How did roster decisions reshape the Virtual Diamondbacks, both for 2020 and for the future?
When I started the simulated season, the plan was to tinker with the roster as little as possible, hoping to reflect the sort of season we might all have expected from the Diamondbacks if they had played in a normal, non-COVID, 162-game season in 2020. This meant, among other things, addressing issues by keeping a shoestring budget and giving extra rope to veterans with MLB contracts. At the same time, I wanted to reflect at least a modicum of rational thinking. If a player or multiple players were tanking in extreme ways, I intended to make moves with the personnel available to try and plug holes. Meanwhile, I kept an eye out for ways to turn prospects more than a year away from the majors, or fringe contributors into a solid present player a la Jazz Chisholm for Zac Gallen.
It didn’t take long for a number of serious deficiencies to pop up for the Virtual Diamondbacks. While eventually taking the Braves the distance in the NLDS, the early-season team was a train wreck that more closely resembled the real-world 2020 Diamondbacks than any sort of playoff contender. The rotation, which eventually became a strength of the team, stumbled coming out of the gate. The bullpen was performing well enough, but was suffering from extreme over use. A decided lack of minor league options in the bullpen only exacerbated the issue. On the offensive side of things, Kole Calhoun and Eduardo Escobar were dumpster fires. The Martes were both struggling to be average, with Starling Marte nearly joining the likes of Calhoun and Escobar. Jake Lamb was, well, Jake Lamb. Even Christian Walker scuffled, being merely a league average bat during the best of stretches. To put it mildly, the team was a wreck.
The lack of offense worried me the most. Having four regulars posting a sub-85 OPS+ was killing this team. The first attempt to fix this was to lean as heavily as possible into playing the platoon splits with Escobar, Lamb, and Walker. For roughly two weeks, this seemed to work. Then the wheels fell off. The next move was to start giving Josh Rojas some of Kole Calhoun’s starts. This paid dividends almost immediately, as Rojas rose to the occasion. Alas, this still left me with Calhoun as my big bat off the bench, which was far from an ideal place to be.
The Diamondbacks needed two things, they needed a serviceable third baseman, and they needed pop. It was time to go shopping. The moves made to address this problem drastically re-shaped three teams in the simulation. It was from that point on where I decided I would take a less “real-world” approach. After all, the moves made to address third base would never happen in the real world. So, here it is, how the moves played out.
Arizona sends Silvino Bracho to the Baltimore Orioles for Ryan Mountcastle
Bracho was the very definition of surplus to need. The Diamondbacks already had a number of power arms in the bullpen, none of which were coming off of Tommy John surgery. On top of that, there was simply no room for him in the bullpen, especially after the related move which was made in order to make room on Arizona’s 26-man roster. For his part, Bracho solidified himself as Baltimore’s closer by the end of the 2020 season. Still, despite his success, he would have been the fourth-best arm in Arizona’s bullpen. In exchange, Arizona received a top-100 prospect. Mountcastle turned out to not be an immediate solution at third. Then, while spending some time in Reno, he was lost to injury until August 2021. He remains a top-100 prospect, despite his injuries, and is under Arizona’s control, giving them all sorts of options as he might help with first base, third base, or through a trade for some other need.
Arizona sends Eduardo Escobar to the Atlanta Braves for Will Smith
The Braves were looking to cut salary. The Diamondbacks needed to make room for Mountcastle. Given that Mountcastle was primarily replacing Eduardo Escobar, this seemed like a no-brainer. I couldn’t pull the trigger fast enough. There is no denying that Will Smith came with a hefty price tag. It helped my case that fan interest immediately rose after the trade was made. Also, the presence of Smith extended the already solid bullpen, providing Arizona with the Four Horsemen; Archie Bradley, Will Smith, Yoan López, and Kevin Ginkel. This quartet was arguably the biggest reason arguably the biggest reason Arizona eventually made the postseason. For the Braves, Escobar continued to stink. He finished his 2020 season with a 68 OPS+ and was not on Atlanta’s NLDS roster.
