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MLB preview 2019: Arizona Diamondbacks begin life without Paul Goldschmidt

After a disappointing end to the 2018 season, the Diamondbacks face an uncertain future

With the 2019 season just around the corner, it’s time to catch up with the other teams around the division. Instead of trying to figure out what we need to know about them ourselves, we thought it would be a good idea to ask our friends at our neighbors here at SBNation to help catch us up.

We asked James Attwood of AZ SnakePit to answer a few questions for us about the upcoming Arizona Diamondbacks season. You’ll find his answers below, edited for length and clarity.

What went right for the Diamondbacks in 2018? What, ultimately, went wrong?

After a disappointing exit from the playoffs at the hands of the Dodgers in 2017, the Diamondbacks spent the vast majority atop the NL West in 2019, even holding the best record in the majors for a few days in the beginning of May. Sadly, this success came by riding those who were performing well to the point of exhaustion. Between injuries and fatigue, the Diamondbacks were doomed by their lack of depth. By the time September rolled around, the team simply had nothing left in the tank and no one they could turn to in order to give them a boost.

Rockies fans felt that the 2010 squad was one of the best teams in franchise history, but then they went one in 13 in the last two weeks of the season and missed the playoffs by a wide margin. Do Diamondbacks fans feel in any way similarly about the 2018 squad? Is there any way to explain what happened?

I don’t think anyone would argue that the 2018 Diamondbacks were among the franchise’s better teams. Even if we remove the Johnson/Schilling era of the team, it would be difficult to call the 2018 team anything better than the third-best team. That might even be pushing it though, as there were other “better” teams that failed to make the playoffs due to injury or bad timing. The team did enter the 2018 with high expectations after making the playoffs in 2017. By the All-Star break though, many fans began to openly worry. The primary bullpen of Brad Boxberger, Archie Bradley, Yoshihisa Hirano, and Andrew Chafin had already piled up a ton of innings and appearances for so early in the season. The offense was mediocre on its very best days. The starting pitching, beyond Zack Greinke, was a question mark, despite the rotation being the team’s strength.

The collapse of the Diamondbacks boiled entirely down to depth. The team was a stars-and-scrubs assemblage of players with little depth to speak of to help address issues as they arose. While the Dodgers addressed injuries and non-performance on their infield by purchasing a whole new infield, the Diamondbacks continued to struggle to field an outfield of three non-injured starting caliber outfielders. The lack of minor league options in the bullpen contributed to the team not having fresh arms to rely on in close games. Once the trade deadline rolled around, Mike Hazen went out and picked up a couple of arms to bolster the bullpen, only for most of those arms to implode upon joining the team.

A lack of a larger budget and a farm system that had already been stripped barren, had as much to do with the Diamondbacks’ collapse as anything done by other teams chasing and eventually passing them.

What’s the general feeling around the Paul Goldschmidt trade? How will the players the D-backs got back make an impact?

I would have to say that sadness is the general feeling. The team simply could not afford to pay the face of the franchise the contract he played himself into. Many fans were expecting a larger haul in return for Goldschmidt. Those expectations were fueled by passion for both the team and the player. The actual return was quite fair in terms of value, especially for a team not committing to tearing the team down to the studs on its way to spending two or three years in rebuild mode.

The players the team received in return are being thrown right into the fire. Carson Kelly, once the top-rated catching prospect in baseball and the player the Cardinals to give more playing time to, at the expense of playing time for Yadier Molina, is now on the verge of finally getting his chance to show what he can do. The team has lacked a franchise catcher since Miguel Montero and the pipeline is still lacking in quality alternatives above A+ or Double-A ball. Luke Weaver is a high-ceiling bounce back candidate who has been thrown into the rotation as the number 4 starter. He’ll be working with no safety net, as the team has few other options for the position. Upon being acquired, he was touted as a starter who could potentially provide the rotation with 200 innings of work. That seems like pie-in-the-sky thinking, but it does show just how much the franchise is banking on the return from the Goldschmidt trade. The team also received a minor league infielder who will probably start in AA this year. He’s likely a non-factor in the trade, but it would be nice to think the Diamondbacks see some future value there.

