Well, April was really something. The Diamondbacks looked competitive entering the season, but after seeing them on the field, the term “competitive” might come off as pejorative. “Dominant” would be too much, but there’s surely a descriptor in the middle somewhere. Meanwhile, the Dodgers have gotten off to a slower than expected start and the Giants are without Madison Bumgarner for a prolonged period of time. The Nationals just lost Old Friend Adam Eaton. The Mets are a mess. The Pirates are without Starling Marte for 80 games and the Cardinals are good, but beatable. To put it bluntly, the National League is about as topsy-turvy as it comes right now and the Diamondbacks — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — have a shot at the playoffs. Clearly there’s a long way to go and a ton of things have to break right, but if you could dream up a scenario where Arizona found itself playing meaningful games in October, it would probably look something like this.

The here and now is rather exciting. But the future, well, that’s still murky. The organization decided not to become sellers over the winter as GM Mike Hazen clearly, and rightfully, liked his young core and is letting things play out. Come the end of June, the team should have a clearer direction. At this point, barring a rapid change in fortunes, that direction may include fortifying the bullpen in an attempt to make a run. Long-term, there are some issues, though, namely escalating salaries. The team inked a new television deal but payroll hasn’t changed much. Zack Greinke will continue eating about a third of the team’s finances for the foreseeable future. Paul Goldschmidt won’t be cheap forever and there are plenty of arbitration-eligible players while Yasmany Tomas‘ salary grows (provided he doesn’t opt out of his deal). In short, there’s a crunch coming that we’ve forecast for a long time.

Let’s look at the big picture, coming to a head in the 2018 offseason.

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The team is only committed to $52 million dollars. That includes $34 million to Zack Greinke, $13.5 million to Yasmany Tomas and $2 million to Paul Goldschmidt as a buyout should the team not exercise his final contract year. Of course that’ll happen, so a more realistic figure would include the $14.5 million to Goldy, raising the commitments to $64.5 million. A.J. Pollock will be a free agent and so will Patrick Corbin. Randall Delgado could be let go, so that’s not much of an issue. Shelby Miller will be in his fourth year of arbitration as he falls under Super Two status. A number of other “core” players will be arbitration eligible, including Taijuan Walker, Chris Owings, Jake Lamb, David Peralta, Robbie Ray, Brandon Drury, Archie Bradley and others. It’s hard to know exactly where that’ll put the final bill, plus there are salaries to be paid to all of the guys playing at the league minimum. One thing is clear, however: at the team’s current threshold around $105 million, they can’t keep all of these guys.

Given that they can’t keep all of these players, they’ll have to fill the positions with other players, namely cheaper players. The minor league system isn’t exactly stacked, however. Complicating matters, the 2018-2019 free agent class is simply loaded with talent. Here are just a few of the marquee free agents that’ll hit the market that winter: Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Yasmani Grandal, Brian Dozier, Daniel Murphy, Josh Donaldson, Adam Jones, Hunter Pence, Matt Harvey, Dallas Keuchel, Drew Pomeranz, Cody Allen, Kelvin Herrera, David Robertson, Zach Britton and Andrew Miller. You can see more here, but you get the idea. There’s going to be a flood of talent on the market come the 2018-2019 offseason.

If the D-backs can’t afford their internal players, chances are that they won’t be big players on the free agent market, either. There’s going to be some room in the budget, but how they choose to spend their dollars will be interesting. With so many guys on the market, some will see their prices fall and teams may be trading pieces to make room for some of the bigger names on the list. Either way, there’s going to be a lot of movement on big league rosters and that talent has to land somewhere, even if it’s not in Arizona.

So the D-backs are going to find themselves in an interesting situation. They’ll have to expand payroll just to keep their players, many of whom will be entering their primes, and have to add even more space if they want to be fortuitous buyers. No matter what, the payroll situation is going to have to change. Some of the names above will surely find their way into the NL West and many in the NL in general, so if the team wants to stay strong they’ll have to up the ante in a big way.

As things stand now, the team ranks 26th in payroll. They’re over $30 million below league average. With so many players hitting the open market in two winters, the average payroll should grow in a major way. You don’t have to spend a ton of money to be a quality team, but it sure helps. That’s surely not something that’s lost on Mike Hazen as the team not only has to worry about positioning themselves well for the rest of 2017, but they also have to keep the bigger picture in mind. That might mean eating cash on deals for Greinke or Tomas or letting Goldy walk, not-resigning Pollock, Corbin or any number of things. It’s a tough spot to be in. Even if payroll picks up some, they’ll be forced to make some difficult decisions. Talent will shift teams and vacuums will be left. The Diamondbacks have not often found themselves in the position of “the buyer” in recent years (outside of Greinke’s surprise contract) and even with a small bump in the budget, they’ll likely be forced to sit out what is shaping up to be the biggest free agent season in the last decade.

