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In nontendering right-hander Taijuan Walker and outfielder Steven Souza Jr. on Monday, the Diamondbacks parted ways with a pair of high-profile players who were headed toward sizable arbitration salaries but had struggled to stay healthy the past two seasons.
“I think really the main thrust was the missed time of the past couple of years kind of caught up to us,” Diamondbacks General Manager Mike Hazen said. “That was the basis for those two decisions.”
At the same time, the club opted to keep another player, infielder Jake Lamb, whose performance also has been ravaged by injuries the past two years. Hazen noted that Lamb has played far more than the other two, including in September, when he showed flashes of his old self down the stretch.
Walker missed nearly all of the past two years with elbow and shoulder issues and Souza played less than a quarter of the team’s games since the start of 2018 due to shoulder and knee injuries.
The club also nontendered backup catcher Caleb Joseph. All told, the three departures amount to roughly $10 million in arbitration savings for a club that appears to have north of $30 million in spending power for 2020 at its disposal this winter.
The moves also leave the Diamondbacks with another clear hole to fill on their roster in right field, where Souza was penciled in as the starter. Additionally, the Diamondbacks have a need in center field or at second base, with Ketel Marte an option at either.
It was around this time three years ago that Hazen made his first trade – a big one – in acquiring Walker from the Seattle Mariners. It was late the following offseason when he landed Souza from the Tampa Bay Rays in another big trade.
All told, the Diamondbacks received one strong year of production – Walker in 2017 –out of the five combined seasons they had the two players. Hazen said parting ways with key players they had acquired was a “narrative (that) certainly dawned on us,” but he said that angle wasn’t as much a factor as the relationships they had built with “two A-plus human beings.”
“This isn’t the outcome we had hoped for,” Hazen said. “And I’m sure they hadn’t hoped for (it), either.”
Walker needed Tommy John surgery three starts into the 2018 season, ending his year, and he was nearing a return this season when he dealt with a shoulder capsule injury in May. He ultimately made it back, throwing one inning in the final game of the season and touching 94 mph on the radar gun, but the Diamondbacks apparently were not convinced they could bank on him, at least not at his projected $5 million arbitration salary.
Hazen mentioned the club’s starting-pitching depth – at the moment, the rotation is projected to include Robbie Ray, Luke Weaver, Mike Leake, Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly – as a factor in the decision.
“I think if (Walker) comes into camp and he ends up in the pen, through competition, I don’t know that that was an outcome for us that was an ideal solution – probably for either side,” Hazen said. “We think he’s a starting pitcher.”
At the time they acquired him, the Diamondbacks had hoped Souza could be a sort of all-around answer for departing slugger J.D. Martinez, believing Souza could hit for power, get on base, run the bases well and play well defensively.
Instead, Souza, who was injury-prone prior to the trade, suffered a pair of injuries that sidetracked his career. In 2018, he hurt his shoulder diving for a ball in spring training, an injury that limited his production throughout the year. Then this year, in the second-to-last exhibition game before the start of the season, he slipped on home plate and destroyed his knee, an injury that required season-ending surgery.
Hazen said he wasn’t second-guessing his decision to acquire Souza based on his health history.
“The majority of his injuries he sustained, the guy’s going full-tilt 100 percent of the time,” Hazen said. “I wouldn’t want a player who wasn’t doing that.”
Lamb seemed like a possible nontender based on a combination of his poor performance the past two seasons and the fact that he does not have a clear path toward at-bats next season with Eduardo Escobar entrenched at third base and Christian Walker having established himself at first base.
“We thought he actually swung the bat really well in September,” Hazen said. “They’re all tough decisions, but that was probably where that one came down. He’s a left-handed bat that hits for power and controls the strike zone. Those are things we’re looking for offensively.”