The Diamondbacks’ 74-88 record in 2022 – placing fourth in the division and 13 games removed from a playoff berth via a newly-added third NL Wild-Card spot – blends in well with how most seasons fared of late. The organization’s struggle to assemble an all-around competitive roster has been quite evident, as three consecutive seasons with a losing record and five without a postseason appearance – tying a franchise record set in 2016 – would suggest.
On paper, Arizona’s overall 2022 record pictures a team hardly different from recent ones. Beneath the surface, however, last season yielded a sense of optimism not present prior and perhaps begged the question if Arizona had finally begun to turn the corner. Arizona resembled a legitimate ballclub at times – on both sides of the ball – capable of battling in the tough N.L West.
Arguably the most reassuring department heading into 2023 comes from the offensive side. After a disappointing three-month stretch to begin the regular season, posting a fourth-worst .295 wOBA, Arizona’s offense came along nicely and revealed its potential when at full strength. In a 66-game stretch from June 26th to September 12th, Arizona’s offense sported a quality .324 wOBA – seventh-best across the league. Despite a clear struggle in recent campaigns to construct a sturdy lineup – in part from the departures of a few once-core members – the late-season success in 2022 was anticipated and long-awaited by the front office. For the organization, it was only a matter of time until holding one of the youngest lineups in baseball evolved from being its biggest liability to its biggest threat.
The new wave of hitting talent to support the next formidable Diamondbacks roster might be encapsulated in its current outfield unit. Last season, several of the farm system’s top-ranked batters formed what grew into one of the most mighty outfield setups going forward. Positioned from left to right in the grass – in games where none of them DH’d – stood Jake McCarthy, Alek Thomas and Daulton Varsho, who all had intriguing performances, offensively and defensively, accumulating the sixth-highest outfield production in MLB with a 10.3 fWAR in 2022, per Fangraphs. Even aside from the dynamic trio of young outfielders, a five-tool stud in Corbin Carroll, pegged as one of the game’s top – if not the best – prospects in MLB, hardly had a chance to show what he has in store, tallying a modest 115 plate appearance in the bigs while spending the majority of the year raking in AAA-Reno. At this point, not many questions linger about any member of the outfield quartet’s ability to handle the big leagues, but how they’ll be utilized is still up in the air.
General Manager Mike Hazen was bound to tinker with Arizona’s offense come the offseason. While Hazen has glaring holes elsewhere to fill, he surely polished off an already stacked outfield consisting of four all-star-caliber players. Joining a crowded outfield group is Kyle Lewis, who the Seattle Mariners shipped for catcher-outfielder Cooper Hummel earlier this week. Lewis is joining a coveted set of outfielders in the desert, yet perhaps he has the highest pedigree of them all. Lewis is two years removed from winning the American League Rookie of the Year. Unfortunately, his career has been sidetracked by his health since then. Lewis was able to repeat his performance for a few dozen games in 2021, batting to an above-average 104 OPS+ before tearing the meniscus in his right knee in late May and missing the remainder of the season. In his short stint in the bigs in 2022, Lewis was probably not fully recovered from his knee injury, and it was in plain sight. Lewis lost nearly three seconds to his average sprint speed, plummeting to the second percentile. Lewis struggled at the plate before spending the remainder of 2022 in AAA-Tacoma, where he put up solid numbers.
Lewis, 27, might appear to complicate a crowded outfield to begin with, but adding a righty bat diversifies an all-lefty group of outfielders. Hazen thought similarly last offseason when he had high hopes for lefty-masher Jordan Luplow, who was acquired from Tampa Bay for talented infield prospect Ronny Simon. Arizona will aim for Lewis’ to offset an outfield that batted to a fourth-worst .283 wOBA versus lefties in 2022.
Arizona now holds five viable options for a three-man gig in the outfield. However, the newly implemented Universal DH enables Arizona to maximize its ample lineup depth. The five outfielders – McCarthy, Varsho, Carroll, Thomas and Lewis – can conceivably share outfield and DH duties, albeit with one of them still being forced to sit on the bench in that configuration. However, all five are fine defenders, so relegating any of them to a DH spot suppresses their potential production.
