The Arizona Diamondbacks have spent most of their quarter-century of existence doing things faster — both good and bad — than anyone else in history. So it’s hard to blame Torey Lovullo for his initial response to the possibility he could become just the sixth skipper in history to manage a team to 100 losses and to the playoffs within a three-season span.
“Was one of them Bo Mel?” Lovullo said, referring to the nickname of former Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin, the skipper who got Arizona back to the playoffs in 2007, three years after Bob Brenly and Al Pedrique combined to endure a 51-111 season.
That was the worst season in Arizona history, at least officially, in terms of wins and losses. But the Diamondbacks were just seven seasons old in 2004 and three years removed from winning the World Series, which made them the only champion to naturally progress from champion to also-ran (the 1913 Philadelphia Athletics and 1997 Florida Marlins purposely and immediately dismantled their title-winning teams).
With such pleasant memories to tide over a nascent franchise and its fans, 2004 was not as bleak as 2021, when Arizona finished 52-110 while going a nearly impossible-to-fathom 8-48 from May 1 through June 30.
“First of all, it was a very dark time,” Lovullo told The Game Day Baseball at Citi Field last week. “It was a dark time for all of us.”
As Brenly and Pedrique learned 17 years earlier, most managers don’t survive such a dark season. But Lovullo could be managing the Diamondbacks when the wild-card round begins two weeks from today.
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Arizona (79-72) enters play tonight in the second National League wild-card spot, a half-game ahead of the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds and a game up on the Miami Marlins.
“It means everything to me,” Lovullo said. “It means that this organization had faith in me — from ownership through our front office — and it has given me an energy and a relentlessness every day to give back to them and do everything I can every single day to give my best for this team.”
In a reflection of an era in which more teams tank and more teams make the playoffs than ever before, the Diamondbacks have a chance to be one of four clubs this year to make the playoffs two or fewer seasons after losing at least 100 games.
The Baltimore Orioles, who were 52-110 two years ago, clinched at least a wild-card berth on Sunday and enter today atop the AL East at 94-56. With 12 days left in the regular season, the Reds (62-100 last year) and Texas Rangers (60-102 in 2021) are tied for the third and final wild-card spot in their respective leagues.
Yet the Diamondbacks’ quick path back to contention is unlike any constructed by their peers. They didn’t bottom out in historic fashion like the Orioles, who lost 100 games in each of the three full seasons from 2018 through 2021.
They didn’t fully tear it down after a winning season a la the Reds, who went 83-79 in 2021 and spent the next 12 months parting with four players who collected at least 400 at-bats and four pitchers who made at least 30 starts for the ’21 club. And Arizona didn’t dive into the free agent market a la the Rangers, who spent $741 million on Jon Gray, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, and Jacob deGrom in spending sprees following the 2021 and 2022 seasons.
The Diamondbacks went 93-69 and won the NL Wild Card Game in Lovullo’s first season in 2017, but after going 82-80 in 2018, they began a partial rebuild by trading potential Hall of Famer Paul Goldschmidt to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Another player on a Cooperstown track, pitcher Zack Greinke, was dealt to the Houston Astros at the trade deadline in 2019 when Arizona finished 85-77 and four games out of the final wild-card spot.
With an eye on continuing to compete while restocking one of the most barren farm systems in baseball, Arizona signed Madison Bumgarner to a five-year deal following the 2019 season. But Bumgarner went 1-4 with a 6.48 ERA during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign for the Diamondbacks, who had little choice but to look ahead after a solid start in 2021 — they were 14-12 in April — disintegrated in May and June.
“The light at the end of the tunnel was what we saw in player development,” Lovullo said. “That talent doesn’t necessarily materialize into major league wins. But we felt very strongly about this group, if we got them together at the right time — (and) they’d been timing well through the minors — if they came up here together that they would do some really good things.
“I had to think that. That’s all I had. That’s all anyone had.”
Twelve players drafted by the Diamondbacks since 2018 have appeared in a game for the club this season, including likely NL Rookie of the Year winner Corbin Carroll. Shortstop Geraldo Perdomo, who signed with Arizona out of the Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old in 2016, made the All-Star team this year, while 23-year-old catcher Gabriel Moreno, acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays along with another 2023 All-Star in outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr., is hitting .288 and leads the NL with 2.9 in defensive WAR per Baseball Reference.
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Five of the Diamondbacks’ 11 players with at least 1.0 in WAR per Baseball Reference — Carroll, Perdomo, and Moreno, as well as outfielder Alek Thomas and pitcher Tommy Henry — entered this season with fewer than two years of service time.
“We needed the contributions of the younger players to take us to the next level,” said veteran third baseman Evan Longoria, who won the Rookie of the Year for the Tampa Bay Rays when they made the World Series in 2008, two seasons after going 61-101. “If we want to be playing for a playoff spot at the end of the year, the players that were in their first year last year are going to have to make a big leap and make a big impact on the team. And that’s what they’ve done.”
The Diamondbacks also have four improved holdovers from 2019 and earlier who have compiled at least 2.0 WAR. Shortstop Ketel Marte and pitcher Zac Gallen were acquired from the Seattle Mariners and Miami Marlins. First baseman Christian Walker was claimed off waivers in 2017, and Merrill Kelly signed with Arizona following a four-season stint in Korea from 2015-18. Gallen and Kelly are a combined 26-15 with a 3.48 ERA in 58 starts.
“It’s nearly impossible to buy a whole team,” Longoria said. “Good players have to come from within.”
Piecing it all together is Lovullo, who became the Diamondbacks’ winningest and longest-tenured manager in 2022. Only five managers have won more games and spent a longer period of time with their current club than Lovullo.
And while Brandon Hyde will manage the Orioles in the playoffs two years after Baltimore lost 100 games, and David Bell has a chance to go from 100 losses to the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the Reds, neither one directed his current club to the playoffs prior to enduring 100 defeats.
“I think what you’re seeing is kind of the same thing that’s happening almost in reverse right now for Dave Martinez, where the Nationals are struggling, but he had taken them to a World Series and has had a lot of success for them — and also the same with Brandon Hyde in Baltimore,” Longoria said.
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“They kind of said we’re going to draft and develop and allow you to kind of go through these lows, and we believe in you, and we think you’re the guy for us. It’s kind of the same thing I think with Torey — him and [executive vice president and general manager] Mike Hazen and [vice president of research and development] Mike Fitzgerald. I think that they all kind of believe in each other and believe in the way that they’ve drafted and developed and thought that Torey was the right guy. And they were right. He’s been able to weather the storm of the past couple years and kind of come out on the other side.”
Like most managers in a pennant race, Lovullo tries not to look any further ahead than his next game. But he admits he’s imagined what it would be like to get the chance to see through the rebuild for Arizona as it tries to become just the second team ever to twice make the playoffs within three seasons of losing 100 games.
The Atlanta Braves won the World Series in 1914 after going 52-101 in 1912 and made the Fall Classic in 1991, three years after finishing 54-106.
“I have extra incentive. I want to give back to this organization (like) you cannot believe,” Lovullo said. “And if we get there, it’s going to be a pretty special moment for all of us.”