Arizona sends J.B. Bukauskas, Kevin Cron to Anaheim for Brandon Marsh
On one hand, Starling Marte would, from time-to-time flash his former greatness, making an argument that the Diamondbacks just needed to have patience with him. On the other, the Arizona offense was sputtering, sending Arizona to a quick grave and Marte’s 85 OPS+ was a big part of that. In order to light a fire under Marte, the Diamondbacks went out and picked up another top-100 prospect in Brandon Marsh. The thought was that he could start in Reno. Then, if necessary, he could slowly replace Marte in center field. If Marte found his bat, he could eventually move to right field, pushing Josh Rojas into the role of exceptional fourth outfielder. Tim Locastro got injured, speeding up Marsh’s arrival in the majors. Then, as Marte continued to struggle, Marsh eventually supplanted Marte as the starter in center field. Despite being part of Arizona’s September swoon, Marsh currently remains Arizona’s center fielder of the future, having spent the majority of the season playing excellent defense and providing a bat with great power to the gaps. Bukauskas made a late-season debut for Anaheim but did not pitch significant innings. Cron had an up-and-down season in Anaheim, finishing the season on the bench with a sub-league average bat.
Arizona sends Kole Calhoun to Chicago Cubs for Carlos Asuaje
With Tim Locastro healthy once again and Starling Marte now playing as the fourth outfielder, having slowly lost his starting duties to Brandon Marsh, Calhoun was sent to Chicago in yet another attempt to improve third base. Asuaje came to Arizona as a Daniel Descalso-type utility infielder. Importantly, he had minor league options and was considered to be decent with the glove. In the move, Arizona was able to unload all of Calhoun’s contract and take back a major league minimum one. Asuaje was mediocre at best as a starter at third. His biggest contribution came in that he was able to spell other players for days off. The money saved was considerable and Calhoun’s lack of bat was ejected from the roster. In Chicago, Calhoun went on a two week tear. Then, he cooled off and finished the season riding the pine for the Cubs. He is in line to be their fourth outfielder in 2021, despite his 76 OPS+.
Arizona sends Stephen Vogt, Daniel Torres (minors) to Washington Nationals for Michael A. Taylor
The Washington Nationals, suddenly in need of catching help, sent Michael A. Taylor to the Diamondbacks in exchange for Stephen Vogt and 18-year-old rookie utility infielder, Daniel Torres. In his half-season in Arizona, Vogt did an admirable job as Carson Kelly’s backup. Defensively, Vogt held his own, while at the plate, he was responsible for posting a triple slash of .250/.309/.466, good for 95 OPS+. Moving Vogt cleared a small bit of salary and also paved the way for Daulton Varsho to become a permanent fixture on the 26-man roster. Acquiring Taylor, a far better defender and to that point in the season, a slightly better bat, all but put the final nails in the coffin of Starling Marte’s time in Arizona. Taylor’s bat regressed some, but remained better than his career average. He had a few highlight moments, including a big at-bat in the playoffs. Daulton Varsho had a decent enough debut for Arizona, spending time in left, at third, and behind the plate. Torres remains in AA and does not appear to have a future in the majors. Taylor remains a 4th/5th outfield option in Arizona at a reasonable rate.
Arizona sends Héctor Rondón to the Phillies for Zac Eflin
In late June the Diamondbacks were faced with two issues that were making improving the team’s situation difficult. First, a rash of injuries struck the starting rotation. Second, the earlier acquisition of Will Smith left Arizona with precious little cash to make any upgrades to the roster. At the time of the trade, Héctor Rondón ranked as one of the better relief pitchers in baseball by ERA+. The problem was his peripherals. They were something out of a Stephen King nightmare story. Given the strength of the Four Horsemen, and the other options available to Arizona for the bullpen, moving Rondón to clear a bit of cash made sense. In addition to playing for league minimum, Zac Eflin also had a minor league option remaining. This provided very important flexibility regarding his role on the team. Over the remainder of the season, Eflin spent time in Reno, in the bullpen, and in the rotation. He provided quality innings in all three places, even starting a pair of games down the stretch in September when injuries once again hit the Diamondbacks. It didn’t happen until late-July, but Rondón’s peripherals did finally catch up with him, taking him from a 321 ERA+ down to a 96 by season’s end. Eflin’s minimal salary, minor league options, and performance in the innings he did pitch in the majors far outweigh the performance they gave up from Rondón, who never could have helped with starting pitching. Rondón’s 2021 was not picked up by Philadelphia. Eflin remains with Arizona moving forward, still playing the role of super-utility pitcher.
