While a couple teams were busy trying to win a World Series crown, something the Cubs actually accomplished in what may be the greatest baseball game we’ll ever witness, the Diamondbacks have been working in the background to continue their overhaul under new GM Mike Hazen. There’s plenty of room for optimism with Hazen at the helm because, a) he’s got the kinds of qualifications you’d look for in a manager in today’s game and, b) he’ replacing a brain trust that abused the sense of the phrase “brain trust” in just about every way imaginable. Sure, Tony La Russa’s still around, but it doesn’t sound like he’ll be complicating matters too much. At least that’s the hope, anyways, as Ken Kendrick and Derek Hall have at least said all of the right things when it comes to handing Hazen the keys to the car.
With those keys in hand, however, Mike Hazen has some major decisions to make, ones that will come both sooner and later. Let’s take stock of a couple areas of uncertainty and weigh the options.
Naming a Manager
First and foremost, the D-backs need a skipper. There have been plenty of names linked to the job, including:
- Torey Lovullo – Red Sox Bench Coach
- Phil Nevin – AAA Reno Aces Manager
- Don Wakamatsu – Royals Bench Coach
- David Bell – Cardinals Bench Coach
- Gary DiSarcina – Angels Bench Coach
- Eddie Perez – Braves Bench Coach
- Alex Cora – ESPN Broadcaster, former player
Lovullo is the odds-on favorite for the job. Hazen has said publicly that he’s looking for a leader, but what he hasn’t said publicly is that he’s looking for someone who’ll follow the new direction of the franchise. If he’s considering Lovullo in the first place, it seems likely that Hazen has confidence that he and Lovullo will be on the same page. The same can’t be said for Phil Nevin, necessarily, but we know that upper management is a fan. Don Wakamatsu has managerial experience and David Bell is perhaps an up-and-comer since he hung up the spikes. All four of these guys have been interviewed. DiSarcina, Perez and Cora have been speculative candidates, but have yet to have confirmed interviews. As Hazen told Nick Piecoro recently, he’s conducting a thorough search and there’s no timeframe for picking a manager, but it’s expected to happen sooner rather than later.
From the outside looking in, I can’t get past the idea that while the D-backs will be looking for someone who’s got leadership capabilities and can hold down a proper press conference, they’ll also be looking for someone who can carry a different looking flag. We know that Mike Hazen is likely to have different priorities when it comes to running the organization than Dave Stewart did, and I fully expect Hazen to be a bit more “hands on” with the managerial staff. This won’t be old school, gut-driven baseball anymore, it seems, and it’ll be vital that Hazen has a manager on the field that shares his views on running the club based upon his vision.
Revamping Key Departments
The turmoil that surrounded the end of the Dave Stewart era and bled over into the GM-search came with a cost. The Diamondbacks have lost four members of their scouting staff to date, including Director of Pro Scouting Mike Russell, Assistant Director of Scouting Brendan Domaracki, and two others. The D-backs will have their work cut out in replacing these individuals, though it should be noted that many (if not all) of the departures had taken place before Hazen was brought aboard. It’s not as if the new GM ran them out of town, but rather that the uncertainty surrounding Stewart and La Russa came with some collateral damage.
Part of the excitement surrounding the Hazen hiring was the perceived likelihood that he’d place a larger emphasis on analytics than his predecessors, those who didn’t seem to grasp the numbers themselves, let along their value. While that made for plenty of fun-poking opportunities, it was often infuriating as the team was outfoxed time and time again, sometimes falling victim to very avoidable scenarios that did not come out of the blue, but were repeated mistakes. While he downplayed analytics to some degree in his introductory press conference, we’ve seen moves that suggest that Hazen is for real when it comes to implementing a more modern approach to the game in Arizona. That’s surely music to our ears, as the D-backs have been labeled the “backwards,” “anti-intellectual” franchise of the game for far too long.
One of Hazen’s first steps was to remove former veterinarian and now-former head of analytics Ed Lewis. If you recall, Lewis was Tony La Russa’s way of saying he was addressing analytics, and while a few of the D-backs’ analytics staff members come with impressive resumes, it’s unclear just how effective they were allowed to be. The information generated is only useful so long as it’s used in the first place. It didn’t seem like that was the case in Arizona last season, and there were even rumblings that after Andy Green departed for San Diego last offseason, the D-backs were left without an expert to manage defensive shifts. Those kinds of issues should be minimized under Hazen’s direction. Here’s what he had to say about replacing Lewis, via Nick Piecoro:
“He had done a good job here, but I feel like there are just going to be some avenues that we want to explore on that side of the game that maybe bringing in people who are a little more specialized in certain things and maybe rebuild the department in a different way,” Hazen said. “We’re just going to have a different take on that department and how we’re going to use it.”
So yeah, maybe the career veteranarian wasn’t the guy for the job. Hazen will likely look to add someone with a little more acumen, and we’ll just have to be patient waiting for that news to come.
