Expect D-backs to aim high for starting pitching upgrade

PHOENIX — It happens every fall. After an unfulfilling regular season, teams lay plans to retool. Only one team can be the Boston Red Sox each year.

The Diamondbacks are no different. After failing to hold a 4 1/2-game lead in the NL West over the final 11 weeks for a second straight 81-81 finish, the D-backs need to make offseason moves to stay within reach of the big-money Dodgers and the Giants, who have won two of the past four World Series.

Any roster redo is likely to start with the starting rotation, which seems only natural for an organization that not only believes in pitching but also understands just how valuable a commodity it is. The bullpen likely will be tweaked, and there is interest in adding a power bat, but starting pitching appears to be the first priority. Remember Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling?

With that in mind, expect the D-backs to aim high.

Rays left-hander David Price has told teammates and the Tampa media that he expects to be traded, and the D-backs could be among the players for his services, however pricy he may be. Another target could be White Sox left-hander Chris Sale. Chicago is rebuilding after a 99-loss season, and Sale could command a package of prospects that might expedite the Sox’s makeover.

A trade for either would cost the Diamondbacks a package that would include some of their top prospects, but they are both deep and motivated. Top pitching prospect Archie Bradley is unlikely to be moved, but in the right package, position players Matt Davidson, Chris Owings, Didi Gregorius and pitchers Tyler Skaggs and David Holmberg could be available.

Even if the D-backs do not land an ace, expect the starting staff to have a different look. The rotation inspired confidence entering the 2013 season, but veterans Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy all had down years, in part because of injuries. Kennedy was traded to the Padres, but it is possible the holdovers will return to form. But do the D-backs think it is likely? That is the question they will answer this offseason, a winter they also will spend wondering if Cody Ross can return after his hip injury or if they need to find another productive bat just in case.

Tampa Bay’s recent history suggests that Price will be on the market this winter. The Rays sent right-hander James Shields to Kansas City for a package of four prospects, including outfielder Wil Myers, rather than pay options of $9 million last season and $12 million in 2014, and they also sent right-hander Matt Garza to the Cubs when he reached high-level arbitration eligibility.
Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young winner, will cost a bundle, both in terms of the package it takes to get him and the salary he will command. At the same time, the Rays certainly will have several offers to consider for a player who was 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA in 2012 and has won 71 games in his five full seasons.

Price, 28, earned $10.11 million last season after the sides agreed to a deal to avoid arbitration, a record contract for pitcher in his second season of arbitration. He could be expected to earn $13 million to $15 million in arbitration this offseason, a figure the frugal Rays might not be able to afford. Despite all its success, Tampa Bay ranked last in the majors leagues in attendance, drawing just a shade over 1.5 million fans this season. While that is only one of the revenue streams for teams, it does keep the Rays’ spending in check.

With two years of arbitration eligibility before becoming a free agent, Price is not for everyone. Just two years of Price, no matter how much of an upgrade he would be, probably would not be enough for the D-backs to include Bradley in any offer. If they sensed a willingness from Price to sign an extension, however, things could change.

With the $25 million injection each team will receive when the new FOX television contract kicks in this season, it is not inconceivable that the Diamondbacks’ payroll could land in the low $100 million range in 2014. And where better to spend it than on pitching?

Sale, 24, could have been a D-back already. The White Sox took Sale with the 13th pick of the 2010 draft after the Diamondbacks took Texas A&M right-hander Barret Loux with the sixth pick. Some in the draft room lobbied for Sale, and it turned out that Loux had arm issues that caused the D-backs not to sign him at all. They turned that pick into Bradley, however, with the compensatory extra choice in the first round of the 2011 draft.

The White Sox lost 99 games last season, and general manager Rick Hahn has said the team is in a rebuilding mode that could take a year or two to complete. They recently signed Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu to a six-year, $68 million contract, ostensibly to replace Paul Konerko. It is a big first step, but the White Sox need more, and they could use Sale to get several pieces in return. Sale, who has won 28 games with a 3.06 ERA since joining Chicago’s starting rotation in 2012, signed a contract extension last spring worth an affordable $32.5 million, almost the exact amount the D-backs spent on Paul Goldschmidt’s extension last spring.

The Diamondbacks are deep in infield prospects, and the White Sox might covet a controllable bat such as Davidson, a third baseman or a middle infielder such as Owings or Gregorius. Alexi Ramirez played shortstop for the White Sox last season, but he can play second base or the outfield, too.

Pitchers Cahill and/or McCarthy could be included in any package the D-backs put together. Cahill has two years at $19.7 million remaining on his contract, and McCarthy is to make $9 million next year. It wouldn’t be a major surprise if one or both do not return in 2014.