Money, expectations change the game for Diamondbacks
PHOENIX — Colorado Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich probably did not realize it when he said it, but his answer about the transformation the NL West underwent this past offseason shed a lot of light on what happened in the desert.
He talked about how the division looks like it will be very tough, with the caveat that injuries could play a factor. But in terms of the talent influx, he was not fazed.
“We’re used to it. Used to the Dodgers having a lot of names, we’re used to the Giants having good teams here — they’ve had them for the last half-decade. So it’s good, it makes you better. It absolutely makes you better.”
Notice an omission?
The Arizona Diamondbacks were arguably the stars of the offseason, at least in terms of exposure, as their signing of Zack Greinke and trade for Shelby Miller made headlines and their additions of Jean Segura and Tyler Clippard were notable, too.
Notified that he left the D-backs out of that group, Bridich said he was not necessarily surprised by what the Diamondbacks did, but added pretty much all of baseball was shocked by how much the team paid in order to bring Greinke into the fold.
The contract is for six years and $206.5 million, easily the richest deal ever handed out by the organization. Account for inflation and the natural rise in value of contracts, and it’s still far and away the most lucrative contract for anyone wearing any of the copious amount of colors the D-backs have donned since their inaugural year of 1998.
It was the type of move the Diamondbacks have never really made, and one that announced to all of baseball that they are planning on being a factor in 2016 and beyond.
Then again, you know what they say about the best laid plans…
If the D-backs are concerned about big heads due to being “offseason winners,” they need look no further than to a division rival as a bit of a cautionary tale.
Last year, the San Diego Padres remade their roster by dipping into free agency and the trade market, landing outfielders Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton as well as pitcher James Shields. Then, just before the season began, they acquired stud closer Craig Kimbrel in a trade that also netted them Melvin Upton, Jr.
While the Dodgers and Giants had been the class of the NL West for a few years — and the Giants were coming off a World Series victory — all eyes were on the Padres and their new-look roster full of big names and All-Stars.
At the All-Star break San Diego was 41-49 and fourth place in the division, which is where they finished the season with 74 wins.
Prior to the 2015 season, the last time the Padres had a winning record was in 2010, and the last time they made the postseason was 2006. The moves, which were made by GM A.J. Preller, were designed to end the drought, but instead all they led to was increased expectations that were never met.
Is it possible an organization that was unfamiliar with high levels of success crumble under the weight of all that pressure?
“Not really,” Preller said. “I think it’s probably a good thing to have people excited, and ultimately the best teams play when there’s expectation.”
Preller said he still has high expectations and noted how things are different for his club this season compared to last.
“I think it’s probably going to be a little different story this year when you’re not getting picked as the team that, maybe, is the favorite going into this thing or the team that ‘won the offseason’ but it really just comes down to preparing the right way and playing good baseball, and that’s no different than any other year.”
In terms of how this could be relevant to the Diamondbacks, they are indeed similar to San Diego in that they have been praised for their work this offseason and are now viewed by some as a team that could (and maybe should) contend in a very difficult division.
But where the teams differ is in how they were constructed.
Yes, the D-backs went out and spent some serious money on Greinke and gave up great assets to land Miller, but for the most part are returning the same group that won 79 games last season. It was a 14-win improvement from the previous season, and it put them on a trajectory that appears to be sustainable with the kind of lineup they are expected to field.
While the Padres remade much of their roster the D-backs just added to theirs, identifying a single need (starting pitching) and doing whatever it took to address it.
And in this case, it required six years and $206.5 million to bring in a pitcher who compiled a 51-15 record with a 2.30 ERA and a 1.027 WHIP over the last three seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I think they surprised baseball in terms of the money that they gave Greinke, but Greinke — it’s not like only Greinke and Shelby Miller define that team,” Bridich said. “They’ve been doing a nice job collecting talent and creating that talent for a few years now.”
The Diamondbacks felt good enough about the roster they already had to make investing in Greinke and Co. worth it. Like Trevor Cahill in 2012 and Dan Haren in 2008, they felt like they were close enough to warrant making a big move in order to, hopefully, land the missing piece to a championship puzzle.
Of course, we all know how those moves worked out, with neither appearing in a single postseason game for the Diamondbacks.
That is, at least in part, probably why Diamondbacks brass has been so quick to tell anyone who would listen they are not “all-in” on 2016, that this is not a “playoffs-or-bust” season. Instead, they say, the team is working on a window that is upwards of five years or so, with the idea that they will at least be building toward a championship this season even if they do not win one.
It could all be true, as outside of the 1997 Miami Marlins championship teams are generally not constructed in one offseason.
Then again, these Diamondbacks were not built over the last few months. Many of the pieces have been in place for at least a few seasons, growing and improving to the point where the team felt like this was the time to strike.
So, they did, and at the same time served notice to the rest of baseball that they are ready to play with the big boys, both on the field and in the budget.
But remember the only thing a higher payroll equates to is more attention, and for all the the noise Arizona made this winter, the Dodgers and Giants are still playing ball in a different financial league than the D-backs, whose payroll is expected to be about $100 million for this season.
Last year’s World Series Champions, the Kansas City Royals, had a payroll in the bottom-half of the league, and as Bridich pointed out, there are different ways to build a winner.
“I think the Padres didn’t work out for them that way, the Dodgers did not fulfill their expectations last year despite having whatever you’d say at every position. So it’s not that easy — building a roster of high-priced and familiar names doesn’t always work. There’s more to team — a hell of a lot more to team than individual people and large contracts, so those teams that decide to do that, those are their decisions. We worry about us.”
Some clubs throw money around while others develop prospects. The Diamondbacks hope to have used a combination of the two paths, and maybe it will lead to a return to the playoffs.
Or, the season will end in disappointment.
It’s probably worth noting that of the last two times Arizona reached the postseason, in 2007 and 2011, in neither instance did they enter the season with any kind of real expectations. Hopes, maybe, but nothing more than that.
The element of surprise, of being the underdog, can make life easier throughout the course of a 162-game season. Last year’s D-backs were in that boat, but this year’s club will have no such luxury.
The key for the Diamondbacks, according to Preller, is understanding it’s a long summer. The rough start last season changed everything for the Padres, who quickly went from postseason favorite to team in flux.
“I think each team’s different, every year is different,” he said. “I think the biggest thing in baseball, it’s a long season so you’ve got to understand you may not get off to a great start but obviously there’s a lot of ebb and flow to the year, and I’m sure they’re going to find that out this year.”