PHOENIX — First things first. The Diamondbacks hate their current trail position.
Nothing could be much worse than spending the next 2 1/2 months in evaluation mode. Player development is for the minor leagues, not the National League West.
While the D-backs certainly have not given up on the season, the main thrust moving forward will be to parse the roster while considering which pieces to keep and how to attack 2015, chief baseball officer Tony La Russa’s first as a full-time member of the front office. Economics and talent play into the equation.
But D-backs manager Kirk Gibson says he’s not ready to go there quite yet.
"The Dodgers were 42-8 last year," Gibson pointed out Thursday before post-break workout at Chase Field.
At 40-56, the D-backs would need a run like that to get back into the race. It is not what the D-backs had in mind less than two years ago. They girded for battle in 2013, understanding that not only did San Francisco return a strong nucleus from its 2010 and 2012 World Series title teams but that the Los Angeles Dodgers would be cash-rich and hungry to compete after the team was sold to a group of high rollers including Magic Johnson.
With new TV revenue set to kick in, the D-backs locked up Paul Goldschmidt, Aaron Hill, Martin Prado to long-term contracts, as they had done with Miguel Montero the summer before. This winter they traded for a controllable power bat in Mark Trumbo and a controllable closer in Addison Reed. They pursued the juiciest free agent pitcher on the market, Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, whose first three months with the Yankees justified the D-backs’ pursuit, one that included a visit from Goldschmidt during a Beverly Hills meeting. When Tanaka went away, the D-backs signed veteran performer Bronson Arroyo.
Equipped with a franchise-record $112 million payroll, the D-backs were built to succeed now. All they needed, it appeared, were health and not necessarily good luck but the avoidance of bad. We know what came next.
The season-ending elbow injury to All-Star left-hander Patrick Corbin in spring training and the general ineffectiveness of the starting rotation led to a tailspin in which they lost 22 of their first 30 games. No team in major league history has made the playoffs from there. Even after a return to normalcy, the D-backs are 13 1/2 games behind the Dodgers, 13 behind the Giants and 12 1/2 games behind the pack in the race for the second wild card berth as post-All Star break play commences Friday.
It leaves them with little choice but to consider all options, including trades. La Russa and general manager Kevin Towers have said that the D-backs will be sellers, and it is unlikely that the trades of left-hander specialist Joe Thatcher and starter Brandon McCarthy will be the only ones before they July 31 trade deadline.
Towers has said that adding pitching is a priority and that cutting salary also is a factor, inasmuch as attendance figures to drop below the budget projection with the team out of contention and 32 home games remaining.
"We’re all professionals here," Montero said. "We know that is part of the business. If you don’t win, if you are not competitive, you don’t want to keep the same team that you built up. You probably want to get rid of a couple of players and get the salary down a little bit and try to save some to build up another team next year. We understand it."
Where do they start?
The D-backs are deep in major league or major league-ready infielders, and with the sudden emergence of David Peralta they appear almost as deep in the outfield once center fielder A.J. Pollock returns in a few weeks. Potential trade partners could target those areas.
It will depend how much money other teams are willing to accept on the large salaries owed second baseman Aaron Hill and third baseman Martin Prado, and the soon-to-jump cost of right fielder Gerardo Parra. Hill is owed $12 million in each of 2015 and 2016. Prado is due $11 million in each of those years. Parra may command about $7 million in his final year of arbitration in 2015 before becoming a free agent.
Hill is one of the most productive second basemen in the league, and even in a down season has 45 RBI, one behind NL leader Chase Utley at second base. But with Chris Owings, Didi Gregorius, Nick Ahmed and Cliff Pennington capable of playing second and short, the middle infield would be covered even if one or two of those players go away. Third baseman Jake Lamb hitting well at Double-A Mobile and is considered very close to the majors, if the D-backs get an offer on Prado they cannot refuse.
Trumbo, Pollock and Parra were the projected outfield starters when healthy, but the extended losses of Trumbo and Pollock gave the D-backs time to look at Peralta and Ender Inciarte. For a team that normally carries four outfielders, five may be a luxury from which a deal could be made.
"Nobody was terribly surprised when moves were made, and there have been a few so far," said Trumbo, whose named was rumored for several years before the D-backs acquired him.
"You try to take care of business on the field, and all the other stuff falls under stuff you try to compartmentalize and leave at home."
Whatever form the roster takes, the D-backs will spend the rest of the season plotting for the future, the present no fun at all.
While chasing a postseason berth seems a bit much to ask for the Diamondbacks coming out of the All-Star Break, there is no shortage of situations to be sorted out over the remaining 66 games. Foremost among them:
Tony La Russa was brought in to evaluate the baseball operation, and obviously the scrutiny starts with general manager Towers and manager Gibson. The three have a lot in common. All are hard-line, old-school baseball men who have a strong belief about how the game should be played and what kind of player fits best. Towers no longer appears to be a candidate for the vacant general manager position in San Diego, but his name has been mentioned a possible advisor to the new Padres’ GM. At last check, San Diego had not asked the D-backs permission to speak with Towers. In every business new bosses often bring in their own men, and it would not be a surprise if La Russa opted to start with a fresh cast in 2015.
The D-backs are counting on left-hander Patrick Corbin’s return next season, and top prospect Archie Bradley seems on track to break through based on his recent work at Double-A Mobile. Bradley could get a brief look late in the season to get a better gauge of his readiness. Potential trade partners have asked about Wade Miley, but the D-backs seem very unlikely to move him. So, barring injury, the rest of the season could be seen as an audition for the final two spots in the 2015 rotation. Trevor Cahill spent a month in the minor leagues before his return for Friday’s start. The D-backs owe him $12 million next year. Chase Anderson, Josh Collmenter and Vidal Nuno, acquired for Brandon McCarthy, will join Cahill and Miley in the post-break rotation, at least initially. The D-backs are not going to push Anderson, who has won six games since his arrival the second week of May. He was moved to the back of the rotation, and he could be pushed back or skipped as his workload increases. Collmenter has done well in his return to the rotation, but he’s also valuable in a jack-of-all-trades bullpen role. Nuno has made one bad pitch in 12 innings, but the D-backs needs to see more. Bronson Arroyo underwent successful Tommy John surgery Tuesday and hopes to return next July.
Mark Trumbo, A.J. Pollock and Gerardo Parra were the expected regulars, but Trumbo missed about 11 weeks de to injury and Pollock will miss about that much time before he returns. David Peralta has played well since being promoted June 1, Ender Inciate has seen regular time because of the injuries and Cody Ross is returning to form at the plate. If the D-backs do not trade an outfielder by the deadline, they can use the rest of the year to gauge the extent of Ross’ recovery (he is owed $8.5 million next year) while giving the newcomers extended time.
Reed had a schizophrenic first half. When he was good, he blew opponents away, with 21 saves and 42 strikeouts in 37 2-3 innings. But when he lost his mechanics, things went the other way. His five failed save conversions are tied for the most in the NL, and no other reliever had given up more than his nine home runs. Is he the long-term answer at closer? The second half may tell.
Both Gregorius and Ahmed are major league-ready defenders, and both are considered much above average on the scouting scale. Chris Owings stepped right in at shortstop this season. The D-backs will get a chance to determine whether Gregorius or Ahmed has enough offense to do the same. If they are, it substantially opens up the trade possibilities.