Arizona’s infield layout heading into next season is not as appealing as its outfield, yet it has potential. Last season, Chrisitan Walker proved to be Arizona’s most valuable infielder with a glove or bat. Heading into last season, many wondered if Walker would bounce back after coming off an insufficient ‘21 campaign that sent him to the injured list twice with an oblique issue. Walker turned heads with a spectacular performance in 2022, posting a career-high 126 OPS+, thanks to 36 homers while playing in all but two games. The ‘22 N.L Gold Glove winner at first base has two arbitration-eligible seasons until free agency, and at a projected $7.3 million salary next season, Arizona is getting Walker at a bargain.
A flurry of injuries in recent seasons for Arizona could make Josh Rojas a key piece of the Diamondbacks. By filling in around the field when needed since making his MLB debut in 2019, Rojas has logged nearly 300 innings at each position except behind the plate, first base, and center field. Rojas naturally profiles as a utility man, but he’s also been called on to act in a single position at times. After returning from an oblique injury to start the ‘22 season, Rojas solely played third base for 70 games before getting shifted to second once Arizona acquired a real third baseman by acquiring Emmanuel Rivera from the Royals at the deadline. Rojas likely won’t fill the same role again at the hot corner due to Rivera or the acquisition of another infield bat.
Rivera got off to a hot start in his first 21 games in a D-backs uniform, slashing .293/.398/.587 with 5 homers and a below-average 18.2% K rate. He ended the season on a bad note, batting to a dismal .167 wOBA and 35% strikeout rate in the last 18 games. Across time with Kansas City and Arizona in 2022, he showed good pop in his bat, batting to an appealing 9.3% Barrel rate and a max exit velocity in the 71st percentile amongst qualified hitters, per Baseball Savant. Arizona could bank on Rivera’s upside and give him the Opening Day nod at the hot corner after a streaky first run with the ballclub late last season. At the same time, he may also need more fine-tuning and could begin next season in AAA-Reno because of a minor-league option remaining. Arizona has had a tendency of late to assign prospects to the minors to receive consistent time on the field instead of having them vie for opportunities in the bigs. If Rivera begins ‘23 in AAA-Reno, Hazen seems unlikely to relegate his super-utility man in Josh Rojas to a full-time role at third base again. Arizona is apparently open to acquiring a third baseman, such as free agent Evan Longoria or Justin Turner, per Jon Heyman. Adding the 15-year MLB veteran to handle third base would allow manager Lovullo to optimize Rojas’ defensive value as a utility man rather than a stopgap-like situation.
Some players took a step forward last season in their performance while arguably the most valuable veteran did otherwise. A week before last season began, Ketel Marte inked a 5-year extension worth $76 million, retaining him through ‘27 with a club option for the 2028 season. What looked to be a club-friendly deal for someone who finished in fourth for NL MVP three seasons before the signing has now left the Diamondbacks asking for more production from him going forward, per Nick Piecoro of the AZ Central.
Arizona has some stability to its lineup, but its shortstop unit at the moment is high-risk, high-reward. Nick Ahmed and Geraldo Perdomo will likely be the two sole candidates for the starting shortstop gig. The former is the longest-tenured Diamondback and could be nearing the end of that streak. On the other hand, the latter has just begun what Arizona hopes to be a long-lasting career with the club.
Ahmed is regarded as one of the best defenders in the game when healthy, and his numbers at shortstop back it up. Across the last seven seasons, OAA (Outs Above Average) labels the 32-year-old as the second-best defender behind Mets’ shortstop superstar Francisco Lindor, per Baseball Savant. Similarly, Fangraphs’ “Defensive Runs Saved” labels Ahmed – nicknamed “Slick Nick” for his defensive prowess – as the sixth-best defender in the game and second-best at the premium position since 2015, when he became a starter. Unfortunately, Ahmed’s production as a ballplayer has mainly stopped at his glove.