Arizona sends Starling Marte to the Chicago White Sox for Steve Cishek
About that aforementioned lack of funds. On the same day that the Diamondbacks traded for Zac Eflin, they sent their now fourth outfielder, Starling Marte, to the White Sox. The move cleared Significant money from the books for the Diamondbacks and added a potential fifth member to the Four Horsemen. Alas, that is not quite how it worked out. Steve Cishek, along with his lack of options, was an absolute Heath Bell level disaster out of the bullpen. On the other side of the ledger, Marte spent most of the rest of the season riding the pine for the White Sox as either their fourth or fifth outfielder. After dropping as low as having a 71 OPS+ in Arizona, he was traded when it was 85. He finished the season with a 91 OPS+ after providing all of 128 plate appearances for Chicago. The White Sox did not pick up his 2021 option. The Diamondbacks could not wash their hands of Cishek fast enough. Both teams might want to take this one back. At least money and roster space were cleared for Arizona while the Marte’s replacements of Brandon Marsh and Tim Locastro both outperformed him.
Arizona sends Ryan Grotjohn (minors) to the Miami Marlins for Braxton Garrett
On one hand, Ryan Grotjohn was in the midst of a monster breakout season. He was setting the world on fire with his bat and making strides towards becoming a top-100 prospect. This performance was mostly as a second baseman, with some time spent at both third and shortstop as well. On the other hand, Braxton Garrett was the #68 prospect in all of baseball – a starter in the minors, working out of the bullpen for Miami. I was looking at other, more established players to send to Miami when Virtual Derek Jeter and Michael Hill asked for Grotjohn. The approval on that deal was made so fast it broke the laws of physics. Garrett was assigned to Reno. Grotjohn went to Miami’s farm system. Less than a week after being acquired, Garrett was promoted to fill an in the bullpen. The plan was still to develop him as a starter, but to make sure he still got MLB experience to help development. With Robbie Ray set to become a free agent at the end of the season, Garrett was seen as an inexpensive left-handed starter to fill the Ray void. As circumstances would have it, Garrett was not long for the Arizona bullpen and established himself as the team’s third-best starter for 2020. He is under control for Arizona through 2024. It remains to be seen what becomes of Grotjohn. His time with Miami was rather pedestrian. Still, he did enough that for 2021 he is likely in AAA awaiting the call.
Arizona Sends Merrill Kelly to the Miami Marlins for Yairo Munoz, Jordan Yamamoto
Ryan Mountcastle’s injury put him out of commission until August of 2021. Carlos Asuaje’s bat just could not carry him as a starter. Andy Young injured himself and was expected to be out until late in the season. Arizona’s third base was still a massive black hole of suck. Trading for any sort of capable third baseman came with an expensive price tag. Eventually, Arizona paid on the “cheap side”. That only applies in this case in labeling the trade as one in which the Diamondbacks were not sending prospects and picking up a massive contract for Kris Bryant. At the time of the trade, Kelly was arguably the most valuable reliever in the entire game. Pitching six to eight innings per week out of the bullpen, he was doing so sporting a 246 ERA+. Parting ways with Kelly was painful. Putting things in perspective, once the trade was completed, Kelly was immediately slotted into Miami’s rotation. Just over a week later, Kelly was Miami’s lone representative at the All-Star game. He finished the season as one of Miami’s best pitchers, tossing 112.1 innings for them and finishing with a 120 ERA+. For Arizona, Munoz finally stopped the bleeding at third – mostly. As was the case for many Diamondbacks, September was a cruel month for Munoz. He finished the season with a painful 82 OPS+. In 2021 he remains with Arizona in a utility infielder capacity, still ahead of Asuaje on the depth chart. Yamamoto wound up being the better part of the return for Arizona. Though he spent most of 2020 pitching out of the rotation for Reno, when the Diamondbacks started having injury woes, Yamamoto pitched quite well out of the Arizona bullpen. He was, in essence, a direct replacement for Merrill Kelly, though he was not as good as Kelly was. One thing Yamamoto did bring with him was minor league options and years of team control. In 2021, Yamamoto is a pre-arbitration member of the bullpen and is under team control through 2024. Given that the point of the trade was to improve third base and that Kelly’s replacement was good, but not better than Kelly, this trade never stopped stinging entirely. Yamamoto’s performance in the following years will decide the eventual final grade. Merrill Kelly’s option was picked up by Miami and he is part of the starting rotation for 2021.
