2011 Record: 94-68, 1st NL West
2011 Prediction: 66-96, 5th NL West
Impact Player: RF Justin Upton
Impact Pitcher: RHP Daniel Hudson
Best Reliever: RHP David Hernandez
Top Prospect: RHP Trevor Bauer
Some things have occurred to me whilst writing these first 26 team previews, fair Blankards: First, by the time you get to preview number 26, eating a rosin bag seems like a viable alternative to writing about the Diamondbacks. Second, I’m fairly ham-fisted when it comes to making predictions. In my previews at the soon-to-be defunct Baseball Canadiana last year, I “predicted” the Diamondbacks to be one of the very worst teams in the National League, projecting them to lose 96 games. Obviously, I was wrong. Granted, nobody could have reasonably predicted that the D’Backs would win 94 games and cruise rather easily to the NL West title over the defending World Series champs.
Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson emerged as front-line starters and rightfielder Justin Upton became the MVP-candidate people have been predicting he’d be for years. Arizona almost inexplicably started winning ballgames at a high rate and it did not stop until they were defeated by Milwaukee in the NLDS. Pretty much everything went right last year and expecting the same in 2012 may be ill-advised.
Despite a serious lack of star power in the rotation, the D’Backs finished a respectable eighth in the NL in runs allowed. The emergence of Kennedy and Hudson combined with an excellent bullpen can be attributed to the success, but the question is, how sustainable was that?
Kennedy finally showed some of the promise he had coming up through the Yankees system, posting a 2.88 ERA and a 5.0 fWAR, but he had an unsustainably low HR/FB rate, especially for Chase Field. His batted-ball average was also very low, all signs point to a regression. Either way, he should be a solid mid-rotation pitcher. Hudson, meanwhile, nearly matched Kennedy’s performance last year and has vastly outperformed expectations since being traded over from the White Sox in 2010. Like Kennedy, his HR/FB rate is really low for a pitcher who doesn’t post the best groundball rates and eventual regression should be counted on.
The D’Backs, not content with the success of their rotation last year, acquired Trevor Cahill from the Oakland A’s for a package of prospects. He posted a 4.16 ERA in 2011 after putting up a 2.97 ERA the year before, but he was actually better overall last season. His strikeout rate was significantly better and although his walk-rate elevated slightly, he managed to keep the ball in the ballpark more efficiently. He is, however, an average starting pitcher at best. The 24-year-old will be a bit worse moving out of The Coliseum, but he keeps the ball on the ground so well that he should be able to keep himself from sliding too far.
The final two spots will go to Joe Saunders and Josh Collmenter. Saunders was brought back on a one-year deal after solid traditional stats in 2011, but his 1.62 K/BB ratio and propensity to give up homeruns limits his potential. He’s durable and can throw a lot of innings, but shouldn’t be counted on for anything other than a fifth starter’s performance. Collmenter, meanwhile, has survived to this point on his deceptive delivery, but lacks the stuff to stick in a big league rotation. Now that teams have a book on him, he should see a sharp decline in his numbers.
The bullpen was perceived as a strength last season for Arizona after years of struggling in that department. GM Kevin Towers has a knack for building good bullpens from spare parts and he did an excellent job cobbling together a workable group last year, just as he had done in years previous as the GM of the Padres. He signed closer J.J. Putz, traded for David Hernandez and picked up lefty Joe Paterson in the Rule V draft, then traded for righty specialist Brad Ziegler during the season. This winter, he picked up lefthander Craig Breslow in the Cahill trade and signed 42-year-old Takashi Saito to a one-year deal. The only projected bullpen arm who was in the system before Towers came along is Bryan Shaw, who may be the best of the bunch. He had a terrific 28.1 inning cameo last year and reportedly has a filthy cutter. His excellent groundball ability and solid track record of command could make him a legitimate late-inning go-to pitcher very quickly.
Putz was dominant in ’06 and ’07 because of spectacular walk rates, but he fell off dramatically in the next couple seasons while battling injuries. Last season, he lowered his BB/9 rate to 1.86 and as a result, he had his best year since ’07. If he can continue to keep his walks down, he shouldn’t have much of a problem repeating his numbers in 2012. Hernandez, meanwhile, posts excellent strike out rates, but his 0.52 HR/9 should regress due to his tendency to give up fly balls in the dry desert air.
