NL West Preview: Arizona Diamondbacks

The 2007 NLDS between the Diamondbacks and Rockies was supposed to lay the groundwork for a rivalry between two up-and-coming teams.  It was the Rockies that didn't play the part in 2008, stumbling to 88 losses while Arizona led the division much of the season.  But that divergence proved temporary and violently reversed.

The Rockies rebounded for their best regular season in franchise history in 2009 and stumbled through injuries to 83 wins in 2010.  On the other side of Four Corners, Arizona lost 90-plus games for consecutive seasons for the first time, a low point the Rockies have never reached in their existence.

So what went wrong?  One could point to Brandon Webb's injury, the kind that not only deprives a team of its ace but its confidence and identity.  One could point to Dan Haren, and the gutted farm system it took to acquire him.  One could point to the horrifying bullpen and bad luck (proof Josh Byrnes made an underhanded deal with the baseball gods in 2007).  Maybe it was the toxic karma of that cancerous Eric Byrnes contract.  Or point to the big time prospects who have not lived up to their billing.  One way or another, it appears the fluke team from that 2007 NLDS was indeed the one that lost.

New general manager Kevin Towers has a different idea:

"When Pat (Gillick) first got into baseball, he thought 70 percent of the game was skill set and 30 percent was character and makeup. Now he thinks it's the other way around. To get to this level, you have to have talent. What separates good teams from mediocre teams are guys with character, will, passion and desire. They pull for one another and play as a team. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you're selfish and don't play well together or handle adversity well, you're not going to win." - Kevin Towers, via Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com

Sound familiar?  The Diamondbacks are emulating the Rockies.  Dan O'Dowd has given great lip service to bringing in the "right guy, not the most talented guy" the last few years, building an organization that typically wows national writers with character as well as talent.  

Towers arrived on the scene and diagnosed the Diamondbacks with poor character.  So he jettisoned the popular Mark Reynolds and put Justin Upton on the block, clearly throttling fans and players alike, attempting to drive home that elusive statement that "things would be different."  He brought in an All-Star cast of players to fill in as coaches:  Kirk Gibson (manager), Alan Trammel (bench coach), Don Baylor (hitting coach), Charles Nagy (pitching coach), Matt Williams (third base coach) and Eric Young (first base coach).

He overhauled the bullpen by signing J.J. Putz to close and acquiring two talented Orioles relievers for Reynolds.  He acquired a list of uninspiring players in the off-season, but those who are known as great clubhouse people (Gallaraga, Mora, Blanco, etc.).  He acquired the young Cuban Juan Miranda from the Yankees to play first base, a guy who was never a top prospect in their system.  Rather than focusing on improving play on the field, Towers has pecked away at the periphery, hoping facelifts to the bullpen and clubhouse will overflow onto the field.  It's how the Rockies have done it after all.  At least partly.


Additions

Closer JJ Putz (FA), 1B Juan Miranda (trade), IF Melvin Mora (FA), OF Xavier Nady (FA), 1B Russell Branyan (FA), SP Zach Duke (FA), SP Armando Gallaraga (trade), RP David Hernandez (trade), RP Kam Mickolio (trade), C Henry Blanco (FA), 1B/P Micah Owings (FA), RP Joe Paterson (Rule 5 draft), OF Wily Mo Pena.

Subtractions

3B Mark Reynolds (trade), 1B Adam LaRoche (FA), SP Brandon Webb (FA), SP Kris Benson (FA), SP Rodrigo Lopez (FA), IF Augie Ojeda (FA), RP DJ Carrasco (FA), OF Ryan Church (FA), RP Blaine Boyer (FA).

Projected 25-Man

Lineup Bench Rotation Bullpen
1) Kelly Johnson - 2B 1B/LF - Brandon Allen 1) Joe Saunders Closer - JJ Putz
2) Stephen Drew - SS OF - Gerardo Parra 2) Ian Kennedy Set-up - David Hernandez
3) Justin Upton - RF IF - Geoff Blum 3) Daniel Hudson LRP - Mike Hampton
4) Chris Young - CF IF - Willie Bloomquist 4) Zach Duke LRP - Joe Paterson
5) Miguel Montero - C C - Henry Blanco 5) Armanda Gallaraga MR - Sam Demel
6) Xavier Nady - LF MR - Juan Gutierrez
7) Melvin Mora - 3B LR - Aaron Heilman
8) Juan Miranda - 1B
Lineup

The starting eight is fairly set at this point, as long as Xavier Nady's double Tommy John surgery holds up and Juan Miranda continues to show well in Spring Training.  If Nady can't handle the outfield, it is conceivable Kirk Gibson will go with a Miranda/Nady platoon at first base and Parra/Wily Mo Pena platoon in left field.  Yeah.  The actual order of those eight bats is completely up in the air, as nary a single slot has been set in stone.  It's a significantly weakened line-up from 2010, even if the first five bats are legitimate threats.

