2014 Preview: Arizona Diamondbacks

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Big Question: Can the Diamondbacks withstand the injury to Patrick Corbin and get over the .500 mark?

The Diamondbacks won 94 games in 2011, the first year that general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson were paired together, but the team has underperformed expectations since. Towers attempted to remake the team in the (gritty) image of his manager last offseason, most notably by dealing Justin Upton and Chris Johnson to the Braves for Martin Prado, Randall Delgado, and a trio of prospects. However, his bold moves didn’t make much of a difference in the standings, as the club finished at 81-81 for a second straight year.

While Towers attempted to make a splash on the free agent market this winter, most of his moves were once again made through significant trades. The big one was a three-team deal that brought Mark Trumbo to Arizona and sent Tyler Skaggs to the Angels and Adam Eaton to the White Sox. He later made another deal with Chicago, this time dealing third base prospect Matt Davidson in exchange for closer Addison Reed. After trying to acquire a frontline starting pitcher for most of the winter, the club added Bronson Arroyo on a two-year, $19 million contract last month.

Will these moves be enough to challenge the rival Dodgers for the NL West crown? Realistically, no. And let’s face it, they probably wouldn’t have been favored even if they did land Masahiro Tanaka, David Price, or Jeff Samardzija. However, Towers’ inability to acquire a frontline starter this offseason stands out even more now that Patrick Corbin has a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow, setting up the possibility of season-ending Tommy John surgery.

Without Corbin, the Diamondbacks project to begin the year with a rotation of Trevor Cahill, Wade Miley, Brandon McCarthy, Bronson Arroyo, and Randall Delgado. Decent, but it doesn’t exactly scream playoffs. As for the lineup, Trumbo and last year’s NL MVP runner-up Paul Goldschmidt should provide plenty of thump in the middle of the order. Trumbo still has his flaws, as he doesn’t get on base often and figures to be a poor defender in the outfield. Fortunately for Arizona’s pitchers, A.J. Pollock and Gerardo Parra can cover a lot of ground. Martin Prado continues to fly under the radar on both sides of the ball while Aaron Hill should be an asset if he’s healthy and Miguel Montero should be a pretty good bet for a rebound. This is an interesting team, but make no mistake, the Corbin injury takes some wind out of their sails.

What else is going on?

  • Top pitching prospect Archie Bradley has been the talk of camp this spring and Corbin’s injury makes it more likely that he’ll see significant time in the majors this year. The 21-year-old right-hander posted a 1.84 ERA and 162 strikeouts over 152 innings last season between High-A Visalia and Double-A Mobile and was recently ranked as the No. 9 prospect in the game by Baseball America. His command is said to be a work in progress, but it might not be long before we see him in the majors. My guess is it could happen as soon as the end of April.
  • The Diamondbacks are currently holding a competition between Didi Gregorius and prospect Chris Owings for the starting shortstop job. Gregorius, who was acquired from the Reds last winter in a three-team trade, hit .252/.332/.373 with seven home runs and 28 RBI in 103 games as a rookie last year and provided solid defense at shortstop. Owings, who is more known for his bat, is reportedly the favorite at this time. Whoever loses the battle could begin the season in the minors, though it’s possible one of them could be traded. The Mets and Tigers are among the teams who could inquire.
  • Arizona’s bullpen was in a state of flux for much of last season, as they used three different pitchers (J.J. Putz, Heath Bell, and Brad Ziegler) out of the closer role and their relievers tied for the major league lead with 29 blown saves. Ziegler actually enjoyed success as the closer despite a low strikeout rate, but Towers acquired a more traditional swing-and-miss option over the winter in Addison Reed. While some worry about Reed’s fly ball rate in the desert, he has survived in a hitter-friendly ballpark before and the Diamondbacks are better off having Ziegler available for high-leverage situations in the seventh and eighth innings when they really need a ground ball.
  • The Diamondbacks declined their 2015 options on Towers and Gibson after last season, which effectively set them up for lame duck status this year. Team brass apparently wasn’t comfortable with the perception and possible distractions involved, as they had a change of heart and extended the contracts for both of them. Exact terms weren’t announced, but we’ll likely hear more speculation about their job status if they miss the playoffs or take a step back this year.