Of course, there’s another scenario, one where ownership believes in the vision of Mike Hazen and opens up the purse book. While we have no indications that this will happen, it is within the realm of possibility. Trades are tough because there are so many pieces to make fit, but money is just money. All it requires is for someone to sign on the dotted line. With so many talented players set to change zip codes, the D-backs will be forced to spend more just to keep their core in tact and, hopefully, re-sign Paul Goldschmidt who won’t be taking a hometown discount this time around. If things don’t change in a major way, the organization could find themselves in an unenviable position with a weak farm system and a lagging payroll. Surely they’ll do their best to avoid that scenario and it’ll take money to make it happen.

 

10 Responses to Playing the Long Game: How Can the D-backs Afford to Compete?

  1. Bradford says:

    Might ownership consider a few high-salary one year deals in order to push the contention window another year? This would keep them away from heavy financial burdens when Greinke and Tomas start to cost more, and provide incentive for our core to test free agency in a potentially weaker class.

  2. Josh says:

    My worry is that the contention window, even if here, is short-lived. The farm system is a mess, and while there is a lot of talent on the big league club, it’s probably not enough to push the club into serious contenders for the World Series. I was just discussing this with a friend of mine, and really, wouldn’t the prudent thing be to trade Greinke and Tomas (assuming they both continue their good starts) for whatever they can get (and hopefully without eating a lot of salary), regardless of how the DBacks are contending, then pump some funds into Goldy, Pollock, and the young starters? That way, we don’t punt on the 2017 season, but we can do some restocking and get some salary relief.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      The big problem is the money. You’d have to eat so much cash in the transactions to get anything of value back that it takes away from your flexibility to extend the younger players. Can you eat $50 million on Greinke and still extend Goldy and Pollock? Maybe, but can you then still pay other players in arbitration?

      I think you’re on the right track, it might just be that eating cash to trade these guys might still mean you can’t re-sign the guys you want to extend. This is why we recommended extending Pollock and Lamb early in their careers. There might still be a chance with Lamb, but Pollock is a done deal. He’s not taking a discount.

  3. James says:

    The reality is, MLB payrolls are leaving Arizona behind. Even if the team were to unload Greinke and Tomas, and then turn around and trade Goldschmidt for a trailer-haul of prospects, simple arbitration math and the elevated cost of signing even an “average” MLB veteran is going to make maintaining a $100 million payroll impossible. Until Kendrick and the partners finally pony up and decide they are willing to spend in the $120-130 million range on a mostly-regular basis, this team is doomed to finding success when they can catch lightning in a bottle (2007, 2011).

  4. Larry Person says:

    I don’t think there is a ghost of a chance that Tomas or any of his salary will be on the D’backs books in 2019, nor for 2018 for that matter. If the D’backs keep him, he’ll opt out of his contract in 2019 and make a whole lot more money with a new contract elsewhere. Here’s just one example of a team that would love to have him and his full salary on their team in 2018. Right now Tomas is batting .272 with 5 HR and 20 RBI. Right now Carlos Beltran is batting .245 with 2 HR and 9 RBI. Beltran is on a 1 year contract with Houston for $16M. Other AL teams have similar, unproductive DH’s whose contracts are up after 2017 or 2018. Tomas and his agents from Octagon will cash in in 2019.

    So the D’backs are in prime position to trade Tomas by the trading deadline this year (to first place Houston for example), or during the off-season (to any number of AL teams). Teams get 1 1/2 or 1 year of Tomas, a very productive DH at a very reasonable salary. He’s off the books, in the AL as a DH where he has the most value, and the D’backs get 1 or 2 decent prospects, plus the freedom to use that salary to resign or sign their core players. It doesn’t solve all their financial woes, but it would certainly help.

  5. Jim says:

    About $10M of Grienke’s annual deal is deferred from each year, payable in the 6 years following the deal. So, this isn’t exactly an accurate depiction of the cash flow going out the door.

  6. Larry Person says:

    That’s correct, Greinke will be paid $31.5 M in 2019, MINUS $10.5M deferred, for a total salary in 2019 of $21M. Add Goldschmidt’s salary of $14.5M, and the total commitment for 2019 is $35.5M. (I firmly believe Tomas’ salary will be off the books in 2019 either through opt out or trade.). So, $35.5M isn’t really a problem for the D’backs.

    • Michael says:

      It sounds to me unlikely that thomas opts out. Sure, he can be a superstar by then, but he probably wont be. His contract is just horrible.if he turns out to be great, then he can opt out, and in any other case teams will just be stuck with him.

  7. Larry Person says:

    BTW, Greinke’s deferred money is $12.5M per year for five years (2022-2026).

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