EO: This week’s The Conversation is with Jeff Wiser. Jeff writes for Inside the ‘Zona, the Arizona Diamondbacks site within ESPN’s Sweetspot Network, for SB Nation’s Beyond the Box Score and for Beergraphs. Baseball and beer, this sounds like a guy I need to speak to!!
I find the men from the desert, like a number of ball clubs, to be horrendously under-covered. Being over on the West Coast, I know not literally, doesn’t help of course. The D’backs are coming off a horrendous 2014 season in which they compiled MLB’s worst record, which may partially explain their low profile. However, in Paul Goldschmidt they possess one of baseball’s truly finest players.
Jeff, first of all welcome to the Conversation. As we stand, three weeks into the new season, how has it all started off?
JW: 2015 is off to an expected start. The Diamondbacks flirted with being over .500 for about three weeks before they started to falter some, as expected. Arizona is simply devoid of impact starting pitching at the moment, with rookie Archie Bradley being the lone exception (2013 All-Star Patrick Corbin is still rehabbing from elbow surgery and expected back in June). So the downturn wasn’t unforeseen, but this year has never really been about contending for the division anyways. This is a year in which the team has a number of young, inexperienced options to employ all over the field. The ones that prove they belong will be part of the long-term plan, those that don’t probably won’t be around very long. It’s one big experiment in Arizona this year for the Diamondbacks and one that’s certainly intriguing, even if the product on the field isn’t very good at the moment. The fact that they’re under-covered hides what is actually a pretty interesting situation from a franchise-development standpoint.
EO: As you mention, and certainly from an outsider’s point of view, the major weakness in the team is the starting pitching. It’s certainly a long way away from the days of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. There have been some unfortunate injuries, Brandon Webb and Daniel Hudson being two prime examples, but is it a case that, like the Rockies, pitching free agents are scared off by the ballpark?
JW: I think that’s a real concern. My co-author Ryan P. Morrison has done a lot of work in evaluating the pitching dynamics at Chase Field, largely based of the physics work of Dr. Alan Nathan and others. While Coors Field in Colorado is the poster child for park factors based on the altitude, Phoenix has its own unique problem in that the desert air is incredibly thin, decreasing the coefficient of drag on the baseball, making it travel further when hit. That’s particularly bad news if you’re a fly ball pitcher; just ask embattled closer Addison Reed. Johnson and Schilling excelled because they were simply dominant while Webb was a ground ball machine. But even many of today’s mid-tier free agent pitchers are simply poor fits in Chase Field, leaving the team with two real options: spend gobs of money (which they don’t have) on the best pitchers in the game or draft and develop their pitchers from within. They’re going with the latter option simply because the former isn’t realistic. Not only are pitchers averse to pitching there, the Diamondbacks simply haven’t had the money even if they could convince someone to come. That will change shortly, however, as the team signed a new television contract a few months ago that should net them roughly an extra $60 million annually. Coupled with the talent they have in the upper minors now and the number one draft pick this June, that might just be enough to change the complexion of the pitching situation in the near future.
EO: Archie Bradley is one of the young pitchers you mention. Ever since he was drafted 7th overall 3 years ago he has been a name to watch. Whilst not lighting up the minors he made the starting rotation out of Spring Training and has been excellent so far this season. Unfortunately last night he took a line drive to the head, one of the very worst sites in baseball. It sounds as if he is going to be ok. Tell me a bit more about Bradley and give me a couple of other of these prospects that are not so far away. What can we look out for?
JW: Archie has really been the face of the Diamondbacks’ prospect landscape for a couple of years now. Trading Tyler Skaggs, Adam Eaton and Matt Davidson (all moves by former GM Kevin Towers) really thinned out the heard as those guys were considered by many to be top-100 guys. Bradley had a tough 2014 where he struggled with some minor injuries and inconsistent command. The stuff was good but he just couldn’t command each time out. A strong spring saw him pitch his way into the rotation even though the team may have preferred to start him in AAA. So far he’s located his pitches down I the zone and generated a ton of ground balls although he’s still struggled with allowing free passes. The comeback shot he took to the face last night was scary as could be, but it appears that he avoided any major injuries and should recover just fine.
