbie Ray
Trade C Welington Castillo to the Texas Rangers for LHP Alex Claudio, OF Delino DeShields, Jr. and LHP Frank Lopez: Welington Castillo has been nothing short of a revelation since coming to Arizona from Seattle in exchange for Mark Trumbo last June. He’s shown more power than any other catcher in baseball since that time and will enter his third year of arbitration this winter, where he may earn close to $6 million. Behind the plate, however, he gives away more strikes than almost any other full time catcher in the big leagues, and that’s costing a pitching staff that needs help. He can also pile up the strikeouts at times, which doesn’t mesh with the best approach at Chase Field. The home runs are nice, but he’s losing so much value with his pitch framing that he’s much more average than his power numbers would suggest. With 2016 a lost cause, the team would do well to flip Castillo for other assets.
The Rangers are contenders with a black hole behind the plate, and while they have prospects in waiting, they could use Castillo to bridge the gap. Robinson Chirinos is also a poor framer, something Texas is apparently willing to live with for now, and doesn’t hit a lick as he currently occupies the ninth spot in their lineup. Castillo’s bat would be an instant upgrade for them as they push towards the playoffs and his power would continue to play well in Arlington.
When searching for pitchers with Brad Ziegler-like stuff, Alex Claudio bears a stark resemblance — except he does it from the left side. While he’s scuffled some in his limited big league time, he’s just 24 and may be able to help the bullpen sooner than later. Delino DeShields, Jr is a speedy outfielder with a limited hit profile that makes him an average hitter if all goes well. He could patrol left field easily and be a solid backup in center while showing plenty of patience at the plate and speed on the bases. An Inciarte-eque outfield utility role may be his best fit. Lopez is a smallish lefty starter with feel but has a future in the bullpen. He could be ready to contribute as early as late 2017. Claudio is a unique upside play for Arizona, Texas has outfielders to spare if they trade DeShields, Jr. and Lopez is essentially a throw-in.
The Diamondbacks would be forced to split time with Chris Herrmann and Tuffy Gosewisch behind the plate for the remainder of 2016, then look for a viable alternative this winter, preferably with stronger framing skills that aid the pitching staff. In making this deal, they can add a pitcher with the type of stuff that has played well at Chase in the past, an Ender Inciarte-type outfield option and some additional bullpen depth from the left side.
Trade OF Yasmany Tomas to Boston Red Sox for OF Rusney Castillo, LHP Brian Johnson, C Austin Rei: Yasmany Tomas seemed like a great idea at the time. The D-backs were moving toward a contention run build around Goldy, but didn’t have a wave of minor league reinforcements coming — Tomas was a tempting way to add (young) talent to the organization without losing a draft pick or trading away other players. That’s still true, even if it doesn’t seem as important in front of a backdrop of prospect and draft pick sales by the organization. We didn’t have much in the way of a track record to go on, though, and now that Tomas has played 1.5 years for the D-backs, it looks a hell of a lot like Tomas just happens to be a very poor fit for Chase Field.
Tomas is an all-or-nothing hitter, one who does get his hits through hard contact, but who pays a contact rate price to get there. He’s not a Goldy/Lamb type hitter, a line drive type who piles on every kind of extra base hit — he’s a 20, maybe 25 home run hitter with a knack for easy strikeouts. That kind of profile isn’t hurt by Chase, but it’s not helped, either — and Chase helps most kinds of hitters at least to some extent. Tomas’s hitting profile and defensive profile translates best in a small park, and in Fenway, he’d have the smallest.
Rusney Castillo is more of a dead contract than that — he’s struggled to make any kind of traction for the Red Sox, in large part due to struggles against so-called “power” pitchers (ones in the top third of K%+BB%). He’s due a prorated portion of a nearly $11.3M salary this year, and just over $49M over the following four seasons, through 2020. Tomas is owed only the balance of a $7.5M salary this year — but it’s looking more and more likely that he won’t opt out of the final two seasons of his contract, in 2019 and 2020. That would make the Tomas commitment for the next four seasons $55.5M — and means that right now, the money is almost exactly the same, although Tomas’s cash is more backloaded.
We think Rusney looks like a pretty good fourth outfield option, someone who could stick in the majors for the D-backs with a surprisingly good glove. He’s a free swinger, but as we’ve seen with Jean Segura this season and Ender Inciarte last year, the Chase Field outfield can turn that kind of profile into a pretty big plus.
This is not an offer to make right away — Boston only does it if they’ve tried and failed to come up with another trade possibility in left field. Closer to the deadline, however, Boston might embrace the chance to pick up a hitter who at least does something at the plate, turning an albatross contract that Dombrowski inherited into a not particularly attractive contract that is at least useful — and of the two players, Tomas is still young enough to improve. Boston’s first instinct might be to eat some money to make this happen, but we’ve had a little too much in Arizona of saving money by losing out on some talent.
