Mike Hazen left the Red Sox after the 2016 season to become general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that had just lost 93 games.
Now, a little more than three years later, they stand as legitimate contenders in the National League West if the Dodgers stumble.
Hazen knew when he arrived he wanted to improve the farm system and create a wider base of talent on the major league roster. But there wasn’t one set way to do that.
“We wanted to get to know the talent on the roster and see how it played out without rushing into any decisions,” Hazen said. “As 2018-19 evolved we had players moving through the system and we were able to make some moves.”
As first baseman Paul Goldschmidt approached his final year before free agency, the Diamondbacks traded him to the Cardinals last winter for three prospects and a draft pick.
Arizona followed that up by sending Zack Greinke to Houston last July for four prospects.
“Obviously trading those players was really hard,” Hazen said. “Particularly, Goldy. He was somebody so identified with the franchise. But we had needs that weren’t going to be filled by two players. We felt like those were additions we had to make.”
The same was true with Greinke. Hazen addressed the team after that trade to explain his reasoning.
“It’s very difficult to make those trades, and they weren’t popular at all with the fans,” Hazen said. “But that’s a short-term reaction. The only thing that matters is moving toward winning.”
Arizona is doing that. The seven players acquired in the two trades included three pitchers, an outfielder, a catcher, a first baseman, and a second baseman. Three already have played for the Diamondbacks.
Arizona then used the money saved in the trades to sign free agent lefthander Madison Bumgarner for five years and $85 million, and traded from their improved prospect portfolio to obtain outfielder Starling Marte from the Pirates.
They also signed underrated outfielder Cole Calhoun, reliable catcher Stephen Vogt, and righthanded relievers Junior Guerra and Hector Rondon.
Outside of Bumgarner and Marte, none of the additions were particularly expensive. But they added a layer of veteran talent to the roster that brings to mind the way the Red Sox supplemented their lineup before the 2013 season.
It’s a much different approach than the Padres, who committed big chunks of their payroll to Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer.
The 31-year-old Marte could be Arizona’s version of Shane Victorino, a veteran player who sparks the team in different ways. He gets on base, plays above-average defense, can steal a base, and hits for power.
“He’s fun to watch. He’s a very dynamic player,” Hazen said. “We’re excited about him.”
The Diamondbacks also had eight of the first 100 picks in the 2019 draft thanks to compensation rules. That further added to their stockpile of high-end talent.
Arizona’s improving farm system is now ranked among the top 10 in the game by most evaluators.
“They’ve done some good things,” one National League scout said. “Is there one hitter as good as Goldschmidt, one pitcher like Greinke? Probably not, no. But their roster is deep and they’ll have some players come up this season and help them.”
Even after making those trades, Arizona was 85-77 last season and only 1½ games out of a wild-card spot as late as Sept. 7. Hazen credits manager Torey Lovullo for that.
As its roster shifts, Arizona is 34 games over .500 the last three seasons. Lovullo has skillfully integrated the new players and kept the team focused on winning games as Hazen maneuvers to improve the future.
Hazen and Lovullo have a good partnership, one that started in 2002 when they both worked for the Indians in player development.
“A lot of trust,” Hazen said. “Our team has shown a lot of character and Torey is a big part of that. The players respond to him. He’s been a great manager, which was something everybody expected.”
Hazen’s staff includes assistant GMs Jared Porter and Amiel Sawdaye, both former Red Sox executives. Craig Shipley, a special assistant, also spent time with the Sox.
The Dodgers have won the National League West seven years in a row, and that’s not likely to change this season. But Arizona can put up a fight.
“The Dodgers have tremendous talent,” Hazen said. “The breadth of their talent, from 15-26, is just so impressive. They’ve been really good at developing players.
“It’s a challenge to be in the same division, but I feel like we’re moving in the same direction.”
Hazen, who is from Weymouth, moved his wife, Nicole, and their four sons across the country after 11 seasons with the Red Sox. He took a risk that could pay off big.
“I love it. It’s a privilege to do this job,” Hazen said. “You live and die with the highs and lows. It’s an extreme challenge, but I love our front office group. That makes it fun.”
