Everyone wants to know what Mike Hazen is going to do. I’d throw my hat in that ring, too, but I understand that he’s had a boatload of work to do in reworking the front office and coaching staff. There’s been more turnover than just about anyone anticipated and filling those holes — re-crafting Arizona’s decision-making nucleus — has rightfully taken priority. Meanwhile, those on the outside keep wondering which direction the Diamondbacks will head in 2017. But Hazen hasn’t exactly tipped his hand just yet while discussing the team’s process in determining their course of action this winter. Probably best he’s not out there saying, “We want to contend at all costs,” or, “Everybody’s for sale — make an offer!” The last thing he needs to do is create another set of embarrassing quotes attributed to the team’s leadership. We’ve had plenty of that, and Hazen’s smarter than his predecessors.
None of this helps us understand the team’s direction, however. In examining three different paths Mr. Hazen can take, I chose the middle one a little over a week ago. Trying to go big on the free agent and trade markets seems like a fool’s errand, but blowing up the roster at this point seems a touch premature. So I argued for something else:
I see a third path, however, one that’s most likely to be taken. The team can spend in a limited fashion this winter and see what they’ve got while at full strength, letting their level of play over the first few months of the season determine the course of action. Should they run out to an unforeseen, massive lead in the NL West by the end of June (yeah right, but stay with me), they could add at the deadline and try to make a run. Should they be out of contention come that same time, they could begin shopping their assets on the trade market, looking to take advantage of teams willing to overpay for cost-controlled talent. In this way, they can kick the can a little and Hazen can avoid being the guy who blew it all up before we got to see what it was all supposed to look like.
Not only does this option give fans a reason to show up for the first few months of the season, but it gives some potential trade assets a chance to recoup value after down seasons, maximizing the team’s future returns. All of that sounds good, and it has the added benefit of being mostly reasonable and least extreme (note to self: avoid politics joke here). But the Mike Hazen led Diamondbacks are in this situation for a reason, and while the easy way to describe that reason is just to say “Kevin Towers, Tony La Russa, and Dave Stewart,” we can be a little more descriptive.
Types of Baseball Currency
Let’s start by thinking about currency, which we’ve touched on before. What kinds of currency exist for a baseball team? The most obvious is payroll as cash is always king. It allows teams to make free agent signings, pay things like player acquisition penalties and, perhaps most importantly, allows a team to roll the dice and know that even if they come up short, they can cover the cost and even afford to make another move to cover for the first. For example, let’s say you had decided to pay former Oregon State Beaver great Jacoby Ellsbury nearly $22 million a year for his age 30-36 seasons and he ended up being a disappointment. That’s the kind of move that could sink Arizona almost single-handedly, and no matter how disappointed you were in Zack Greinke last year, you have to like his prospects better than Ellsbury’s at this point. We haven’t heard any payroll figures bantered about, but it’s probably best to assume that there’s no major increase coming. And if that’s true, the Diamondbacks are relatively short on actual cash, our first kind of currency.
Luckily cash isn’t everything in baseball. Players have value, too, especially good ones who are on the younger side of things. Here we’re referring to prospects — cost-controlled talent with upside. These types of players can have a tremendous amount of value, as we’ve legitimate big league stars traded for establish MLB All-Stars as recently as last season. In a way, good prospects are currency, and they’re a special kind of currency at that. If the Rangers wanted to outright buy Cole Hamels from the Phillies back in July of 2015, they couldn’t have — the commissioner’s office would not approve such a deal. The Rangers needed Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro and others to acquire Hamels, and in that way, the players themselves were the type of currency to make such a deal. Problem is, the D-backs don’t have much in the way of currency in this form either. I rated the top 31 prospects in the organization a couple weeks back and the system is noticeably devoid of impact youngsters. There’s no headline prospect, no Dansby Swanson, no Victor Robles, no Anderson Espinosa to push through a deal for the Diamondbacks. Their best prospect would not crack the top five in several systems around baseball, and might closer to tenth overall in the elite systems. The D-back just do not have prospect currency.
So while the previous regime was busy tying up financial resources in signing Yasmany Tomas to a severely back-loaded contract and giving a massive amount of money to Zack Greinke, and trading away players like Swanson, Touki Toussaint and baseball’s latest darling, Isan Diaz, they did one thing well, mostly by doing nothing at all. The team still has plenty of cost-controlled assets at the major league level, a third form of currency, that can help the organization avoid large present contract costs and worthy of a major prospect-laden injection of talent. While these players won’t bring back the first kind of currency directly, some future arbitration salaries can be avoided while the kind of impact talent the organization lacks in its farm system can finally be obtained. Yes, the team could really use Ender Inciarte right about now, but otherwise, there’s a host of guys to flip if/when the team decides to do it.
Currency as Leverage
Currency is leverage at it’s very core, and in terms of cash and future talent, the Diamondbacks are are strapped. I’m just as scared about blowing this team up as anyone else. It won’t be fun to watch a bunch of replacement-level guys running around for a few years (although maybe that clock already started). Some of the prospects the team acquires will get hurt, flame out, or just plain disappoint. That’s how prospects go. It’s a tough proposition, but the D-backs really don’t have a choice. Unless there’s a major cash injection to allow the team to simply build itself through free agency (the least cost-effective way to build), this team has to reverse course at some point. They simply can’t be defunded in payroll and shorthanded in future talent while taking a mediocre team and making it great. There’s just nowhere to acquire the necessary pieces from.
As it stands now, the team won’t likely be able to add significant pieces. Without them, and as currently constructed, ZiPS sees Arizona as a 76-win team, same as the Rockies, and two wins behind the Padres with the Dodgers and Giants leading the way in the NL West. Somehow the team would need to add at least ten wins to that projection, and while maybe some of that comes from within, we’ve seen that hoping for internal improvements isn’t the safest bet. Talent, however, is and the team remains short on it, especially in the pitching department. There’s just almost no way to add that many wins to the roster without significant currency. That all points to the team blowing up the roster at some point, and even if they decided to wait until midseason to start those efforts, it has to happen.
Black Clouds Looming
That’s a sad fact, but repeated poor trades and signings, prioritizing the present over the future, has finally caught up with the team as we all expected. There’s a reason why no other team managed their team like the Diamondbacks did. There’s also a reason why the people making those decisions aren’t making them anymore. A rebuild is looming on the horizon, and it appears unavoidable. A Titanic and iceberg reference may be apt, but that’s kind of sad. This will be sad, too, just in a much less important way. While I can’t help but thinking about how a rebuild could have been avoided, it’s too late to turn back the clock. The time is now to trust Mike Hazen and his handpicked staff to lead this team through some upcoming dark days en route to more prosperous times. It’s not 9:00am and I need a drink. This is going to be entertaining, if not immediately fulfilling.
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FanGraphs Stats Glossary
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Previously on The Pool Shot, the guys explained some of their favorite advanced stats. Hitting, including wRC+, HHAV and batted ball; pitching (38:00), including FIP, xFIP and SIERA; and baserunning and defense, including UBR, UZR and DRS (58:00).