The public relations hit and the immediate negative impact that the trade of the Goldschmidt has brought to the desert cannot be overstated. However, the Diamondbacks now have a number of years of control of some potentially strong players to try and rebuild all that again.

Word came out last week Goldschmidt signed an extension with the Cardinals for 5 years and $130 million. Was that something that would’ve been out of the price range for the Diamondbacks, or is there sort of a jilted lover reaction to this as an Arizona fan?

The reported figure for Goldy’s extension is pretty much in line with what most of us felt would be the price for a seat at the negotiating table. Given his comments about being unhappy with team spending, it is at least a little bit surprising that he did not explore free agency and attempt to inflate that number some. Many of us figured, especially in the wake of the Nolan Arenado deal, that Goldschmidt would be able to get something in the neighbourhood of 5 years/$125 million without even needing to explore free agency. On a five-year deal, this is actually a huge win for the Cardinals. Any bitterness on the part of Arizona fans is likely directed at ownership.

In fairness, it was Mike Hazen’s decision to trade Goldschmidt rather than extend him to a deal. Initial conversations with Goldschmidt quickly revealed that what Hazen and his front office were looking at and what Goldschmidt’s camp were looking at were simply too far apart to explore closing the gap. However, that decision was also made with the understanding that Mike Hazen still needed to meet the mandates of getting the team better, while not trading from the farm, and while also trimming payroll downward from 2018 levels. Yes, Hazen could have given Goldschmidt that same level of contract, but the team would have been gutted of any other talent to make it happen. Either that, or the team would have needed to find a taker for the entirety of Greinke’s contract. The problem there is, you don’t sign Goldschmidt to that sort of deal at the same time you are gutting the pitching staff of its only reliable arm. The team’s self-imposed budgetary restrictions are what cost them Paul Goldschmidt. It’s hard seeing him signing yet another team-friendly deal elsewhere, but he has earned every single penny of that contract and I doubt any of us begrudge him his good fortune.

With the trades and free-agency there’s a lot of new faces in camp this spring. Who do you think will take on the mantle of the most visible players on the team?

David Peralta was already a large personality on the team, even before Paul Goldschmidt departed. He now stands as the undisputed team leader. He has a boisterous personality and his enthusiasm is infectious. Ketel Marte will continue to get more exposure and could climb up on that pedestal with Peralta, but he has a long way to go to get there.

On the pitching side of things, it comes down to Zack Greinke and Archie Bradley. Greinke quietly goes about his business as he continues to discreetly check off boxes on his Road to Cooperstown plan. Archie Bradley continues to be an outsized personality with dynamic stuff. He may not be the starting pitcher the team hoped for when they drafted him, but when he is healthy, he is still one of the best relievers in the game today.

If Ray’s offseason work on his curve pays off the way he hopes it has, then he could once again be the Robbie Ray of 2017 that the Rockies saw in the Wild Card game. That’s a Robbie Ray who will be in elite company — company like Max Scherzer and Chris Sale. He has the potential to be a dominant ace that posts sexy velocity numbers and piles up the strikeouts while making big league hitters look quite silly.

Who are some unheralded players we should keep an eye on this season? Prospects, role players, free-agent signees, etc.

Given the current state of the entire Arizona system, this is a difficult one to answer. Christian Walker looks like he is going to finally secure himself a permanent spot on the 25-man roster. His contributions at first base could be massive, or they could turn out to be a tempest in a teacup. Yoan Lopez is another former starter turned reliever that the team has in the system. He’ll be on the 25-man roster somewhere between opening day and mid-season. He has the potential to be a lights-out reliever with electric stuff. He is likely the team’s closer of the future, assuming he keeps the walks under control.

Outside of that, the team has a few prospects that should be fun to watch for. However, depending on how the team performs, trades, and injuries, the likes of Jon Duplantier, Taylor Widener, and, to a lesser extent, Taylor Clarke could potentially be waiting until September to appear. Or, all three of them could have innings under their belt before the end of May. They are the names to watch for in 2019, but it is anyone’s guess as to when they will actually be allowed to debut.

