Last year, the Arizona Diamondbacks had the third best starter’s ERA in the National League despite playing in a hitter’s haven. Then in the offseason, the front office replaced Livan Hernandez with Dan Haren, and conventional wisdom credited the Arizona Diamondbacks as the team with the strongest rotation in baseball and as the favorites to represent the National League in the World Series.
Then came the difficulties. Randy Johnson, whom we were assured all winter was on track to pitch the second game of the season, will instead pitch on opening day… for the Tucson Sidewinders. He allowed three homers in eight spring innings, and remains as big of a question mark as he was last year. Worse yet, Doug Davis, who has averaged over 206 innings per season over the past four years, was recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer. He will make his first two starts of the season, then undergo treatment that will sideline him an indeterminate amount of time.
Micah Owings, who had looked like the best fifth starter in baseball, now represents just an adequate #3 guy. Factoring in the loss of Jose Valverde, Diamondbacks’ pitching as a whole no longer figures to improve over last year. So if the Diamondbacks want to take a step forward, they will need to count on some young bats to mature quickly.
Montero’s finger refuses to heal, so Robby Hammock assumes backup duties for the time being. That may not work out too badly, since Snyder hit .292 and slugged .503 in the second half last year, establishing himself as an everyday catcher. While Montero might have gotten rusty warming the bench, Hammock has the versatility to move to any corner position and keep his bat fresh for when he does need to spell Snyder.
Conor Jackson |
Just when everyone’s lowering their expectations, Conor is ready to bust loose
Chris Young |
Pitchers who throw him fastballs this year should be fined
You sometimes hear Diamondbacks fans lament the loss of Tony Clark’s clubhouse presence, but rarely do you hear about how much the offense will miss him. Clark led the Diamondbacks in slugging last year, posted a .923 OPS after the All-Star break, and served as a one-man wrecking crew against Chris Young of the rival Padres. This offense needs to improve, and losing Clark makes that task extremely difficult.
Enter Conor Jackson. CJ is poised for a breakout year at the plate. His defense doesn’t compare to Clark’s, and someone else will need to step up as a pinch hitting threat, but Jackson will certainly do his part to fill the any void left in the starting lineup by Clark’s absence.
Clark’s roster spot essentially went to Chris Burke. This seemed like a huge offensive downgrade until Burke went .371/.437/.710 this spring. It is reasonable to believe that Burke could enjoy a breakout season at age 28, and if he does, his defensive versatility would further help offset the loss of Clark.
The Diamondbacks hope to keep Burke in that role and not need him to step in full time for Orlando Hudson at second base. Hudson suffered a hand injury late last year, which is the kind of thing that could linger and affect him this season. Hudson also becomes a free agent at the end of this year, which could motivate him, cause him to press, or entice the Diamondbacks to trade him in July. He has been one of the best all-around second baseman in baseball in both of his seasons in Arizona, and if he doesn’t match those performances for whatever reason, the team will suffer.
Will Mark Reynolds set the season strikeout record the year after Ryan Howard did? I’m betting against it, not because Reynolds isn’t perfectly capable of doing so, but rather because Chad Tracy will eventually get healthy and steal at bats from Reynolds. Tracy had been declining even before enduring knee problems, so the more time he takes away from Reynolds, the worse off the Diamondbacks are. Reynolds already went through an adjustment period in his rookie campaign, so he should avoid a sophomore slump. Still, I don’t expect him to take a huge leap forward, either.
|Projected 2008 Starters||
Drew, Augie Ojeda
Last spring, I predicted that Stephen Drew would disappoint by only hitting .272 with 16 homers. It turns out that he would have killed for those numbers. I do anticipate a rebound this year – at least to the numbers I pegged him for last season – since his plate patience has improved significantly as he has matured.