Grade: C+ (with the possibility to elevate to a B if Yamamoto sticks)
Arizona sends Madison Bumgarner to Milwaukee for Logan Morrison, Eduardo Garcia (minors)
Sometimes baseball can be serendipitous. To start with, this trade simply is not possible without the previous, Braxton Garrett trade. The presence of an MLB-ready left-handed starter chomping at the bit played no small part in my ability to even consider this trade. Bumgarner’s contract also helped. With four years and $79 million left on the deal, Bumgarner’s lack of ace-like stuff was concerning. As it was, he was no better than the team’s third-best starter on the July 23rd, the day he was traded. It is very likely he was the team’s fourth-best starting option. Though the sample size was obviously a small one, Garrett was already pitching as well as Bumgarner. At the same time, I was not interested in a pure salary dump. In fact, I never once looked at trading Bumgarner. It was Milwaukee that reached out to make this deal. In doing so, Arizona did take on Logan Morrison, who was immediately sent off to Reno, or maybe it was Greenland. Eduardo Garcia though, he was Milwaukee’s second-best prospect and, as luck would have it, was only 18 years old and profiled just as well as the previously traded Ryan Grotjohn. In essence, this created a trade of Madison Bumgarner and a questionably rising prospect for a solid pre-arbitration #3 left-handed starter in Garrett and an upgraded, younger, middle infield prospect just outside of top-100 territory. All of this resulting in saving in excess of $70 million. Bumgarner went on to pitch well for the Brewers. He finished the season with 202.1 IP and an ERA+ of 108. Eduardo Garcia continued to perform well and will open 2021 in AA, at age 19. While this was an unexpected trade, everything seems to have worked out.More on this in the final installment of this series.
Leake started the season in the rotation. While he was able to eat up innings, Leake’s performance was a major contributor to Arizona’s horrific start to the season. Leake was first moved to the bullpen. That didn’t last long. Shortly thereafter, Arizona traded for Will Smith. Leake was designated to make room for the dominant left-hander. Seattle picked Leake up. He finished the season as a league average innings-eater (102 ERA+). All things considered, this was probably the best outcome.
Grade: B (should have designated sooner)
He was Jake Lamb.
Grade: C (Once again, I should have designated sooner. Also, I should not have gotten so hung up on having at least one left-handed bat in reserve.)
Allowed to Walk
Like Héctor Rondón, Guerra’s peripherals were troubling. It’s hard to say what would have happened had he not been a part of the July injury plague that struck the pitching staff. He likely would have been traded in order to free up money. As it is, he suffered a setback while on the injured list, which put him out until the season was over. With Arizona having one of the best bullpens in baseball without him, there was no reason to bring him back.
Yes, the reigning 2020 Cy Young winner was allowed to walk, leaving Arizona with no compensation. This was only partially the plan. Moves were made throughout the season to prepare for losing Ray if he became too expensive. Then, circumstances changed. The Arizona Diamondbacks did indeed have enough money on hand to sign him. However, the offseason took a rather dramatic turn. In the end, Robbie Ray wound up signing with the Colorado Rockies on a 5-year/$70 million contract.
Overall Grade: A-
Up next, the final installment of the 2020 Snake Pit Sim Season, a look how the trades, promotions, and free agent signings of the 2020-21 offseason reshaped the future of the Virtual Diamondbacks.