 

Bench

Henry Blanco is guaranteed the backup catcher role in favor of John Hester.  Gerardo Parra figures to be the back up at all three outfield positions, while Willie Bloomquist and Geoff Blum were signed specifically to anchor the bench infield.   Former first-baseman of the future Brandon Allen is left on the outside looking in on the playing time carousel.  Ryan Roberts could beat out Bloomquist with a strong spring.  Russell Branyan was signed less than a month ago in case Juan Miranda failed to prove capable; with Miranda seeming the favorite to start at first base, Branyan is likely to utilize his opt out clause at the end of spring training and sign elsewhere.

 

Rotation

With the trade of Dan Haren and loss of Brandon Webb, the rotation is without a fearsome ace for the first time since Andy Benes started Opening Day in their inaugural season in 1998.  Instead, Kevin Towers is attempting to build the rotation predominantly from youth.  Joe Saunders, Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson are locks, while Zach Duke figured to slide into the 4-slot.  Towers traded for Armando Gallaraga, meaning he will likely be the fifth starter even with a poor spring, as Barry Enright has option years left.  There is enough talent here to frustrate the Rockies by stealing series on the mound on occasion, but by and large, there's little to worry about here.

 

Bullpen

After suffering through a historically bad bullpen in 2010, Towers made it his offseason mission to rebuild the pen, going as far as trading a slugging third baseman for two bullpen arms.  Of the projected seven men in the pen, only two (Aaron Heilman and Juan Gutierrez) were with the organization a year ago.  JJ Putz signed a multi-year deal to stabilize the closer position, and Joe Paterson figures to make the team as a left-handed reliever after being a Rule 5 draft choice.  Sam Demel (acquired for Conor Jackson) and David Hernandez (acquired for Mark Reynolds) are close to locks as well, with Hernandez penciled in as the set-up man.  Mike Hampton will likely get the nod as a lefty reliever, but Kam Mickolio (acquired with Hernandez) could replace him.  Heilman is attempted to make the team as a starter this spring; assuming he doesn't force Gallaraga or Duke out, he could be stretched out and ideal as a long man.  Overall, it won't challenge the still superior bullpens found elsewhere in the division, but it obviously represents a massive improvement.

 

Why They Could Be Better

Bullpen bullpen bullpen.  After allowing 307 runs in 2010 (nearly twice that of the Giants), even a random allotment of seven minor league pitchers could pitch better in 2011 than the '10 Snakes pen.  But with the talent Towers has collected, Arizona will make up several games with their bullpen alone.  A frightening 39.5% of Mark Reynolds' at-bats resulted in strikeouts or popups in 2010, and all of those easy outs have been removed.  A full season of Daniel Hudson instead of the dead weight of Edwin Jackson has to be considered a step forward, and Justin Upton could be due for a monster season after suffering through a disappointing 2010 with a lingering shoulder injury.

 

Why They Could Be Terrible

Even the improved bullpen has a lot of question marks and inexperience, and losing a half season of Dan Haren hurts.  There is a big step down in value from Mark Reynolds to Melvin Mora and from Adam LaRoche to Juan Miranda, potentially four wins total at those two positions alone.  Kelly Johnson enjoyed the type of 2010 season that translates to consensus regression, and it remains to be seen whether Stephen Drew is the 5+ WAR player he was in 2010 or the 2+ WAR player prior to last season.  

 

Prospect to Watch

Usually a team committed to a youth movement has notable youth to infuse right away.  That isn't necessarily the case here, as the earliest ETA from any of the top 11 prospects according to Kevin Goldstein is 2012.  That is partially due to low draft choices from successful seasons in 2007 and 2008, partially due to the mass exodus of prospects for Dan Haren (Arizona could use even Chris Carter around now) and partly bad luck.  The one prospect we might and perhaps will see in 2011 is Jarrod Parker, #1 prospect.  Goldstein took a cautious ETA estimate with Parker, who missed 2010 after having Tommy John surgery.  However, reports from Scottsdale are very good on the right-hander in his return to the mound, leading AZSnakePit's IHateSouthBend to say:

If Jarrod isn't in the D-backs rotation by the end of June, something went terribly wrong with his command or control amidst his recovery from Tommy John, and that doesn't appear to be the case at the moment. Fastball already hitting 98 mph, wipeout slider, average change-up, great makeup. Not much to not like.

Obviously, there does not project to be much resistance in the big league rotation from getting Parker a slot.

 

Conclusion

The Diamondbacks will be better in 2011 than 2010.  They almost have to be, considering only one Arizona team has ever lost more games than the 2010 team.  The bullpen is better.  The culture has changed.  They absolutely will be better.  How much better is the question, and I wouldn't bet on very much.

This season figures to be a transition year for Arizona, somewhere between 2005 and 2006 era Rockies teams (they hope).  The wave of talent from a deep 2009 draft and Haren re-trade will supplement the big club from 2012 through 2014, but they will remain a poor product on the field in 2011.  There isn't a young player poised to break out quite like Mat Latos, and the bullpen is nowhere near stout enough to win close games.  There should be no worry here about Arizona emulating San Diego.  Vegas has the Diamondbacks' line at 72.5 wins, which seems about right.  Either way, don't worry too much about Arizona.  The only way the Rockies are close to them in the standings after May is a catastrophic season in Colorado.

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