Stuck together: Madison Bumgarner, Diamondbacks begin to navigate clouded future

Arizona Diamondbacks' starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner waits to pitch as the umpires confer during the third inning of a baseball game agaisnt the San Diego Padres, Friday, Sept. 16, 2022, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Arizona Diamondbacks' starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner waits to pitch as the umpires confer during the third inning of a baseball game agaisnt the San Diego Padres, Friday, Sept. 16, 2022, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

MILWAUKEE — More than a week removed from the Diamondbacks’ decision to bring an end to his season, left-hander Madison Bumgarner was asked to reflect on how his year went. He pointed to the good stretches and the bad, settled on the phrase “a little bit of a grind,” and then wondered about the reasons why.

“I don’t know,” Bumgarner said. “I’m getting older. I’ve thrown a lot of innings. Maybe that’s got something to do with it. I don’t know.”

Not knowing seems to be an apt way to frame the veteran pitcher’s situation. With two years remaining on a five-year, $85 million deal, Bumgarner and the Diamondbacks seem to be nearing a crossroads — if they are not at one already.

Sep 21, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner (40) throws during the 4th inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium.
Sep 21, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner (40) throws during the 4th inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium.

For part of the season, Bumgarner was a solid innings eater, the sort of starter who might not have dominated with consistency but still managed to keep his team in the games he pitched.

But for most of the year, he was not that. Instead, he allowed hard contact at a high rate, permitted runs with frequency and lost games with regularity. On many nights, the Diamondbacks struggled to overcome the holes in which Bumgarner left them. Over 30 starts, Bumgarner finished with a 4.88 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 158 2/3 innings.

Given the direction of the organization, his performance raises questions about his place in the Diamondbacks’ future.

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The club has a young core of position players who have begun to establish themselves in the big leagues. They have two dependable starters and a slew of young pitchers at or near the doorstep of the majors. They are in clear need of help in the bullpen.

But there is hope that with the right offseason additions the Diamondbacks, who entered Monday night with 21 more victories than last year’s 52-win team, can perhaps field a contending team next season.

Such a team would increase pressure on Bumgarner to perform.

To be clear, the Diamondbacks do not seem to expect Bumgarner to get back to being the type of pitcher he was during his best days in San Francisco.

Aug 20, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner (40) throws against the St. Louis Cardinals during the third inning at Chase Field.
Aug 20, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner (40) throws against the St. Louis Cardinals during the third inning at Chase Field.

General Manager Mike Hazen said Monday that Bumgarner could benefit from “better pitch execution,” hinting at the sort of transition most veteran starters must confront when their stuff becomes less overpowering. He said he believes it is more about Bumgarner learning to work better with what he has rather than trying to get back to being the starter he once was.

“I think he just needs to continue to go out there and fine-tune what he has and find ways to get off the barrel more, find ways to be in different spots in the strike zone than he has been,” Hazen said. “I do think it can be that fine of an edge.”

Bumgarner, for his part, did not offer many specifics on what he thinks he needs to do differently, either in terms of how he pitches or how he plans to attack his offseason. He said he wants to shorten his bad stretches. He said staying out of the middle of the plate is “always a good thing,” but he did not rule out remaining the sort of aggressive, fastball-centric pitcher who attacks hitters over the plate.

He also hinted at physical issues that might have kept him from performing at his best.

“When I’ve felt good and my body has felt good and been mostly healthy, it’s been pretty dang good,” he said. “It’s been hard getting through the grind sometimes when you don’t necessarily feel that way.”

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With two years and $37 million remaining on his deal, the Diamondbacks likely do not have many options in terms of how to proceed. Other than swapping him for another bad contract, they likely are stuck with him.

The question then becomes how long of a leash they give him if he struggles early next season. While the organization has cut ties in the past with pricey contracts that turned bad — Russ Ortiz and Eric Byrnes being the two most prominent examples — the club, for now, sounds like it is willing to stick with Bumgarner in hopes that he rediscovers some level of effectiveness.

“When he has used his stuff, executed and commanded, he went through the run in the beginning of the season when he was really good,” Haze said. “That’s still in there. We just need to tighten that down.”

Reach Piecoro at (602) 444-8680 or nick.piecoro@arizonarepublic.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickpiecoro.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Madison Bumgarner, Arizona Diamondbacks at crossroads