All offseason, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s 2020 season and looking forward at what moves each team might have to make to set themselves up for improvement in 2021. Today, Tyler Prime takes a look at the Arizona Diamondbacks!
After finishing the 2019 season strong, the Diamondbacks were looking forward to building on their momentum in 2020. GM Mike Hazen retained the bulk of the roster and added proven veterans Starling Marté and Madison Bumgarner. Yet, popular statistical projections did not forecast overall improvements, and worse, suggested the club would take a step back. These projections suggested that many players overperformed in 2019 and were liable to regress in 2020. While Hazen brushed those suggestions aside, unfortunately for the club and GM, they were right on the money. By the end of the pandemic-shortened season, the Diamondbacks found themselves 5th place in the NL West, a far cry from the playoff berth many had expected for the club.
Despite the failure to meet expectations, there are reasons to be hopeful for the 2021 season. As in 2019, the 2020 season ended with a stretch of quality play. Players that had regressed, as the projections warned, started to bounce back positively. Perhaps, one wonders, in a normal-length season the club would have had time to claw back into relevancy and beat those projections. This is certainly Hazen’s hope and a theory that will be put to the test in 2021. As the team is unlikely to make any significant changes to the roster by opening day, the team that closed out 2020 will largely be back to try again in 2021.
- 2020 Record: 25-35, 5th Place in the NL West
- Team MVP: Zac Gallen (runner up: Kole Calhoun)
- Team Cy Young: Zac Gallen
- Biggest Positive Surprise: Zac Gallen (runner up: Merrill Kelly)
- Biggest Negative Surprise: Madison Bumgarner
There are two reasons to reflect on the 2020 Arizona Diamondback season: masochism and Zac Gallen.
To understand the disappointment of the 2020 season, one needs to look no further than Madison Bumgarner. His individual season very closely mirrored the team’s overall. Prior to the season’s start, Bumgarner’s signing cemented the feeling that the Diamondbacks intended to be competitive. However, as did many Diamondbacks, Bumgarner struggled to start the year and bottomed out by August. Bumgarner’s struggles manifested themselves as a 4 MPH decrease in velocity on his average fastball from the 2019 season and a stint on the DL. His time on the DL coincided closely with the team’s worst stretch, in which they lost 18 times in 20 tries.
But, by mid-September things were turning around for the club and pitcher alike. Beginning with the game played on September 10th, Bumgarner’s second start, and first win, after returning from the DL, the team won 10 of their final 16 games. Over that stretch, Bumgarner went 3-1, shaved a couple of runs off his season’s ERA, and importantly saw his velocity inch back up toward his 2019 average.
While Bumgarner was decisively a disappointment in 2020, at least Diamondback fans will be able to look back on the season to fondly recall the emergence of Zac Gallen. The 25-year-old bespectacled hurler known as “the Milkman” dazzled in his first full season in the majors. Notably, Gallen set an MLB record for going the first 23 starts of his career without giving up more than 3 runs in any start. Overall, Gallen posted a 2.75 ERA and a 3.66 FIP, which was good enough to earn a couple of fifth place Cy Young votes.
To sprinkle in a little more joy, Merrill Kelly and Kole Calhoun (both Arizona high school and Arizona State University alums!) put in respectable seasons. Kelly performed admirably (2.59 ERA over 31.1 IP) until a blood clot ended his season early. With his option picked up he’ll be a fun story to follow in 2021 as he attempts to return to form with one less rib. On the other side of things, Calhoun was the one Diamondback hitter that could be counted on. Per BaseballSavant, Calhoun’s rolling expected wOBA never dipped below league average. Also, Calhoun was responsible for the most amusing play of the season, so he needs to be mentioned so there is an excuse to link to it:
2020-2021 Offseason Preview
Key Losses: None
Areas of Greatest Need: Bullpen Overhaul
The Diamondbacks did most of their would-be offseason trimming during the 2020 trade deadline, which is good. It’s better to get something for players that aren’t part of a long-term plan rather than letting them go for no return. To be brief, the stalwarts of the club Archie Bradley, Andrew Chafin, Robbie Ray, plus recently acquired Starling Marté were all traded away. Jake Lamb later joined the outgoing group by way of being DFA’d.
Of the remaining roster reorganizing, much of it has been accomplished as expected with not much left to be settled. It is a stretch to call any of the leftover castoffs “key losses”. So far in the offseason, the club has declined the options of Hector Rondon and Junior Guerra. In addition, they’ve non-tendered Silvino Brancho. While it’s still possible the club brings Guerra back through arbitration, due to reported intent to reduce payroll it seems less than a sure thing. The only player the club has exercised their option to bring back in 2021 is the aforementioned Merrill Kelly.
