Last year's Arizona Diamondbacks began the season 20-8, fresh off having the best record in the National League the year before. They ended the season the first team in major league history to finish April with a five-game division lead and fail to make the playoffs. Surprisingly, injuries weren't the culprit; scheduling and luck mostly were. Last April, the D-backs played the Reds twice, the Astros three times, the Dodgers five times, the Giants five times, the Padres six times, and the Rockies six times. The Dodgers are the only one of those teams that finished better than three games under .500 in the month of April, and only they and the Astros finished with more than 74 wins for the season. It was an easy schedule, and the D-backs took advantage.
In fact, the D-backs would take advantage of the Rockies all season long, repaying the 2007 NLCS sweep with 15 wins against Colorado in 2008. That means that the D-backs were 67-77 (.465) against the rest of baseball. The Rockies played well in the second half last year and figure to be far more competitive in 2008, so the Diamondbacks will need to step up their game against the other teams around the league.
Unfortunately, a very poor offseason likely means that the 2009 D-backs will more closely resemble the squad that was 10 games under .500 since May, rather that he one that was 30 games over .500 between April of 2007 and May of 2008. The expected maturation of some of the club's promising young players will have a difficult time offsetting the departure of several good players and the arrival of some bad ones.
Miguel Montero doesn't figure to get the chance for maturation, as he will once again back up Chris Snyder at catcher. Montero's bat would make him a starter on many ballclubs, but he cannot match Snyder's defensive capabilities. Snyder has made only one error over the past two seasons, plus saved eight runs over the average catcher via his throwing arm and pitcher handling according to The Fielding Bible II. No slouch on offense, Snyder is also the envy of most National League teams as a productive #8 hitter.
At first base, we see the first of Arizona's offseason mistakes. Re-signing Tony Clark for clubhouse morale would be fine and dandy if it did not block playing time for Joshua Whitesell, who has a .993 OPS in Triple-A last year. Whitesell bats left-handed, which doesn't make him an ideal platoon candidate with starter Chad Tracy. If Tracy's role with the team is to showcase himself for two months before getting traded and giving way to a platoon of Whitesell and Clark, that would be ideal, but there is the very real chance that Tracy is sub-par on both sides of the ball and attracts no suitors.
Then again, Tracy's $4.75 million salary may not look too expensive to some teams given that a money-strapped franchise like Arizona was willing to shell out 3.5 million bucks for Felipe Lopez. Lopez replaces the steady Orlando Hudson at second base, and figures to represent a huge dropoff on both sides of the ball. Lopez was 13 runs below average defensively last year and has been an offensive liability for two seasons now. If he cannot get his OBP over .310 from the leadoff spot, which he has not been able to accomplish since 2006, the Diamondbacks' offense will not score more runs than it did last season.
Stephen Drew was the team's leadoff hitter in the final months of 2008, and he took to the role like water to a sponge. He went .313/.361/.528 there, feasting on fastballs. A drop in the lineup figures to curtail his effectiveness this year, although it's hard to know just how much the 26-year old improved last year (.763/.927 Pre/Post-AS OPS split) due to the lineup change and how much was due to maturation as a hitter. I expect Drew to once again be one of the top five offensive shortstops in baseball while his defense remains a tick below average at shortstop.
The D-backs wish that Mark Reynolds' third base defense were only a tick below average. Only Edwin Encarnacion stands between Reynolds and the title of Worst Defensive Third Baseman in the Game. Of course, no one stands between he and the all-time single season strikeout record. The thing is, Reynolds led the Diamondbacks handily in both home runs and RBI, edged out Chris Young for the team lead in walks, and even swiped 11 bases, the second-most on the squad. I'm not sure I know how to evaluate the overall value of Reynolds, easily the most extreme player in the game today.
Let's re-visit Chris Young's 62 walks for a second. As a leadoff hitter in 2007, he was able to hit home runs, but rarely got on base. Primarily hitting lower in the order last season, Young was able to draw walks, but his home run power plummeted. Manager Bob Melvin wants to hit him second this year, which would be the worst place for the strikeout-prone youngster were he not playing for the whiff-happy Diamondbacks. Between Young and Lopez, the first two batters in Arizona's lineup are both serious threats to reach base less than 30% of the time.
