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Arizona Diamondbacks 2019 Season Preview

Earlier in this seemingly interminable offseason, I had a dream so realistic, that it has to come true: I dreamt that the Arizona Diamondbacks signed Craig Kimbrel to a four-year contract, and rode an MVP caliber season from Ketel Marte all the way to the World Series. There, they defeated the Kansas City Royals in Game 6 by a score of 34-31 to become the 2019 World Series Champions. Kimbrel struck out Whit Merrifield, Jorge Soler, and Khris Davis – who was acquired in a midseason trade with Oakland (it was a very detailed dream) – in order in the 9th, and the Diamondbacks celebrated their second ever World Series on Chase Field’s new artificial turf. When I woke up, I was startled, and wrote it off as just another ice-cream-before-bed induced nightmare, but as we’ve approached Opening Day, I have become the most devout disciple of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Write it down now, folks. This ragtag group is going all the way.

The odds, I’ll admit, are stacked against them. Baseball Prospectus projects the Diamondbacks to win a cool 81 games, while FanGraphs is less enthusiastic, pegging the snakes for 78 wins. But if you squint, and I mean really squint at the roster, to the point where you accidentally misread Jake Lamb’s name as “Mike Trout,” you can talk yourself into this team winning something like 87 games if everything goes exactly according to Mike Hazen’s plan, which is to hire the titular character from HBO’s Barry to assassinate everyone else in the NL so that the Diamondbacks win the pennant by default. Season 2 of Barry premieres on Sunday, March 31, and is available on HBO, HBO Go, HBO Now, and all other HBO-associated platforms. Please sponsor me HBO.

The Diamondbacks have found themselves in a rather unideal situation heading into the 2019 season; they aren’t bad on the level that the Orioles or Royals are bad, but their list of departures this offseason includes a bevy of talent, most notably former face of the franchise Paul Goldschmidt. Further, their decision to ultimately hang on to payroll-inflater Zack Greinke means that the 2019 Diamondbacks aren’t significantly cheaper than the 2018 Diamondbacks (they’re projected to land around $120 million compared to last year’s club record $131 million), but they sure are worse – just not worse enough to realistically have them in contention for a top draft pick. They’re stuck in baseball purgatory, and unless something changes, this year of Diamondbacks baseball is going to be decidedly mediocre. What fun.

The Coaching Staff

Back in January, I suggested some moves the Diamondbacks ought to make this offseason, one of which was to extend manager Torey Lovullo. Not 10 days later, the desert dwellers did just that, adding an additional two years to Lovullo’s contract to take him through the 2021 season. It was a great move by Arizona to lock up a good manager, but far more importantly, it was a much needed ego-boost. Remember, I’m new to this whole “being a fan of the Diamondbacks” business, so my recommendation coming to fruition made me feel knowledgable and important. When I reached out to the Diamondbacks to comment on whether they had made the move because of me, they told me to “stop sending them notes made of letters cut out from magazines.” Whatever that is supposed to mean. 

Aside from extending Lovullo, the Diamondbacks will maintain the same staff that gallantly lead them to an 82-80 last season, apart from at hitting coach, where Darnell Coles will take the reigns after spending the last four seasons in the same position with the Milwaukee Brewers. I’ve never been sold on hitting/pitching coaches having much tangible impact on a team’s actual results, but if Coles has some more Christian Yelich mojo ready to unleash in Arizona, then sign me up. 

The Rotation

Greinke (who’s coming off of a 4.8 bWAR season) has already been given the Opening Day nod, and seems a safe bet to turn in another very good campaign for Arizona, assuming he isn’t traded. He’ll highlight a unit that actually, mercifully, does have some upside and intrigue. The losses of Patrick Corbin (signed with the Nationals) and Clay Buchholz (signed with the Blue Jays, though my personal projection system predicts that he will break both of his arms while making himself a sandwich after just four starts) hurt, but a healthy, effective Robbie Ray could replace that production on his own. It’s asking for far too much for Ray to be the 166 ERA+ pitcher he was in 2017, but he only threw 123.2 innings last season, and his walk rate was an abysmal 13.3%. I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to expect some positive regression in the control department from Ray. That, accompanied by his always sterling strikeout numbers, and projected out to 170 or so innings, could give Arizona a pair of All-Stars headlining their rotation. 

After that, the Diamondbacks will be relying on a young trio of arms to take steps forward in 2019. Zack Godley followed up an outstanding 2017 with a season in which he lead the league in two categories…hit batters (12) and wild pitches (17). Godley had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad -1.1 bWAR last season, so an improvement to even just 2.0 WAR would be massive, and not all that unlikely; despite an obscene 4.74 ERA, estimators FIP (3.82) and SIERA (4.18) both thought Godley suffered from some considerable bad luck. Just like with Robbie Ray, we can’t expect Godley to produce a replication of his 142 ERA+ 2017, but even a league average season would be a marked improvement for the Diamondbacks hurler.

Luke Weaver, acquired in the Paul Goldschmidt trade, and Arizona State University alumni Merrill Kelly, an offseason signing from the KBO who the Diamondbacks are hoping can turn in a Miles Mikolas-style return to the MLB, will round out the Arizona rotation. Kelly is reportedly throwing harder than he was when he was a nobody in the Rays farm system, and ZiPS has a rather bullish 2.2 WAR projected for the rookie. As for Weaver, he’s added a new pitch, and looked excellent in Spring Training (11.2 IP, 2 R, 10 K, 0 BB) for whatever that’s worth. Weaver was relegated to a bullpen role with the Cardinals by the end of last season, but we aren’t far removed from when he was one of the game’s top pitching prospects. Should either of those two arms falter, Taijuan Walker is scheduled to return from Tommy John surgery in mid-July, and while the Diamondbacks are sure to be tentative with one of their franchise players, he’ll absolutely be making starts down the stretch. And hey, if worst comes to worst, there’s a guy named Dallas Keuchel sitting at home and watching his beard grow like a chia plant while he waits for a phone call to come play baseball somewhere. 