For most of Ahmed’s career, his offensive value was as dull as his defense was exceptional. Since 2015, only two amongst 143 qualified batters posted worse results at the plate than Ahmed according to wRC+, per Fangraphs. From 2018 through 2020, Ahmed’s offensive production was a stark contrast from before, largely due to a clean bill of health. In that three-year span, Ahmed slashed .248/.307/.421, good for a 90 OPS+, right in line with the league average for shortstops. Ahmed’s ability to muster any sort of offense at the premium position while maintaining high-level defense manufactured a hidden gem for the Diamondbacks. For that three-year span, Ahmed was a top-10 shortstop in the game at an 8.7 fWAR, the ninth-highest at the premium position around the league. Ahmed’s improvement earned him a four-year, $32.5 million contract extension, signing a couple of weeks before the truncated ‘20 season began.
Entering 2021, a breakout season looked to be in store for Nick Ahmed after three consecutive successful seasons. Unfortunately, Ahmed reverted to both the ineffectual bat associated with the first half of his major-league career and to his injury-prone self, batting to a 67 OPS+, his lowest in a single season since 2016, while missing about a month of the regular season due to lingering problems in his right shoulder. His injuries persisted into 2022, as he only appeared in 17 games before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery. When healthy, Ahmed has shown a high ceiling surely worth his contract extension. Unfortunately, health-related obstacles have suppressed the chance of him emerging as a top-grade shortstop.
His role, however, might be under consideration for the first time in a while due to Geraldo Perdomo’s emergence. The 2022 season proved to be an ongoing struggle for Perdomo at the plate, slashing a deficient .195/.285/.262 at a 58 wRC+, second-worst among 132 qualified batters across the league. At 23 years old, Perdomo was bound to encounter his fair share of obstacles as a starter in the bigs, acting as the replacement for Ahmed, who ultimately underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in June. However, the magnitude and consistency of Perdomo’s disappointment at the plate must raise some concern about his ability to handle big-league pitching. Perdomo, the organization’s third-best prospect in 2020 according to MLB Pipeline, demonstrated great offensive potential since joining professional ball, nearly averaging a 15% walk rate and .400 OBP in his minor-league career. While Perdomo failed to produce at the plate, his defensive promise at shortstop was on full display, represented in an 81st percentile ranking in Outs Above Average, per Baseball Savant.
Ahmed’s contract extension plainly did not go as planned for either side. He’ll make $10,250,000 in the final season before becoming a free agent for the first time in a soon-to-be decade-long MLB career. Assuming he’s healthy, Ahmed will likely be the starting shortstop in his tenth season with the club. In that case, Perdomo would probably begin the 2023 season in AAA-Reno to refine his skills with a bat. Perdomo is still very young and has hardly played AAA in his career, only appearing in three games in 2021, so returning to the minors could be the best option for him. If Ahmed is not healthy for Opening Day, Perdomo could get a second go-around at shortstop next season, in which the organization would hope Perdomo begins his MLB career differently than his predecessor began his – as a defensive talent but a liability at the plate.
In his four seasons as the team’s backstop, Carson Kelly has shown stretches that looked like the player Arizona hoped for when acquiring him in the blockbuster Paul Goldschmidt trade in December 2018. Kelly is the last piece remaining of the trade for the franchise favorite and backbone of the organization, so there’s pressure on Kelly. After a strong first season with the club in 2019, posting a .826 OPS, injuries have disrupted his career, resulting in him missing a dozen games in each season since. In three seasons, Kelly has batted to a below-average .298 wOBA in 241 games. Kelly has shown a high upside with some pop at the plate, but he has been unable to put it all together in a full season after an appealing 2019 performance. Two arbitration-controlled seasons remain until Kelly hits free agency, although even his reasonable salary might not be appealing enough to retain him much longer without some consistent production going forward.