BETTING ON BETTS
Dodgers plan to retain Mookie
The Red Sox had Mookie Betts in their organization for 9½ years and never succeeded in signing him to a long-term contract.
The Dodgers now have Betts for 8½ months before he can become a free agent.
It’s the nightmare scenario for the Sox, the Dodgers finding a way to retain Betts after they failed in that endeavor then gave up and traded him.
When the Dodgers traded for Betts, a significant part of his value is that they have exclusive rights to negotiate with him until after the World Series. His vow to go to free agency will be tested, you can be sure of that.
Money is no issue. The Dodgers have only $44.5 million in guaranteed contracts for 2022 and can easily accommodate a large contract. They also have organizational stability in team president Stan Kasten, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, and manager Dave Roberts. Compare that with the revolving door of Red Sox GMs and managers.
The Dodgers are set up to compete for years to come with their loaded farm system. They also can offer Betts great weather, far nicer facilities at their stadium, and the Southern California lifestyle for his young family.
Kasten didn’t want to go into details other than to say, “I think being with the Dodgers, with this organization, with these fans, in this city, is the greatest thrill of my career. And I think there are many players who would agree.”
Ultimately, it’s a financial decision. But Betts has interests that range from music (he DJs at parties), to fashion (he wears custom suits from an English tailor) and the NBA.
There are a lot of buttons the Dodgers can press.
It’s only a matter of time before you see video of Betts sitting courtside at the Staples Center bumping fists with fellow Nike endorsers LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Red Sox prospect remembers Kobe
Red Sox first base prospect Josh Ockimey, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, never had a chance to meet Kobe Bryant. But the death of the NBA legend was a blow just the same.
“It’s one of those things you weren’t prepared for,” Ockimey said. “Kobe didn’t play for Philadelphia, but he was from Philadelphia. I remember being a little kid when they played the Sixers in the Finals [in 2001] and being proud of the fact that he was from our city.”
Ockimey’s father, Michael, was a high school referee and worked a game in which Bryant played.
“Everybody knew how good Kobe was even then,” Ockimey said. “You knew he’d do special things.”
The tragedy had another connection; Red Sox amateur scout J.J. Altobelli lost his father, sister, and stepmother in the helicopter crash that killed Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and four others.
“Everybody says take one day at a time, and it’s true,” Ockimey said. “Something like that happens and you realize how precious life is. That’s been on my mind a lot.”
A few other thoughts on the Sox:
■ The Mets were in the bidding for Mookie Betts, according to the New York Post. But their offer didn’t come close to matching up with the Dodgers.
They were willing to give up outfielder Brandon Nimmo or outfielder/third baseman J.D. Davis along with a solid infield prospect. The Sox preferred All-Star utility player Jeff McNeil, who has five more years of team control.
Nimmo has only three years of team control remaining, and Davis is a poor defender. The Mets also would have needed the Red Sox to take on one of their bad contacts, Yoenis Cespedes ($6 million this season) or Jed Lowrie ($10 million).
The Dodgers deal gave the Sox younger players in return and far more financial relief.
■ Connor Wong, one of the prospects obtained from Los Angeles, has played only 40 games in Double A, so it’s wise not to get carried away. But he’s a 23-year-old catcher who has also played games at first base, second base, third base, center field, right field, and left field.
Now that teams can carry 26 players, that kind of résumé has a lot of value. Wong also has an .852 OPS in three minor league seasons with 48 home runs and 18 stolen bases.
■ Now that the Red Sox have cleared up their payroll, the notion of improving their 2021 rotation with a free agent is more likely.
For now, Trevor Bauer and Marcus Stroman are the two best starters headed for free agency.
Bauer is on the record as saying he plans to sign a series of one-year contracts once he becomes a free agent. But his talent is undeniable.
Jake Odorizzi, Robbie Ray, Masahiro Tanaka, and Jose Quintana also are entering their walk years.