Because the Diamondbacks are reportedly planning to reduce their payroll for 2021, it is likely the post-trade deadline 2020 Diamondbacks will return for another try. To compare the likely 2021 roster to the 2020 roster, the only area that will look significantly different is the bullpen. In terms of position players and the starting rotation, there are likely only going to be two changes from one starting day to the next (Starling Marté becomes a platoon of Tim Locastro and Daulton Varsho, and Robbie Ray becomes Caleb Smith).
As for the bullpen, relative to opening day 2020, nearly half of the spots will be filled with new players. However, as with the other changes, many of those new players were already given a tryout after the trade deadline. Travis Bergen, Riley Smith, and Keury Mella, to name a few, performed well enough to return to the bullpen in 2021.
If any moves are likely this offseason for the Diamondbacks, it will be Hazen attempting to stockpile pre-arbitration fringe MLB arms to rotate through the bullpen as needed throughout 2021. That process has already begun with the signing of Taylor Guilbeau off waivers from Seattle. It isn’t flashy, but for a team that’s trying to thread the needle of competing now while slashing payroll, it’s one of the few adjustments that can be made.
Desired Targets: Enrique Hernández (estimated $12M/ 2 years), non-tender bargain bin shopping
While the only moves that seem likely are those low-risk relief pitchers, if Hazen takes an aggressive position and tries to shake up his roster for 2021 in some meaningful way the following is what I would suggest. I believe it to be a possible, yet far less than guaranteed, path to making the team younger, cheaper, and just as likely to be competitive in 2021. With respect to free agency, this begins with signing Enrique Hernández.
First, the baseball fit. Hernández is the ultimate utility man. He is able to play any position in the field fairly competently. As such, he would give the Diamondbacks the flexibility in deciding who of their veterans on guaranteed contracts to deal away. At the plate, Hernández is just about a league-average batter (career 99 wRC+). He produced some of the weakest hitting statistics of his career in 2020, but according to his rolling expected wOBA, he was better than league average through the final month of the season. It is possible he would have finished closer to league average batting production overall in a normal length season.
Second, the financial fit. Hernández looks like he will be a victim of the financial tightening of MLB. Entering into free agency in his age-29 season, Fangraphs only projects that he’ll get a 2-year, $12 million contract. Even in a cost-cutting 2021, it would be a reasonable price to pay. Furthermore, only committing to two seasons leaves plenty of flexibility for the Diamondbacks moving forward.
Before suggesting trades, it is worth considering the situational constraints binding Hazen. He needs to take on no more cost than last year, and in fact may be under a mandate to send away cost. He also needs to get better now (a goal he himself set out), while also not jeopardizing the long-term potential of the team. This combination of objectives, of course, would be any GM’s goal. Accomplishing it requires taking risks.
With that said, the only path that may be able to produce this result is to trade away guaranteed contracts for pre-arbitration or low-end arbitration level players. The only player with a guaranteed contract the Diamondbacks should consider off the table is Ketel Marte. Anyone else is fair game, although some, namely Madison Bumgarner, may be impossible to move.
The Brewers, in theory, will try to compete in 2021. Seeing as they play in the NL Central, which disappointed massively in 2020, there is a fighting chance for them with a few roster upgrades. With Ryan Braun’s option declined, and because of significant left field struggles even with him around, the Brewers may be interested in an upgrade, which Peralta would certainly provide.
For the Diamondbacks, this would present an opportunity to further stock up on reliever depth. Better yet, the Brewers have multiple MLB-ready lefties, the area the Diamondbacks are in the most need. Most importantly however, as far as Diamondbacks CEO Derrick Hall is concerned, this move would save the $15 million Peralta is owed over the next two seasons. It is likely the Diamondbacks would need to sweeten the deal with a million or two in cash, but still it would be an opportunity to save money.
This trade is particularly tolerable as the Diamondbacks have their most substantial organizational depth in the outfield. Following this trade, fans could look forward to an epic roster battle through spring training among top options such as Corbin Carroll, Alek Thomas, and of course much-anticipated not yet 20-year-old phenom Kristian Robinson. Still, the smart money would be on the recently acquired Stuart Fairchild who has the lowest upside of the group but is the oldest and has the most experience. Fans could expect well-rounded production from Fairchild and perhaps there would not be a significant step back at all from Peralta in terms of overall performance.
