The Arizona Diamondbacks proved their doubters wrong last season. Ketel Marte became a superstar. Luke Weaver looked like a potential ace for a spell. Christian Walker ably replaced Paul Goldschmidt. Still, they were never really in the divisional race, not with the Dodgers easing into a 106-win season. Torey Lovullo’s club hung around the fringes of the wild card race and finished the season with a loud 85-77 record.
I was bullish on these Diamondbacks coming into the season. They added the second-best Marte in baseball, Robbie Ray had contract-year breakout potential, and even though I didn’t love the price for Madison Bumgarner, the veteran lefty never posted an ERA or FIP above 4.00—and as the old adage goes, he’s a competitor. Furthermore, K. Marte’s breakout was for real, Carson Kelly could take on a larger workload as he continued to develop into their franchise catcher, and they were going to be able to feed on bottom-dwellers like the Giants and Rockies.
But the thing about a 30-game sample is there’s really no telling what might happen. The Orioles and Marlins could compete for the playoffs. Mike Yastrzemski could become an MVP candidate. The World Champion Nationals could rival the Pirates for the number one overall pick. Who knows? Even in a regular season, there’s usually at least one presumed contender who falls off the map into unrelenting mediocrity.
Hello, 2020 Arizona Diamondbacks.
The biggest problem for these Diamondbacks? Pitching.
Zac Gallen has gotten off to one of the greatest starts in MLB pitcher history, and yet even with his guaranteed dominance once every five days, the Diamondbacks have floundered. Merrill Kelly had done his job nicely, but now he’s on the injured list. The other sixty percent of Arizona’s rotation completely imploded. There is no world in which Bumgarner, Weaver, and Ray would combine for -3.6 fWAR over a full season, but in a shortened year, there wasn’t time enough to regress to the norm or find suitable replacements. At 14-22 the Diamondbacks would be nervous in a normal season, but they’d also have 126 games to right the ship.
Instead, GM Mike Hazen made some difficult decisions at the August 31st trade deadline. In a flurry of moves, Hazen shipped out Starling Marte, Archie Bradley, Ray, and Andrew Chafin. It’s a disappointing season, but at least it pushed the Dbacks to finally fold and embark on a classic rebuild.
In classic Hazen style, the returns weren’t prospects but targeted major league talent who could step right onto the active roster to replace the same guys that were departing.
There were seven newcomers brought into the organization from the four deadline deals. Four of those new additions have at least appeared in the major leagues, so we can expect them to be a part of the Diamondbacks near-term plans. Caleb Smith is the most accomplished of the four, while Humberto Mejia probably brings the most long-term promise.
Hazen loves this kind of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Travis Bergen became a bit of a punchline on deadline day, and it’s true, a returned Rule 5 pick isn’t the kind of return the Diamondbacks hoped to get for Ray at the outset of the season. But I like Bergen’s long-term potential to step in for Chafin, long one of the most underrated southpaws in the game.
The former seventh-rounder of the Blue Jays was selected by the Giants in the 2018 Rule 5 draft, but he was returned to Toronto after 21 games of 5.49 ERA/5.55 FIP pitching in 2019. Maybe he wasn’t ready then, but that doesn’t mean he won’t ever be. Bergen posted double-digit strikeout rates at every level of the minor leagues, and though he doesn’t throw overhard, a strong curveball lays the foundation for his arsenal that should be able to play against lefties at least at the big league level. He’s not a world-beater, but like Chafin, the Diamondbacks can let him play to his strengths and work on developing him into a useable arm out of the bullpen.
There’s no replacing Marte in center, not after a .311/.384/.443 line in his 33 games in Arizona. Center is a weak position overall in the majors, and the Diamondbacks may struggle to find a 1-for-1 replacement, but this move appeared to be motivated by finances more than anything. They’re back to the drawing board as far as manning the middle of the grass.
Catching prospect Daulton Varsho—their top overall prospect—has begun to see some time in center, and while that’s super cool, it’s still an experiment. Their remaining Marte could find his way back to the outfield if necessary.
One option from their trade pool could be Stuart Fairchild, acquired in the Archie Bradley deal from the Reds. Fairchild has played all three outfield spots. He was the Reds 10th-ranked prospect by Baseball America. He’s not far off from the majors either, reaching Double-A in 2019, where he hit .275/.380/.444.
Archie Bradley is a fan favorite and a big part of the Phoenix community. He’s active on social media, and as a former draft choice, he’s one of the most recognizable Diamondbacks for locals. He’s a character. A good dude.
But as a ballplayer, he’s never been as special as we’d like him to be. Since his breakout season as a reliever in 2017, Bradley’s logged 143.1 innings over 142 appearances with a 3.58 ERA/3.56 FIP and 21 saves. That’s solid bullpen production, but is it irreplaceable? From 2018 to 2020, Bradley’s 2.0 fWAR places him as the 32nd-most productive reliever over that time.
He’s actually in a four-way tie with Pedro Baez, Dylan Floro, and funny enough, Andrew Chafin. Bradley has some cache because of his former prospect status, beard, and personality, but none of those other three names are “special” ballplayers. By ERA, Bradley ranks in a tie with Mark Melancon at 48th overall. That seems about right. Melancon, like Bradley, is a second-division closer who’s had his ups-and-downs. He has shown flashes of stardom, but the consistency just isn’t there.
A guy like Bradley is most useful in the postseason, where a good run from a reliever—think Daniel Hudson last season—can make the difference in a playoff series. These Diamondbacks aren’t going to the playoffs. A guy like Bradley can be found at the trade deadline.
Maybe Mejia becomes a late-inning reliever. Maybe it’s another one of the prospects they received in these trades. The fact is, replacing Bradley is a problem for another day, and when that day comes, they shouldn’t have much of a problem solving it.
Caleb Smith was the crux of Hazen’s return packages. With the other acquisitions, there’s at least a little projection involved, but Smith can step into the rotation as a ready-made piece. This season is a bit of a wash for the southpaw, as COVID-19 wiped out the first part of his season and he’s yet to find his footing. But based on his 2019, there’s fair reason to believe that Smith can be ready to not only take Ray’s rotation spot for 2021, but improve upon it.
Smith isn’t, perhaps, an ace, but in 2019, he put together a solid season: 10-11 in 28 starts covering 153.1 innings, 4.52 ERA/5.11 FIP, 1.0 fWAR. He’s already 29 years old, and there may not be much hope that Smith can develop into a stalwart in the rotation (deep dive coming on this next week). But there’s at least enough to suggest he’s a rotation-ready arm, and that actually improves upon what Ray was able to provide in 2020.
Hazen’s deadline was about as on-brand as we could expect. He used Marte to find replacements for Ray. Ray to replace Chafin. Bradley find a potential replacement for Marte, and given the fungible nature of Bradley’s skill set, Hazen can re-purpose the player to be named later or cash received from the Cubs for Chafin to find a replacement for Bradley down the line. With these deadline deals, Hazen took pieces he expected to lose to free agency and re-stocked his collection of affordable talent. Will they be better in 2021 because of these trades? That’s largely dependent on what Smith provides in the rotation and how quickly Varsho and/or Fairchild can become productive in center.
Even if that takes longer than expected, the Diamondbacks should be better in 2021 if for no other reason that they never should have been this bad in the first place.
(Photo by Juan Salas/Icon Sportswire)