Despite coming off an NL-worst 2021 showing, the Arizona Diamondbacks declined to tear things down. They made a couple of veteran additions to the bullpen, but they’re mostly rolling things back with last year’s group in hopes of a better showing. They’re not likely to contend this season, but it’ll be an evaluative year for the front office. Perhaps some young players will step in alongside their recently extended second baseman as core pieces of the future.
Major league signings
2022 spending: $12M
Total spending: $20.5M
Trades and claims
- Signed 2B Ketel Marte to five-year, $76M extension (deal also contains $13M club option for 2028 and buys out up to four free-agent seasons)
- Signed RHP Merrill Kelly to two-year, $18M extension (deal also contains $7M club option for 2025 and buys out up to three free-agent seasons)
Notable minor league signings
- Braden Bishop, Juan Centeno, Matt Davidson (later selected to 40-man roster), Wilmer Difo, Juan Graterol, Grayson Greiner, Jake Hager, Keone Kela, Ryan Meisinger, Keynan Middleton, Oliver Pérez (later selected to 40-man roster), Dan Straily
The D-Backs entered the offseason faced with a decision: rebuild, or try to add and be more respectable than they were last year? They chose the latter, declining to move any notable players. It wasn’t an especially active offseason, but the only big leaguer the D-Backs dealt away was out-of-options utilityman Josh VanMeter, who presumably wasn’t going to break camp and would otherwise have been exposed to waivers.
Arizona’s front office has maintained throughout the past few months they don’t believe the roster is anywhere near as bad as last season’s 52-110 record would suggest. To some extent, that’s a justifiable interpretation. The D-Backs were hit hard by injuries to their starting rotation last year. They’ve also got a fairly young, inexperienced position-player group, one from which they certainly expect some members to take steps forward.
As is the case with their division counterparts, the Rockies, it’s nevertheless difficult to see the Diamondbacks hanging around in a top-heavy NL West. That leaves the Snakes in something of a middle ground, reluctant to tear down but without a real path to immediate contention. Arizona brass is mostly treating 2022 as an evaluation season after adding on the margins of the roster but declining to make any especially noteworthy splash.
That includes in the manager’s chair. Shortly before the end of the season, the D-Backs signed Torey Lovullo to a one-year extension with a 2023 option. It wasn’t a massive show of faith in the sixth-year skipper, but it nevertheless marked some continuity when other organizations may have been tempted to shake things up after the disastrous 2021 results.
The club did make some notable changes on Lovullo’s staff, however. They hired longtime Astros pitching coach Brent Strom for the same role. Strom is generally regarded as one of the sport’s best pitching minds and should be a welcome addition for a staff that had MLB’s second-worst ERA (5.15) last season. Arizona also brought in former big league skipper Jeff Banister as bench coach and Joe Mather as hitting coach.
The organization surely hopes that new voices can coax better production out of holdover players, but the D-Backs also had to make some changes to the roster. Early in the offseason, it became apparent they were looking for relief help — a logical target area since they had the league’s third-worst bullpen ERA (5.08). Arizona’s two biggest free-agent investments of the winter would be additions to the late-inning mix.
The Snakes signed reigning saves leader Mark Melancon to a two-year, $14M deal. There’s risk inherent associated with a multiyear investment in a 37-year-old reliever, but Melancon has been one of the league’s most reliable pitchers for some time. He has seven sub-3.00 ERA seasons on his resume, including a 2.23 mark in 64 2/3 frames with the Padres last year. Melancon isn’t the overpowering strikeout specialist teams typically love late in games, but he’s elite at generating ground-balls and brings far more stability than any of the Snakes’ in-house relievers.
That’s also true — albeit to a lesser extent — of Ian Kennedy. A mid-rotation starter with the D-Backs earlier in his career, Kennedy was moved to the bullpen full-time while with the Royals in 2019. Over the next three seasons, he posted a 3.91 ERA with better than average strikeout and walk numbers over 133 2/3 innings. Kennedy isn’t an elite arm, but he’s solid, and for a fairly modest $4.75M price tag, the Diamondbacks happily installed him as a high-leverage option.