Arizona would be due other compensation for its troubles, and Dombrowski may not bat an eyelash over either of the players we’ve included here. Brian Johnson is a 25 year old starter prospect with fringe velocity (he averaged 88 mph in his brief stint in the majors last year), but with a promising track record, a rising, vertical fastball that has been used to good effect by other Arizona pitchers, and a giant 12-6 bender that we think translates very well to Chase Field. Johnson is currently sidelined with anxiety issues — and Boston doesn’t have the reputation for being a hospitable place for that kind of problem. Arizona, on the other hand, was just picked by a prominent free agent pitcher who dealt with similar issues in the past. Also included in our trade: Austin Rei, a Low-A catcher who projects as a future middle-of-the-road contact hitter (good fit) and excellent pitch framer (great fit). Rei would rank higher as a prospect in nearly any other organization, but Boston could let him go even in a star-less trade like this one, what with their incredible organizational depth behind the dish.
Offer Daniel Hudson a 1-year, $4 million extension with a $5 million vesting option for 2018: Though he’s had a tough go of late, Daniel Hudson has filled a vital role for the Diamondbacks out of the bullpen since returning from Tommy John surgery… twice. While his sterling ERA to start the year was a bit of a mirage, some tough stints of late have inflated his ERA to a level that doesn’t equate to his true talent. His injury history being what it is, the team can’t afford to make a long commitment to him, yet he’s stated he’d like to stay in Arizona and the team should be willing to keep him, albeit at a commitment that limits their exposure. By offering Hudson a 1-year, $4 million deal with a vesting option for a second year at $5 million, Hudson can finally earn the big paycheck that’s been eluding him, and with continued performance, dial it up a notch in 2018. The 2018 option vests if Hudson makes 50 appearances in 2017 and finishes the year healthy (i.e. not on the DL). If he’s willing to bet on himself, that’d make him a free agent at 31 with plenty of future earnings ahead of him. If Hudson scoffs at the terms, the team can either explore trading him at the deadline or make a decision on renegotiations this winter.
Offer $12.5M, two-year extension to Brad Ziegler: Brad Ziegler’s not getting any younger, but he’s not showing that age. When ground balls are so vital at Chase Field, it makes all of the sense in the world to keep the ground baller you have. Closer or setup man, Ziegler gets the job done. His age limits the length of the deal, but this extension offer pays him more than he’s made in the past without breaking the bank. The extension offer is for $6 million in 2017, $6.5 million for 2018 and keeps him in Arizona for the prime years of the Contention Window. If he balks at the offer, the team could explore trading him at the deadline to a contender, or just wait to renegotiate this winter.
Offer $36.5M, five-year extension with a $15M option ($2M buyout) to Jake Lamb: It doesn’t hurt to try, right? One of our guiding principles — the D-backs should lock up even vaguely promising hitting prospects early, and often. In fact, we used Lamb in a demonstration of those ideas at the end of the 2014 season. The time for a Jonathan Singleton-style extension is long past, and the time for a Paul Goldschmidt-style extension probably evaporated about one month ago. Still, it may always be difficult for a player to turn down their first fortune, and without some kind of extension, Lamb doesn’t stand to lock up lifelong financial security until perhaps the beginning of 2019, when he’ll be eligible for arbitration a second time. Lots can happen in two and a half years. Even if you were a hitter with the kind of self-confidence that Lamb appears to have in spades, could you turn down $30M+, knowing you might have to walk away from the game and start some other career in the event of serious injury?
There’s still some room here to try, at least. Sometimes, coming to the negotiation table at the exact wrong time can also be wise — the person on the other side of the table might be eager to deal while the getting’s good. Chances are the D-backs don’t get this extension done, but if not now, they should probably keep trying. The signs are all there that Lamb can be nearly as good at the plate, and when you add in defensive value at third base, that makes for a near-superstar player of A.J. Pollock’s caliber. A fairly late bloomer like Lamb doesn’t tend to be productive well into his late 30s, and the team wouldn’t just be saving itself money by locking him down — they would be doing so in a way that grants them some of Lamb’s free agency without having to pay for a handful of decline years.
A month ago, we suggested a contract offer that guaranteed Lamb $20.5M, and could be worth $41.5M through club options for each of his first two free agent years. We called it a last chance. Now, Lamb leads the NL in slugging in July, the team didn’t do itself negotiating favors by sheltering him from tough lefties, and the team would be lucky to sign Lamb to a Goldy-style extension, tweaked for three plus years of baseball inflation. That deal that would guarantee him $38.5M for the same time frame, with an upside of $51.5M. A big part of the large jump in guarantee is that this would no longer be as much of a club-driven process — it’s unlikely Lamb would believe the club would walk away from the table if he refused to do two options. Instead, the deal would pay Lamb $1M for his final pre-arb year in 2017 (he’d be due nearly $600k anyway), salaries of $4M, $7M and $11M for his arbitration seasons, $13.5M for his first free agent year, and a possible $15M for his second free agent year in 2022, with a $2M buyout.
