2021 was a Murphy’s law season for the Diamondbacks, who entered the year expecting to at least hang around in the wild-card race. Instead, they dealt with myriad injuries, saw some typically reliable veterans take steps back and had perhaps the game’s worst bullpen. The result: a 52-110 record that calls the franchise’s entire direction into question.
- Madison Bumgarner, LHP: $60 million through 2024 ($10 million between 2022-23 deferred until after the contract’s expiration)
- Nick Ahmed, SS: $18.25 million through 2023
- Mark Melancon, RHP: $14 million through 2023 (including $2 million buyout on $5MM mutual option for 2024)
- Ketel Marte, 2B: $9.4 million through 2022 (including $1 million buyout on $10 million club option for 2023; contract also contains $12 million club option for 2024)
- David Peralta, LF: $7.5 million through 2022
- Merrill Kelly, RHP: $5.25 million through 2022
Total 2022 commitments: $58.025 million
Projected Salaries for Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
Unlike a few other teams near the bottom of the standings, the Diamondbacks have not been rebuilding. Arizona went 85-77 with a +70 run differential in 2019. That winter, they signed Kole Calhoun and brought back most of the position-player core. They stumbled to a 25-35 finish in 2020, but it was fair to largely write that off as an anomalous down season in a shortened schedule.
That’s no longer the case, as they’re coming off an NL-worst showing over a full season. Some of that can be attributed to tough injury luck, particularly in a starting rotation that lost all four of its top members for a month or more at some point during the year. Yet even pristine health wouldn’t have had the D-backs anywhere near the Giants and Dodgers at the top of the NL West, leaving the front office with plenty of questions about how to get back to where they were a couple years ago.
That won’t take the form of a leadership change, at least not at the top. The Diamondbacks signed manager Torey Lovullo to a one-year extension in September, locking him in for a sixth season at the helm. They did overhaul Lovullo’s coaching staff, including the hiring of highly respected pitching coach Brent Strom. But it’ll be Lovullo leading the clubhouse for the franchise’s hopeful turnaround.
Based on the comments of the Diamondbacks’ top executives and their early offseason actions, it doesn’t seem that’ll take the form of a massive rebuild. General manager Mike Hazen pushed back against the notion of a teardown numerous times during the year, and he largely reiterated that stance after the season. “This isn’t a situation, for me, where we are relying on a series of top-five draft picks to get us back into a position where we should be,” he told reporters in October. “That’s my opinion.”
Hazen’s top lieutenant, assistant GM Amiel Sawdaye, largely echoed that sentiment at last month’s GM Meetings. “We go into every season with the idea that we want to put the best possible team out there that’s going to go out and compete,” Sawdaye said. “I don’t think we ever wave the white flag and say, ‘Well, we’re going to give up on ’22.”
Both Hazen and Sawdaye suggested the D-backs would remain open to trade offers on long-term players, but neither exec sounded enamored with that possibility. Arizona held onto players such as Ketel Marte, Carson Kelly and Josh Rojas at the trade deadline, a time when Hazen expressed a desire to anchor the club’s next competitive window around a few marquee contributors.
There’ll surely be robust interest in all those players, as well as in staff ace Zac Gallen. The Marlins, for instance, have already been tied to Marte this winter. Yet there’s also no urgency for the D-backs to pull the trigger on a deal unless they’re completely overwhelmed with a prospect package or leaning into a full rebuild. The latter option doesn’t seem to be on the table, so teams will need to bowl Arizona over to land anyone from that group, each of whom is controllable for at least three more seasons (barring changes to the service time structure in the next CBA).
It seems likely the Diamondbacks will keep their young core intact heading into 2022, but trades of veteran role players remain a possibility. The Snakes may not want to punt next season entirely, but it’s also clear they’re facing an uphill battle competing in a division with two of baseball’s top teams and a third (the Padres) with one of the more star-studded rosters in the league. So a moderate sell-off with an eye toward 2023 and beyond figures to be the middle ground in which they settle.
Starter Merrill Kelly and left fielder David Peralta are both entering the final seasons of their contracts. Kelly, who’ll make an affordable $5.25 million, should be of particular interest to more immediate contenders. The right-hander owns a 4.27 ERA in 372 2/3 innings over the past three seasons. He has below-average swing-and-miss and strikeout numbers, but Kelly’s an adept strike-thrower who does a decent job keeping the ball on the ground. He’s a source of affordable, league average innings that could bolster a contending club’s starting staff. It’d be a surprise if Kelly weren’t traded at some point — either this offseason or at next summer’s deadline.