Melancon and Kennedy were the two most notable additions to the bullpen, but the D-Backs also brought in a pair of left-handed options. Arizona claimed Kyle Nelson off waivers from the Guardians and signed veteran southpaw Oliver Pérez to a minor league deal. Pérez cracked the Opening Day roster for his 20th and final season in the majors. The bullpen should be better than it was last season, but Arizona will still need improvements from internal options like J.B. Wendelken or former top prospect Corbin Martin to have an average group.
Luke Weaver isn’t an addition to the team, but he’s a new entrant into the bullpen mix. A former top prospect, Weaver has shown flashes of mid-rotation potential but has been inconsistent as a starting pitcher. He’s coming off two straight below-average seasons and found himself squeezed out of the starting staff come spring training. Perhaps working in shorter stints can help Weaver — who has struggled to turn lineups over multiple times in a game — find more success. The righty is currently on the injured list after experiencing elbow inflammation but should get an opportunity to pitch his way into an important relief role if healthy.
Weaver’s move to the bullpen set the stage for what could be a revolving door at the back of the rotation. Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly are locked in as the top two starters. Madison Bumgarner’s five-year deal over the 2019-20 offseason went off the rails almost immediately, but the team isn’t in position to seriously consider bumping him out of the rotation at the moment. The final two spots, though, are real question marks.
Arizona aimed to address that a bit with their last MLB free-agent signee, Zach Davies. The righty is coming off a 5.78 ERA with some of the league’s worst strikeout and walk numbers for the Cubs. Virtually nothing in his 2021 performance was encouraging aside from the fact that he stayed healthy and took the ball 32 times. Davies at least has some success in his recent history, which can’t be said for many of the other rotation possibilities.
The D-Backs initially broke camp with Caleb Smith as their No. 5 starter, but he was optioned last weekend. Humberto Castellanos, Tyler Gilbert and Taylor Widener are also on the 40-man roster. Arizona signed veteran Dan Straily to a minor league deal on the heels of a strong two-year run in the Korea Baseball Organization. Straily surprisingly didn’t make the Opening Day roster, but he’s another candidate for starts at some point.
All three of Arizona’s big league free-agent deals were to add to the pitching staff. The D-Backs elected to run things back with last season’s position player crop, more or less. Carson Kelly returns as the starter behind the plate. He looked like he was on an All-Star trajectory in the first half of last year, but his production dipped considerably after he fractured his right wrist on a hit-by-pitch in June. He’s backed up by rookie José Herrera, who won the season-opening No. 2 job over minor league signees Grayson Greiner, Juan Graterol and Juan Centeno.
The D-Backs elected to tender Christian Walker an arbitration contract on the heels of a subpar showing. His $2.6M price tag is far from exorbitant, but he’ll need to do more offensively to hold onto his first base job. Star Ketel Marte moved back to the middle infield — where he began his career — after rating poorly in center field last season. He’s the regular second baseman, where he figures to pair with defensive stalwart Nick Ahmed up the middle. Ahmed’s name was floated throughout the offseason as a (largely speculative) trade candidate, but he didn’t perform well enough to have much appeal — particularly as he’s due $18.25M over the next two seasons. Ahmed opened the season on the injured list as he deals with shoulder pain, leaving prospect Geraldo Perdomo to handle shortstop early on.
Injuries are also a factor at third base, where the D-Backs will be without presumptive starter Josh Rojas for some time due to an oblique strain. Acquired as part of the Zack Greinke return from Houston in 2019, the lefty-hitting Rojas offered roughly league-average offense in 550 plate appearances last year. He’s a bat-first player who can cover multiple positions but may not excel defensively anywhere. Those limitations aside, Rojas should at least be a solid option off the bench long-term and figures to get an opportunity to carve out an everyday role at the hot corner.
D-Backs brass seems to prefer Rojas as a utility option, as they spoke a few times over the offseason about a desire to acquire third base help. Arizona added a couple of utility infielders in spring training deals but didn’t pick up an obvious regular. The D-Backs brought back Sergio Alcántara for cash considerations after he’d been designated for assignment by the Cubs. On Opening Day, they picked up Yonny Hernández in a deal with the Rangers. Neither player performed well in fairly limited time last season, but they were both low-cost fliers to backfill around the infield after the injuries to Ahmed and Rojas. Arizona also selected Matt Davidson, whom they’d signed to a minor league deal, to the big league club this week.
