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What’s next: D-backs offseason questions as free agency begins

Arizona Diamondbacks' Eduardo Escobar (5) is congratulated by Ketel Marte, left, and manager Torey Lovullo, right, after scoring against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the fourth inning of a baseball game Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The World Series is over and MLB front offices have begun their offseason scrambles.

Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen has already been busy with hiring new pitching coach Matt Herges and declining infielder Wilmer Flores’ and reliever T.J. McFarland’s options.

On Monday, free agents will be able to negotiate with any organization as most team options are due this weekend.

Here are questions for the D-backs’ offseason:

What direction will Arizona go in?

Last offseason, the D-backs retooled in an effort to get young assets while also staying competitive. It worked and Arizona finished with 85 wins despite losing some of its key players from years past.

With the developing farm system and a lot of players in their final years on contracts, this could be a similar offseason.

There are a few big fish in the 2021 free-agent class, headlined by 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts.

Adding to and developing the young core could be a good selling point for future free agents. But, the D-backs are probably most appealing as a team on the brink of being a playoff contender that needs a star or two to get over the hump.

There is some quality depth in this year’s class, so the D-backs could add some solid players this offseason while continuing to trade for prospects.

Pitcher Robbie Ray and outfielder David Peralta are both in their final seasons under contract, so perhaps they are good candidates to get moved for younger assets.

Robbie Ray: Extend or move?

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

In 2017, left-handed pitcher Robbie Ray finished seventh in the National League Cy Young race after a 2.89 ERA season. His FIP, though, was 3.72, a sign that he overperformed.

Since then, he has been rather up-and-down with a 4.17 ERA over the past two seasons. He was second in MLB in walks per nine innings and eighth in home runs per nine in 2019.

Next year is his last of arbitration before he becomes a free agent in 2021.

Barring a 2017-style resurgence, his value will only go down as the 2020 season progresses and other teams get less time to work him in.

So, this winter could be decision time for Hazen in regards to whether he believes Ray is in the team’s future. He was already subject to several trade rumors at the deadline in July.

Ray will begin the season at 28 years old, around prime age for a starter. Much of the D-backs rotation is aimed at the future with Zac Gallen (24) and Luke Weaver (25) atop of it, so Hazen could try to flip Ray for a quality pitching prospect.

Look for teams in need of starters now, like the New York Yankees if they strike out with big free agents or the Los Angeles Angels if they do the same, to come up with offers at the Winter Meetings.

What will Hazen do with the players entering their final arbitration year?

Besides Ray and Peralta, the D-backs have several other key players entering their final year of arbitration. They include:

  • SS Nick Ahmed
  • 3B Jake Lamb
  • OF Steven Souza Jr.
  • P Taijuan Walker
  • P Andrew Chafin

All of these players will be free agents in 2021 unless extended or non-tendered, so who should be granted a new deal this winter?

Ahmed seems to be the most likely to get a new contract this winter. He has stayed healthy and productive over the past two years and is a stalwart defensively. Plus, his OPS+ has improved in each of the past four seasons.

Arizona’s top shortstop prospect, Geraldo Perdomo, is just 20-years old and has yet to reach Double-A, so extending Ahmed for at least a couple of years seems very plausible. Plus, Hazen traded former top shortstop prospect Jazz Chisolm to acquire Gallen, which solidifies Ahmed’s future as the starter.

Hazen said to The Athletic’s Zach Buchanan that he is not anticipating Lamb being a non-tender candidate, so it appears the D-backs will give him another year to bounce-back, likely as a bench bat. The 2017 All-Star has played in just 134 games over two years largely due to injuries.

Peralta will be 32 when next season starts.

When healthy, he is one of the most productive bats in the D-backs lineup. But an extension at this stage of his career after an injury-riddled season is risky unless he re-establishes himself as a staple of the lineup early in 2020.

Souza has not played since September of 2018. His last league-average hitting year was in 2017 with Tampa Bay, however, injuries have not allowed him to establish himself in the desert.

Seth Beer, a prospect acquired in the Zack Greinke trade, could be an intriguing option at some point in 2020. But for now, Hazen may hold onto Souza to helm the starting job.

