The Arizona Diamondbacks were not exactly crestfallen on Tuesday when the out-of-town scoreboard atop Citi Field showed the Los Angeles Dodgers with an early lead in Baltimore. The Dodgers needed one victory to clinch the National League West over the second-place Diamondbacks, and it came easily.
“They can clinch, whatever, they deserve it, they won the division,” said Arizona’s closer, Archie Bradley. “But we’re focused on what we’re doing here.”
The Diamondbacks’ focus is on the second wild card, a race they joined in earnest recently after a long flirtation with .500. More broadly, though, the Diamondbacks are trying to stockpile enough talent to someday unseat the Dodgers, who have taken the last seven N.L. West crowns with piles of cash, waves of prospects and seemingly endless roster depth.
In December the Diamondbacks traded their cornerstone first baseman, Paul Goldschmidt, to St. Louis for three players and a draft pick. In July they traded their best pitcher, Zack Greinke, to Houston, for four players. They have also lost starter Patrick Corbin and outfielders J.D. Martinez and A.J. Pollock to free agency since winning a wild-card berth in 2017.
It seems like a classic roster teardown, but the team is showing otherwise. The Diamondbacks stayed within two games of .500 — above or below — every day from June 18 through Aug. 29. They broke through with 11 wins in 12 games through Saturday and stood at 75-70 — two and a half games behind the Chicago Cubs for a playoff spot — after Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to the Mets.
The schedule could help the Diamondbacks, who will play 12 of their final 15 games at home after Thursday’s series finale at Citi Field. All but three of those games are against teams with losing records.
“It feels like a nothing-to-lose attitude,” first baseman Christian Walker said. “There’s some sort of underdog status that’s put on us, and I feel like it’s easy to play under those circumstances. We kind of want people to overlook us and think past us and not worry about us. We’re right here in the thick of it, and none of us in here are surprised.”
Walker, who was claimed off waivers in 2017, has 25 home runs as Goldschmidt’s replacement. Catcher Carson Kelly, who was stuck behind Yadier Molina in St. Louis before arriving in the Goldschmidt trade, has 18 homers. Josh Rojas, who was part of the Greinke trade, has made 20 starts in the outfield after hitting .514 in the minors for Arizona.
“When I got here they made it pretty clear that this team has a good chance to win,” Rojas said. “We had a lot of talent in the clubhouse and we were going to make a push for it. That was really cool to hear.”
To that end, the Diamondbacks added two starters at the same time they were shedding Greinke, trading for the veteran Mike Leake from Seattle and the rookie Zac Gallen from Miami. The Yankees used a similar strategy in 2016, when they traded prominent relievers (Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller) but added veteran stabilizers (Tyler Clippard, Adam Warren) who helped the team play better down the stretch.
“I think we’ve done the same thing here,” Diamondbacks Manager Torey Lovullo said. “We’ve gotten very healthy inside of our system with young prospects through the draft and several through the trades, but when you talk about the guys that were brought here to help us compete, I think our front office nailed it.”
Lovullo and his staff have helped the team excel around the margins: The Diamondbacks have succeeded in 86.3 percent of their stolen-base attempts (best in the majors) and, led by shortstop Nick Ahmed, they rank as the N.L.’s best defensive team, according to Fangraphs.
“We were struggling with the little things before this trip, and now we have really honed in on them and made those little things stand out,” center fielder Ketel Marte said, through a translator. “That’s the key.”
Marte and third baseman Eduardo Escobar take care of the big things. Marte, 25, leads the N.L. in hits to go with a .329 average, 32 home runs and 91 runs batted in. Escobar, 30, leads the team in homers (34) and R.B.I. (112).
In Tuesday’s loss, Marte led off with a single, stole second and scored on a single by Escobar, who homered for Arizona’s other run. The duo has effectively replaced the offense Arizona used to get from players like Goldschmidt and Pollock.
“You can look at the big names that are gone, but you have to look at the production the other guys have put up — they kind of offset,” Bradley said. “We’ve found ways to supplement through other guys spreading out the production, and it’s worked.”
Even better for Arizona: Marte and Escobar are signed to affordable long-term deals. Marte is in the second year of a five-year, $24 million contract (with club options through 2024) and Escobar signed last October for three years and $21 million. He took quickly to Arizona after a trade from Minnesota last July.
“The chemistry is contagious,” Escobar said. “Last year when I came here, everybody was so nice. That’s why I told my wife, ‘If they make an offer to me quick, I’m going to sign it.’ I love it here — I love the city, I love my teammates. Hopefully I will retire here.”
For the length of his contract, anyway, the Diamondbacks figure to be still grappling with the Dodgers, whose money, ingenuity and young talent could help them extend their division dynasty for years. The Diamondbacks understand the challenge.
“We’ve got to find a way to unseat that,” Lovullo said. “For me, the best recipe is to build the foundation from within and create organizational continuity with the younger players to match what’s going on at the big league level. It becomes very powerful.”
The Diamondbacks are not a power yet. But as they try to get there, they just might win another wild card in the process.