Fans hate to hear it, especially when it comes from the mouth of a player who is leaving their city for (usually) the Yankees, but baseball is a business, and the best owners treat it as one. They own baseball teams for two reasons, they love the game and they want to make a buck. The best fans can hope for is that their owner puts winning on an equal plane with making a dollar, because any owner who says they don't care about the money is flat out lying.
As the Diamondbacks head into the offseason it would be hard not to consider 2005 a success. Though the Diamondbacks won't make the playoffs, they have already made a 17 game improvement over last year and that number would inflate to a 21 game improvement if they can win just four of their last 12 this year. Unfortunately improving on a 51-111 record isn't necessarily the most difficult task, especially when you add $35 million dollars worth of players, the rough estimate of what the D'Backs paid for Troy Glaus, Shawn Green, Javier Vazquez, and Russ Ortiz.
Curiously though, according to USA Today the Diamondbacks total salary at the beginning of 2005 was actually nearly seven million less than what they started with in 2004. As the Diamondbacks head into the offseason fans have to wonder if this offseason will feature as many high profile signings as the last offseason did. The simply answer...probably not.
How is it possible that the Diamondbacks managed to trim their payroll with those signings? First of all, they lost quite a bit of salary at the end of last season. For each signing there was a player who left making nearly as much, and in some cases more. Add Javier Vazquez at $11 million, lose Randy Johnson and his $16 million; add Shawn Green at a hair under $8 mil, lose Richie Sexson and his $8.75 million dollar price tag. Troy Glaus came to the D'Backs making $9 million in the first year of a four year deal, while Steve Finley was traded last year clearing his $7 million dollar salary. Even Russ Ortiz and his bloated $7.375 deal came on the heals of finally clearing Matt Mantei's incredible $7 million a year. All told, that four for four swap netted the D'Backs a profit of $4 million dollars. Now, would those four players have gotten the D'Backs more wins? Maybe, but you'd be hard pressed to make that case.
So what do the Diamondbacks have going into the 2006 season? Raises for the five highest paid players on the payroll, and some tough decisions for their young players. Glaus, Ortiz, Vazquez, Green, and Luis Gonzalez will all get modest raises in '06, and Brandon Webb will finally started getting paid close to what a solid #3 starter is worth, $2 million in '06 after making just $715,000 this year. As if we needed to be reminded that the Diamondbacks bullpen was a headache, the offseason will continue the pain.
Brandon Lyon and Jose Valverde have been stellar at different times this season, and there is hope that Greg Aquino will bounce back, giving the Diamondbacks three different guys who have had success at the end of games. This means two things, the Diamondbacks will likely not pursue a proven closer (like Billy Wagner) during the offseason, and there will be uncertainty at the end of the game leading into 2006. Still, at the very least this means the Diamondbacks won't be looking to add salary at this slot.
Middle relief on the other hand could be an issue. Oscar Villarreal has not been the same pitcher he was in 2003, and Todd Worrell hasn't been the same pitcher he was with the Giants. Mike Koplove could come back strong, or his expiration date may have been passed. Buddy Groom is exactly what you would expect from a 40+ year old lefty who has never been dominant. Brian Bruney is another pitcher you can add to the list of guys who have had temporary success, Jason Bulger has been less than impressive since his callup and Brandon Medders has been less than stellar. With the exception of Groom, virtually all those pitchers figure to be in the mix for the bullpen in 2006, which means there isn't one guy who could legitimately be considered 'dependable.' One has to assume the Diamondbacks will be on the lookout for bullpen help in the offseason, and that could be good news. Other than closers, and a very small list of set up guys, most middle relief comes at a discounted price, meaning the Diamondbacks could add as many as three pieces to a bullpen that was by far the weakest link in the Diamondbacks chain without breaking the bank.
The starting rotation provides some questions as well. While Vazquez, Webb, and Ortiz are locked up, Shawn Estes will be a free agent, as will Claudio Vargas. Estes is unlikely to be resigned, or if he is it is doubtful he'll receive even the $2.5 million dollar deal he got from the D'Backs in 2005. Youngster Dustin Nippert has impressed in his short time with the Diamondbacks this season, and may be ready to jump into the big league rotation full time in '06, leaving one spot. While Halsey and Vargas have both been impressive for stretches, neither has pitched their way into big contracts. Still, pitching is the most precious commodity in baseball, and left handed pitching at that, which means you might see a team looking to snake Halsey for a little more than the Diamondbacks are willing to pay. Vargas on the other hand could command much more. When he's been on he's been fantastic, and many around baseball have made comparisons between Vargas and Vazquez, meaning a team looking to the future might be willing to give Vargas a long term deal, and even if the Diamondbacks were willing to match another team's price, one thing they will likely not do for Vargas is guarantee him a spot in the rotation, giving him yet another reason to jump ship.