The organization doesn’t have another proven catcher at its disposal, but a rookie catcher could share the workload. Jose Herrera filled in at catcher for 47 games in his rookie campaign last season. He greatly struggled at the plate, posting a .457 OPS with a bottom-of-the-line 11% hard-hit rate. However, the 25-year-old had shown some promise with his defense in his brief big-league stint. Among 83 qualified catchers last season, Herrera ranked eleventh overall in pop time. Furthermore, Herrera gunned down 12 of 28 attempted base-stealers, good for an above-average 43% caught-stealing rate. Hazen will likely give Kelly another chance to get back on track next season. This offseason, not many free-agent catchers who bat left-handed are available to pair with the right-handed Kelly. So, Herrera, who bats lefty, might candidly win the battle by default, although his defensive upside could keep him around.
Arizona’s crop of offensive talent is ready to blossom, while its pitching front is a much different story and will be the ultimate test for the hopeful ball club next season. Arizona’s rotation was anchored by two stellar performances out of Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly. The former placed fifth in the ‘22 NL CY Young, and at times, he pitched like the best in the game today. Gallen posted Cy-caliber numbers throughout the season, including 44.1 consecutive scoreless innings, the seventh-longest streak in MLB history. Gallen also held opponents to a .185 batting average, the second-lowest amongst starters last season behind AL CY Young winner Justin Verlander. Since arriving midway through the 2019 season, Gallen has helped stabilize a frail rotation that’s departed with significant starters like Robbie Ray, Zack Greinke and Patrick Corbin in recent years. Merrill Kelly joined Gallen in carrying the rotation in 2022, posting a 3.37 ERA in 200.1 innings, tied for 24th-most in a single season in franchise history. Aside from the duo, Arizona currently doesn’t have another reliable and proven arm for its rotation.
Madison Bumgarner has unquestionably failed miserably to live up to his $85 million, five-year contract. Bumgarner arguably had the worst season of all starters in the game last season, and the numbers back it up. Among 71 qualified starters last season, Bumgarner posted a third-worst FIP (4.85), second-worst K-BB rate (9%), and third-lowest fWAR (0.5) in a total of 158.2 innings. Arizona had seen enough of Bumgarner by late September, benching him for his three remaining scheduled starts of the regular season. Bumgarner once again gave the organization no assurance that saving a spot in the rotation would help win games for the club. The impromptu shutdown to conclude Bumgarner’s ‘22 season conveys how poorly his season went, but it also might’ve indicated how Bumgarner’s value has begun to shift from being an indispensable member of keeping Arizona’s rotation afloat.
The Rotation’s Youth Movement
Arizona took advantage of the impromptu shutdown to conclude Bumgarner’s ‘22 campaign, filling it with some fresh arms from its farm system. Drey Jameson and Ryne Nelson revealed what a new-and-improved rotation might look like going forward. Jameson, a first-round pick in 2019, allowed two or fewer runs and struck out at least five batters in all four big-league starts and topped at 98.9 mph on the radar gun, per Baseball Savant. Ryne Nelson began his MLB career on a good note as well. Ryne Nelson, another top draft pick in 2019, Nelson recorded a scoreless outing in two of three starts (versus the Padres and Dodgers) and topped at 98.1 mph, per Baseball Savant. Both flamethrowers make a compelling case to earn spots in an unsettled rotation.
While he’s certainly not a flamethrower like his two fellow rookie teammates, left-hander Tommy Henry put up reasonable results in his debut season as well. Henry got more exposure to the bigs than the duo, although his performance wasn’t as sharp. Altogether, Henry’s numbers were disappointing, posting a 7.3% K-BB rate, 1.91 HR/9, and 5.36 ERA in 47 innings. Although, those numbers were inflated by a handful of unfortunate starts. Henry posted strong results at times, allowing one earned run and lasting at least five innings in four of nine total starts.
