MLB Opening Day preview: Will window open in 2023 for Diamondbacks, Zac Gallen?

When right-hander Zac Gallen takes the mound on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, the pitch timer won’t be the only clock that is ticking.

Gallen is the Arizona Diamondbacks’ best pitcher, and, at 27, he is in the prime of his career. He is entering the first of three seasons before he will be eligible for free agency. Whether the Diamondbacks will be able — or willing — to pay him what it would take to keep him around long-term remains to be seen.

As such, the Diamondbacks have a window to win with one of their best players. More than in recent years, they appear positioned to take advantage of it. They have a talented group of young players emerging at the major league level. There is optimism, even buzz, surrounding the organization.

“We have a few players on our roster that we don’t have beyond the next few years,” General Manager Mike Hazen said. “There are good players on our roster and I think it’s extremely important to maximize that opportunity.”

Last season, Gallen finished fifth in National League Cy Young Award voting. He logged a 2.54 ERA and late in the year authored a 44 1/3-inning scoreless streak, the seventh-longest in baseball history. Through 81 starts in his major league career, he owns a 3.09 ERA, a mark that is 36 percent better than average, according to Baseball-Reference.

That is all to say: If Gallen continues on his current trajectory he will be in line to make an enormous amount of money on the free-agent market after the 2025 season. He will be entering his age-30 season, two years younger than Zack Greinke was when the Diamondbacks gave him a six-year, $206.5 million deal in December 2015.

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Zac Gallen (23) throws to the Cincinnati Reds in the first inning during a spring training game at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale on March 24, 2023.
Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Zac Gallen (23) throws to the Cincinnati Reds in the first inning during a spring training game at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale on March 24, 2023.

The Diamondbacks, of course, could get ahead of all of this, something they did earlier this month with rookie Corbin Carroll, whom they signed to an eight-year, $111 million deal.

So far, however, they have not yet tried to do so.

“When you have an elite talent, I’m always available to meet with (managing general partner) Ken (Kendrick) and Mike — anybody,” said Scott Boras, the high-powered agent who represents Gallen.

“We’re here to listen. We listen, and then let the player make his decision.”

Boras has a reputation for preferring to take his players to the open market, where he can secure them the most lucrative deal possible, but he pushed back on that notion, saying no agent has done more extensions in baseball history than he has.

“There’s two reasons for that,” Boras said. “I’ve been around a while, and, two, is we do them and do them with frequency.”

Hazen declined to comment specifically on Gallen’s situation — “Like I’ve always said, I’m not going to comment in any direction about any conversations we’ve had in that area” — but he did answer a question about whether he could envision the Diamondbacks ever paying top dollar for a top-of-the-market free agent, something they have not done since landing Greinke, a move that predated Hazen’s arrival.

“It depends on who the player is and where the fit is on our roster, but, yeah, it’s my expectation that at some point, if we do this correctly, we can compete in those ways,” Hazen said. “It’s hard to tell right now exactly where things are — you know, we have a lot of younger guys that are emerging from the minor leagues, getting ready to jump onto this team, and depending on how they do, that will either seal up holes or create holes.

“Part of the fix is going to be to go out and sign free agents. I’m hoping we’re going to be able to do that. I think long-term, we don’t have a lot of money on the books. I think we’re in a decent position from a flexibility standpoint to make some of those choices.”

At this point, there is only speculation as to why the club has not pursued an extension with Gallen. Perhaps the club still has questions about his durability; in 2021, Gallen made three trips to the injured list, two of which were for arm-related injuries.

Or perhaps it could be that the sort of deal the Diamondbacks would be comfortable making is one they presume Gallen and Boras would not want. Earlier this month, at the press conference announcing Carroll’s extension, Hazen mentioned what he considers the delicate nature of contract talks.

“You just never know,” Hazen said when asked if he expected Carroll to be receptive to the idea of an extension. “And, you know, you’re taking a little risk having these conversations if it doesn’t work out. Because at the end of the day, everyone’s human. You can’t unhear what you hear. You can’t unknow what you now know the organization was willing to offer you or how many years or whatever it might be.”

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The club might also want to see how its young pitchers perform in the coming years and gauge whether it can survive the loss of Gallen in the way that, say, the Houston Astros have weathered the departure of Gerrit Cole.

Another factor could be more financial. Perhaps if the Diamondbacks start winning and filling up Chase Field again — or if there is the promise of new revenue streams with an upgraded version of the ballpark in the new future — ownership might be more willing to commit big dollars.

For his part, Gallen sounds as if he would like to stay. He seems to have a clear understanding of what his value could be — part of the reason he declined an invite to pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic was because of what was on the line from an earnings standpoint — but also says he likes pitching in Arizona.

“Obviously, those are things I run through Scott and those guys there that I trust,” Gallen said. “I mean, that’s why I hired them. They’re the best at what they do. Obviously, you’re in this game and you understand what happens in this game when you get to certain points in your career. I’m open to listening. I love it here. It’s nothing I’ve said no to. At the same time, I run through those guys and then we’d make an educated decision on what’s best.”

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The Diamondbacks enjoyed eight seasons with slugger Paul Goldschmidt in their employ; they reached the postseason in only two of them, never advancing beyond the division series. Thus far, they have had Gallen for parts of four seasons and have yet to make the playoffs.

Goldschmidt’s time in Arizona ended in a trade. If that were to happen with Gallen, as well, could depend on whether the team’s young players meet expectations — or how long it takes them to do so.

Gallen seems to believe things could come together quickly, and he said he is excited the club appears to be moving into a contention cycle at a time when he is entering his prime.

“I think the talent we have, the mix of veterans and young guys, speed and power and defense and pitching — I would say that it’s probably the most fun team I’ve been around in my professional career,” he said. “I’m super excited about it. I think if you ask anybody else in the clubhouse they would probably echo the same sentiment, really.

“This team is on the rise. That’s not something I take for granted or take lightly. I understand that as much as this is a game, it’s maybe even more of a business. I try not to focus too much on the financial side of it, but I feel like at the same time you’re doing yourself a disservice if you’re not realizing it and understanding what’s at stake. You can’t block things completely out. It’s like, all right, address it, compartmentalize it and just worry about pitching, really.”

During his time in Phoenix, Gallen has watched the Suns go from a mediocre team to a title contender in the NBA. He has also seen the way the city has embraced the team. He believes the same thing can happen for the Diamondbacks.

“I’ve seen that this town, they want to come out and want to support,” he said. “I want to turn this town into a winner. I’ve met a lot of guys on other teams tell me that they would love to play here, mainly because of the logistics, you know, a lot of guys live here, spring training, etc., but I think they also see how cool this place could be if you have a consistent winner.

“I think it would be a super fun thing to be a part of in a place like this. They haven’t had a consistent winner in baseball for while. I think it would be fun, especially with this group of guys. I think guys here get it. Everybody is pulling in the same direction.”

Opening day 2023

What: Diamondbacks at Los Angeles Dodgers

When: Thursday, 7:10 p.m.

TV: Bally Sports Arizona

Pitching matchup: Arizona RHP Zac Gallen (12-4, 2.54 ERA) vs. LA LHP Julio Urias (17-7, 2.16)

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Diamondbacks 2023: Can Zac Gallen lead the way as new season begins?