There has been a lot of talk about the D-backs entering a rebuild with the way this offseason went. Is that what’s happening and how do fans feel about the idea of a rebuild?

The team is still trying to compete. The desire to try and compete in 2019 is a big part of the reason the Diamondbacks chose the particular trade deal they did with the Cardinals. If they were in a full-on rebuild, the Texas Rangers’ offer would have made much more sense. The team has also picked up Wilmer Flores and Adam Jones to help contribute this season.

That said, it would naive to think the Diamondbacks are not still focused as much on 2021 as they are on 2019. Mike Hazen was given a mandate at the start of the offseason. Get cheaper, get better, and do it all without trading from the future.

The team is in the initial stages of a soft rebuild. They are taking that (from a fan’s perspective) dreaded middle approach, neither committing to a full rebuild, not going all-in. This greatly increases the team’s chances of spending the entire season mired in mediocrity, hovering just below or at the .500 mark.

The consensus seems to be that the Arizona farm system is somewhere in the lower half of the league. What’s the current state of the farm system and what will it take to build it up?

The bad news is that the Diamondbacks’ farm system is a mess. The good news is that it is no longer a complete dumpster fire, like it was last season. There are only two position players in the system that profile as true high-impact players. Unfortunately, they are both still at least two seasons away from making that impact. The pitching looks a little better, but only barely. After the aforementioned Duplantier, Widener, and Clarke, it could be argued the team has no starting prospects above A+ ball.

The team needs to do two things in order to improve on this. First, they need to continue to resist trading from what is left of the farm. Second, they need to figure out how to draft, especially in the first three rounds. The Diamondbacks have not had a strong draft since 2009 and it is killing them. The few good names they have picked up since then have all been moved, and there have not been enough of those anyway. This June, the Diamondbacks have seven of the top 80 selections, including two in the first round and two in the following round. If ever there was a time and a way to rehabilitate the Arizona farm system, the upcoming draft is it. BUt the key is, they have to get it right, something they have not yet demonstrated they know how to do.

Prediction time: will Zack Greinke finish his current contract in a Diamondbacks uniform?

While I would like to see that happen, I suspect that he will not. He may or may not get traded at the deadline this season. It might even take another full year. However, if he is able to remain healthy and productive, the deeper into the contract he gets, the more teams will be willing to absorb the financial hit. If he is still a 4 WAR pitcher with only one year left on his deal, it is difficult to see the Diamondbacks not finding numerous suitors. That could all change of course, if the team finds a way to become competitive while he is still on the roster. If some of the current players bounce back and some of the debuts turn in the sorts of performances that are hoped for out of them, then it becomes much more difficult to trade Greinke, as replacing him will be nearly impossible. I honestly feel it is 50/50 if he finishes out his contract in an Arizona uniform.

What do you think is a realistic best case scenario for the D-backs this year? What’s the worst case scenario? What would a successful season look like for the D-backs?

I think the realistic best-case scenario for Arizona is to make a push late and to finish at .500. I honestly think the worst-case scenario is that they spend the entire season right at .500, always just on the edges of competing. This makes the team moving higher-priced MLB talent for younger talent with more years of control a difficult proposition. It also makes it hard for the team to start turning over the team to its internal prospects. At the same time, it puts the team in a position to get a middling draft pick at best, while wasting another season of control of the likes of Robbie Ray, Jake Lamb, and Zack Greinke.

What will be the best part of watching the D-backs this year? Or, put another way, why should the casual fan (who’s not scoreboard watching) watch a D-backs game this season?

This is going to depend entirely on which team shows up. Honestly, the sooner the prospects start arriving, the more likely it is that there will be something special to watch. The one big exception to this could be Robbie Ray. Even in poor seasons, like 2004, fans still tuned in to Diamondbacks games to watch Randy Johnson pitch. Robbie Ray could be the kind of pitcher that people actually tune in to watch. Or, his curve resembles the flatter one he had early last season, and then he becomes a non-factor and fans across the country are waiting on prospect arrivals.