The Diamondbacks' front office will define themselves this summer if the team keeps winning.
Congratulations, Diamondbacks fans! Following the team's 6-5 walk-off win last night, your team still sits atop the gentle incline that is the NL West hill in the month of June. Quite a bit of mild competency from the D-Backs and a series of plagues on the rest of the division have led to the least-likely result this side of the Erie.
What to do with this unlikely boon, though? A playoff run is not assured in the slightest. Baseball Prospectus' playoff odds suggest the Diamondbacks will finish fourth in the division, well ahead of the San Diego Padres but ten games behind the San Francisco Giants. They estimate the D'Backs have a 6% chance of making the postseason.
Why? To this point, the Diamondbacks' opponents have a combined winning percentage under .500. For the remainder of the season, their opponents' combined winning percentage is well over .530. Plus, a look down the roster suggests the D'Backs may switch to selling pumpkins this fall instead of chariot rides to the postseason. We discussed the team's batting adequacy a couple weeks ago; the starting pitching ranks about the same, winning streak aside.
BP's odds system doesn't know Buster Posey will not wear stirrups again this year nor the other injury problems in the division, but ten games are quite a bit to lose from any player change, much less one that had been struggling at the point his ankle gave way. Despite the current view, the Diamondbacks have quite a bit of work left to achieve a playoff berth.
Should They Even Try?
Last offseason, the team focused on grit acquisition to throw in the fans' eyes to distract them from the hot mess on the field. The result: a vastly improved bullpen (from historically awful to distinctly bland) and 74 first basemen that can't play first base while ignoring the first baseman already under contract in Reno. (The Diamondbacks and Phoenix Suns should consider a first basemen-for-small forwards swap.)
At season's start, we suggested the franchise might not be above a bit of showmanship in roster construction. Keeping that in mind, there might be two reasons to take a shot at the 2011 playoffs: because the front office thinks they can make it and because they don't care if they can make it. One easy way to endear your fan base to your team is Going for It. In doing so, your team comes off as Wanting to Win, which is only one step behind Being a Winner. Of course, it's better if your fan base forgets to ask what It is and if winning barely more games than lost ones over half a calendar year is really Winning. Thankfully, they usually do.
Therefore, it might benefit the Diamondbacks to make a few personnel moves that confuse action with progress long enough to make off with a a few more ticket sales and perhaps a handful more season tickets retained next season. It's not like this opportunity will come up again next season or even the season after. The boost to fan perception could be enough to offset any additional cost to Going for It.
But What About The Future?
The push for a 2011 berth probably shouldn't be allowed to impact the inevitable 2015 World Series team, considering the relatively modest rewards (i.e., warm fuzzies and a thousand season tickets pulled off the fence). Jarrod Parker may not be Moses, but does moving him for an 85-win maybe-possibly-unlikely playoff team and a very unlikely World Series run really pay off? If the goal isn't achieved, will the possible public relations benefit burn off by spring 2012?
The Diamondbacks' best tool for improvement this season is their payroll (or lack therein). Their $56 million in commitments ranks 25th in MLB, theoretically leaving room to take on salary for the short term. Their $29 million in commitments in 2012 (plus a handful of mostly optional arbitration cases) theoretically leaves room to take on even more salary in the best of circumstances.
There is no shortage of expensive starting pitchers that could perhaps be pried away for the privilege of signing their paychecks for 6-18 more months. On the position player side, Carlos Beltran is available, but Brandon Allen still receives a paycheck from the Diamondbacks organization. Otherwise, it's not clear which position player should be bumped for the sweet, sweet taste of veteran savvy. Few are exceptional but fewer still are excremental. (Of course, any number of pumpkins could be ready for sale in a month. Ryan Roberts, we're drawing on you with Magic Marker as we speak.)
All of this may be quite moot. The Diamondbacks still sport a debt load that only looks quaint because it's within a day's drive of the McCourt clan. Managing Partner Ken Kendrick and friends may not care to increase salaries since every dollar not servicing that debt requires a higher threshold of success in investing. Any dollar not earmarked for debt service that is pulled away from this month's deep (if not superstar-laden) amateur draft is a dollar that might as well be given to the city of Glendale, for all the good it'll do the team.
On the other hand, chasing the meager prize of losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL rounds while failing to trade Kelly Johnson and Stephen Drew in a particularly soft up-the-middle market could be a dereliction of duty. As always, it depends on what the market yields.
So What Should The Diamondbacks Do?
First, wait a few weeks to check on the pumpkin crop. After that? Whatever matches their goals. If keeping up appearances is worth a few more shekels, then inquire about Derek Lowe or Carlos Zambrano. If the front office wants sustained success as soon as possible, quietly suggest to Kelly Johnson that he give 30 days' notice to his landlord. If they truly believe 85 wins is meaningful (and achievable), then cancel the 2015 parade and roll the kids out on the next Amtrak from Flagstaff.
We don't know what the Diamondbacks' front office will do. However, a few more weeks of sustained break-even play and we'll learn quite a bit about the future of this franchise.