Around the infield things seem set, if a bit crowded. When the Diamondbacks resigned Tony Clark to a two year extension, alarms went off as people wondered if Clark, who has been Arizona's best hitter this season, was being resigned as a backup to top prospect Conor Jackson, or as a starter, which could put Jackson on the trading block, where there would be many suitors. Craig Counsell will remain at second base, and Glaus at third, but shortstop Royce Clayton's deal will be up at the end of the season, and it's anybody's guess what the Diamondbacks have planned for that spot. Clayton will almost certainly not be resigned, and the D'Backs have two minor leaguers who will get their shot to claim the job.
Stephen Drew was the Diamondbacks first round pick in 2004, and had a fantastic first season, despite struggling with an injury after being moved to Double-A Tennessee. Meanwhile Sergio Santos, after major shoulder surgery prior to the 2005 season, struggled, but remains a top prospect who showed marked improvement defensively and may have more pure power than anyone who played at the Triple-A level for the Diamondbacks this season, including Jackson. Of course there is still the Alex Cintron possibility. Cintron has improved tremendously this season after struggling for much of 2004, but most feel Cintron is still best utilized as a utility player, especially with Glaus continuing to be injury prone. Of all the places where the Diamondbacks might make a splash in the free agent market shortstop seems the least likely. Drew was signed to a $5.5 million dollar Major League contract, and frankly you don't pay a kid that much to play in Triple-A.
The outfield on the other hand has one big gaping hole, and a bunch of question marks. Shawn Green was not signed to play center field, and he's shown that while he is just slightly less than adequate defensively there. Unfortunately, as it stands now, if he is in center, that means Gonzo and Chad Tracy are on the corners, which means there will be a lot of balls falling into the gaps that could, or even should, be outs. A move back to right field seems almost a certainty next season, and Luis Gonzalez is not going to be paid $11.5 million to ride the pine, so you can use the magic marker when writing his name in left field in '06. Center field on the other hand is a question mark. If the Diamondbacks were going to make a big free agent signing this offseason, center field is the most likely place to see it. Luis Terrero has never developed into the offensive powerhouse the Diamondbacks had hoped he would, and the next option would be top prospect Carlos Quentin, who spent the last two and a half months of the regular season patrolling center field for the Triple-A Tucson Sidewinders. Though Quentin impressed the Diamondbacks in center, they started with low expectations, and virtually everyone who has seen him play has said the same thing, "He's pretty good in center for a right fielder." Still, with few options, if the Diamondbacks decide not to go get a center fielder, it might be their best option, since Quentin is blocked by Green at his natural position.
Which brings up the question of Chad Tracy. The young first baseman/outfielder has been a near .300 hitter with developing power from the left side. The problem is the Diamondbacks already have (at least) two first basemen in Clark and Jackson, and (at least) two right fielders in Green and Quentin. Left field is locked up by Gonzalez, leaving Tracy a man without a home. He is by far the most attractive piece of trade bait the Diamondbacks have, and should have several suitors in the offseason. While the Diamondbacks would love to keep Tracy, who might be developing into a true superstar, if a team dangles a young pitcher, established closer, power hitting catcher, or solid everyday center fielder they will be hard pressed to hold onto him. The Twins seem likely to trade Tori Hunter, a Gold Glove center fielder who is a good, though not great, veteran bat, and Tracy is exactly the type of player the Twins organization loves. Young, cheap, and emerging.
The last question mark would be behind the dish. Neither Chris Snyder nor Koyie Hill stepped up and made the position theirs, but again it seems that the D'Backs are happy with their progress, and with several other options (Phil Avlas, Miguel Montero and Allen Mottram all come to mind) on the minor league horizon, and a dearth of true stars available in the Majors, there is little doubt the D'Backs will stand pat at catcher.
Any team that finishes 10 games below .500 (as the Diamondbacks likely will) and yet is less than 10 games out of first place in their division (as they likely will be) has to feel they are only a couple of pieces away from making the playoffs. Assuming the Diamondbacks are willing to move their payroll up toward the $70 million range, modest 17% increase, they should have enough room to make at least one free agent signing, or trade addition in the $4 to $6 million range. What that signing might be, or if it is even going to happen, only Managing Partner Jeffrey Moorad knows, but there are tough choices ahead of the Diamondbacks, heading into the offseason.