Remaking the Diamondbacks

After starting the 2003 season by losing nine straight games and 25 of their first 28 contests, the Detroit Tigers finished 43-119 for one of the worst records in baseball history. Then, like any team that lost 119 games the previous season, Detroit set out to make major changes in the offseason. Rather than begin (or continue, depending on your view of the Tigers) a long rebuilding process, they instead chose to sign and trade for several established veterans in an attempt to restore immediate respectability to the franchise.

Although some of the acquisitions (Fernando Vina, Jason Johnson) were busts, quality performances from new Tigers Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Guillen, Rondell White, Ugueth Urbina, and Esteban Yan led to a 29-game improvement in 2004. Detroit’s strategy for remaking the team isn’t exactly ideal for creating a situation capable of sustained success and going 72-90 isn’t exactly a big accomplishment, but it’s certainly a whole lot easier to take than winning 43 games. So in that sense, I guess what they set out to do was a success.

Though the 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks weren’t quite historically bad like the Tigers were in 2003, they were plenty awful. Despite winning their first series of the year and sitting at a respectable 12-14 after 26 games, Arizona finished 51-111 for the worst record in all of baseball. Their 615 runs scored were the fewest of any team in the majors and their 899 runs allowed ranked 27th out of 30 teams. Unlike the Tigers, who haven’t had a .500 season since 1993, the Diamondbacks’ collapse came after an 84-win season that was the team’s fifth straight year with a winning record.

From the assortment of moves they’ve made so far this offeason, it is clear that the Diamondbacks have taken a very similar approach to the one the Tigers had following their awful season. Just like Detroit, rather than rebuild the team around young players in the hopes of competing in the future, Arizona has signed and traded for a number of established veterans in the hopes of accelerating the whole process of remaking the team. Despite trading the team’s best player in Randy Johnson, there is little doubt that the Diamondbacks will be a better team in 2005. Whether or not they will make the leap back into contention or simply end up with the same sort of improved-but-disappointing season the Tigers had in 2004 is the big question.

While losing Johnson (as well as Steve Finley, who was traded at midseason) is a big blow, the Diamondbacks have added a tremendous amount of veterans to what was a very inexperienced team last season, signing free agents Troy Glaus, Russ Ortiz, Craig Counsell, Kelly Stinnett, Shawn Estes, and Royce Clayton, and trading for Shawn Green and Javier Vazquez. Those acquisitions, along with a year of experience under the belts of last year’s rookies Chad Tracy, Scott Hairston, Luis Terrero, Greg Aquino, and Brian Bruney should give the team much more depth than they had in what was an injury-plagued 2004 season. Of course, building a deeper, more experienced team is one thing, while building a good team is quite another.

Assuming Arizona’s roster remains relatively intact (Shea Hillenbrand is on his way out and rumors have Vazquez being shopped), they have put together a tremendously risky core of players. Glaus missed 104 games with a severe shoulder injury last season and played a total of just 149 games over the past two seasons. Vazquez was incredibly disappointing in his one season in New York, posting a 4.91 ERA overall and a 6.92 ERA after the All-Star break, amid rumors that he was pitching hurt. Green hit just .253/.335/.399 in the first half before a good final three months saved him from having the worst season of his career. Even with the second-half turnaround, Green turned in a second straight mediocre campaign that was his worst since he was a 24-year-old in 1997.

Clayton’s Coors-inflated numbers mask the fact that he’s a 35-year-old shortstop with a career OPS of .684 who hit just .259/.315/.334 away from the greatest hitter’s ballpark in baseball history last year. Meanwhile, even Estes also calling Coors Field home last year doesn’t make up his 5.84 ERA or the 5.73 ERA he had with the Cubs in 2003. Like Clayton, Counsell is another mid-30s infielder who was miserable offensively in 2004, hitting just .241/.330/.315. Even Ortiz, who is the safest bet in the bunch, has a strikeout-to-walk ratio that is sliding dangerously close to even (143-to-112 in 2004) and now takes his 4.00 career ERA — which has come exclusively in pitcher’s ballparks — to the hitter’s haven known as Bank One Ballpark. And those are just the new guys — holdover Luis Gonzalez missed 57 games with an elbow injury last year.

Like almost all the teams in the franchise’s brief seven-year history, the 2005 Diamondbacks are being built to win now. This strategy has worked quite well for them in the past, when they’ve also had plenty of health risks and older players, so it could certainly work out again this time. However, when nearly every core player on the team is on the wrong side of 30, coming off a season that was sub par, or has missed significant time with injuries, the likelihood of that core staying healthy and productive together doesn’t seem particularly good. Maybe Glaus stays healthy, Ortiz avoids falling apart, and Green hits like he did in the second half of last season, but then Arizona still has to hope that Vazquez bounces back, Gonzalez stays in the lineup, and the Clayton/Counsell duo can give them some sort of reasonable production at a combined age of 69.

The Diamondbacks have made some big moves this offseason and they will undoubtedly be vastly improved this season. At the same time, I can’t help but think Arizona fans are in for a disappointing year. Rebounding from a 111-loss season by bringing in boatloads of risky veterans does a lot to restore hope in the team, but it is not the way to put a sustainable winner in place for the long term. The Diamondbacks will take several steps forward this year regardless of whether or not everyone stays healthy and productive, but the future is not especially bright and even their prospects for 2005 hinge an awful lot on everything going right. Much like the model laid forth by the Mets and Orioles in recent years, what Arizona has done this offseason seems like a lot of hype and false hope on the way to a bunch of 75-win seasons.

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