Five Questions: Arizona Diamondbacks

1. Weren’t these guys supposed to be bankrupt?

The Arizona Diamondbacks decided that patient decade-long building through the farm system was not for them. They had a different vision of their franchise, one that eschewed the no nonsense, build through the farm “moral high road” to a world championship that the Royals and Blue Jays undertook in decades past. Arizona looked at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, noted that veterans had catapulted the Marlins from chumps to champs in 1997 and must have muttered to themselves – “Not bad, but what took you so long?”

Attracting high-priced veterans almost from day one, the Diamondbacks were a legitimate contender in their second season of play and world champions in just their 4th. The glorious 2001 version was already one of the oldest ball clubs in baseball, and unless more expensive talent were brought in quickly, a drift towards mediocrity was inevitable.

Apparently the revenues from the ballpark were insufficient to allow for continuing increases in player’s salaries, leading to large-scale deferment. By 2003, the party was over and the day of reckoning was nearing. Under the weight of declining attendance, debts and interest payments on deferred salaries, team finances sank.

The one bright light was that most of the big contracts were up at the end of 2004, with the exceptions of the Randy Johnson and Luis Gonzalez deals. The abysmal performance of the team last season (51-111) made change unavoidable: a new Diamondbacks team would have to be created from the ashes of the old one. The problem was how to do that and deal with the mountain of debt.

Enter five new general partners and a bushel-full of minority partnerships. To combat a debt of roughly 200 million dollars, an ambitious financial restructuring took place. Shares of the team were sold to 33 minority partnerships, which netted a commitment of 99 million dollars over 10 years. Former player-agent Jeff Moorad is the “CEO-elect” after Jerry Colangelo stepped down after last season. Moorad is to be the 5th general partner and plans to inject another 50 million dollars into the franchise.

2. Does recapitalization and subsequent investment in marquee free-agents make sense?

The blueprint for the D-backs activities this off-season was inspired by the recent travails of one of baseball’s most storied franchises – the Detroit Tigers. If you recall, the Tabbies brought in a premium free-agent (Ivan Rodriguez) and other veterans (Urbina, Rondell White, Fernando Vina, Carlos Guillen) in the wake of a season of futility of historic proportions. This infusion of talent stabilized the club and reversed the decline in attendance. It has bought the Tigers time until their farm system, moribund for the past two decades, can finally get into gear. In this context, their modest 72-90 win-loss record and attendance of nearly 2 million (an increase of about 0.5 million over 2003) must be viewed as unqualified successes.

Having a prize asset like Randy Johnson to dangle as trade bait put the D-backs a leg up in the rebuilding process. Two veteran players (Javier Vazquez and Shawn Green), one promising pitching prospect (Brad Halsey) and significant financial relief is an excellent return for one of the premier pitchers in baseball.

Earlier, the team signed two veteran free-agents, pitcher Russ Ortiz and third baseman Troy Glaus, to long term deals. Arizona is almost certainly overpaying for Glaus and Ortiz, but as long as they had money to spend, D-back fans should be pleased they didn’t waste it completely. Veteran Jose Cruz Junior was acquired from Tampa Bay to bolster the outfield.

Somewhat less optimistically, has-beens Craig Counsell and Royce Clayton are the starting middle infielders, despite the presence of two decent young players – Alex Cintron and Scott Hairston. Cintron will be the “super-” utility infielder, and Hairston is likely on his way out, apparently deemed unsuitable for second base. Ironically, Counsell and Clayton have been brought in the bolster the defense, while their inability to bolster a terrible offense is conveniently overlooked. Some things, like the overvaluing of mediocre veterans, never change.

Nevertheless, there is enough talent to reach .500. With the Giants reeling from the absence of Barry Bonds for an indefinite period of time, the division looks ripe for the picking, and a miracle mini-pennant is conceivable. But 4th place is the most likely destiny for the 2005 Arizona Diamondbacks.

Faced with the alternative of playing kids again this year and losing over a 100 games, the moves in the off-season (most of them, anyways) make sense. Another terrible season would certainly have sent attendance into a funk, leaving less cash for future years. There aren’t enough talented youngsters in the organization to make a “play the kids” scenario plausible for 2005 without alienating the fan base.