Prediction: The offense should be there, but the rotation isn’t anything special and you can’t count on Bradley to be a savior. Fourth place, NL West.

Eric Hosmer’s eight-year, $144 million contract isn’t that bad

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Late Saturday night, Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the Padres and first baseman Eric Hosmer agreed to an eight-year, $144 million contract, the new largest contract in club history. According to Bob Nightengale of USA TODAY Sports, the contract includes an opt-out after the fifth year. Further, Hosmer will average $21 million per year for those first five years and $13 million for the final three years, so it’s severely front-loaded.

Hosmer, 28, had a career year last season, playing in all 162 games while batting .318/.385/.498 with 25 home runs, 94 RBI, and 98 runs scored in 671 plate appearances. Per Baseball Reference, Hosmer accrued 4.0 Wins Above Replacement, only one of six first basemen to do so. At No. 6, he was 0.4 WAR behind Anthony Rizzo and 0.4 WAR ahead of Logan Morrison.

Wil Myers had previously told the Padres he would accept a position change if the club were to sign Hosmer. He will be moving to the outfield as a result. The Padres now have a logjam in the outfield, so Jose Pirela could move moved to the infield. How the Padres plan to handle that situation remains to be seen.

The general consensus about the Hosmer signing once news broke was that it is laughably bad. Back in November, Dave Cameron — ironically now in the Padres’ front office — called Hosmer a “free agent landmine.” That thought hasn’t really changed among many writers. For example, using restraint, Dennis Lin of The Athletic calls the deal “a big gamble.” MLB Network’s Brian Kenny said Hosmer has at least three “red flags.”

FanGraphs projects the Padres to finish 71-91, so adding Hosmer isn’t likely to transform the club into a contender on his own. That being said, the Padres’ payroll was only at $70 million prior to the Hosmer signing, so the contract won’t hamstring them going forward. If the young nucleus of players — including Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe — perform as expected, the Padres could be a threat in the NL West relatively soon with plenty of cheap, cost-controlled players and having some experienced veterans like Hosmer and Myers could be useful for their intangibles — pennant race/playoff experience, clubhouse presence, leadership, etc.

Hosmer has had three seasons of 3.5 WAR or more, according to Baseball Reference. He’s had four between -0.5 and 1.0. Now entering his age-28 season, it’s hardly a guarantee he’ll be an All-Star-caliber player in 2018, let alone in 2022 when he is 32 years old. From a strict dollars-to-WAR standpoint in a complete vacuum, one could’ve done better than Hosmer at eight years, $144 million.

The Padres, however, aren’t a small market team; they just operate like one. Forbes valued the club at $1.125 billion last April. The Padres don’t have the financial muscle of the Dodgers or Yankees, but paying Eric Hosmer $18 million on average for the first five years of his contract won’t come close to hurting the organization in any way, shape, or form. More importantly, signing Hosmer shows the rest of the team and the fans a commitment to being legitimate, bumping the payroll up towards $90 million. That now dwarfs teams like the large-market Phillies, who opened up spring training with just over $60 million in player obligations.

In the grand scheme of things, the Hosmer signing is also a good sign given the standstill in the free agent market. Many veteran players — even reliever Fernando Abad, who posted a 3.30 ERA last season — had to settle for minor league contracts instead of guaranteed major league deals. Many others, including the likes of Jake Arrieta and J.D. Martinez, remain unsigned. The rumor that Hosmer wanted more than seven years and close to $150 million was laughed at last month. Agent Scott Boras was still able to get his client the deal he wanted, which could bode well for those still teamless. Martinez’s patience may yet be rewarded like Hosmer’s was; money may once again start flowing in the free agent economy.

In summation, the Eric Hosmer contract is good if: you are Eric Hosmer, related to or a friend of Eric Hosmer, a teammate of Hosmer’s, Scott Boras, a current or soon-to-be free agent, a Padres fan, and a baseball fan in general. The Hosmer contract is bad if: you are a penny-pinching owner of a Major League Baseball team, or someone who cares more about $/WAR than an actual good product being put on the field.