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Analyzing the Diamondbacks' brilliant core and path to contention

There's nothing justifiable about the Diamondbacks hemorrhaging value, yet they find themselves in a fascinating and potentially tantalizing position.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It's difficult, if not impossible, to reasonably justify some of the moves the Arizona Diamondbacks have made since the Tony La Russa-Dave Stewart regime fully took over at the conclusion of the 2014 season. This notably includes the effective auctioning off of Touki Toussaint to the Braves, and December's blockbuster that sent budding rotation anchor Shelby Miller to Arizona, with a bundle of talent including 2015 stalwart Ender Inciarte, top pitching prospect Aaron Blair, and the incumbent first overall pick, Dansby Swanson, going back to (perhaps not coincidentally) the Atlanta Braves.

As Fangraphs' David Cameron has pointed out, the latter deal has the potential to be a Erik Bedard-to-Seattle redux, in terms of making Arizona tremendously regret the talent it surrendered for the volatility of an all-star caliber starting pitcher. This trade has been analyzed many times over, so it's not worth completely rehashing the negative ramifications this may hold for Arizona. Still, the crux is that the Diamondbacks mortgaged quite a bit of controllable talent to add an impactful sidekick to Zack Greinke, who Arizona had just given the largest contract in franchise history to.

The Diamondbacks undoubtedly lost this trade in terms of pure present value expended, with them taking on an immense opportunity cost. Yet, the Diamondbacks still find themselves in an enviable position in terms of roster construction. As Jeff Sullivan wrote for Fangraphs, "there's the skeleton of a contender here." Few teams can boast a lineup led by perhaps the most complete offensive player in the game (Paul Goldschmidt) and one of the league's best center fielders (A.J. Pollock), as well as a rotation anchored by a pitcher coming off one of the best seasons of the last quarter century (Greinke) and a promising top-of-the-rotation type (Miller).

In all, the Diamondbacks' "core four" combined to be worth approximately 29.1 wins above replacement in 2015. That would easily represent the highest total by a team's best quartet last season. In fact, just six teams had four players combine to top 20.0 WAR last year:

Team "Core Four" WAR
Arizona Diamondbacks 25.2
Toronto Blue Jays 25.0
Los Angeles Dodgers 24.6
Chicago Cubs 24.1
Washington Nationals 23.3
St. Louis Cardinals 20.1

Not surprisingly, the prior list is made up entirely of contenders, sans the Diamondbacks. Of the remaining five clubs, only the underachieving Nationals failed to make the playoffs in 2015, though their sum was almost entirely made up of the contributions of Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer.

Surprisingly, the group that actually led the majors last season was the Diamondbacks' prior iteration of Goldschmidt, Pollock, Inciarte, and Peralta. Perhaps this +3.9 WAR adjustment when swapping in Greinke and Miller for Inciarte and Peralta reinforces the concept that the Diamondbacks drastically overpaid this offseason for what appears to be marginal upgrades. This is likely a testament to the Diamondbacks front office's apparent weakness in terms of constructing a solid roster around its stars. Of course, star-caliber players are the most elusive assets in the game, so there is an inherent advantage in having that core already in place.

This is why the Diamondbacks find themselves in such an envious situation. Based on 2015 performance, no team can match what Arizona has put together for 2016. However, some projections are somewhat down on the Diamondbacks' quartet relative to the rest of the league. Steamer projections have the Diamondbacks' collective projected WAR ranked 22nd for the upcoming season, with their "Core Four" projected WAR at 16th.

Team 2016 "Core Four" Projected Steamer WAR
Cubs 21.3
Nationals 21.2
Angels 18.3
Dodgers 18.1
Pirates 17.7
Red Sox 16.9
Blue Jays 16.7
Marlins 16.5
White Sox 16.5
Indians 16.3
Orioles 16.1
Giants 15.9
Mets 15.8
Astros 15.5
Mariners 14.9
Diamondbacks 14.6

This pessimistic projection seems to have quite a bit to do with slightly lesser views on Pollock (3.6 projected Steamer WAR) and Greinke (4.3), as well as a downright brutal take on Miller's expected production (1.7). Oddly enough, Steamer actually sees Patrick Corbin (2.4) as the more valuable pitcher heading into the season.