The arrival of prospect talent might have begun to lower Bumgarner on the totem pole to a less demanding position in the rotation. Arizona will still milk him for all he’s worth, though. The rotation – even given its trio of new arms – doesn’t have the depth to take Bumgarner out of the equation entirely. Bumgarner likely won’t be on the front end of the rotation once Hazen is done adjusting the roster this offseason. The best-case scenario for this team – and Bumgarner himself – is that he can act as an innings-eater at the back end of their rotation. Rumors about Arizona trading the 33-year-old lefty have been on and off most of his tenure, yet it doesn’t seem practicable at the moment. Arizona is probably not receiving many calls this offseason for Bumgarner, unless Hazen covers a good portion of the remaining $32 million to his contract, which is not likely. In the six years Hazen has been in charge, he has been adamant about making quality trades, whether it’s when buying or selling. Contending teams usually aim to acquire pitching at the trade deadline, so if Bumgarner can put together a decent performance in the first half of the ‘23 season, perhaps Arizona can work out a trade.
Rotation Help on the Way?
As it stands, Gallen, Kelly, and Bumgarner are likely the only ones to have secured a spot in next season’s starting rotation for the Diamondbacks. The club’s trio of young starters consisting of Jameson, Nelson and Henry are certainly all in the mix for a spot, but it’s clear that some reinforcements are also needed to round out the rotation. Thankfully, many free-agent starters are on the market within Arizona’s budget. Arizona’s young arms made a strong first impression to pair with a solid 1-2 punch of Gallen and Kelly, giving the rotation a high ceiling. On the other end, the rookies’ inexperience in the league naturally pegs them as high-risk options for the rotation as well. Given how Gallen and Kelly are the only truly dependable starters for next season, adding another durable starter looks logical. Once Bumgarner’s contract is off the books, Hazen could be more flexible about acquiring another veteran starter. Until then, Hazen will be cautious about spending big money on a free-agent starter, especially to a long-term deal.
Arizona also has several pitching prospects in the upper minors nearing a big-league promotion like Brandon Pfaadt, Blake Walston, and Bryce Jarvis, so making a multi-year commitment to a veteran starter ultimately could be a disadvantage, potentially suppressing the club’s ability to tap into its young arms with consistent opportunities. Adding a short-term durable starter as a stopgap would lay a solid foundation for next season while not potentially depriving any more homegrown talent of a rotation spot going forward. Dylan Bundy, Drew Smyly, or Sean Manaea could be a good match for the club on a short-term deal for the middle part of the rotation. Adding a few more reliable arms would give a solid floor to a rotation with lots of potential going to next season.
Mike Hazen did not wait to address a prominent issue during the club’s three-year stretch with a losing record. Earlier this week, Miguel Castro agreed to terms with Arizona on a one-year deal for the 2024 season. Castro, 27, only pitched 29 innings last season for the Yankees after dealing with a shoulder strain. The Dominican-born righty is one of the hardest throwers in the game, averaging 97.9 mph with his sinker, placing it in the 96th percentile per Baseball Savant. Castro will be one of the few D-Backs relievers in recent years that can throw gas. Since 2015 (Statcast era), D-Backs relievers rank dead last (by far) in the percentage of fastballs that were thrown over 97 mph, per Baseball Savant.
Arizona’s relief corps is in desperate need of help after combining to a negative (-0.7) fWAR in 2022, the only team to do so. Castro joins a bullpen that was clearly in rough shape last season aside from an all-star season from lefty Joe Mantiply, who recorded a 2.21 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and 0.49 BB/9 in the first half. Mark Melancon failed to deliver in the first half of a two-year, $14 million deal. In 56 innings, Melancon recorded ten losses and a career-low 14.2% K rate, and the tenth-highest WHIP (1.50) across 152 qualified relievers last season. Arizona has some long-man options out of some former starters-turned relievers out of Corbin Martin and Taylor Widener. As far as high-leverage relievers, Mantiply and Castro stand out.
Major League Baseball’s annual Winter Meetings took place this week, and while the Diamondbacks didn’t make any big moves, Mike Hazen surely was an active member. Trade talks for outfielders were aplenty, and rumors of a potential Xander Bogaerts deal even made it through the airwaves. Things are clearly different in Arizona right now.
The Diamondbacks have failed consistently to drum up any excitement while the organization has waited for their farm system that’s been in high esteem around the industry to finally energize the ballclub. On both sides of the ball, Arizona finally has a flow of young talent to assist its veterans in molding the next competitive ball club that’s been envisioned by the front office for several years.
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