‘The sky’s the limit’: Diamondbacks believe rebuild off to promising start

The Diamondbacks’ 2017 first-round pick Pavin Smith was called up to the majors after Jake Lamb was designated for assignment. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – For the most part, 2020 has been a disappointing year for the Arizona Diamondbacks. After several aggressive offseason moves, it looked like the team was preparing a serious challenge to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ reign in the National League West.

However, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing MLB to sprint through a shortened 60-game season, the D-Backs find themselves reeling. With less than 10 games remaining, they are the proverbial doormat of the division, four games behind fourth-place Colorado going into Friday’s games.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Arizona’s struggles have essentially forced them into a long-term rebuild in the middle of this hasty season. Several transactions at the trade deadline signaled the Diamondbacks’ intent to begin that process early.

Perhaps more than the trades made at the deadline, the decision to designate infielder Jake Lamb for assignment fully encapsulates the D-Backs’ situation. Three years removed from a 30-home-run season and an All-Star appearance, Lamb was essentially released in a move that allowed Arizona to call 2017 first-round pick Pavin Smith up to the majors.

Lamb’s eventual move to Oakland may be proof that this year just isn’t it for the Diamondbacks. Lamb hit his first home run of the season in his debut for the A’s and has probably produced more for them than he did for Arizona before the deadline. Maybe the 2020 D-Backs are just cursed.

However, despite the team’s dismal record, things may not be as bad as they seem. Promising young players have become a fixture in the Diamondbacks’ lineup during the back stretch of the season. Rookies like Smith and catcher/outfielder Daulton Varsho have shown potential since their debuts.

Smith, who has five hits in his first 15 big-league at bats, is no stranger to getting the better of tough times as a team or individually.

Related story

“I’ve definitely had my struggles,” Smith said in a virtual press conference. “It’s better to have your struggles in the minor leagues and then figure it out and go from there. I definitely have some learning experience dealing with struggle and adversity.”

Varsho, who is learning to play the outfield after coming up as a catcher, gives the Diamondbacks a “very aggressive, fast-moving, powerful player,” according to manager Torey Lovullo.

“This is a quick learning curve at this level,” Lovullo said in a virtual press conference. “With each at bat and each rep in center field, he (Varsho) is going to be that much better down the road… He can adapt to any role and anything we ask him to do. He’s that good of an athlete.”

Smith and Varsho are far from the only players to make their major league debuts for the Diamondbacks in 2020. In all, according to dates listed on the team’s website, eight Arizona players have made their debut this season. That would be a decent amount for a full-length season. In a 60-game sprint, that nearly amounts to a debut every eight games.

Additionally, of the D-Backs’ current 40-man roster, over half had less than one year of MLB service time going into 2020, according to data from Baseball Prospectus. Service time is simply the amount of time a player has spent on an MLB active roster or injured list.

League-wide, Arizona’s deadline moves made its roster the seventh-youngest in terms of average service time. Before the deadline, it was the thirteenth-youngest.

With plenty of youth getting playing time this season, the Diamondbacks may be in better shape for the future than it seems.

“We are in a position where we know that this organization is going to transition and dig into the backbone of this organization and player development,” Lovullo said. “That’s just the nature of where we’re at and it’s how we operate and it’s a lot of fun for all of us.

“It’s fun for everybody that helped the players get drafted and into the system. It’s fun for the entire player development group to watch these players blossom. And then it’s fun for me to get the end result of the guy that’s coming here and performing.

“That’s who we are. That’s what we do, and we’re going to see that trend continue for many years here.”

While the D-Backs sit in an interesting situation with their abundance of youth, they also have an intriguing financial outlook. Their deadline deals allowed them to shed around $30 million in active salary for 2020. Arizona now has the fifth-lowest active payroll in the entire league.

(Data Visualization by Nick Hedges/Cronkite News)

However, these gains could be offset by money owed to former players. For instance, Arizona owes pitcher Zack Greinke $10.3 million this year and next year. Still, it’s much cheaper than the $33 million they were slated to pay him prior to his trade to Houston in 2019.

With a bit more money available than before, it is possible that Arizona could be aggressive in pursuit of free agents during the next few seasons. However, that’s to be decided later on.

Nonetheless, the D-Backs will finish the current season with a roster full of youth, and hope to build a strong core heading into the next several seasons.

“What I tell these young guys is that you’re going to get your opportunities and you’re going to cut your teeth, and then the sky’s the limit,” Lovullo said. “Don’t limit yourself to saying that this is who you’re going to be and what you’re going to do. Year by year by year, continue progressing through every outing and through the offseason and come in next year with the same mindset and preparedness.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Nick Hedges is from Cedar Park, Texas, and expects to graduate in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in statistics.