Collectively, Steamer seems to view the Diamondbacks as in the same boat as the White Sox, Marlins, and Orioles. Those four teams all have a valuable core made up of players such as Chris Sale and Jose Abreu, Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez, and Manny Machado. However, in the aggregate, none of them figure to be especially contentious, with the teams void of players capable of putting up league-average production.

Over the past couple months, Fangraphs has been rolling out Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections, and while the series has not yet concluded, a majority of teams have been assessed. Among teams with favorable "core four" Steamer projections, only the Bryce Harper-led Nationals and Los Angeles Mike Trout's of Anaheim have yet to be published.

Team 2016 "Core Four" Projected ZiPS WAR
Cubs 20.6
Dodgers 18.6
Blue Jays 17.7
Pirates 17.7
Diamondbacks 17.3
Astros 16.7
Red Sox 15.8
Mariners 15.8

Generally seen as a rather conservative projection system, ZiPS looks quite favorably upon the Diamondbacks' group, stacking up behind only four sure-fire contenders. It's difficult to imagine Goldschmidt, Pollock, Greinke, and Miller putting up the numbers they did last season, especially considering Greinke's season was historic and it's not logical to expect 16+ WAR out of Pollock and Goldschmidt again. However, the core Arizona has put together is somewhat youthful and controllable through at least 2018. Miller, 25, is controllable via arbitration for the next three seasons, as is Pollock, who, along with Goldschmidt, is in the typical peak-years for position players at 28-years-old. Goldschmidt is also locked up to a ludicrously team-friendly contract that will pay him just over $40 million over the next four seasons, giving the Diamondbacks tremendous flexibility in spending cash elsewhere. This was clearly evident in the signing of Greinke, who is by far the most expensive and oldest (32) of the group, but comes with the most notable pedigree.

Again, this core is just a fraction (albeit somewhat large) of the Diamondbacks' hope for contention. To be fair, it's rather arbitrary to look just at a team's four best players when there are 21 other spots on the roster, and a 162-game season requires depth and a balanced roster.

Where Arizona seems to have struggled is in accruing complementary pieces to provide this balance. A strong organization should be apt at developing such role players. And the Diamondbacks have developed some intriguing pieces, such as David Peralta, who was playing Independent ball as recently as 2013, but has blossomed into an above-average option in the outfield (3.7 WAR, 138 wRC+ in 2015). Wellington Castillo is a somewhat reasonable option behind the plate, and Jake Lamb projects well after a strong rookie showing in 2015. Arizona's heavy investment in Yasmany Tomas also demonstrates their belief in him, and he flashed potential at times last year. Of course, he still needs to improve appreciably to justify an everyday spot. He is likely to take over the jettisoned Inciarte's position in right field this year. While Inciarte's impressive performance the last two years has been fueled by flattering defensive metrics, ZiPS stills pegs the drop off from him to Tomas as upwards of two wins in 2016.

Arizona desperately needs help up the middle, and that's where the Shelby Miller trade definitely hurts them. Swanson figured to be a quick riser through the minors, and offered impact potential at the shortstop position. Arizona now has a dearth of middle infield talent in the minors (Brandon Drury is potentially interesting), and barring another move before the season starts, they seem set to roll out some combination of Chris Owings, Nick Ahmed, Aaron Hill, and Phil Gosselin at shortstop and second base in 2016. Owings and Ahmed, who figure to be the starters, were especially dreadful last year, and must be markedly better in 2016 in order to not represent the Arizona lineup's Achilles heel.

On the pitching side, the Diamondbacks' bullpen projects as the third worst in baseball via Steamers, which isn't drastically worse than last year's 21st place finish in WAR, and Arizona didn't really do much to add to this staff over the offseason. The rotation behind Greinke is also questionable. Even Miller has his warts and questions surrounding whether or not he can be a reliable number two starter. Corbin was outstanding in 2013, and pretty solid in his 85 innings after returning from Tommy John surgery last year. One has to wonder about what his workload could look like in 2016, but he gives the Diamondbacks another potential number two starter to complement Miller behind Greinke. Rubby De La Rosa and Robbie Ray are both coming off decent showings in 2015, but will still need to make adjustments to give Arizona a stable rotation one through five.