Interest in Peralta figures to be more muted. His $7.5 million salary isn’t onerous, but the 34-year-old is coming off a modest .259/.325/.402 showing. Peralta has mixed in a couple excellent seasons in his career, but he’s typically offered league-average hitting and solid but unspectacular defense in left field. Teams such as the White Sox and Phillies could consider him as a lefty-hitting corner outfield option, but it’s unlikely the D-backs would recoup much more than a fringe prospect and/or salary relief in any deal. At that point, it may be better to hang onto the longtime member of the organization as a veteran presence for a fairly young locker room.
There aren’t a ton of other obvious trade candidates on the roster. The D-backs would surely welcome the opportunity to get much of the $60 million remaining on the Madison Bumgarner contract off the books, but it’s hard to see another club having interest in such an arrangement. Bumgarner has struggled mightily with home runs as his velocity has dipped in the desert, making his five-year deal from the 2019-20 offseason look like a major misstep.
First baseman Christian Walker and shortstop Nick Ahmed are each coming off seasons valued at marginally above replacement level. Ahmed, who’s one of the game’s top defensive infielders, could draw some interest from shortstop-needy clubs looking for a stopgap veteran at the position. (The Yankees, Astros and Angels could all fit that bill). With a salary that guarantees Ahmed a bit more than $18 million over the next two seasons, however, it seems likely the D-backs would have to pay some money to facilitate a trade for a marginal prospect return. As with Peralta, it probably makes more sense for Arizona to hold onto Ahmed into the season.
Perhaps aside from a Merrill Kelly trade, there might not be many traditional “seller” moves by the Diamondbacks this winter. In fact, they’ve already made one meaningful move in the opposite direction. Arizona inked veteran closer Mark Melancon to a two-year deal just before the lockout, and he’ll immediately step in as the veteran anchor of a young relief corps. Melancon doesn’t have big velocity or swing-and-miss numbers, but he’s a solid strike-thrower who continues to post impressive ground-ball and soft contact rates.
Further upgrades could be on the horizon, as Arizona is bringing back only one reliever (swingman Caleb Smith) who logged at least 20-plus innings with above-average strikeout and walk numbers this past season. The Snakes have reportedly poked around the market for veteran middle relievers Hunter Strickland and Bryan Shaw and could circle back to them or others of that ilk. Those wouldn’t be world-beating signings, but they’d be affordable and perhaps raise the floor in the middle innings.
Arizona has also reportedly expressed some interest in Wily Peralta, and a swing option could indeed make some sense. The D-backs’ rotation is one of the thinner groups around the league. Gallen’s a quality young arm, and he’s likely to return at the top of the rotation. Bumgarner will get another opportunity, and Kelly would have a spot if he’s not moved.
Luke Weaver looks likely to claim a spot in the back-end. A former highly regarded prospect, Weaver has been up-and-down over the past couple seasons in Phoenix. He generally posts solid enough strikeout and walk numbers to compensate for home run issues, and the D-backs don’t have enough in-house alternatives to bump Weaver out of the starting staff at the moment.
The fifth spot (or final two spots if Kelly is traded) looks completely up for grabs. Tyler Gilbert, who warmed plenty of hearts by tossing a no-hitter in his first career start, might be the favorite after posting a 3.47 ERA as a rookie. His peripherals didn’t support that run prevention number, however, and Gilbert’s not long removed from being a minor-league Rule 5 draftee. Awesome as his no-hitter was, he’s probably better suited as a depth option than a rotation cog. Taylor Widener, Humberto Castellanos and Humberto Mejia are among the other arms who could be in the mix, but none of that trio was particularly impressive in 2021. Smith could factor in as well but is probably better suited for relief.
The free agent rotation market has been largely picked through already, but Arizona could offer some innings to potential reclamation candidates. Vince Velasquez, Chad Kuhl and Zach Davies are among the speculative possibilities available for that kind of dart throw. Each is coming off a poor enough season that they won’t be costly, but they’ve all found some level of success in years past.
Pitching figures to be the priority, coming off a season in which Arizona had the league’s second-worst ERA and third-worst SIERA. There’s room for some upgrades on the position player side, with Hazen and Sawdaye each highlighting third base in recent weeks as a target area. Arizona’s not going to pursue Kris Bryant, and a run at 34-year-old Kyle Seager probably isn’t in the cards for a team in the D-backs’ uncertain competitive position.
