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Diamondbacks are latest 'winter winners' to flop on the field

An aggressive offseason doesn't guarantee anything. Just ask the Arizona Diamondbacks, the most recent team to see its best-laid plans (which included adding Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller) go seriously awry when the games began. Getty Images

With a 37-48 record and 16-game National League West deficit as testament to their poor play, the Arizona Diamondbacks rank among the most disappointing stories in baseball. Contrast the spring training euphoria surrounding the team with the ugly results in April, May and June, and it's hard to fathom how quickly and profoundly things went south.

"I would like to put it on injuries," general manager Dave Stewart said in a recent interview, "but injuries aren't why we're in the position we are now. We're in this position because we haven't executed and done what we're capable of. We've underachieved."

Baseball observers with a more historical slant might have had a clue this was coming. Arizona is the latest example of why the "winner of the winter" doesn't always look so formidable once the regular season begins.

The Diamondbacks are reminiscent of last year's San Diego Padres, who made such a dizzying flurry of moves during the 2014-2015 offseason that outfielder Matt Kemp christened new general manager A.J. Preller a "rock star." A year later, the roadies are packing up the equipment and clearing the stage. James Shields, Craig Kimbrel, Justin Upton, Ian Kennedy, Yonder Alonso and Fernando Rodney have come and gone, and the Padres are stockpiling prospects in an attempt to build something more enduring.

The Diamondbacks have been a buzzkill along the lines of the 2012 Miami Marlins, who made an enormous splash when they spent $191 million on free agents Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell and hired new manager Ozzie Guillen to great fanfare in Miami. After a sub-.500 start, the selloff began, and Marlins fans and national columnists ripped owner Jeffrey Loria for using taxpayer money to build a new ballpark only to change course after three months.

The D-backs also bring to mind the Toronto Blue Jays, who flopped after the addition of R.A. Dickey, Buehrle, Reyes and Josh Johnson in 2013 and didn't break through as a postseason team until two years later.

A sub-.500 record and afterthought status weren't part of the plan when Arizona signed free agent Zack Greinke to a $206.5 million contract and acquired Shelby Miller in a December trade with the Atlanta Braves. Of 31 ESPN experts surveyed late in spring training, 11 picked the Diamondbacks to make the playoffs as a division winner or wild-card team.

Since then, just about everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. Miller has a 6.85 ERA in 13 starts, Greinke just landed on the disabled list with an oblique strain, and Arizona's aggregate starting pitcher ERA has spiked from 4.37 to 4.86. The Diamondbacks also have posted a stunningly bad 14-31 record at home.

Arizona's sad story line isn't uncommon, given recent precedent. Why have so many teams spent big in hopes of making a quantum leap and found that the approach backfired? Texas GM Jon Daniels is familiar with the scenario from the 2014 season, when the Rangers garnered huge publicity with the acquisitions of Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo and responded with a 67-95 season, the franchise's worst since 1985.

"Some of it is injuries, which you can't predict," Daniels said. "But the challenge is that baseball isn't like basketball, where you can add one or two pieces and really change the dynamic of the organization. In baseball you need so much depth and balance and some luck, too. It's hard to do all that with a handful of moves in an offseason. It takes years to build that foundation, and then you try to make one or two moves and layer them on top of what you've built."

The 2008 American League champion Tampa Bay Rays, Pittsburgh Pirates, Houston Astros and 2015 World Series champion Kansas City Royals are prime examples of teams that got progressively better through the maturation of young rosters before making strategic acquisitions to get over the top. The Chicago Cubs suffered through five straight losing seasons before Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer thought the team's young core had progressed sufficiently to warrant a $155 million plunge on free-agent starter Jon Lester in December 2014.

"Baseball isn't like basketball, where you can add one or two pieces and really change the dynamic of the organization. In baseball you need so much depth and balance and some luck, too. It's hard to do all that with a handful of moves in an offseason. It takes years to build that foundation, and then you try to make one or two moves and layer them on top of what you've built." Texas Rangers GM Jon Daniels

Arizona was building the requisite strong nucleus last season with All-Stars Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock anchoring the lineup and David Peralta, Jake Lamb, Nick Ahmed, Yasmany Tomas and Brandon Drury all gaining valuable experience. The Diamondbacks made another shrewd move in January when they acquired middle infielder Jean Segura from Milwaukee. He's batting .308 this season and merits strong consideration for an All-Star berth at second base.

But bad luck blew a hole in the Diamondbacks' plans late in spring training, when Pollock suffered a fractured bone in his right elbow. The Diamondbacks' outfield depth had already taken a hit when they sent Ender Inciarte to Atlanta with shortstop prospect Dansby Swanson in the December trade for Miller, and things got worse when Peralta made two trips to the disabled list.

Bad outfield defense has been a killer for Arizona. Last year, Diamondbacks outfielders recorded a combined defensive runs saved of plus-37. This year it's minus-30, according to Baseball Info Solutions. That's a natural outcome when the team has given so much playing time to veteran discards (Michael Bourn and Rickie Weeks Jr.), a converted catcher (Pete O'Brien), a converted infielder (Chris Owings), a player whose best position is probably designated hitter (Tomas) and a prospect (Socrates Brito) who had to be rushed to the majors.

"It's only natural to review the roster from the top down, which is fine, but you also have to view it from the bottom up," said an NL executive. "If you're weak in certain positions or innings or spots in your lineup, you cannot hide it over 162 games. It kills you. The top-heavy roster doesn't succeed."

The Diamondbacks also opted for an offense-first catcher when they acquired Welington Castillo in a trade with Seattle last summer. While Castillo's .278/.323/.461 slash line has been more than adequate, several talent evaluators wondered if he's an optimal fit for an Arizona team that planned to stress pitching this season.

"You hate to use the term 'misfits toys,"' said an NL talent evaluator. "They have good players that other teams would like and want in most scenarios. But as a group, it wasn't a great roster construction, from my perspective."

As Stewart points out, this isn't a one-shot deal for Arizona. The Diamondbacks have an average roster age of 27.83 -- fourth youngest among the 30 MLB teams behind the Philadelphia Phillies, Rays and Braves. Greinke, Goldschmidt, Pollock and the team's nucleus will be around to take another crack at it for the next several years.

The most pressing short-term question for Arizona's front office is whether to trade relievers Daniel Hudson and Brad Ziegler at the Aug. 1 deadline before they're eligible for free agency.

"We're not trying to tear this ballclub apart," Stewart said. "We have to seriously evaluate internally if we have those guys back or move them. If we move them, it would be for prospects. That depletes our existing club, and we would have to replace them in the upcoming year."

In the interim, manager Chip Hale will do his best to maintain a semblance of continuity. Weeks came off the bereavement list this week and Hudson went on it. Greinke is on the DL, and Zack Godley will arrive from Triple-A Reno to take his place in the rotation. The quest to contend has given way to finding out how the pieces fit in 2017 and beyond.

"Every case is different, and in our situation, we're still one of the youngest teams in baseball," Hale said. "With less experienced players, it's harder to deal with expectations. Just putting pieces on the field isn't a team. You have to see how the team comes together. And that's been the tough thing for us -- we haven't had a chance to put the whole group together."

If it comes as any solace, the Diamondbacks will report to spring training next February with significantly lower expectations. Like some of their fellow "winners of the winter," maybe they'll look back on a summer of losing as a formative experience.