Although Carlos Quentin may have a better season than any of the Diamondbacks’ current outfielders, it shouldn’t be difficult for them to improve upon Quentin’s dismal umbers from last season.
|Mark Redman Candidate|
Dan Haren |
Moves to a tough ballpark with a 4.11 career ERA after the break
|Alex Gonzalez of the Marlins|
Eric Byrnes |
We could have named this award for second half struggles after Byrnes instead of Gonzalez
On the other hand, Eric Byrnes should regress considerably this year, and is a guarantee to fade down the stretch. Chris Young still hasn’t shown that he can handle a big league curveball, and could challenge Mark Reynolds for the team lead in strikeouts if he is moved away from the fastball-friendly leadoff spot. Justin Upton hasn’t shown that he can hit any pitching above Double-A consistently. Salazar and Romero are nice utility outfielders, but neither one could step into a starting role effectively – at least, not yet, in Romero’s case.
Basically, this outfield has a lot of potential down the road, but in 2008, it figures to be a weakness.
Brandon Webb, Doug Davis, Livan Hernandez, Micah Owings, Randy Johnson, Edgar Gonzalez, Yusmeiro Petit
|Projected 2008 Starters||
Webb, Dan Haren, Davis, Owings, Johnson, Gonzalez. Petit
Adding Dan Haren seems like a much better move after seeing what has befallen Johnson and Davis. He will give the Snakes 200-plus innings of low-4.00s ERA, though expect a rough second half as National League hitters become more comfortable with his stuff. Brandon Webb is still the face of this franchise. He perennially contends for the Cy Young Award, though the loss of Clark does downgrade the infield defense for this groundball maven. It shouldn’t affect him overly much, but a Cy Young Award isn’t happening this year.
Edgar Gonzalez and Yusmeiro Petit each have a lot of good qualities for swingmen or fifth starters. They combined for 22 starts last year, generally keeping the team in ballgames. If the Diamondbacks need to count on these two for 40 or more starts this year due to injuries and/or ineffectiveness with the rest of the rotation, that would spell trouble. The rotation would still be feasible, just not upper-tier, and depriving the bullpen of these two presents another possible downgrade.
Jose Valverde, Tony Pena, Brandon Lyon, Juan Cruz, Doug Slaten Dustin Nippert, Brandon Medders
|Projected 2008 Relievers||
Pena, Lyon, Cruz, Chad Qualls, Slaten, Medders, Jailen Peguero
It’s easy to make too much of Jose Valverde’s 47 saves last year. He finished only 9th in the majors in Linear Saves due to his seven failed attempts, and showcased a 5.84 ERA just a year ago. However, there’s a lot more room for new closer Brandon Lyon to fall short of Valverde’s 2007 performance than to improve upon it. Lyon has had an abhorrent spring, which he blames on not using all of his available pitches. I still don’t see him finishing the year as Arizona’s closer.
D-Backs Fun Fact|
The 2007 D-Backs were the third team in major league history to win 90 games despite allowing more runs than it scored.
Chad Qualls is a solid setup man who joins an already excellent bullpen that includes Juan Cruz, one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball. Some areas of concern include Tony Pena’s 2007 workload and subsequent second half struggles, Doug Slaten’s offseason microfracture surgery, and Brandon Medders’ lack of minor league options, which could persuade Bob Melvin to keep pitching him even if he’s ineffective. Once again, we don’t see a flashing danger sign, but neither do we see reasons to anticipate improvement.
Outlook for the Season
The Diamondbacks enter the 2008 season banged up. They have enough depth to keep them in what could be a four-team NL West race until the injured return, but then what? Dan Haren and Eric Byrnes, two of the veteran players who should be stabilizing forces, are two of the most prolific second-half chokers in baseball. The remainder of the team is peppered with young players who aren’t used to the rigors of a 162-game schedule. If winning the division comes down to a July trade, the Dodgers have both more payroll flexibility and a less-depleted minor league system to address any needs.
The 2008 Diamondbacks will be a good team; possibly even better than the one that posted the best record in the National League last year. But last year’s team played well over its head, and too many things have gone wrong for this iteration before the season has even begun to believe that this will be another special season. This young club should position themselves to succeed in 2009, particularly with the weights of Russ Ortiz and Randy Johnson’s contracts set to fall off the shoulders of general manager Josh Byrnes.
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