It’d be a substantial financial commitment for the team, and no one in their right mind could expect Lamb to lead the NL in slugging for six years straight. Everything we’ve seen, though, supports the idea that Lamb’s true talent level at the plate looks like seasons of 140 wRC+. At third base, that’s almost a superstar. Final Vote or not, it’s time to act like Lamb is truly important to the team’s future.
Hold on to LHP Robbie Ray: While the team may be better off making some exchanges, a full sell-off is not a prudent option. If the Diamondbacks were to take a more drastic route, trading Robbie Ray might be an idea they would pursue. At this point, the team would be better off holding onto Ray as someone who can give them depth in a currently weak rotation. Ray, along with Jake Lamb, was named by ESPN’s Keith Law as one of his top breakout picks for the 2016 season. While his actual results this season have been a mixed bag, reasons for optimism are still there.
At this point, moving Ray could be self-defeating in two regards: starting pitching is not a position of strength for the team, and Ray’s value might not be at it’s height. While an ERA well in the fours might be a nonstarter for wanting to get the most out of a possible trade chip, a good case can certainly be made that some of his deficiencies this season have been due to bad luck. He’s garnering quite a few more swings and misses, perhaps most easily seen in his strikeout rates, but his contact rates on pitches outside the zone have dropped dramatically – from 78.3% to 69.1% to 61.5% from 2014 to present. Where he’s run into some of that bad luck is with balls in play. His BABIP currently sits at .364, opposed to .311 in 2015, without there being any large changes in the type of contact he’s allowing. He’s allowing a few more ground balls and line drives, but the amount of soft contact he’s allowed has also slightly risen. Certainly there’s nothing there that would leave one to believe that his BABIP isn’t a bit inflated. This isn’t to say all his struggles can be attributed to bad luck, rather than some of the improvements made have perhaps been masked by some bad luck in other places. Given the state of the Diamondbacks rotation, moving Ray doesn’t seem to fit with the idea of contending in the near future.
How to use the rest of 2016
2016 matters in a way that 2015 did not. Last season, the D-backs were completely free to use major league playing time in whatever fashion they deemed helpful — we got an entire season of Rubby De La Rosa in the rotation, lots of work for Robbie Ray, a chance to ease Patrick Corbin back into pitching shape, the opportunity to play David Peralta against lefties and the rope to let Yasmany Tomas learn on the fly. Wins didn’t matter last year, and everyone understood that. If anything, there might have been an incentive to lose, right on the cusp of having a protected first-round draft pick.
Not so now. 2017 priorities should not come at a significant 2016 cost for the balance of the season. Jake Lamb absolutely should start against more lefties. Braden Shipley absolutely should get a chance to get his feet wet with a September callup after the PCL season comes to a close. The team should use a very large bullpen in September, and Brandon Drury should get essentially full time duties, some way or other. Michael Bourn should stick on the roster, if he continues to be as helpful as he’s been, but the D-backs can’t afford to limit the major league playing time of Chris Owings or Socrates Brito or David Peralta to help make that happen.
One of the few exceptions to this 2017 focus is the playing time of Peter O’Brien, a hitter that has the upside of a Mark Trumbo or Chris Davis, but only if he plays in a ballpark like Camden Yards. There is almost no possible outcome in which O’Brien is nearly as helpful to the D-backs as he might be to other teams, and while we simply weren’t able to find any July trade scenario to move him, Chase Field playing time will not help him establish value anyway. Quite a few pitchers should get a chance to prove what they can do in the majors, and several position players like Drury and Brito should, as well.
We foresee an outcome in which a six-man rotation makes sense in September, with Shipley getting turns. Even if Archie Bradley is healthy enough to keep pitching, it probably makes sense to shut him down — and Patrick Corbin could benefit greatly from pitching with more rest. Having the pitchers pitch is important, but making sure they pitch fatigued as little as possible is even more important. If that also means shorter starts, the D-backs still benefit from more chances for the enormous contingent of relievers on the 40-man to get opportunities.
This season is different than last season, because it’s not the case that everyone understood this to be a rebuilding year. And this is not just about public perception, and giving fans reason to think the team really is on the upswing when it comes time to sell 2017 season tickets — the team needs a different kind of information, not about which fringe assets to keep, but about whether this team is good enough to get the rest of the way there. We’ve learned an incredible amount about these players and what it means to play at Chase Field in this last season and a half, much more so than in the season and a half before. Whether this team can truly be a contender in 2017 is the most important lesson to learn of all.
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