The Arizona Diamondbacks are at a crossroads.
Like most mid- to small-market Major League Baseball franchises, the D-backs have suffered since the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out all non-media revenue during a 2020 season shortened to 60 games. The losses in 2020 and 2021, when attendance at Chase Field was either eliminated or greatly curtailed, ran to more than $100 million.
Meanwhile, the 25-year-old stadium and the mobility of its flip-top roof remains an issue. The D-backs took over operations and maintenance a few years ago in settling a lawsuit against Maricopa County. In exchange, the team earned the right to search outside downtown Phoenix for a new location.
That search has been suspended, club president Derrick Hall told Sportico in a recent exchange of text messages.
At the same time, the state legislature passed a bill last year allowing the D-backs to apply up to 9% of new user fees on tickets, concessions and merchandise to borrow money for a $500 million renovation of the current ballpark.
No decision has been made on whether to act on that yet, either.
“We have been in a holding pattern,” Hall said, when asked about the progress on upgrading or replacing the ballpark.
The D-backs are facing millions of dollars in repairs, which include replacing the cables on the retractable roof during the offseason. On account of safety issues for those inside the ballpark, the team hasn’t been able to open or close the roof right before or during games this season.
“We improve the stadium every year through capital expenditures,” Hall said. “The roof will be an expense and priority, but none of these maintenance needs will prohibit us from enhancing the product on the field.”
Even as the team has begun to bounce back on the field with a group of fast and exciting young players, attendance has barely returned to pre-COVID levels. The D-backs, which are on the remote edge of the expanded 12-team playoff picture, are averaging 19,415 through 71 dates in the 48,519-capacity ballpark, which ranks 22nd in MLB. In 2019, they averaged 26,334 for the full schedule of 81 home dates and ranked 17th.
The financial squeeze is at least part of the reason why the team’s player payroll this season sits at $82.9 million for luxury tax purposes, according to Spotrac, which is 26th in MLB. Their committed payroll for next season is $59.7 million before arbitration filings, trades and possible free-agent signings. That gives them plenty of room to maneuver under the luxury tax threshold, which rises marginally from $230 million to $233 million next season.
The big question is whether the D-backs will use it, considering the previously mentioned pending stadium issues that will come to a head when their lease expires in 2027. They are valued by Sportico at $1.36 million, 25th among the 30 MLB teams.
“We have held revenues at a steady pace and always put them back into the team,” Hall said, adding that managing general partner Ken Kendrick and his partners “have never put a penny in their pockets.”
“Having built a young team through draft and international signings gives us more flexibility to pursue free agents to supplement the roster.”
The current D-backs are feisty and hungry, having recently won nine of 13 against the San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies, Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago White Sox—all teams vying for a playoff berth. They blew an early 5-0 lead and lost 6-5 in the ninth inning at San Diego on Tuesday night.
Additionally, they’ve had back-to-back National League pitchers of the month in Merrill Kelly and Zac Gallen; it’s the first time that’s happened for the D-backs since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling did it in 2002, a year after the club won its only World Series, defeating the New York Yankees in seven thrilling games,
They’ve only made the playoffs four times since, the last in 2017. Meanwhile, their division rivals in the NL West—the Los Angeles Dodgers, Padres and San Francisco Giants—have spent vast amounts of money.
As Labor Day has come and gone, the Dodgers are running away with the division title for the ninth time in the past 10 years and own an MLB-tops $265.5 million payroll. The Padres, in a tussle to make the playoffs for the first time in a full season since 2006, are at $219.4 million. The Giants, suffering a severe reversion to the mean after last year’s franchise record 107-win season, are at $156.5 million.
Ten of the top 14 payroll teams are at least vying for the playoffs this season. Of the six teams leading their divisions, only the Cleveland Guardians are doing more with less, pacing the American League Central while spending $66.6 million.
Unless the D-backs start to spend money, how do they plan to compete?
“I’m not going to speculate where we’re going to go in the offseason, but we need to improve our roster,” general manager Mike Hazen told reporters this past week during a dugout interview session. “How that happens, I don’t know yet. I haven’t gotten there yet. Whatever the other teams in our division do, they do. It doesn’t change the expectations we have for ourselves.”
Hazen was hired away from Boston after the 2016 season, and the D-backs won a wild-card game with the team he inherited in his very first attempt. The D-backs have deteriorated since then as he tore that team apart.
Thirteen players from that 2017 squad are still contributing in the majors at some degree. Most noteworthy is Paul Goldschmidt, the All-Star first baseman who could win the Triple Crown this season for the St. Louis Cardinals, heading toward the NL Central title. Goldschmidt was traded in 2019 when the D-backs declined to meet his contract demands.
The Cardinals sent pitcher Luke Weaver and catcher Carson Kelly to the Diamondbacks and signed Goldschmidt to a five-year, $130 million extension. That looks like a bargain considering that the Dodgers and Padres have given younger rising players—such as Mookie Betts, Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr.—contracts worth $300 million and above.
If the D-backs can’t pay the likes of Goldschmidt, can they afford to sign high-priced, high-impact free agents now seeking three times that amount of money?
“I can pack it up and go home if my attitude was like that,” Hazen said. “It’s going to be problematic. It is what it is. We’ll be able to compete.”
Hazen, who just picked up manager Torey Lovullo’s option for next season, added that “there are no excuses,” and that he and his staff can’t “afford any more Mulligans.”
That, of course, is still to be determined.