■ One early spring training impression is that infielder Bobby Dalbec works hard. As other players filter into the clubhouse at 8:30 a.m., he’s in the cage in full sweat after taking several rounds of swings.
■ Baseball America ranked Northeastern righthander Sebastian Keane as the 19th-best freshman in college baseball. The Sox took Keane in the 11th round of the draft last June but couldn’t sign him. Keane, who played at North Andover High, has a mid-90s fastball with a slider and curveball that could become real weapons.
White Sox are making a move
The White Sox have been the most irrelevant team in baseball for years.
They are the second team in the Second City, lost in the shadow of the beloved Cubs and playing in a stadium devoid of charm. Last season marked their seventh in a row with a losing record, and they haven’t made the playoffs since 2008. But now there’s hope.
The White Sox added three quality free agents — designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion, catcher Yasmani Grandal, and lefthander Dallas Keuchel — to a core group that includes third baseman Yoan Moncada, shortstop Tim Anderson, first baseman Jose Abreu, and left fielder Eloy Jimenez. They also traded for Rangers outfielder Nomar Mazara.
And this is the season the White Sox will unleash 22-year-old Cuban center fielder Luis Robert, a player every scout raves about.
Robert is so good that he’s already been signed to a six-year, $50 million contract that could balloon to $88 million.
“You can see the entirety of it coming together,” general manager Rick Hahn said. “We are not certain how quickly it’s all going to click on all cylinders the way we want. When we started this process, it was about putting ourselves in position for annual contention.”
The White Sox do not have a deep rotation and need Michael Kopech to bounce back from Tommy John surgery. They also finished 28½ games behind the Twins last year, and that’s unlikely to be made up in one year.
But the talk in spring training is making a big move.
“The coaches and the players, everyone in uniform is focused on, ‘It’s time this year, let’s go,’ ” Hahn said. “That’s fantastic. That’s great. That’s where you want their mind-set.”
The Mets led the majors in being hit by pitches last season with 95. Think the Astros might hit triple digits this year? There almost certainly isn’t a team innocent of stealing signs in some way, but the Astros were arrogant in how they did it and insincere in how they’ve apologized. Remember when Ryan Dempster drilled Alex Rodriguez in 2013 while the Yankees star was appealing his PED suspension? There will be plenty of pitchers “accidentally” coming inside on Alex Bregman and other dishonest Astros this season . . . Rick Porcello started wearing No. 22 when he joined the Red Sox in 2015. One Cy Young Award and a World Series ring later, he wasn’t giving it up. New Mets teammate Dominic Smith agreed to give Porcello the number and in exchange the righthander made a generous donation to Baseball Generations, an academy in Los Angeles that Smith helped start . . . Felix Hernandez is in Braves camp on a minor league deal trying to earn one of their open rotation spots. What’s good: King Felix is only 33 and he’s slimmed down. What’s bad: He had a 5.82 ERA the last two seasons with Seattle. “That’s the past. This is a new year,” Hernandez said . . . As Rockies camp opened, GM Jeff Bridich was asked if he had anything to say about his fractured relationship with star Nolan Arenado. “Nothing. There is no comment. I haven’t had any comment to this point, so we’ll move past that. Next question,” Bridich said . . . The Padres already have placed righthander Anderson Espinoza on the 60-day injured list. He is still recovering from Tommy John surgery. Espinoza was the prospect the Red Sox traded to land Drew Pomeranz in 2016. Espinoza has not appeared in a game since that season. Meanwhile, Pomeranz has since pitched for the Sox, Giants, and Brewers, and is now back with the Padres . . . Happy birthday to Manny Delcarmen, who is 38. The righthander from Hyde Park and West Roxbury High was a second-round pick by the Red Sox in 2000 and went on to play six seasons in the majors. Delcarmen was a key reliever for the 2007 World Series champs, appearing in 44 games that season.
Action for Boston Community Development will host the 23rd annual Field of Dreams at Fenway Park on June 9. The event gives companies a chance to field client or employee softball teams to play at Fenway in support of ABCD’s anti-poverty efforts. Call Liz Gillis at 617-348-6244 for information.