Aside from perhaps Jonathan Villar, free agency doesn’t offer much else in the way of regulars there. While the D-backs could theoretically poke around the trade market in search of a controllable option at the hot corner, they’re not especially likely to surrender prospects from the top couple tiers of the farm system. Perhaps there’s a creative swap to be had for a young infielder in an organization with more high-level depth. Taylor Walls of the Rays, J.D. Davis of the Mets and Ha-Seong Kim of the Padres are among potential trade targets of varying cost and windows of remaining control.
It’s also possible the D-backs are left to run things back with their in-house options. Ahmed, if not moved, will be back at shortstop, with prospect Geraldo Perdomo a potential midseason candidate if he plays well at Triple-A. Marte seems likely to move back to second base full-time after rating poorly in center field. Ideally, Rojas would probably bounce around the diamond regularly, but he’s the likeliest option to assume the lion’s share of time at third base if Arizona doesn’t upgrade externally.
The D-backs could look into the possibility of replacing Walker at first base. That’s particularly true if the designated hitter comes to the National League, with youngster Seth Beer likely assuming that role and leaving Walker as the primary first baseman. Despite Walker’s down season, the D-backs tendered him an arbitration contract at a projected $2.7 million salary. His presence probably won’t foreclose the possibility of an upgrade — arbitration contracts aren’t fully guaranteed until Opening Day, so the D-backs could still move on at little financial cost — but that suggests the front office isn’t completely determined to cut bait with Walker either.
Kelly is the obvious No. 1 option behind the plate. He wasn’t right after returning from a June wrist fracture, but the 27-year-old had been off to an All-Star caliber start to the season. The D-backs can only hope an offseason of rest will allow him to regain his pre-injury form. If that happens, Kelly could be one of the best two-way backstops around the league. They’ll probably acquire a veteran complement via low-cost free agency or waivers, since Jose Herrera — who has never appeared in the majors — is the only other primary catcher on the club’s 40-man roster.
That tabulation doesn’t include Daulton Varsho, who offers one of the more unconventional defensive profiles around. The 25-year-old started 37 games behind the dish and 36 games in the outfield in 2021, with more than half of his outfield outings coming in center field. There’s little precedent for a catcher with Varsho’s level of athleticism, but it’s also unclear for how long he’ll stick behind the plate. Scouting reports have raised questions about both his glove and arm strength in the past, and Kelly’s presence could regulate Varsho to predominant outfield work.
That’s particularly true in light of Hazen’s late-season comments on the D-backs’ defensive approach. The front office head suggested to reporters in September that Arizona may have had too many moving parts. “I think we’ve pushed that [moving players around the diamond] to the limit and I think you’ve seen the dam break a little bit this year,” Hazen said at the time. “I do think we have to start honing in on who is going to thrive in that setting and who would be better off locking down one spot. Those are going to be part of the conversations we’ll be having.”
That could mean regular outfield reps for Varsho, who hit at a league-average level during his first extended MLB run in 2021. He might be stretched a bit in center field, but the 2017 draftee looks like an above-average corner defender at the very least. He’ll join Peralta, Pavin Smith and Jake McCarthy as lefty-hitting outfield options, while Arizona is bringing back Stuart Fairchild and already traded for Jordan Luplow to add some help from the right side.
There’s not a ton of certainty in that mix, but there’s enough youth and promise that the D-backs will probably deal with some growing pains to evaluate their internal group. Perhaps they’ll look into low base or non-roster deals involving a strong defensive center fielder, with Billy Hamilton and old friend Ender Inciarte among the players in that mold. But there’s unlikely to be a huge move on the grass over the coming months.
Generally speaking, that seems true for much of the franchise. In spite of the highly disappointing past couple seasons, the Diamondbacks don’t seem destined for an organizational restructuring. That’s a defensible course of action. The D-backs already have the kind of young core, particularly on the position-player side, with which teams are hoping to come out of a rebuild. They already possess one of the game’s better farm systems, and they’ll add another blue-chip prospect with the second pick in next year’s draft. There’s no guarantee the organization would come out of a rebuild more definitively stronger in 2024 or 2025 than it is right now.
Yet the Diamondbacks are also in danger of falling into an undesirable gray area, particularly within the NL West. They’re far worse than the three teams at the top of the division, leaving no clear path to contention in 2022. There’s certainly room to go up, and the D-backs aren’t likely as bad next season as they were this year. Whether this roster is capable of improving enough to avert the overhaul to which organizational leadership seems so opposed remains to be seen.