It is March 12, which means that every team is 0-0 and playoff dreams are alive for every organization. Yes, even the Astros and Orioles, as unlikely as their outlook is. The reason rosiness spills into every Spring camp are the historical examples of worst-to-first teams. If everything clicks, even poor teams can find themselves in the postseason.
The blueprint fans of cellar-dwellers enjoy pointing out this spring is that of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who went from 65-97 and the 3rd worst record in MLB in 2010 to 94-68 and a batted ball bounce or two from playing in the NLCS.
A bullpen transformation helped. Cy Young contending campaigns from Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson and career years from Justin Upton and Miguel Montero added several wins. The question everyone has now about Arizona is whether their success is sustainable. Did their legitimate re-build simply arrive early, or did they peak soon, only to fall apart in the following year? Naturally, Kevin Towers believes it is the former, as he kept his roster almost entirely intact, supplementing with four players.
RHP Trevor Cahill (trade), LF Jason Kubel (FA), RHP Takashi Saito (FA), LHP Craig Breslow (trade)
RHP Ryan Cook (trade), OF Collin Cowgill (trade), RHP Micah Owings (FA), RHP Kam Mickolio, RHP Juan Gutierrez, RHP Jason Marquis, 1B/OF Xavier Nady, LHP Zach Duke
2B Aaron Hill, LHP Joe Saunders, 1B Lyle Overbay, C Henry Blanco, SS John McDonald
Arizona's current projected roster and breakdown are after the jump.
|1) Willie Bloomquist - SS||OF - Gerardo Parra||1) Ian Kennedy||Closer - J.J. Putz|
|2) Aaron Hill - 2B||1B - Lyle Overbay||2) Trevor Cahill||Set-up - David Hernandez|
|3) Justin Upton - RF||IF - John McDonald||3) Daniel Hudson||MR - Takashi Saito|
|4) Miguel Montero - C||IF - Geoff Blum||4) Joe Saunders||MR - Craig Breslow|
|5) Chris Young - CF||C - Henry Blanco||5) Josh Collmenter||MR - Bryan Shaw|
|6) Jason Kubel - LF||LOOGY - Joe Paterson|
|7) Paul Goldschmidt - 1B||LR - Brad Ziegler|
|8) Ryan Roberts - 3B|
The only change Kevin Towers made to his lineup this offseason was signing former twin Jason Kubel to block his gold glove left fielder Gerardo Parra. Chase Field is particularly friendly to left-handed power hitters though, so Kubel could appear to be a strong addition, his poor defense aside. Oh, and their 8-hole hitter was worth 3.6 fWAR last season. Oh, and Stephen Drew is not in the above table, but he should return sometime in April from his ankle injury last season, strengthening the lineup and pushing McDonald or Blum off the roster. That lineup is far from perfect, but it is fairly strong top to bottom, with Hill, Goldschmidt and Roberts representing large upgrades from the Opening Day lineup including Kelly Johnson, Juan Miranda and Melvin Mora a year ago.
Every member of the projected bench finished 2011 with Arizona. Parra represents the only backup outfielder, but he can play all three positions well defensively and deserves the at-bats when any outfielder gets a day off. The rest of the bench is filled with Towers' favorite blase mix of low-ceiling veteraniness.
Josh Collmenter had a 3.38 ERA and 2.2 fWAR in 2011 as a rookie, and his spot at the end of the rotation is perilous at best. Towers has supplemented Daniel Hudson and Cy Young candidate Ian Kennedy with Trevor Cahill, and Joe Saunders returns after being non-tendered. The depth after those five is what is most impressive. Trevor Bauer might actually start the year in MLB and is sure to have more starts than Collmenter by the end of the season. Wade Miley, Barry Enright, Joe Martinez and Zack Kroenke all have MLB experience and figure to make a nice rotation for the Reno Aces. Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin, both of whom were acquired for Dan Haren, could reach the majors in late 2012 under the right circumstances.
For the second straight season, the NL West featured a team going worst to first on the strength of their bullpen improvement, though Arizona actually managed to hold on to the division. Takashi Saito and Craig Breslow take the roles primarily played by Sam Demel and Micah Owings in 2011 to make the pen look even stronger. Demel, Mike Zagurski and Jonathan Albaladejo are the main competition for the back end of the pen.
Offseason in a Nutshell
Jim McLennan, AZ SnakePit: "Jason Kubel: For when .292 and a Gold Glove just isn't enough..."
Why They Could Be Just as Good
The two Trevors (Cahill and Bauer) create both significant depth and upside in the rotation. Should a significant arm get injured, the Diamondbacks are more prepared to put an arm in the rotation than anyone in the division. Their lineup was the best in the division in 2011, and with the addition of Kubel and more at-bats from Stephen Drew and Paul Goldschmidt than last season, it stands a good chance to remain the best.
Why They Could Be Bad
There could certainly be some regression from Arizona's magnificent pole vault last season. The pitching staff ranked 5th in outperforming their FIP in MLB despite a top 5 offensive home ballpark. Seasons like Justin Upton's 140 wRC+ tend to regress far more often than not, and the club has no real backup plans should Ryan Roberts or Miguel Montero slow considerably. The Dbacks' farm is pretty barren of position player prospects, and what guys they do have will not be ready to contribute in 2012, leaving them vulnerable should a significant injury occur.
Prospect to Watch - Trevor Bauer
Bauer isn't just the prospect to watch for Arizona, he's the guy to watch in the division. He joined the Diamondbacks organization just nine months ago, and despite just 25.2 innings in the minors after being drafted 3rd overall, he might just be in the Opening Day rotation. If so, Keith Law believes Bauer would strike out 200 batters this season as a rookie, something Ian Kennedy didn't even do last year. He has a back breaking curve, a plus mid-to-upper nineties fastball, two different sliders and two different change-ups. One of those "sliders" he refers to as a "backwards slider," as it moves armside at 86-91mph. More than any pitching prospect in the NL West, he has impact ace potential. Also, his twitter handle is most excellent.
When I started researching the Diamondbacks for this preview, I expected to come to the conclusion that they should not be considered favorites for the division. This is based on the predictable regression from Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Ryan Roberts and Justin Upton. An important thing I realized though, is the wave of reinforcements in Cahill, Bauer, Saito and Kubel help mitigate that regression. Even more important, this roster has, by far, the fewest question marks in the division. I have a hard time not making Arizona the favorite based on that. It should end up much closer than 2011 finished, but Arizona looks like the strongest team for 2012. I'd definitely bet the field over Arizona alone, but I wouldn't have any trouble picking Arizona with a gun to my head.