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When the Diamondbacks signed Madison Bumgarner to the second-biggest contract in franchise history in December of 2019, it was seen as a monumental day for the organization. One of the best postseason pitchers of all-time was coming to Arizona.
Bumgarner wasn’t in his prime, but he was coming off a solid year with the San Francisco Giants, in which he went 9-9 with a 3.90 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and a .241 opponent average.
In Bumgarner’s introductory presser, Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen made it clear that the then-30-year-old was exactly what his team needed.
“This player,” he said, “this person, the more work that we did going through the offseason, what we felt like we needed at the top of the rotation, his presence, his leadership, certainly his track record, all of the things that we’ve watched from across the field, the success that he’s had with the San Francisco Giants. We felt like this was a big add for us in our offseason, our team next year and beyond.
“We know our time together is going to be pretty special.”
That is not exactly how things worked out. In 69 career starts with the Diamondbacks from 2020-23, Bumgarner went 15-32 with a 5.23 ERA, 1.38 WHIP and minus-0.6 bWAR. On Thursday, the Diamondbacks designated Bumgarner for assignment, all but certainly spelling the end of his time in Arizona and requiring the team to eat more than $34 million in the process.
In a press conference with reporters on Thursday, Hazen was asked what led to the decision.
“The recent performance over the first part of the season, in totality, kind of adding up, start after start, trying to leg through long as we could, knowing that we wanted it to turn around. We didn’t see that as of [Wednesday], and so we made the decision.”
In four starts in 2023, Bumgarner went 0-3 with a 10.26 ERA, 2.40 WHIP, 15 walks and 10 strikeouts in 16.2 innings. Of major-league pitchers who had made four or more starts in 2023 entering Thursday, Bumgarner’s 10.26 ERA was the second-highest in baseball.
The D-backs owe Bumgarner $20.4 million for the remainder of the 2023 season and $14 million in 2024. With a total hit of $34.4 million, the D-backs will eat more than 40 percent of the $85 million that they pledged to Bumgarner four years ago.
Talks about moving on from the 33-year-old lefty started several weeks ago, according to Hazen, but he and manager Torey Lovullo wanted to “give every opportunity we could.” Eventually, Bumgarner’s poor performances piled up, and D-backs higher-ups told Hazen to “do what needs to be done to win baseball games,” regardless of the financial implications.
For Hazen, the fact that the Diamondbacks are off to a promising 11-9 start, despite playing one of the hardest schedules in the sport, was also a factor in the decision to move on from Bumgarner.
“The team has played its butts off over the last first three weeks of the season,” Hazen said. “I ask our players and staff to have urgency around how we’re going to play an attack, and so I have to do the same thing. I can’t be a hypocrite and ask for that and not do it in my job.”
The Diamondbacks could have tried Bumgarner in the bullpen rather than moving on from him entirely. That did not work out for a variety of factors.
For one, the D-backs already have three well-established lefties in the bullpen, with Joe Mantiply having recently returned from the injured list and both Andrew Chafin and Kyle Nelson still in the fold. Hazen also mentioned that there has to be buy-in from the player, though he did not explicitly say how Bumgarner reacted to the idea.
With the bullpen not being a clear solution, the team ultimately decided that there was too much talent waiting in the minors, namely Tommy Henry and Brandon Pfaadt, to warrant continuing on with Bumgarner.
For now, Henry will get the first crack at Bumgarner’s spot in the rotation. That decision, it appears, had less to do with the team favoring Henry over Pfaadt than the logistics of the situation.
With Pfaadt scheduled to pitch Thursday in Reno, Hazen said that he did not want to push other starters back and suddenly thrust Pfaadt into the majors last-minute. Hazen also did not like the idea of skipping Pfaadt’s Thursday start and having him make his big-league debut on extended rest. Henry, on the other hand, made his last start on Tuesday, which lines him up nicely to take Bumgarner’s rotation spot on five days rest.
On top of that, Hazen said that, like Pfaadt, Henry is deserving of the opportunity. In four starts in Triple-A Reno, Henry has a 6.33 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP. Those numbers are not great on the surface, but, given the hitter-friendly environment of the Pacific Coast League, they are far from alarming. Henry also has a respectable 22 strikeouts against eight walks in 21 1/3 innings.
As for Pfaadt, Hazen said that he is ready for the big leagues right now, and it is only a matter of finding him an opportunity.
“We’re gonna need all these guys from now through the rest of the season,” Hazen said. “We know they’re both throwing the ball really well. We have two good options down there. Both of those guys are going to be pitching up here.”
Regardless of whether the team ultimately chose Pfaadt or Henry, parting with Bumgarner meant moving forward with a relatively inexperienced rotation. With Henry in the fold, three-fifths of the D-backs’ starters have yet to amass 50 major-league innings. When asked if that lack of experience is a concern, Hazen gave a resounding ‘yes,’ but added that he feels like his young starters are still in position to succeed.
“They have really good stuff,” Hazen said. “They can all pitch. Some of them are already showing it right now. There’s going to be some volatility for sure. We know that.
“We’re gonna trust that we’re gonna be able to surround them with a good defensive club, because we’ve played phenomenally defensively so far, which is fantastic for us. And we have a good outfield, we have a lot of speed. And I think the catchers have done a great job, and we spend a lot of time prepping to put them in a position to have success.”
Notably, while Pfaadt is slated to continue pitching for Reno until an opportunity in the majors presents itself, he had another excellent outing on Thursday night.
As far as future free agent signings are concerned, Hazen was adamant that the outcome of the Bumgarner contract will not stop him from being aggressive in the free-agent market in the future. On the flip, he did say that the organization needs to develop better processes for evaluating possible signees.
“Nobody would have foreseen this outcome, I don’t think, but obviously it happened,” he said. “We’re responsible for it happening, and I’m responsible for the decision as to why it happened. And so we’ll just deconstruct a number of different areas, both in the performance side of things, the coaching side of things, the front office side of things, all those things.”
In retrospect, the D-backs spent a significant portion of Bumgarner’s tenure in Arizona trying to help him rediscover what made him one of the best pitchers in the game for more than a decade. As their decision on Thursday made clear, they never quite figured it out.
“I don’t know,” Hazen said. “Frankly, we’ve all lost a lot of sleep over trying to answer that question, and I haven’t answered it yet and we’re here today.
“I don’t have the answer for you. It just didn’t work out.”
Top photo: Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic