Offseason decisions: The Diamondbacks have it easy

One of a series on dilemmas facing major league teams this winter.

The Diamondbacks come into the offseason with fewer issues needing to be handled than for quite some time. The turnaround in 2011 was certainly unexpected, but in the end, they won the National League West by a comfortable margin, and have no major free-agent departures to replace this winter. There will likely be some fine-tuning from GM Kevin Towers, but it looks likely that the Opening Day roster in 2012 will be similar, if not to the Opening Day roster in 2011, than the postseason roster from this October.

Of those 25 men, 23 are currently signed by the Diamondbacks for next year. The sole exceptions are backup first baseman Lyle Overbay and pinch-hitter Sean Burroughs. The latter should probably have been Comeback Player of the Year, simply for coming from so far back. Lance Berkman wasn’t eating out of Las Vegas garbage cans last year. Burroughs was. To go from that to second in the majors for pinch-hits seems a unique achievement.

However, he will probably start 2012 back in the minors, as the D-backs await, with hope and a little trepidation. the return of shortstop Stephen Drew. Drew broke his ankle in a nasty freak accident at home plate, and also underwent surgery for a sports hernia recently. His status for Opening Day remains uncertain, and likely won’t be known until spring training. That’s really the only question-mark concerning the Diamondbacks’ starting position players, and explains why the team chose to re-sign both Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald. Alternatively, Towers could be trying to corner the market in scrappiness.

Second-base was addressed by inking Aaron Hill to a two-year, $11 million contract, negotiated after the team declined the $8 million option for Hill’s services. The Diamondbacks will be looking for something like the form he showed after his trade from Toronto. In 33 games for Arizona, he had a line of 315/.386/.492, compared to just 225/.270/.313 with the Blue Jays. If Hill hadn’t been signed, the team would probably have moved Ryan Roberts to second, and looked for a third basemen on the free-agent or trade market. This shift no longer is necessary.

With a bench of Bloomquist, McDonald, Henry Blanco and Geoff Blum—yeah, Kevin Towers loves him some veteran goodness—there’s only one spot apparently left. That may well be a left-handed first-baseman, to back up Paul Goldschmidt, who looked credible enough after making the leap from Double-A. He hit .250/.333/.474 in 177 plate appearances PAs. with some long home runs, as well as notching a postseason grand-slam against the Brewers in Game Three of the NLDS. Arizona would like Goldschmidt to fill a position that has been problematic for them recently. Over the past five seasons, 42 qualifying first-basemen in the National League have had a .790 OPS or better, but none played for the Diamondbacks.

If Goldschmidt can fill the hole, it’ll be a significant help. However, his limited major league experience would suggest some contingency plan, just in case. The team did use Overbay as a back-up toward the end of the year, but thus far, while quickly re-signing most of their other free-agent eligible players, there has been no sign of the D-backs will do that with Overbay. Whoever they sign shouldn’t expect a full-time job, as Goldschmidt has earned the position by default for now. The odd start and pinch-hit appearance is about all he’ll get, though NL Manager of the Year Kirk Gibson expects older players to mentor the younger ones.

If they do sign a first baseman, that would leave the D-backs with three true outfielders, in starters Chris Young, Gerardo Parra and Justin Upton, with Young the “grizzled veteran” of the bunch at age 28—Gold Glove winner Parra and Upton will both be only 24 on Opening Day. It’s a scary though for the rest of the West to realize that, yes, Upton quite possibly will be better next season than his .898 OPS in 2011, giving Matt Kemp some competition.

The D-backs would then muddle through in terms of a fourth outfielder. Parra can play center or right, to give those guys a day here or there, with Roberts, or possibly Bloomquist (though Arizona fans would rather it wasn’t), covering for Parra in left as necessary.

As an aside, one thing you can forget about entirely is the Diamondbacks trading Upton. Last winter, Towers seemed to be gauging the market for the young star, though how serious the “For Sale” sign was could certainly be questioned. This winter, Towers has explicitly stated he has “zero interest” in a deal. That’s hardly a surprise, given Arizona’s turnaround happening sooner than many people expected, as well as the excellent season Upton delivered and his long, largely team-friendly contract.

The starting rotation seems slightly uncertain, with the main question being whether to tender Joe Saunders a contract. The team will have to make a decision on that by early December, and the indication is that Arizona will spend the time before then kicking the tires on a few other pitchers to gauge the market. Saunders is in his final year of arbitration, and will likely make around $8 million in 2012. If the D-backs figure they can get a better bang for their buck using that cash, they’ll do so, and let the veteran go.

Saunders had a solid year, with a 3.69 ERA. His FIP was more than a run worse, so regression is expected, but perhaps less than you’d think, as he has consistently outperformed his FIP—by 0.58 since 2007, fourth-most in the majors. That said, it’s by no means certain he’ll be worth the hefty salary, so Towers is looking around, with Mark Buehrle one possibility. Hiroki Kuroda is another name that has been mentioned; Towers has admired him since Kuroda debuted against Towers’ Padres in 2008. It’s known that Kuroda would like to stay in Los Angeles, but if the Dodgers can’t afford him… Well, Los Angeles is only a couple of hundred miles away.

Kuroda’s preference for a one-year deal is seen as a positive for the Diamondbacks, due to the strong pitching in their farm system. Jarrod Parker made his major league debut in September, with 5.2 shutout innings against Los Angeles. (That game is likely remembered more for Arizona coming back from five runs down with two outs in the 10th inning to win on Roberts’ walk-off grand-slam.) Parker is likely to join Josh Collmenter, Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy in the 2012 rotation, along with Saunders or his replacement.

But Parker is just the first ripple of a potentially lethal tsunami. Behind Parker lurk names in the minors like Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs and Archie Bradley, all highly rated prospects who could begin contributing to the major league team as early as next season. That’s why the team doesn’t need to sign Saunders, or anyone else, to a long-term contract, since the odds are there will be someone younger, cheaper and better coming up the pipeline before long. It’s only a slight stretch to see a scenario where, by the end of next season, Arizona could have one of the best rotations in the majors, with all the members earning close to league minimum.

Finally, the bullpen will also be much as last year. It was completely re-invented under Towers; by the end of the year, there were no survivors from the relief corps that finished 2010. That’s probably a good thing, given how badly that bunch stank: That season, the Diamondbacks lost 25 games where they were tied or ahead after seven innings. This past year, that number dropped to six, behind excellent work from likely future closer David Hernandez and incumbent J.J. Putz. They combined for 56 saves and a 2.83 ERA, playing their home games in one of the more hitter-friendly parks in baseball, and will anchor the ‘pen once more.

A little further back, the team may look to acquire another left-handed reliever. This year, the role almost exclusively belonged to Joe Paterson, a Rule 5 pick from the Giants organization. Paterson stuck on the team, with a solid 3.44 FIP, helped by a funky sidearm style and sweeping breaking ball. However, Gibson’s fondness for match-ups would be helped by a second southpaw. No specific names have surfaced to this point, but given Towers’ success with the bullpen (as he had in San Diego), it seems likely the GM has a firm idea of what he wants.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

All told, the Diamondbacks will likely be one of the quietest teams this winter, Barely a month after the end of the World Series, the 2012 roster seems to be virtually locked down, with one or two exceptions. Whether the team can repeat in the NL West will, of course, remain to be proved.

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