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When the Diamondbacks signed Zach Davies shortly before the 2022 season, the 29-year-old was coming off the worst season of his career. His league-leading 75 walks and 43.3-percent hard-hit rate in 2021 were severe outliers for a pitcher known as a control specialist and soft contact artist. His 5.78 ERA didn’t exactly stand out in last year’s free-agent class.
The Diamondbacks needed starting pitching, though. And when they saw an opportunity to buy low on a pitcher with a track record as good as Davies’, they took it. The deal was worth $1.5 million for one year with a $1.5 million mutual option for 2023. With it, the Diamondbacks got much-needed starting pitching depth and Davies got an opportunity to re-establish himself.
In 2022, he did exactly that, posting a 4.09 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and .230 opponent batting average. Those are not Cy Young-caliber numbers, but Davies’ bounce-back clearly warrants a raise.
As a result, it came as no surprise when Evan Thompson of Last Word on Baseball reported that Davies will decline his end of the mutual option for 2023. Thompson did say that the Gilbert Mesquite High School product has expressed interest in returning to the Diamondbacks on a new contract. However, with a number of new young arms on the way, it is unclear if the Diamondbacks’ need for starting pitching is great enough to offer Davies a new deal.
To be clear, the D-backs do plan to target starting pitching this winter. General manager Mike Hazen made that clear in a press conference with reporters last Thursday.
“I know you guys get tired of me saying it…but I think starting pitching is something that you never have enough of,” he said.
In-house options for the 2023 starting rotation include Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly, Madison Bumgarner, Drey Jameson, Ryne Nelson, Tommy Henry and possibly top prospect Brandon Pfaadt. Tyler Gilbert may also be an option, pending a recovery from a left elbow sprain that ended his season in late July.
On paper, that is a decent list. However, injuries happen, Bumgarner is not aging well, and four of those eight names are rookies with little to no major league experience. Maybe that group proves capable, but a rotation with only two well-established, high-caliber arms carries undeniable risk.
Bringing back Davies would mitigate some of that, to be sure. He is not necessarily an innings-eater — Davies finished with 134.1 innings in 2022, with an average of just under five innings per start — but he has a long track record of stability. Outside of his disastrous 2021 season, Davies’ 4.09 ERA in 2022 was actually his highest ever over a full season.
A deeper look into his peripherals suggests his 2022 season could have been a touch worse, though. His walk rate, while improved from 2021, was still above league-average, as was his home run rate. His strikeout rate saw only a modest improvement from 17.1 percent in 2021 to 17.9 percent in 2022. Davies’ 4.83 FIP, 4.56 xERA and 4.58 xFIP all point to some degree of over-performance.
To determine Davies’ value in the open market, a quick look at his WAR is a good starting point. He was worth 0.5 FanGraphs WAR and 0.7 Baseball Reference WAR in 2022. Generally, one win equates to roughly $8.5 million of value. Based on that, Davies’ annual salary in a new deal would sit somewhere in the $4-6 million range. The fact that he will have barely turned 30 by Opening Day of next year will probably push that figure a touch higher.
In terms of length, it is hard to envision a sub-1 WAR pitcher getting more than a two-year deal. On the flip-side, Davies’ youth and track record suggests he’ll get more than one year, too. Something in the range of two years, $14 million is a reasonable estimate of his market value.
Given that starting pitching is not an urgent need for the D-backs, that price tag may prove too high. Factoring in MLB Trade Rumors’ arbitration projections, the Diamondbacks’ payroll for 2023 figures to land around $100 million. That is already on par with what they spent in 2022.
Unless Davies is willing to accept a hometown discount of some sort, it is hard to see a reunion with the Diamondbacks coming to fruition. With a group of promising young starting pitching prospects on the way — including Blake Walston, Slade Cecconi and others who were not mentioned above — stretching the budget for a multi-year deal with a veteran may not make sense.
In a way, Davies declining his side of the 2023 option was always the best possible outcome. For Davies, it signals a pay raise. For the Diamondbacks, it means he threw well enough in 2022 to earn it. If the right-hander has indeed pitched his last game in Sedona red, the big question for the D-backs is this: How will the rotation hold up without him?