Hazen: D-Backs To Pursue Bullpen Help, Open To Adding At Catcher

The Diamondbacks had a quietly solid second half, setting themselves up for an interesting offseason. Arizona’s 73-89 overall record is obviously far from where they want to be, but the team has seen a number of young position players begin to produce at the major league level.

General manager Mike Hazen addressed the roster during his end-of-season media session yesterday. He provided a rundown of areas the club will look to address this winter (link via Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic).

Unsurprisingly, Hazen suggested that adding to the bullpen will be a priority. The D-Backs ran out a well below-average relief group for a third consecutive season, finishing the year 25th in ERA (4.58). Arizona relievers ranked last in the big leagues in strikeout rate (19.7%) and 28th in swinging strike percentage (10.9%). Hazen flatly stated improving the bullpen’s strikeout numbers will be a priority, suggesting the club will look into higher-velocity arms to that end.

Arizona added a pair of veteran relievers, Mark Melancon and Ian Kennedy, in free agency last winter. Kennedy was coming off an above-average 27.2% strikeout percentage with the Rangers and Phillies in 2021, but he stumbled to a 19% strikeout rate while losing a tick on his average fastball this season. Melancon hasn’t been a high-strikeout arm for years, and he posted a 4.66 ERA during his first season in the desert after posting a sub-3.00 mark in each of the previous two years. Melancon will be back next season on a $6MM salary, while Kennedy is a virtual lock to be bought out.

Of the 17 D-Backs relievers to top 10 innings pitched, only four had a swinging strike rate better than the 11.8% league average. Only one member of that group, All-Star lefty Joe Mantiply, is a lock to return. Arizona has already parted with Noé Ramirez, while Keynan Middleton and Caleb Smith were both extremely homer-prone and seem likely to be non-tendered.

The D-Backs aren’t going to make a run at a top-of-the-market free agent reliever like Edwin Díaz, but pitchers like Trevor MayAdam Ottavino and Miguel Castro are all hitting free agency after posting quality swing-and-miss numbers. Robert Suarez, who has a $5MM player option for next year with the Padres, and Carlos Estévez are among the hardest-throwing relievers who’ll be available. Hazen also suggested the front office would be more amenable than they’ve been in recent years to dealing young talent for relief help.

While the bullpen will be a key target area, it’s certainly not the only spot on the roster the D-Backs will be open to adding. Hazen indicated the club could look into offensive help, pointing to catcher as a position they could address. Carson Kelly has been the primary backstop for the past four seasons, but he’s never made the strides as a hitter the team had hoped when adding him as a central piece of the Paul Goldschmidt trade. Kelly looked as if he was on the way to his breakout with an excellent first two months in 2021, but that year was thrown off track by a right wrist fracture in late June. In the season and a half since that point, Kelly owns a .214/.287/.344 line in 526 trips to the plate.

While Hazen praised the 28-year-old’s defensive ability, he added that “chasing a little more offense at that position, given what the rest of the roster could look like, is something that we might take a look at.” It’d register as a surprise if they make a run at the top free agent at the position, Willson Contreras, but Arizona does have a fair amount of long-term financial flexibility. The Snakes have roughly $59MM on next season’s books (not including projected salaries for arbitration-eligible players) and just $38MM committed by 2024.

There aren’t many definitive offensive upgrades other than Contreras available in free agency, but the trade market figures to feature a couple of the sport’s better two-way backstops. The A’s Sean Murphy will be eligible for arbitration for the first time and could be available as Oakland continues its roster overhaul. Murphy hit .250/.322/.426 through 612 plate appearances, offense that checks in 22 points better than league average by measure of wRC+. It’s also possible the Blue Jays leverage their stockpile of catching depth for help elsewhere, moving a player like Danny Jansen on the heels of a .260/.339/.516 showing.

Whether at catcher or another position, Hazen suggested adding a right-handed bat to the mix was a possibility, as Arizona’s in-house lineup skews left-handed. Among their current projected regulars, only Kelly, first baseman Christian Walker and shortstop Nick Ahmed hit right-handed. Kelly, who’d be due a raise on this season’s $3.325MM salary via arbitration, could be non-tendered if the Snakes find an upgrade at catcher. Ahmed isn’t a lock to return to everyday duty after missing almost all of this season with a shoulder injury, and he’s a bottom-of-the-lineup defensive specialist even when at full strength.

The D-Backs have a number of lefty-swinging outfielders, all of whom are capable of playing all three outfield spots. Corbin Carroll and Daulton Varsho were top minor league talents, and both played well this season. Carroll didn’t make his MLB debut until late August, but both he and Varsho are guaranteed everyday reps going into next year. Jake McCarthy wasn’t the same level of prospect, but he hit .283/.342/.427 over 354 trips to the dish in 2022. Alek Thomas didn’t perform well in the majors, hitting .231/.275/.344 over 411 plate appearances. Still, he’s an excellent defensive outfielder and entered this season as a top prospect.

That quartet has varying levels of trade value — Carroll and Varsho would have more appeal than McCarthy or Thomas — but there’s reason for optimism among all of that group. It’s hard to envision the Diamondbacks parting with Carroll or Varsho, but dealing one of McCarthy or Thomas seems possible. Hazen unsurprisingly noted he doesn’t feel he has to trade anyone, pointing to the ability to rotate them through the designated hitter position, but he sounded amenable to a move in the right circumstance. “Take a left-handed hitting outfielder and turn him into a right-handed hitting slugger, yeah, I can see that puzzle coming together,” Hazen said (via Piecoro). “It’s not going to be taking one of those guys and trading them for prospects in that type of way.

Theoretically the D-Backs could also leverage their outfield depth to add starting pitching behind the top duo of Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly. While Arizona has a number of interesting young arms at or near the MLB level — Drey JamesonRyne NelsonBrandon Pfaadt and Blake Walston among them — there’s still a fair bit of uncertainty with any unproven young pitcher. Madison Bumgarner, whom the club signed to a five-year deal to be the staff ace, hasn’t come close to matching his previous production in San Francisco. The four-time All-Star has an ERA of 4.67 or higher in all three of his seasons as a Diamondback, including a 4.88 mark with just a 16% strikeout rate through 30 starts this year.

Bumgarner has two years and $37MM remaining on his deal, and the D-Backs would be hard-pressed to find a taker for any notable portion of that money on the trade market. Hazen suggested the 33-year-old will have an inside track at a rotation job heading into next season but implied his leash could be getting shorter. “I do think incumbency probably matters when you’re going into spring training, for sure, especially with the younger guys that we have,” the GM said of Bumgarner’s status. “But if the expectation next year is going to be moving the ball forward from where we are right now, we are going to be making decisions that we need to make as we need to make them.

D-Backs fans will want to read through Piecoro’s piece in full, as it contains myriad quotes from Hazen on the status of the roster and the organization’s offseason plans.

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