Young is a far more valuable player than Lopez is, however, because he covers so much ground in the outfield. Conor Jackson handled himself very well defensively after shifting from first base to left field, but somehow the transition sapped him of all his power. Justin Upton is extremely mistake-prone in right field, but the 21-year-old's incredible athleticism compensates. Upton fanned in over one-third of his at-bats last season, but made better contact once fully healthy in September. He's not ready to approach his skyscraper ceiling quite yet, so expect similar rate stats stretched out over 500 at-bats.
Only pencil him in for 500 because the Diamondbacks' fourth outfielder will "earn" $11 million this year. Eric Byrnes has always faded in the later months of the season due to his all-out Rusty Greer style of play; perhaps only starting three or four times a week will keep his production level high through September. He, too, is an excellent defender. The D-backs outfield is so superior to their infield defensively that they may wish that they had more flyball pitchers on their staff.
Well, not really. The D-backs would rather have sinkerballer Brandon Webb leading their starting rotation than any other pitcher in baseball, because fly balls in Arizona tend to wind up as homers quite often, and there's little a great defensive outfield can do about that. The ramshackle infield defense behind Brandon will, however, cause him to notch the highest ERA of his career. It should still remain well below 4.00, however.
Co-ace Dan Haren had a fielding independent pitching ERA of 3.02 last season despite his traditional second half decline. With National League hitters now more acclimated to his repertoire, Haren is likely to regress just a touch. Like Webb, he will still produce very good numbers, just not quite the ones he managed last season.
Doug Davis figures to be the solid middle-of-the-rotation starter that he has always been. The real decline in the rotation comes from Jon Garland attempting to replace Randy Johnson's 184 innings of a sub-4.00 ERA. Garland is a lock for the innings, but I'm not sure that his ERA will dip below 5.00. Garland's strikeout rate is abysmal, meaning the ballpark in which he pitches and the defense behind him hugely affects his performance. Last year, Garland managed a 4.90 ERA in a neutral ballpark with a solid defense behind him that was exceptional at turning the double play. He moves to the greatest ballpark for hitters outside of Colorado. While he will enjoy a good outfield defense behind him, the infield has the potential for disaster.
If the Diamondbacks want to avoid disaster, Max Scherzer will be the key. He has decent command of dominant stuff and should post an ERA in the low-to-mid 3.00s this year. The question is how many innings he will throw. Scherzer's shoulder has been bothering him on and off for almost a year now. He will begin the season on April 14th to allow for extra rest, and even if he's perfectly healthy, he figures to be skipped in the rotation every now and then to make certain his innings total does not exceed 150 by much. If he misses most of the season with injury, the Diamondbacks will not have a winning record, even though Yusmeiro Petit is a capable swingman behind him.
The Diamondbacks' bullpen also took a hit this season, it having lost two of its best members in Juan Cruz and Brandon Lyon. The D-backs received three compensatory picks by letting them leave via free agency, so allowing them to depart was not the mistake. The mistake was doing nothing to replace them. Tom Gordon and Scott Schoeneweis are the main additions: The 41-year old will not be ready to contribute until May, and the 35-year old has a career ERA of 4.91. The situation is so bad that Juan Gutierrez, who had a 6.09 ERA in Triple-A last year, has made the opening day roster. Gutierrez is out of minor league options, so the Diamondbacks figure to keep him on the roster all year, unless they can fool another team into acquiring him in a trade.
The Diamondbacks lost several good players this offseason and added nothing of quality. The Diamondbacks will need to pay Jon Garland nearly $9 million for his work this season and Felipe Lopez $3.5 for his. A team already in dire financial trouble cannot afford to handcuff themselves to below average players at those prices. The Diamondbacks have a young nucleus that will keep them competitive only because no one else in the NL West figures to be a powerhouse.
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