PHOENIX – While teams wait for the Nationals and Astros to complete the season and get on with offseason activities, the coming months should be particularly active for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
While Ketel Marte and Christian Walker stepped forward and showed they can offensively carry a team, it’s pitching which looms critical. With lefty Robbie Ray coming off a late-season visit to the IR but expected to be at full-strength for spring training, the rest of the staff, and bullpen, are in need of an overhaul.
Outside the lines, that already began and a search is on-going for a new pitching coach. Because Mike Butcher, who held the post for the past four years, was dismissed with little thanks from the club. It’s now a question of who wants this job and who’s willing to reconstruct a major league pitching staff at its core. While general manager Mike Hazen and field manager Torey Lovullo cited the usual “philosophical differences” for Butcher’s dismissal, the real reason was Butcher could not control the staff and allowed the bullpen to implode at an alarming rate.
First, there was Fernando Rodney in 2017 and although he earned 39 saves that year, he also suffered meltdowns at critical times.
Then, there was the odyssey of Brad Boxberger, anointed the 2018 closer and by September, his ineffectiveness provided a significant liability. Plus, there's the experiment of Greg Holland, who started the 2019 season as the closer but ended the campaign on the unemployment line was an abysmal failure
Only when Archie Bradley assumed the closer role over the final weeks of the season was there any hope for the future. Clandestinely, Bradley would still like to start but the success of 18 saves may change heads. Bradley continually says he’ll do whatever the team wants and Lovullo reiterates that Bradley is too valuable to be moved from the bullpen.
Which brings up the state of the rotation.
Assuming Ray is healthy and survives a trouble-free spring training, the veteran lefty assumes the role of the titular head. Then again, Ray could be moved this offseason.
That’s because he enters his free-agent season in 2021 and Hazen likes “to control” players. That means once Ray completes the 2020 season, he becomes a free agent and the Diamondbacks could lose all trade value. That’s the same situation with Paul Goldschmidt last off-season. The Diamondbacks managed to obtain value in catcher Carson Kelly and pitcher Luke Weaver and dealt Goldschmidt in the quest to obtain “something” before his venture into free-agency.
Should Hazen deal Ray, that could move Merrill Kelly to the top of the food chain. Coming off his rookie MLB season at 30-years-old, Kelly managed a losing season with a 13-14 record for 32 starts and a 4.42 ERA. These are not stellar numbers for a potential leader but until others step forward, Lovullo and Hazen may have no choice
Conversely, it’s likely Kelly could be a one-year pitcher in the desert as could Mike Leake, obtained from Seattle at the trade deadline. Coming into spring training, the Diamondbacks await the verdict on right-hander Taijuan Walker, who missed the 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Lovullo managed to give Walker one inning and that’s when the 26-year old started the final game of the season and went that one inning.
If Weaver, who missed most of the season with a right elbow injury, can transition back in the rotation, he has the ability to lock down hitters and string victories together. Ditto for lefty Alex Young, who should improve after his rookie season of 7-5 (3.56 ERA) in 15 starts.
Pitchers on the bubble, like Taylor Clarke, Zac Gullen, and Jon Duplantier are leftovers from the major league roster. Whomever Hazen acquires in the off-season, the Diamondbacks’ rotation would likely be regarded as marginal at best.
While the team scores runs and finished with a reasonable .252 team batting average with 220 home runs, it is pitching which paints October portraits.
During his tenure as Arizona general manager, Hazen has been tight-lipped when discussing personnel. That could especially true this off-season as he quietly attempts to overhaul a starting rotation in desperate of an overhaul.