As they played out the string in a lost 2021 season, the D-Backs began to work some of their younger outfielders into the mix more regularly. That’ll continue, particularly after they predictably bought out Kole Calhoun’s option. Daulton Varsho, Pavin Smith and Jake McCarthy are all former well-regarded draftees who have reached the MLB level. Varsho, who’s athletic enough to play center field but also has experience at catcher, is the most promising of the group on both sides of the ball. Smith and McCarthy haven’t shown as much in their careers, but they’ll get opportunities in the corners.
D-Backs stalwart David Peralta is back as the everyday left fielder. He’s making $7.5M this season and will hit free agency at the end of the year. Each of Varsho, Smith, McCarthy and Peralta hit left-handed, so the D-Backs brought in a righty bat in a minor trade with the Rays. Jordan Luplow has made a career of mashing against southpaws and will soon rotate into the corners as a platoon option. He’s currently on the injured list but expected to make his team debut soon.
Luplow could also see some time at designated hitter, spelling another lefty bat and former first-rounder, Seth Beer. The implementation of the universal DH gives Arizona a chance to evaluate Beer, whom they didn’t like defensively at first base. The 25-year-old has been an excellent hitter both in college and in the minors, and he’ll get a chance to carry that success over against big league pitching now that he doesn’t have to worry about playing the field.
That’s a lot of options but very little certainty. Most probably won’t pan out as anything more than role players, but the front office is surely hoping they’ll find a couple of members of the long-term core. Other than Peralta, every position player on the roster is controllable beyond this season. That’s only meaningful if some take steps forward and become building blocks for the future. How many of them do is the biggest question for the D-Backs in 2022.
In resisting a rebuild, general manager Mike Hazen has spoken of a desire to “anchor” the next contention window around a few core pieces. They took a major step in that direction this spring, hammering out a long-term deal with Marte. The 28-year-old was already controllable through 2024 under the terms of the last extension he’d signed, but they finalized a new agreement that could keep him in the desert through 2028. The extension saw the Snakes essentially lock in $11M and $13M club options for 2023 and ’24, then tack on three additional seasons at a total of $49M. That’s an eminently reasonable price for a player of Marte’s caliber, and the deal gives the D-Backs an affordable 2028 option as well.
That extension cemented Marte as the face of the franchise. When healthy, he’s blossomed into an excellent offensive player with a rare combination of bat-to-ball skills and power. His center field experiment didn’t go well, but they’ll hope for a better showing with the glove now that he’s back in the middle infield.
The D-Backs’ other spring extension — a two-year, $18M pact with Merrill Kelly — doesn’t quite fit Hazen’s “anchoring” mold, but it’s an affordable enough move to keep a capable rotation piece around. Kelly is 33 years old and not overpowering, so he’s not about to develop into a future ace. Yet he throws strikes, gets a fair amount of ground-balls and has gotten roughly league-average results since coming over from the KBO in 2019. It’s not the most exciting profile, but there’s something to be said for Kelly’s stability — particularly for an Arizona team that otherwise doesn’t have much of that in the starting staff.
Hazen and company headed into the 2022 season without making especially meaningful changes to the organization in either direction. They’re not rebuilding, but their efforts to solidify the bullpen and add modest depth on the position-player side aren’t going to completely turn things around relative to last year. The Diamondbacks are mostly biding their time, waiting to see whether there’s enough of a young core here for a more aggressive push in 2023. Baseball America credited the team with the league’s 10th-best farm system this winter, so it’s not out of the question they graduate enough young talent to move quickly toward competitiveness.
That’s contingent on many of the players already at the big league level playing to their potential, though. The early results have been putrid, and they’ll need players like Carson Kelly, Varsho and Smith to perform better than they have of late. There’s still plenty of time, and the team has been willing to give those players some room for failure. Still, at some point, the D-Backs are going to have start showing better results, or they may force the front office’s hand on a rebuild the organization has been trying to avoid.