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In the home stretch of a 2022 season that has sparked optimism across the Valley, the words “Wild Card contender” are no longer alienated among Diamondbacks fans. People really think the team has a shot in 2023.
The likelihood of a playoff run next year is something to dig into more deeply in the offseason, but for now, we have a pretty good idea of both what the Diamondbacks will be looking for this winter and what the 2022-23 free agent class has to offer. Let’s see if we can find a match.
The Diamondbacks’ needs this offseason are remarkably similar to their needs last year: a whole lot of bullpen help, and potentially, an everyday third baseman or starting pitcher if an opportunity presents itself.
Of course, there are varying degrees of “need” here. In the case of the bullpen, “need” is meant in the literal sense. By most metrics, the bullpen has been one of the five worst in baseball this season. Getting that group back on track should be the team’s No. 1 priority this offseason.
With the acquisition of Emmanuel Rivera at the trade deadline, the need for a third baseman carries less urgency. Josh Rojas has manned the position for the majority of the year and played well overall. Still, both the eye test and defensive metrics agree that Rojas is more passable than ideal at the hot corner.
Rivera’s defense is an upgrade, but an uninspiring .211/.276/.376 slash against right-handed pitchers for the season suggests he is better used as a platoon player than an everyday guy. The D-backs could very well ride it out with Rojas and Rivera again next year, but the lack of a clearly deserving everyday player at least warrants a look at the free-agent market.
As far as the starting rotation goes, the team has eight clear options for Opening Day 2023: Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly, Madison Bumgarner, Ryne Nelson, Drey Jameson, Tommy Henry, Tyler Gilbert and Brandon Pfaadt. (Zach Davies is unlikely to pick up his end of a $1.5 million mutual option for 2023.)
The fact that Nelson and Jameson have a combined 1.44 ERA through five big league starts probably lessens the need for outside help, but Bumgarner’s struggles down the stretch make it impossible not to question his status moving forward. Outside of Bumgarner, only Gallen and Kelly have significant major league experience. Adding a veteran is not a necessity, but it may be a smart move.
Before we dive in, it is important to recognize that the trade market may prove more effective in addressing these needs than free agency. If anything, the Diamondbacks’ lack of roster balance — they still have too many left-handed hitting outfielders, with more waiting in the wings — suggests the trade market may be the better route. Add in the fact that this winter’s free-agent class is uninspiring, and the trade route looks even more enticing.
Whether the Diamondbacks look to improve primarily via trade or free agency, recent team history suggests there may not be much to spend this offseason. According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the team has just under $59 million in guaranteed money on the books for next year. Factor in arbitration cases, including first-time eligibles like Zac Gallen and Josh Rojas, and that number jumps to around $80 million. With pre-arb salaries and a few million for injury replacements included, the team has around $93 million already committed for 2023. That is already more expensive than the team’s current payroll, which Cot’s pegs at $90.6 million.
President and CEO Derrick Hall told MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert shortly after the lockout ended in March that a “payroll north of $90 million — 100, 105” was within reach. The team hardly exceeded $90 million when all was said and done, which suggests there should be some wiggle room this winter. Granted, it would be surprising to see a significant jump in payroll after what is on track to be a 75-win season. On the higher end, a bump up to $110 million would leave around $17 million to spend this offseason.
With that in mind, let’s get to the good stuff. Here are eight free-agent targets, split across the team’s three primary needs, that could be difference-makers for the 2023 Diamondbacks.
Brandon Drury, 3B/1B
We start off with an old friend. Brandon Drury played his first three seasons with the D-backs from 2015-17, slashing .271/.319/.448 in 1,038 plate appearances. The following offseason, Drury was dealt to the New York Yankees as part of the Steven Souza trade. For three years, he just wasn’t the same, posting a lackluster .600 OPS with the Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays from 2018-20.
After showing improvements last year with in 2021, Drury arguably should have represented the Cincinnati Reds in the All-Star game this year after hitting .278/.336/.528 with 18 homers in the first half. Drury hasn’t maintained that level of performance since being dealt to the San Diego Padres — a concussion suffered at the beginning of September didn’t help — but he is still hitting a solid .263/.318/.504 on the year with 27 homers.
It is worth noting that Drury’s expected batting average and expected slugging percentage in 2022 are roughly on par with his career norms, which suggests some regression could be in order. Still, Drury would instantly become one of the best hitters in the Diamondbacks’ lineup and a likely upgrade over a Rojas-Rivera platoon. On paper, bringing in Drury would allow the team to move Rojas back to second base, hide Ketel Marte’s glove with the DH slot and turn Rivera into a backup.
Coming off a career year at the age of 30, Drury will command a multi-year deal that would likely eat most of the D-backs’ available money. However, with a career slash line of .302/.358/.544 at Chase Field, he might be the most impactful bat the team could afford.
Aledmys Diaz, 3B/LF/2B/SS/RF
An All-Star in his rookie year with the St. Louis Cardinals back in 2016, Aledmys Diaz burst on the scene out of the gate and has turned into a solid utility player who can play everywhere but center field and catcher.
In his fourth season with the Houston Astros, the 32-year-old is hitting .254/.330/.433 this year with 12 homers in 82 games. Diaz has consistently put up average or better defensive metrics at every position but shortstop, where he is still passable.
Diaz has actually played left field more than any other position for the Astros in 2022, and it is not too difficult to see the D-backs using him there, too, particularly if they decide to move on from Jordan Luplow. Alongside filling Luplow’s role as a right-handed outfield bat, Diaz could also see significant time at third base, with other appearances at second base, shortstop and first base sprinkled in as needed.