Saito was terrific last year with Milwaukee, unfortunately, he only pitched in 26.2 innings due to shoulder problems and Towers did not make him pass a physical before signing this winter, stating, “he probably would have failed his physical based on everything we’ve heard over the last four or five years.” It’s hard to imagine Saito avoiding the DL all year, but if he can give them 40-50 innings, he should be worth the risk.
Lefthanders Breslow and Paterson are both solid, but Breslow’s peripherals suggest a huge decline with the move to Chase Field. Paterson didn’t give up a single home runs against lefties all year and has quickly rounded into a dominant LOOGY. Ziegler, meanwhile, should probably never face a lefty but he posted a 2.13 FIP and a 75.2% groundball rate last year against righties.
The D’Backs lineup finished fourth in the NL in runs scored last season thanks in large part to an MVP-calibre season from Upton. Still just 24, he posted a .385 wOBA and a 6.4 fWAR finishing behind only Kemp, Braun and Votto in that category in the NL. He managed to cut his strikeout rate by almost 30% and as a result, saw his overall value skyrocket.
Joining Upton in the outfield will be centerfielder Chris Young, who was one of the most valuable centerfielders in the NL last year, finishing with a .330 wOBA and an NL-best 14.1 UZR with the glove. The final outfield spot should have gone to Gerardo Parra who was (rather deservedly) awarded a gold glove for his defensive prowess in leftfield last season. He was also a better-than-average hitter finishing with a 109 wRC+. None of that managed to save his job however, as Arizona rather curiously signed former Twin Jason Kubel to a two-year deal and told him he would be their everyday leftfielder. Kubel is a better hitter (when healthy) but is a disaster in the outfield and is not a good enough hitter to make up the difference. The move will likely relegate Parra to a fourth outfielder role although the team has indicated he’ll start often for Young in center despite his success there last year.
In the infield, the D’Backs clearly identified the new market inefficiency: anemic-hitting utility infielders. Arizona thought it wise to re-sign all three of their incumbent terrible infielders, inking Willie Bloomquist, John McDonald and Aaron Hill to two-year deals. Hill’s probably the only one who will start as he’s projected to be the second baseman. The D’Backs are hoping they get the Aaron Hill that finished last year with a .315/.386/.492 slash line in 33 games in the desert and not the one who could barely hit his weight in his last season-and-a-half with Toronto.
Hill’s double-play partner, Stephen Drew, was having a sub-par year in 2011 before a gruesome ankle injury ended his season. It’s unknown if he’ll be ready for Opening Day, but providing there are no setbacks, he should be at least an average—if not slightly above average shortstop. Joining him on the infield’s left side will be Ryan Roberts who had a decent breakout campaign in 2011, but at 31, will probably come crashing back down to earth in 2012.
The first baseman will be Paul Goldschmidt who made the jump from AA last season and proceeded to post a 120 wRC+ and eight home runs in only 177 plate appearances. His ceiling is limited by a sub-par hit tool, but he can take a walk and has tremendous power. If he falters in his first full season, Kubel can play first base in a pinch and Lyle Overbay is still kicking around for some reason.
The starting catcher will be Miguel Montero who has moulded himself into one of the best all-around backstops in the Majors. His 4.3 fWAR was the highest in the NL among catchers.
Overbay, McDonald, Bloomquist and Parra will join backup catcher Henry Blanco on the bench. Blanco is entering his age-40 season, but is still a more-than-adequate backup. He posted an impressive 127 wRC+ last year. Infielders Geoff Blum and Cody Ransom provide injury depth as does outfielder Cole Gillespie.
The Diamondbacks were the most surprising team in the Majors last season, jumping from worst to first in the NL West and leapfrogging the defending World Champion Giants. However, they outperformed their Pythagorean record by six games and they appeared to be a very lucky team. The talent on paper does not match 94 wins and there’s almost no way they’ll repeat that performance in 2012. With a stable of young pitchers on the way including Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs and Archie Bradley, the future looks extremely bright in the desert, but 2012 will give the D’Backs and their fans a heavy dose of reality.
2012 Prediction: 79-83, 3rd NL West