3. What went wrong in 2004?

Everything except Randy Johnson.

Luis Gonzalez, formerly the linchpin of the offense, suffered through injuries and was forced to cut his season short. With the exception of Brandon Webb, every promising young pitcher of 2003 took a major step backwards. That list includes standout 2003 rookies Oscar Villareal and Jose Valverde. The absence of rental player Richie Sexson for nearly the entire season spelled doom for the offense. Those are some of the symptoms of the illness. One of the root causes was an awful pair of major trades that took place in the 2003-04 off-season.

The D-backs parted with three young players (Spivey, Overbay and Capuano) in exchange for a one-year rental (Sexson). It was a classic “hanging-on” trade, in which a team gives up expected future value for an immediate strengthening of the club. Unfortunately, the trade could hardly have turned out worse for Arizona, as Overbay and Capuano played well for the Brewers and Sexson missed nearly the entire season and jumped ship to sign with the Mariners after it ended.

The second deal sent Curt Schilling to Boston, netting young pitchers Brandon Lyon and Casey Fossum. While Fossum had shown flashes of brilliance in Beantown, his frail frame cast doubt on his ability to handle a starter’s workload. And presto, he was hurt most of the year and pitched badly when on the mound. He will now ply his trade in Tampa Bay, with Arizona fortunate enough to get a player as good as Jose Cruz in return.

Brandon Lyon hasn’t had a successful season since breaking in with the Blue Jays in 2001. Injuries and the gopher ball have ground down what once looked like a promising career. He was of absolutely no help to Arizona is 2004 (missing the entire season) and isn’t likely to be of much help in 2005. The return for Curt Schilling was as close to nothing as a major league team could realistically get.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Quite apart from the dismal outcome, these two trades represent a complete strategic failure on the part of the Arizona brain trust. Coming off a near-miss season (2003) with a talented but aging team, what course of action would you take if you were general manager?

Option 1 would have been to keep the team together, add a bat (like Sexson) and make one last run at a playoff spot before the team disintegrated due to old age.

Option 2 would have been to keep the young players, trade Schilling (and perhaps Johnson) to get some quality prospects. The hope would be that a few years down the line, a great core of young players would emerge a la mid-90s Cleveland Indians.

The D-backs chose Option 3: half-measures.

4. How good are the young players?

Middle of the road.

Aside from Brandon Webb, none of the young players the D-backs have showcased the last two years have a decent shot at major league stardom. Alex Cintron and Chad Tracy could be serviceable major leaguers for years to come but they aren’t going to be stars. Shawn Green and Craig Counsell have pushed Scott Hairston out of the starting lineup and he appears to be on his way out.

Mike Gosling had a poor Triple-A season last year, and yet he’s been penciled into the starting rotation and (aside from Brad Halsey), is regarded as the team best starting pitching prospect. Brian Bruney, Jose Valverde, Greg Aquino and Oscar Villareal figure to get bullpen innings this year and one of them may step forward and become a quality ace reliever at some point.

The three most exciting prospects on the farm are shortstop Sergio Santos, Carlos Quentin and Conor Jackson. Jackson is being reconverted to first base and figures to be challenging incumbent Chad Tracy by the end of the year for playing time. Quentin had an impressive pro debut in the California and Texas Leagues last season (55 XBH/ 452 AB) and is the most likely of the trio to become a star. Santos is big for a shortstop and will likely be moved to third base in the upcoming years. He has enough power for third base, but needs to improve his command of the strike zone (89 K/24W in Double-A) if he is to have more than a journeyman’s career.

It’s apparent that the future nucleus of the next Diamondback championship team does not yet exist. As such, desert dwellers should temper their expectations for their ballclub: these are the very early stages of a rebuilding program.

5. What year will the Arizona Diamondbacks return to the playoffs?

Assuming the present playoff format remains unchanged, it’s very unlikely we will see this club in the playoffs for the rest of this decade.

References & Resources
For regular coverage of the D-backs from a fan’s perspective, check out the AZ Snake Pit.

For daily media coverage, the official site, in particular, the news archives is a good place to start.

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