PHOENIX – As the lockout lingers and continues to frustrate all who wish to see a rapid end, teams are quietly preparing for The Moment. That’s when we hear the crack of the bat once again, leather popping in gloves, and players signing autographs throughout spring camps.
Quietly, teams are arranging for that day and Mike Hazen, general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, is seriously thinking about revamping his club. Coming off a disastrous and embarrassing 2021 season, the only way for the Diamondbacks to progress, pundits, have written, is through a youth movement. Arizona completed a dreadful 52-110 campaign in 2021 and equaled the Baltimore Orioles for the worst record in Major League Baseball a year ago.
Now, there appears little path to rebuild through veterans and players like outfielder David Peralta, shortstop Nick Ahmed, first baseball Christian Walker and pitchers Madison Bumgarner, Merrill Kelly, and Mark Melancon, at the core of this team, are all into their 30s.
Since named as the club’s GM in October 2016, Hazen has eschewed signing free agents to huge contracts and, instead, relies on having players “under control.” That would include those who are far from reaching free agent status and during the current lockout, one of the key issues considered is when a player can reach this status.
The number of six years in the majors or reaching the age of 29 ½ to determine “free agency” remain under negotiations but neither resolution should affect Hazen’s approach. Rather, the goal is recognizing the existing stockpile of young talent and, essentially, to let these players play.
“Younger players will have an opportunity to play,” Hazen promised. “There are very few free agents. We need to get players to produce.”
Subject to be a principal priority is the bullpen.
Here, Hazen may have addressed the closer’s role. That’s when he signed the veteran Melancon just before the Dec. 2 lockout. Given the Diamondbacks on-field lack of productivity, the reality of a qualified closer may be a luxury. If middle relievers fail to hold teams at bay or protect leads, then the value of Melancon is moot. Until the lockout ends, middle relievers for Hazen and field manager Torey Lovullo remain a huge question mark and no player transactions, to help provide relief, may not be conducted.
“Clearly, the bullpen needs to be rebuilt,” Hazen said, echoing the obvious. “On the whole, we struggled here last season and we need a better defense. We have an opportunity to fix that.”
If Hazen is looking to build a foundation, he will likely start with a limited core and foundation.
First, Catcher Carson Kelly, brought over the St. Louis Cardinals in the Paul Goldschmidt deal a few winters ago, emerged as dependable behind the plate as he is with the bat. Plus, Daulton Varsho, coming off a productive rookie season (in 96 games, hit .241, 11 home runs, 38 RBIs), is penciled in as Kelly’s bask-up.
Also, infielder Ketel Marte is only 28 years ago and, though mentioned in trade talks before the lockout, remains the Diamondbacks’ most valuable asset. Lovullo and Hazen can also count upon infielder-outfielder Josh Rojas to play somewhere on an everyday basis. Last season, Rojas, who came over from Houston in that Zack Greinke deal, batted .264 in 138 games with 11 home runs and 44 RBIs.
With Peralta aging in left field and the uncertainty of Marte playing in center field or at second base, that would open the gate for Jake McCarthy. At 24-years-old, McCarthy filled in for Kole Calhoun in right field last season and proved a worthy contributor. For 2021, McCarthy, out of Scranton, Pa., appeared in 24 games and hit .220. Yet, his speed and energy caught Lovullo’s attention and McCarthy, once the lockout ends, should command consideration in spring training at Salt River.
Relative to negotiations between the players union and the owners, the sands are quickly sifting through the hourglass. Pitchers are catchers are to report to Salt River next week, and in all likelihood, that will not happen. A protracted lockout can only exacerbate the Diamondbacks desire to quickly construct a productive team.