In the upper minors is a trio of coveted young starters in Braden Shipley, Aaron Blair and Yoan Lopez. Shipley and Blair were the team’s top two draft picks in 2013 while Lopez was signed out of Cuba this winter. All three are currently at AA Mobile, making life tough on Southern League hitters. Shipley has the best raw stuff but his command is still hit and miss. Blair isn’t quite as impressive from quality of pitches standpoint but has stronger command and pitchabilty. Lopez is a work in progress but has four pitches he can throw for strikes. All three should see the majors in 2016 at some point and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see these top prospects (link: http://insidethezona.com/2014/11/2015-diamondbacks-top-30-prospects-1-10/) taking up the second, third and fourth spots in the rotation in the near future.
EO: The team parted ways with Kevin Towers towards the end of last season and hired Dave Stewart. I remember Stewart from his days on the all-conquering A’s team of Canseco and McGwire. He has been an agent up until this appointment so it’s been a slightly unusual path to becoming GM. I know it’s very early but how has he looked to shape the club differently to his predecessor?
JW: That’s a great question because the answer, frankly, remains somewhat unclear. Prior to Towers being let go, the team installed Tony LaRussa as the Chief Baseball Officer to oversee the club’s transactions and overall sense of direction. Towers had made a number of poor trades which looked especially bad through the sabermetric lens that we at Inside the ‘Zona evaluate the team through. Only owner Ken Kendrick and President Derrick Hall had been overseeing Towers and things just weren’t working out, which had seemed obvious from an advanced perspective for some time. LaRussa filled a big need as someone who could evaluate Towers and the direction of the team outside of the owner and president whose jobs it is to really manage the financial well-being of the organization, not players, trades and contracts. When Towers was let go, it was LaRussa who played a large role in finding a replacement and Stewart was eventually selected. The confusing part became defining who was running the club. Was Stewart the new man in charge? Was LaRussa controlling things? While there were a number of statements released by the team on the matter, it largely remained unclear and is still murky to this day.
At this point, one gets the feeling that this is Tony LaRussa’s show. Dave Steward makes most of the public announcements and has more or less served as the face of the baseball leadership, but many of my contacts around the game agree that it’s really LaRussa’s vision and that he, Stewart and Vice President and Director of Player Development De Jon Watson are sort of working as a unit under LaRussa’s leadership. We’ve dubbed it as a front-office-by-committee approach and so far, it’s working out relatively well. The Jeremy Hellickson trade was a bit of a head-scratcher and blowing the team’s international bonus pool for the next two years over the signing of Yoan Lopez was questionable to say the least, but otherwise they seem to be building steam towards the future, something that the Diamondbacks under Kevin Towers refused to do.
EO: You bring up an interesting point about the international bonus pool. As a result of finishing with the worst record in baseball the club has the largest pool available to sign players. However, as you rightly say, signing Yoan Lopez and going over 15% above their pool for 2014-15 means that the D’Backs can’t spend more than $300k on signing a pool-eligible player in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 signing periods. They do still keep the entire bonus pool and are free to trade the individual slot values that comprise the pool. They are not alone in having ‘overspent’ with the Rays, Red Sox, Angels and Yankees also in the same boat.
Yoan Lopez is not the only expensive Cuban recruit. Yasmany Tomas was signed in November to a six-year $68.5m contract. During Spring Training he seemed to be almost a punchline as his defense was particularly poor and he even started the season at Triple-A. However, Jake Lamb’s injury means he has been called up to the big club and has done ok so far. What are your views on Tomas?
JW: Yasmany Tomas was the biggest signing in club history, at least in terms of potential total dollars. He has an opt-out clause after the fourth year, which if he’s performing well, he’ll likely exercise. That would save the Diamondbacks a lot of money as his deal is back-loaded, but it would also deprive them of two years of his services. If he struggles over those four years, the Diamondbacks will have to continue paying a struggling player a large sum of money. The opt-out clause has the potential to really hurt the team, but if it was the leverage they needed to sign him in the first place, well, then it was a smart move. His camp has said it wasn’t a factor, but I’m not sure I believe that entirely.
I got a chance to spend the better part of week at the complex in Spring Training and he just did not look the part defensively at third base. His feet were slow, often in a poor position to field the ball and/or make the throw and his balance and agility were just not what you’d expect for a starting third baseman. His hands and arm were okay, but his lower half just wasn’t functioning well enough to really excite you. A lot of that stems from his physique, which the organization has stated needs some work. He was out of baseball for an extended period of time and I believe it’s entirely appropriate to be patient and give him time to acclimate.
At the plate, there is some raw power, but his approach thus far has been a bit intriguing. As I noticed this spring, he tends to get his weight out front often and this has resulted in a lot of slappy, infield choppers. He initially was way out front and not making much good contact at all. Over time, I’ve seen him start to work the count a little more and put some better swings on the ball, but it’s inconsistent. As we’ve stated all along, he’s going to need time to adjust and I think it’s a work in progress. He was never going to be Jose Abreu or Yasiel Puig, so I think his evaluation requires some patience, maybe more than most want to give him considering the size of his contract.
EO: It really was all change at Chase Field over the winter, probably not surprising after such a bad season. As well as a new GM, a new manager was appointed. Unfortunately in the last couple of days we’ve heard that Kirk Gibson has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. We wish him well. His replacement is Chip Hale, someone I know very little about. What are your initial impressions of Chip? What sort of manager does he appear to be – a numbers guy or an old school type?
JW: You know, managerial changes are really weird in baseball. It’s not the NFL where you get a completely new offensive scheme or a team switches its defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4. In baseball, it’s still pretty much the same lineup and roster construction. There may be a tweak here or there, but it’s mostly a carry-over from year to year even when a new manager is installed.
That makes evaluating a manager really difficult. That said, I like what I’ve seen from Hale. Starting with the leadership component, he’s said all of the right things and has kind of perpetually-angry demeanor about him. He’s serious about getting the job done and he’s serious about his players competing and performing. From a numbers standpoint, he and Third Base Coach Andy Green have started to shift the infield more and Chip has been filling out the lineup card well, keeping on-base guys at the top and playing some platoons in the outfield and at third base (prior to Jake Lamb’s injury). I’ve also seen a number of occasions where he’s really coaching – taking a young player aside and talking to him, being hands-on. With a number of young players on the team, that kind of stuff can go a long way. He’s been patient with them as they’ve struggled some and I appreciate that he’s sticking to the plan and not being reactionary. There have been a couple of slip-ups where the numbers suggested that he should have made a different move than the one he opted for, but that’s to be expected with a new manager. He’s learning, too. For the most part, it’s been so far so good from Chip Hale, at least insofar as we are capable of evaluating him.
EO: There really is an opportunity for the club to progress and relatively quickly. There are no horrific contracts of ageing players hanging round their neck, there’s the new TV deal and a lot of pitching coming through. All that’s needed is a superstar player, a face of the franchise. Oh wait, you have one of those!! However, I know that Paul Goldschmidt doesn’t get the recognition his play probably deserves. He does tend to shy away from the limelight, so tell us more about one of baseball’s brightest stars.
JW: Paul Goldschmidt is an angel. He’s perfect in every way possible. He’s a homegrown talent who’s fantastic face of the franchise. Goldschmidt seriously does it all: hits for average, hits for power, plays Gold Glove defense at first, runs the bases extremely well and has stayed healthy, aside from a freak hand injury last year when he was hit on the hand by a pitch from the Pirates. Oh yeah, and he and his wife are tremendous supporters of charities and community organizations. It’s literally a dream come true. But wait, it gets better. What would you expect to pay a top-five hitter in baseball who’s in his prime? $15 million? $20 million per season? Not Goldy, he’s earning just $3 million in 2015 (he made $1 million in 2014) as part of a five-year, $32 million extension he signed in March of 2013 before he truly broke out and became an NL MVP candidate. For all of the grief Diamondbacks fans have given Kevin Towers, he made that deal work and it’s arguably the best contract in baseball.