This trade is more radical, but bear with me. Three things on the Yankee side combine to generate their interest: First, DJ LeMehieu is currently a free agent after declining a qualifying offer and may be too pricey for the Yankees to bring back. Second, Gleyber Torres had a tough first year as a shortstop and the Yankees may want to move him back to second base. Third, and most importantly, Gary Sánchez has clearly fallen out of favor with his club. By swapping him for Ahmed, the Yankees can move Torres back to second base, save money on a steady shortstop, and reallocate that money for a different star player (J.T. Realmuto, anyone?).
In exchange, the Diamondbacks would pick up a frustrating but still enticing young star. Over his career, Sánchez has struggled to find defensive consistency as he has made multiple adjustments to his catching approach with mixed results. Simultaneously, while he has never stopped hitting the ball amazingly hard, he often has a difficult time reaching base. That was highlighted this season by a 36% K rate.
If there is even a chance Sánchez can return to his 2017 and earlier form, however, the risk is worth the reward. Assuming Hazen has followed my advice and picked up Hernández, the Diamondbacks lose very little by moving on from Ahmed in terms of everyday infield production. Instead, their catcher combination of Carson Kelly and Sánchez would potentially be the best in the league. It is also worth noting that Sánchez is still arbitration-eligible, and will likely save the Diamondbacks a million or so a year relative to Ahmed’s contract.
As a small caveat, in order for the Diamondbacks to engage in this trade, they’ll need to find a place to send Stephen Vogt. The veteran catcher’s 2021 contract automatically vested and he is now owed $3.5 million in the upcoming season. The Diamondbacks are too cheap to just cut bait and eat that cost and also can’t afford to give three active roster spots to catchers (or four, if you count Varsho). Fortunately, there are a few teams who may be interested in Vogt’s backup services, perhaps including the Mets, whose primary catchers from 2020 are both not guaranteed to return in 2021, or the Cardinals, who are in the thick of transitioning away from the Yadier Molina era. Assuming this can get done and the Diamondbacks don’t need to include too much cash, the primary trade should be seen through.
2021 Projected Roster
Bold represents new 2021 additions
- Tim Locastro (R) – LF
- Ketel Marte (S) – SS
- Christian Walker (R) – 1B
- Kole Calhoun (L) – RF
- Eduardo Escobar (S) – 3B
- Carson Kelly (R) / Gary Sanchez (R) – C
- Daulton Varsho (L) – CF
- Enrique Hernández (R) – 2B
Largely, the plan with the lineup will be for it to fix itself. The biggest change in this proposed offseason plan is balancing out the lineup with more righties who can hit for power. Ideally, Gary Sánchez returns to his early-career form and instantly solves that problem. Enrique Hernández also has the potential to help with this issue.
The other dramatic change from 2020 is shifting Marte to SS. It’s something he is more than capable of doing: he came into the Majors as a shortstop and the last time he primarily manned the position in 2017, he was worth 5 outs above average.
- Zac Gallen
- Madison Bumgarner
- Luke Weaver
- Caleb Smith
- Merrill Kelly
No changes here from the conclusion of the 2020 season. It is possible to start 2021 with Alex Young or Taylor Clarke in Merrill Kelly’s spot as he recovers from surgery. Again, how Madison Bumgarner looks in 2021 is likely the variable that determines if the club will be fighting for a playoff spot or if Hazen should be packing his bags.
- Stefan Crichton
- Kevin Ginkel
- Keury Mella
- Travis Bergen
- Taylor Guilbeau
- Riley Smith
- Yoan López
- Taylor Widener
Certainly, the makeup and the method of deployment of the 2021 Diamondback bullpen is very much in the air. Crichton will pencil into the closer role mostly by default. Despite only being 28 years of age, he is the elder statesman of the group. He took over the role after Archie Bradley and Andrew Chafin were traded away and did a passable job.
Behind him there are a handful of names that can be expected and they essentially breakdown into three categories: righties who throw 95+ on average (Kevin Ginkel, Keury Mella, Yoan Lopez) lefties (Travis Bergan, Taylor Guilbeau), and guys who likely consider themselves temporary displaced starters (Taylor Widener, Riley Smith).
2020 was a season to forget for the Diamondbacks. They came in with high hopes, and those hopes were shattered rather quickly. 2021 is shaping up to be unfortunately similar. No serious roster changes and a treacherous NL West are not friendly conditions to get the franchise back on track. Whether or not the 2021 Diamondbacks will cement the club as the Sisyphus of MLB or if they will break out of their dull cycle is largely dependent on significant rebound years from several players and MLB mercifully continuing its extended playoffs.