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Diamondbacks 2015 Team Preview: Dave Stewart era begins with pitching

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Former Athletics ace Dave Stewart is the Diamondbacks new GM and strategy for rebuilding begins on the mound.

Norm Hall/Getty Images

The Kevin Towers regime is out in Arizona and the Tony LaRussa/ Dave Stewart era has begun. The Hall of Fame manager and his former ace have inherited a team that has substantial issues and is in desperate need of a complete rebuild. Yet despite the obvious dysfunction of the Kevin Towers front office, the Diamondbacks are not starting their rebuild entirely from scratch. They have one of the top sluggers in the game at first base in Paul Goldschmidt and he is all locked up for the near future.They have some promising young talent already in place at the highest level. The farm system was hit hard by some of Towers' gunslinger-style dealings, but it still has some high-ceiling prospects left to help improve the big league club in the near future.

The success of the Diamondbacks rebuild will depend mostly on how well player-turned-agent-turned-GM Dave Stewart can direct the overhaul. If his former colleagues will have to face down the same icy stare the opposing hitters saw when negotiating contracts, that alone would be reason for optimism. The first few months of his tenure have also given Diamondback fans some reasons to believe he is the right man for the job beyond that terrifying gaze as well. To say that his dealings appear to be better than Towers' recent moves is not setting the bar very high, but whereas Towers gave the impression of madness that might contain some method if you were willing to dig for it, Stewart's first few months on the job present a readily apparent strategy. And that strategy is pitching.

Departures: On the trading Block- Everyone. Positions wanted- Pitcher

The Diamondbacks were not in the position to lose anyone of substantial value through free agency this winter, so all of the key departures came in trades. Stewart dealt three of his most appealing trade chips, shortstop Didi Gregorius, catcher Miguel Montero and lefty Wade Miley over the winter. In return, he got six pitchers and two infield prospects. This basically tells us all we need to know about what Stewart was trying to do this winter. None of the players he dealt will be especially difficult for Arizona to replace. Gregorius was already looking like the number-two player on their depth chart at short behind Chris Owings. Montero is an asset behind the plate thanks to his pitch-framing and decent arm, but his bat has slipped from the elite levels of production he posted from 2009-2012 and it would be overly optimistic to expect it to return to that level again. Miley had an off-year in 2014 and though he remains inexpensive, his production, even at his best is that of a mid-rotation starter.

The pitchers that Stewart got in return all have their warts. Robbie Ray was the centerpiece of the Tigers' Doug Fister trade heading into the 2014 season but had a rough time in his first taste of the majors with Detroit. Both Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster got extended opportunities to prove they belonged in the Red Sox rotation last season, but neither player made a compelling case. The pitchers Arizona received from the Cubs for Montero both have real upside, but they will need years to turn that into projectable production. There is definitely a quantity over quality side to this approach, but Stewart did not simply buy in bulk. Ray, De La Rosa and Webster all appeared on top-100 lists as prospects and while some of the upside might have slipped away, they all have reasonably high floors. If De La Rosa can't cut it in the rotation, he could probably rival Addison Reed for the closer role in short order. Webster could also make that kind of transition fairly quickly. Ray could be a fine LOOGY if everything else should fall apart for him. Even the worst case scenario probably ends with Stewart having valuable trading chips to work with at the deadline this year or in 2016. In that case, it could well be trade-rinse-and-repeat for Arizona.

Position

Player

New Team

SS

Didi Gregorius

Yankees

LHP

Wade Miley

Red Sox

RHP

Zeke Sprulli

Red Sox

C

Miguel Montero

Cubs

C/1B

Bobby Wilson

Rays

OF

Nolan Reimold

Orioles

LHP

Eury De La Rosa

Athletics

SS

Argenis Diaz

Twins

LHP

Joe Paterson

Royals

LHP

Clayton Richard

Pirates

INF

Andrew Velazquez

Rays

OF

Justin Williams

Rays

Additions: Tomas and Hellickson test Stewart's scouting

The Diamondbacks biggest move came on the free agent market, but not in the traditional manner. Arizona added its name to the roster of team willing to pay big money for relatively unproven talent from Cuba. The Diamondbacks gave Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas a six-year, $68.5 million deal in late November. Tomas is expected to play third for the Diamondbacks, but a number of scouts have questioned his ability to handle that position, suggesting he will end up in left in the near future. His power is the most intriguing tool, but not everyone is sold on his ability to translate that into numbers in the major leagues. He has shown potential for a great deal of swing-and-miss in his stroke, especially against good break pitches, according to Ben Badler of Baseball America. Arizona seems to believe he can stick at the hot corner and mash 20+ home runs despite these concerns and if they are right, his deal could be the biggest bargain of the off-season. Similar concerns about Jose Abreu were proven wrong in 2014, so it is hard not to like this bet for the Diamondbacks. This is going to be a test of the scouting department under LaRussa and Stewart. Their success or failure with Tomas could tell us a good deal about how they evaluate players and that is important, given all the deals the Diamondbacks have made this winter.