And as you mentioned, there are no real albatross deals. The team shed Miguel Montero’s $40 million this winter on the Cubs and were able to save about $6 million when they shipped Trevor Cahill to Atlanta this spring. They’re stuck with Aaron Hill’s $24 million at the moment, but that’s basically it. They could and should look to extend some of their other young player on deals similar to Goldschmidt’s and Josh Collmenter’s, another fantastic deal. A.J. Pollock would make a lot of sense for an extension in my eyes. A new T.V. contract that should result in an extra $60 million in annual revenue kicks in next season and they should really be able to shop for talent in the 2016-2017 offseason, right about the time some of these pitching prospects arrive. This team has a window to get good again in the very near future, and I expect them to be a contender in 2017, which is still a ways off, but you can see the light at the end of the tunnel and that’s really exciting.
EO: It’s always nice when there is that light as you say. It’s been a tough few years but the attendance at Chase Field has remained remarkably stable over a number of years, averaging 25/26 thousand. Whilst this is by no means up with the big boys, it is a healthy number. However, when the club were more successful, of course, that number was higher. What is Phoenix like as a baseball town?
JW: I think I took in my first Spring Training back in 2005 while I was still living in Oregon and going to college. I loved it. Small crowds during mid-week games, baseball fans everywhere, the chance to shake hands with your favorite players. It was great. I went back a time or two over the next few years before I ultimately moved there and called Phoenix home (I live in Los Angeles currently). As a city, it’s just epic for baseball. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be from a baseball perspective.
Spring Training really starts in February when players report to camp and you can drive right out to the complexes and see the guys as they arrive. Spring Training runs through March and there’s just so many games every day that you can just pick a point on the map and go based on who you want to see pitch or hit. The regular season starts and Chase Field is just a really great place to see baseball live. Not a bad seat in the house, cool in the summer time, cheapest beer prices in the majors, good food and a swimming pool in center field (which inspired the name of our podcast, The Pool Shot). What more could you want?
But minor league games and scouting are also a really big part of Arizona baseball. Aside from getting looks at prospects in the spring, the Arizona Rookie League starts in mid-summer and it’s full of 17-19 year old kids trying to survive at the game’s lowest level. Want to catch a glimpse of the next great star before anyone else? That’s the place to do it. The best thing is, the games I’ve been to are free to the public and there’s five to ten people in attendance. It’s a paradise, at least as long as you bring a water bottle and find some shade. Come fall, the Arizona Fall League kicks off is home to the very best minor league talent in baseball, hands down. Those games are sparsely attended as well, a couple hundred fans at most. It’s like having the best talent in the game giving you a semi-private showcase. Just unbelievable. That runs into November and then it’s just a few months until the next Spring Training. No other city can compete with that, in my opinion.
EO: Baseball heaven!
Hadn’t realised you were in LA. I can use that as a clumsy segue to look at the NL West as a whole. Of course, you have the behemoth that is the Dodgers and the hugely successful Giants. However, both could be vulnerable, with the Dodgers suffering on the starting pitching front and the Giants with their offense. The ‘new kid in town’ is San Diego and then you have the pitching-poor Rockies, who have a very good offense even if you disregard Coors.
It’s an interesting division and, potentially, more wide open than it might have been this year. How do you see the West playing out?
JW: I just spent the weekend at Dodger Stadium with the Diamondbacks in town and got a good look at both teams. The Dodgers swept the Diamondbacks without throwing Clayton Kershaw, which really hurts Arizona, but paints an accurate picture of the disparity between the top and bottom teams in the NL West.
The Dodgers are the most talented, even with the pitching injuries. Kershaw and Greinke are as good a pair as there is in baseball, and they’ll get Hyun-Jin Ryu back at some point before the All Star Break, possibly in June. That lineup will do enough damage, and when they get Kenley Jansen back, they’ll be just fine. Who knows, we may even see Julio Urias this year.The Padres have the pitching to keep it close, but the outfield defense is bad and the infield offense might be worse. They’ll have to pitch their way to the top, something they may be capable of doing if they can avoid injuries. Given the rate of pitcher attrition, that’s a mighty big “if.”