But it hasn’t been all losses for the Diamondbacks as Hazen brought over Amiel Sawdaye from Boston once Sawdaye learned he would not become the next GM of the Red Sox under final boss Dave Dombrowski. Boston’s loss was Arizona’s gain as Sawdaye will serve as Senior Vice President and Assistant General Manager under Hazen. The two worked side by side in Boston for over a decade and there’s obviously a comfort factor involved here. Sawdaye oversaw scouting and several drafts for Boston where he’s had a strong track record of identifying and obtaining talent. What this means for Brian Minnitti, the team’s Assistant GM under Stewart, is unclear. The future’s of Deric Ladnier (Scouting Director) and Mike Bell (Director of Player Development) remain unclear, but both are well-regarded and it’s expected, and hoped, that they stay with the organization, though there are probably plenty of teams that would love to have them and it’s always easier to make a move during a transition.
Buy, Sell or Stand Pat?
As Hazen rounds out his staff and realigns the roles within the front office, he’s surely thinking long and hard about the direction the team should take this offseason. The Diamondbacks find themselves in an interesting situation, one that’s a sort of no-man’s land (again), surely not the best place to be on the win/development spectrum. The team underperformed last year and should get healthy before Spring Training, but is also still a fringy contender at best assuming several guys stay healthy and bounce back. The minor league system ins’t bare, but it’s close and lacks impact players to turn the franchise around. To top it all off, the major league roster is flush with tradable assets should the club decide to blow it all up.
So the question for Hazen to answer is this: do you bring everyone back, make a few shrewd offseason moves and hope for the best, or start dealing players like A.J. Pollock, Paul Goldschmidt, Zack Greinke and others to shed payroll and add talent for the future? That’s not an easy question to answer, because it’s intertwined with risk and reward in each direction. Attendance dropped to an historic low last season, hurting revenue in the process, and going full rebuild won’t compel fans to show up in 2017. It could vastly improve the future outlook and long term health of the franchise, however. Bringing back a slightly improved squad next season, under new oversight, could compel fans to believe there’s reason for optimism on the field, but could into the trade value of some of their assets should they perform poorly. This one’s not easy to square, as Dave Cameron wrote at Fangraphs a couple weeks ago:
On the one hand, the argument for rebuilding is a pretty easy one to make. This wasn’t just a bad-luck 93-loss team; their BaseRuns expected record was 71-91, putting them at the same level as the Braves, Twins, Angels, and Athletics. Trying to get from that spot past the Dodgers — a behemoth stocked with young talent — is no small task, and the franchise can’t afford too many more years of wasting valuable assets in failed attempts at making unrealistic postseason runs.
But while the argument for blowing it up is easy to make, I’m not actually sure it’s the right path, at least until Hazen hears what other teams would be willing to offer, because the team has several key assets that they should probably hang onto this winter. Zack Greinke, Shelby Miller, and Patrick Corbin were supposed to front an upgraded rotation, but instead, all three turned in highly disappointing years, and their values are all significantly diminished from where they were a year ago. Trading any of the three this winter would be selling low relative to their talent level…
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 team-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. The trade market for pitching has been particularly lucrative for teams willing to deal and Arizona could reverse their fortunes and be the team taking advantage of those extorted prices this time around. As Cameron noted, several guys could stand to improve their stock before the team considers trading them, adding value to their future trade deals if they pitch well.
My intuition suggests that the team will choose this path as Hazen gets the lay of the land before going full nuclear on the roster. Gone are the days of moves made by gut instinct. Hazen will look to build up his assets if he wants to trade them, unless someone’s drastically willing to overpay right now. That’s unlikely in this world of smart GMs, so kicking the can for a few months of baseball seems most prudent. And who knows, maybe the team finds some stroke of luck mixed with incredible rebounds and the D-backs end up being the team that trades for a reliever at the deadline rather than the team fielding phone calls for every asset on the roster. It’s unlikely, but at least within the realm of possibility.
Putting It All Together
Mike Hazen took a great opportunity, but it comes with some incredibly difficult tasks. That’s why they make the big bucks, I guess. He’s tasked with finding a manager that’ll mesh with the new direction of the team. He’ll have to revamp some key departments, filling voids in scouting and analytics, while realigning the duties of front office staff he inherited within his overall vision of the front office. Perhaps most difficult of all, he has to decide the direction of the entire franchise as it relates to play on the field. He might be able to buy some time here, but this is why he was hired in the first place, and no matter what direction he takes, it’ll fall under intense scrutiny. Ken Kendrick, Derek Hall and Tony La Russa are all still around and figure to factor into the equation in some capacity, whether that’s giving Mike Hazen total autonomy, micromanaging the new GM, or something in between. This is a tough job, but at least Mike Hazen’s doing it, not Dave Stewart.
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