In addition to dealing established players for young arms, the Diamondbacks also sent some prospects to the Rays for right-handed starter Jeremy Hellickson. Like Ray, De La Rosa and Webster, Ray is pitcher who got people excited as he made his way through the minors then fell flat as a major leaguer. He has a much longer track than the other three, but despite that, it is not easy to figure out exactly what he is capable of at this point. His first two full seasons in the majors, he posted strong ERAs, but his fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) suggested that this was more a product of  luck, his friendly home park and the Rays excellent outfield defense than his own skills. In 2013 and 2014, things went the other way for Hellickson. He actually improved his FIP numbers slightly but his ERA deteriorated. He posted a 5.17 ERA in 2013 and a 4.52 ERA last year. He still has two years of team control remaining and thanks to his poor numbers, he won't kill the Diamondbacks in arbitration. He looks like a fifth starter with little upside though so it is hard to see what he can do for the Diamondbacks now or in the time before he hits the market.

It may be that Stewart believes he is better than his resent results or that he can be fixed in some way. If that is the case, this might be a nice buy-low move. However, the risk here is probably greater than with the other arms added this winter. Hellickson is an extreme fly ball pitcher and his new home is a potential disaster for him. If he can't keep the ball from landing in the seats, it could be impossible to salvage any value from him. He wasn't an expensive pick up; he only cost the Diamondbacks two low-minor position-player prospects, so the risk is not great.  As with Tomas, this deal might prove to be a bellwether of how well this new front office scouts potential bargains. It is easy to see how this could go wrong, but if it brings back value, Stewart and his team deserve credit for a cagey move.

Position

Player

Old Team

3B/OF

Yasmany Tomas

Cuba

RHP

Jeremy Hellickson

Rays

INF

Domingo Leyba

Tigers

LHP

Robbie Ray

Tigers

RHP

Myles Smith

Red Sox

INF

Raymel Flores

Red Sox

RHP

Rubby De La Rosa

Red Sox

RHP

Allen Webster

Red Sox

RHP

Zack Godley

Cubs

RHP

Jeferson Meijia

Cubs

RHP

J.C. Ramirez

Indians

INF

Nick Punto

Athletics

RHP

Dan Runzler

Giants

INF

Cody Ransom

Cubs

C

Gerald Laird

Braves

OF

Nick Buss

Athletics

UTL

Jaime Romak

Dodgers

RHP

Henry Rodriquez

Marlins

RHP

Blake Beavan

Mariners

INF

Danny Worth

Tigers

Payroll Outlook

Estimated 2015 payroll: $89.8 Million

As bad as the Towers front office was at times, no one can accuse them of spending recklessly. Paul Goldschmidt is the Diamondbacks' best player and he is locked up to an extremely team-friendly deal through 2019. The rest of the core of the Diamondbacks now and in any future where they could be contenders is all pre-arbitration or at the start of their arbitration seasons. The few dead-weight deals on the books will be over soon. Injured pitcher Bronson Arroyo is costing them $9.5 million this year, then that deal is done. Trevor Cahill is $12 million this year and then he will stop getting paid eight figures to pitch in the minors. Cody Ross will make $9.5 million this year and has a $1 million buy-out on his option for 2016. The payroll is at the low end of the scale for MLB teams even with all this money going to be players who are not going to provide any value and it will get even lower a year from now. That could help Arizona jump-start their rebuild in 2016. They will have some young cheap talent on the field and the money to add premium talent in free agency available.

Odds (Via Bovada)

World Series Odds: 100/1

Over/Under Wins: 71.5

With three legitimate contenders in the NL West, the Diamondbacks are in for a rough season. Last season their offense was 28th in weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) and adding Yasmany Tomas and getting a healthy Goldschmidt for the whole season is not going to be enough to fix that. Their starting pitching was bad by just about every measurement and their relief pitching had a higher ERA than everyone in the NL except the Reds and the Rockies. The Diamondbacks are rebuilding and the early signs are good. They have a plan. They will have money to spend soon. They have an interesting front office led by a former agent and overseen by one of the greatest managers in the history of the game. They don't have a chance in 2015 though and there is not else to say about this season. It is going to be ugly at times, but hopefully, it is the turning point.

Conclusion

It will take many more off-seasons to really know what kind of GM Dave Stewart is. He has made some moves this winter and they all have good potential and the appearance of a logical approach behind them. That doesn't mean they will work though. Betting on pitching and buying up talent on the mound in bulk, getting players with talent who have not translated it into results, gambling on a top Cuban player- these are all strategies that makes sense, but they are also risky. Making the kinds of moves Stewart has made means putting a good deal of faith in your scouting. If you scout well, these strategies are fantastic. If you don't, it is back to the drawing board. Fans won't be able to watch the Diamondbacks this season and see a lot of winning baseball. They will get to see if players like Allen Webster, Robbie Ray, Rubby De La Rosa and Yasmany Tomas were worth betting on though and that is something. As Lester Freamon might put it- the Diamondbacks are building something here, and every piece counts. We will see what these pieces are this season and it will tell us a lot about what to expect in the desert with Dave Stewart running the corral.