The Giants are the middle child of this division. They have a bit of pitching, but it’s unpredictable after Madison Bumgarner. Offensively, they’ve really struggled. Brandon Belt got off to a slow start, Casey McGehee was never going to replace Pablo Sandoval and Gregor Blanco’s really a fourth outfield who starts most of the time with Hunter Pence still injured.
The D-backs and Rockies should battle for fourth and it’s anyone’s guess who wins that fight. My money’s on Arizona since I believe they’ll get a pitching boost once Patrick Corbin and David Hernandez return, plus Aaron Blair may get a shot this season. Getting rookie Jake Lamb back will be huge, too, and help lengthen out the lineup. If they can stay healthy, I like their chances. The Rockies, meanwhile, will score lots of runs and make things interesting, but as you mentioned, they still struggle with pitching, recently losing closer Adam Ottovino to Tommy John. Add Colorado’s massive discrepancy between home and road splits and I like Arizona to avoid finishing in the cellar.
EO: One final thing, Jeff. As you alluded to, you have produce a Diamondbacks podcast, The Pool Shot. I have listened to the last two episodes and would highly recommend but why don’t you tell the readers what to expect from it.
JW: The Pool Shot is really a project we started last fall that just sort of grew organically. Ryan and I were having these weekly marathon phone calls where we’d just talk baseball and crack each other up. At some point, we said to each other, “why aren’t we recording this?” After a little digging and playing with some software, The Pool Shot was born. Over the offseason, we really discussed the direction of the team, the moves theymade and what their options were. We take a pretty definitive stance on things and if you’re looking for just a recap of the week’s games, this isn’t the place. Instead, we really apply the analytics principles and thought process to the organization from the top down.
Each episode is unique. If I’ve been out scouting, I’ll share my reflections there. If there was an epic game or a great performance the night before, we might break that down very thoughtfully. Last week we discussed the team’s rotation, which hasn’t been great, and tried to devise a plan of where the organization should go from here, a month into the season. We have some fun with things, get a bit out there sometimes, but somehow always manage to reel it back in. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it and we’ve gotten a lot of good feedback so far. We make a concerted effort to answer questions about the team that are tweeted to @thepoolshot on twitter, so we try to get everyone involved, because at the end of the day, we all just love baseball, probably more than we should. We can also be found at Twitter.com/thepoolshot.
EO: It’s really worth checking out for all baseball fans, not just those with a rooting interest in the D’Backs. Is there anything else you’d like to touch on Jeff?
JW: First and foremost, thanks for giving me the chance to do this conversation! It’s been really fun! I’d also like to take the opportunity to thank my partner in crime, Ryan P. Morrison, for being a fantastic teammate and making me think about baseball in new ways. This has been an incredible journey and it’s way more fun with a friend. We just posted our 500th piece the other day and we’ve just come so far, from unread to more traffic than I could have ever imagined – it’s just been a blast. I want to thank ESPN for the data and support we get as a Sweetspot affiliate,the Diamondbacks for assisting us and giving us tremendous access to the team, the guys at Beyond the Box Score who let Ryan and I really hone our skills in a creative and friendly environment, our friends at Baseball Prospectus who’ve given us insights into a lot of things and helped us grow, guys like Mike Ferrin of SiriusXM for the encouragement along with our friends Nick Piecoro and Zach Buchanan at AZ Central and Steve Gilbert at MLB.com for doing a tremendous job of covering this baseball team, giving us the up-to-date information we need to do our thing.
Most of all, I’d like to thank the readers of Inside the ‘Zona for their loyalty, comments and feedback, along with the listeners of The Pool Shot. We’ve really developed a nice community of friends who support us every day and it’s really their feedback and friendship that drives us to stay up way too late writing about walk rates or waking up early before work to check out the details of each individual pitch thrown the night before. We work hard, but we do it for a reason. Our fans, friends and family have been incredibly supportive and we couldn’t do it without them. Thank you all so much!
Jeff Wiser can be found on Twitter @outfieldgrass24