There is nothing flashy about Diaz’s game, but he is a slightly above-average hitter who plays solid defense at a bunch of positions, and — most importantly — fits the budget.
Jace Peterson, 3B/RF
At the age of 32, Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Jace Peterson is having the best year of his career. With a .250/.328/.409 batting line, 11 stolen bases and excellent defensive metrics at the hot corner, Peterson does a little bit of everything.
Unlike Diaz, he bats left-handed, which could pair well nicely in a platoon with Rivera, although Peterson has actually posted slightly better numbers against lefties than righties in 2022. The Brewers veteran will be looking for a raise after making $1.8 million this year, but he should still be affordable.
Like Diaz, Peterson also has the ability to play corner outfield, if needed, though he probably makes less sense in that role given the wealth of left-handed hitting outfielders already on the team.
Wade Miley, LHP
Wade Miley might not be a household name, but he probably should be. Not many starting pitchers last over 1,600 innings in the majors. Over his 12-year career, the former Diamondback has tallied a respectable 4.14 ERA, 1.38 WHIP and 49.2 percent ground-ball rate.
Miley has only made seven starts with the Chicago Cubs this year due to a nagging shoulder injury, but he is only one year removed from going 12-7 with a 3.37 ERA in 163 innings for the Reds. Miley’s results this year have been fine, too, with a 3.48 ERA in 31 innings. His injury struggles should lower his price tag significantly.
The fact that Miley is a lefty makes him particularly desirable. The Diamondbacks only have two in the mix for a 2023 rotation spot in Bumgarner and Henry, neither of whom have pitched well in the majors this year. Miley would bring stability to a rotation that is rife with intriguing, yet unpredictable young talent.
Corey Kluber, RHP
From 2014-18, Corey Kluber was arguably one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball, and he has a pair of Cy Young awards to prove it.
Kluber probably won’t ever reach that level again. His cutter now averages 86.3 MPH, down three ticks from where it was in his prime. Still, Kluber has the type of savvy pitching mind that staves off retirement.
In 28 starts with the Tampa Bay Rays this year — his first full season in four years — the 36-year-old is 10-9 with a 4.44 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and a 2.9 percent walk rate that is, by far, the lowest in baseball. Kluber’s 3.60 FIP suggests he has underperformed.
Unfortunately, Kluber’s shiny peripherals and impenetrable reputation could push his price tag out of the D-backs’ range. A two-year deal probably gets it done. If the Diamondbacks take an aggressive, playoff-or-bust approach this offseason, maybe they can find a way to make it work.
Mike Clevinger, RHP
Since general manager Mike Hazen’s tenure began in late 2016 — and arguably, throughout the entire franchise’s history — the Diamondbacks have generally targeted stability, not upside, in free agency. Think Kole Calhoun, Mark Melancon, Asdrubal Cabrera, and the list goes on. They are highly respected for what they are, but you don’t want to rely on them to exceed that.
Enter Mike Clevinger. The 31-year-old hasn’t been the same in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, posting a 4.23 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and a career-low 19.4 percent strikeout rate. Still, the Diamondbacks have seen firsthand that returning from Tommy John surgery is not as simple as pitching in games again. Patrick Corbin had the surgery in 2014 and returned a year later. It took until mid-2017 to get back to what he was.
Still, Clevinger is an intriguing buy-low candidate. He may be interested in betting on himself with a one-year deal and returning to the market next winter. That gamble could be worth taking for the Diamondbacks.
Of course, Clevinger coming to the Valley would probably require he and Diamondbacks broadcaster Bob Brenly working out their differences.
Rafael Montero, RHP
After getting poor results from free-agent relievers yet again this season, it may be difficult to imagine the Diamondbacks going back to free agency for bullpen help this winter. Nonetheless, trading for well-established relievers comes with a monstrous price tag, and it is hard to see the Diamondbacks relying entirely on a plethora of an unproven young arms.
Some outside help is probably warranted, and Astros reliever Rafael Montero has been nothing short of outstanding in 2022. In 61.2 innings, the 31-year-old has a 2.34 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and a 27 percent strikeout rate.
Granted, Montero has never had a full season like it before, but that is really the point. If he had rattled off several years like that in a row, he would probably price out of the Diamondbacks’ market. Still, there is reason to believe his 2022 success has staying power.
For starters, his fastball velocity is up to a career-high 96.5 MPH this year. Unlike Melancon, Ian Kennedy and the plethora of other relievers who have tried and failed in backend bullpen roles the last few years, Montero’s stuff is trending upward, not downward. He also fits the swing-and-miss profile that the Diamondbacks’ bullpen has been missing for years.
Although he doesn’t have long track record of success, Montero has been good enough in 2022 that he will likely command a multi-year deal worth more than what the Diamondbacks gave Melancon last year. That is a significant investment, but it also carries less risk than signing another 10-plus year veteran in his late 30s.
Carlos Estevez, RHP
Carlos Estevez is a familiar face, having pitched 45 career innings against the Diamondbacks for the Colorado Rockies. Like Montero, Estevez is arguably having his best year yet, with a 3.44 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and a 23.3 percent strikeout rate. Those numbers do not jump off the page, until you realize he pitches in Coors Field half the time.
With a career 4.59 ERA, Estevez has a had a solid, yet unspectacular career that probably won’t warrant a monstrous contract. Still, like Montero, he will get a multi-year deal that figures to exceed what the Diamondbacks have typically spent on relievers in the past.
However, as in Montero’s case, the investment seems like a relatively safe one. Estevez is 29 years old, throws a four-seamer that averages 97.5 MPH and has always been hindered by the most hitter-friendly home park in the majors.
Top photo: Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports
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