(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Walker is tricky.

He is only 26, but as far as deciding to keep him long term, he’ll need to pitch without health setbacks in 2020.

He had Tommy John surgery in 2018 and missed basically a year and a half of action.

Do the D-backs bring back any of their 2020 free agents?

Key free agents:

  • C Alex Avila
  • OF Adam Jones
  • OF Jarrod Dyson
  • RHP Yoshihisa Hirano

This largely depends on who the D-backs non-tender or not. If Souza and Peralta both retain their spots, then Jones will likely be cut out. Dyson could be as well, but he adds an element of speed to the team and is useful off the bench.

Avila was not awful as a backup last year, but with catching prospect Dalton Varsho looking increasingly ready to make the jump, Avila could get squeezed out.

Carson Kelly (R) and Varsho (L) can be a dynamic platoon, but if the D-backs want to wait for Varsho a bit longer (and extend his service time), then Avila could get a cheap deal to hold down the back up spot.

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Hirano, 36, struggled last season (4.75 ERA), but his 2018 (2.44 ERA) was so good that perhaps giving him another shot on a one-year deal is worth it.

Will Hazen get aggressive for free agents?

Hazen has yet to add any expensive free agents as GM and that strategy has worked out.

Arizona’s best two hitters last season were Ketel Marte and Eduardo Escobar, two players who Hazen extended or re-signed for very team-friendly deals.

But, Arizona was on the brink of a playoff spot last season and saved significant money by trading Zack Greinke. Breaking the bank for an Anthony Rendon or Gerrit Cole seems like an extreme jump, but perhaps going after some veterans who could add depth on short deals could be worthwhile.

What free agents make sense for Arizona?

Second Base

Last season, the D-backs tried Marte at two positions: second base and center field.

Despite being new to the position, he was actually better in center field with six defensive runs saved (tied for eighth in MLB) and an eighth-best defensive rating in the league by Fangraphs.

If the D-backs stick with him in the outfield, then adding a second baseman will be needed, especially after declining Flores’ option.

One option is Starlin Castro, a 29-year old whose $16 million option was declined by Miami earlier this week.

He played 162 games last year while belting 22 home runs. The last time he was on a contending team, he was an All-Star for the Yankees in 2017.

Another possibility is Jonathan Schoop from Minnesota. The former All-Star had a solid 2019, hitting .256 with 23 home runs for the Twins. He only made 7.5 million last year, but will be a bit more expensive given his success in 2019.

A third option is Scooter Gennett (lefty), who slugged in 2017 and 2018 (.508 slugging) for Cincinnati. Last year was a different story, but he could be a low risk, high ceiling addition on a cheap deal.

Right Field

The D-backs could also use a right fielder if they decide to move on from Souza.

Josh Rojas and Tim Locastro could earn larger roles, and Beer is intriguing down the road. But if the D-backs want a more sure option, then Kole Calhoun could be the guy.

The Angels have a tough decision in possibly declining his $14 million option, but they are likely saving up for a run at Gerrit Cole. Plus, their best prospect is outfielder Jo Adell, who will likely take over Calhoun’s spot quickly.

So, if Calhoun is let go, he could be a huge get.

He is an Arizona native who played for Arizona State. He is a Gold-Glove winner and he hit for the most power of his career last season with 33 home runs and a .467 slugging percentage.

Some other right field options for Arizona are Yasiel Puig, Nicholas Castellanos, Avisail Garcia and former D-back Adam Eaton (if option declined by Washington).

Pitcher

If anything, the D-backs are logjammed at starting pitcher.

Even if Ray gets moved, then Gallen, Weaver and Walker will likely have spots. Veteran Mike Leake is getting paid too much not to have one ($15 million). For the final slot or two, the D-backs have Merril Kelly, Jon Duplantier, Taylor Clarke and Alex Young plus a couple of prospects to choose from.

The reliever market is pretty vast though, so that is where Hazen could swing a few deals to add depth.

Will Smith and Will Harris are the top dogs of the market, but righties like Joe Smith (Houston) or Steve Cisheck (Chicago Cubs) could be more attainable while also becoming reliable options.

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