One area where Arizona has afforded themselves well is in further rotation options should someone get hurt or falter. Arizona's top four prospects according to MLB.com are all starting pitchers (at the moment), though Archie Bradley and Braden Shipley, who happen to be two of the better pitching prospects in baseball, are the only two likely to help out the Diamondbacks in 2016. Including Chase Anderson, who made 27 starts for Arizona in 2015, the Diamondbacks now find themselves with a formidable rotation that includes both star-power and depth. There is obviously volatility in this squad, but Diamondbacks starting pitchers were atrocious in 2015 (4.37/4.41/5.9 ERA/FIP/WAR), so an improvement to even middle-of-the-pack production could represent a huge swing in the standings.

Arizona's recent, lucrative television contract also sets them up well financially in the foreseeable future, so with the makings of a possible contender, why is there so much hesitation in looking at Arizona as an organization heading in the right direction? As one would guess, the answer is really quite simple: management.

Dave Stewart and co. have thus far inspired little confidence in their ability to construct a sustainable contender. The Miller and Toussaint trades are really the best indications we have of how that front office values players, and their misperceptions of market operation and fair value. Their current ethos just doesn't lead one to suspect that they will make the correct moves to complete the current roster and earn the franchise credibility.

The Diamondbacks also have the misfortune of playing in the same division as the Dodgers and Giants; two perennial contenders with smart, successful front offices. The added wild card spot clearly makes life a little easier, but outside of their division, Arizona must compete with the trio of powerhouses in the NL Central, as well as the likely-to-be-good Mets and Nationals in the East.

Circulating back to the original point, the Diamondbacks are well-positioned with their current core, but are probably still a couple pieces away from being taken truly seriously. The easiest upgrades would certainly come at either second base, shortstop, or right field; however, its arduous to foresee Arizona not giving Tomas every chance to prove he was worth his enormous contract.

If the Diamondbacks are willing to pony up and spend a bit more money this winter, they arguably have a couple of routes to satisfying their middle infield situation. One way could be to go after one of the two remaining significant middle infield options on the market. While the Diamondbacks probably aren't willing to give Ian Desmond what he will likely receive, they could make a reasonable play at Howie Kendrick, which has long been seen as an obvious fit. Kendrick will almost certainly not require an outrageous contract, and his market has seemingly been quite slow to develop. Arizona has publicly shown an unwillingness to sign Kendrick due to having already forfeited their first round pick in signing Greinke. If Arizona were to sign another free agent attached with a qualifying offer (as Kendrick is), they would then forfeit the 38th overall pick. The notion that Arizona is unwilling to do this is utterly silly. Giving up the 38th pick (which Arizona received in the competitive balance lottery) is not nearly the same as surrendering the 11th pick. The value between the two selections drops precipitously, and there is little sense in going over the differences in value between what Kendrick would likely produce and that of the typical selection in that range (ironically, the 38th overall pick has an oddly strong crop of players that includes David Wright, Gio Gonzalez, Noah Syndergaard, and Michael Lorenzen). The Diamondbacks also pick relatively early in the second round at 51st overall.

Likely similar to signing Kendrick in terms of financial commitment and surrendering a draft pick would be to pursue Yovani Gallardo. Gallardo would certainly bolster Arizona's rotation, and give them further certainty behind Greinke. Part of the idea behind signing Gallardo, or a lesser, cheaper (and riskier) arm such as Doug Fister, would be to free up Arizona's rotation depth in allowing them to use some of it in a trade to address the middle infield.

Neither of these scenarios seem likely to happen, but if the Diamondbacks are really serious about contention this year, they should at least consider these options (note: they almost certainly have). But for now, they will head into the year with the infrastructure of a long-term contender. Whether or not they will capitalize on their position remains to be seen.