Overall, ZiPS projects the Greinke-Ray-Godley-Weaver-Kelly rotation to produce 9.5 WAR. I prefer to use bWAR over fWAR when evaluating pitchers, and projection systems are often conservative, so this number seems far too small to me. While I am certainly more enthusiastic about this group of arms than I ought to be given last season’s results for everyone outside of Greinke, this rotation has the potential to be really good. D-Backs starters produced 12.1 bWAR last season, and while they did lose the previously mentioned Corbin and Buchholz, I think Ray, Godley, and Weaver are all going to improve. This rotation might leave something to be desired, and could very easily turn into a messy group of young arms who all have ERA’s over 5.00, but don’t be surprised if it ends up as a top 10 rotation in baseball. If the Diamondbacks hope to outperform projections and find themselves in the hunt for a Wild Card spot, the rotation will have to do the heavy lifting. 

The Bullpen

If you’re into the sexy new elite bullpen craze, then I would not suggest watching a lot of Diamondbacks games this season. There are plenty of other reasons to tune in to this team – the most outlandish and whacky uniforms in baseball, and, uh…Robbie Ray has a good beard? – but the bullpen isn’t one. It’s not that it’s particularly bad, it just isn’t at all inspiring. Greg Holland will be doing the closing (at least until they sign Craig Kimbrel just before the 9th inning on Opening Day, and he dramatically enters the field on the bullpen cart), but I wouldn’t define his role on the team as a “closer.” Instead, he’s mostly there to prove his excellent second half of 2018 (1.19 ERA in 22.2 IP, 47.9% GB%) was not a fluke so the Diamondbacks can flip him at the deadline. 

If the Diamondbacks do indeed find themselves out of the playoff hunt come July, don’t expect Holland to be the only bullpen arm on the move. Yoshihisa Hirano is 35, and despite having several more years of team control, doesn’t really fit in with the Diamondbacks timeline to contend. He was excellent last year in his first season in the MLB, and any number of contenders (the Red Sox) would love to add him (Hirano to the Red Sox) to their bullpen (please Red Sox). T.J. McFarland will start the year on the injured list, never strikes anyone out, and has a history of troublemaking, but his 217 ERA+ last season is tantalizing. He’s affordable this year ($1.4 million) and next ($1.85 million club option), so he should net the Diamondbacks a prospect in some contender’s top 30. Finally, Archie Bradley, while only 26 and under control until 2022, could also be on the move if he pitches like he did in 2017, a season in which he finished 20th in MVP voting. (That sentence was really strange to type. In what world is Archie Bradley, a man who literally pooped his pants during a game, one of the top 20 players in the National League?) 

The Opening Day bullpen will be rounded out by the solid, if unspectacular Andrew Chafin, the intriguing rookie Yoan Lopez, who averaged 98 MPH on his fastball in 10 games last season, Matt Andriese, who is, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, a person who I can’t deny plays professional baseball, and Matt Koch, who will slide into the starting rotation if there is an early season injury. Robbie Ray and Marc Rzepczynski both await opportunities in the minor leagues, and will certainly see time in the majors at some point. 

The Offense

The Diamondbacks have assembled a group of batters that has left critics raving; the Wall Street Journal said, “This team will be lucky to score four runs a game,” and the New York Times asked the excellent question, “Who is Christian Walker?” It truly is as mediocre of an offense as you can find. The only time this offense will be doing any scaring is when the ghost of Paul Goldschmidt haunts the pool out in center field, leaving celebrating Dodgers players chilly and startled. 

They’ll carry three catchers to start the season: the out-of-options John Ryan Murphy, veteran Alex Avila, and Carson Kelly, another piece from the Goldschmidt deal. Exactly why they’re doing this is a bit beyond me. Kelly was a premiere piece of the trade package that tempted Arizona to ship off the best position player in franchise history. He’s 24, and another guy who was very recently a highly touted prospect. Limiting his at-bats in favor of John Ryan Murphy and Alex Avila, who combined for -1.5 bWAR last season, seems…counter productive. If Talladega Nights taught me anything, it was to never trust a person with two first names, and John Ryan Murphy has three. If I were Arizona, I would cut bait with that locker room poison as soon as ASAP. 

In the infield, Jake Lamb will move across the diamond to man first base, and hope to recapture his 30-homer power after an ineffective, injury-plagued 2018. Lamb, a lefty, has had pretty extreme platoon splits in his career (116 wRC+ against righties compared to 46 against lefties), but Torey Lovullo has confirmed that he will be playing every day. Hopefully, Christian Walker and his red-hot Spring will help the Diamondbacks see reason, and Diamondbacks fans won’t be subjected to watching Lamb get sheared by lefty pitchers. (That was supposed to be a lamb pun, but I’m not sure it makes sense. Do you even shear lambs? I don’t know. It is two in the morning. I’ve never even seen a lamb. For all I know, they don’t exist.) 

A doctored image created by a government spy to look like a “lamb,” a fake creature created to trick children. Photo credit: https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=13533&picture=baby-lamb

Eduardo Escobar (third base) and Nick Ahmed (shortstop) both had 3.2 bWAR 2018 seasons, and figure to get ample playing time this year. I’m not entirely sure either will match those career-year levels of production again this season, but they’ll need to if this offense is ever going to score any runs. Meanwhile, Wilmer Flores will attempt to reclaim his reputation as a lefty masher as he slots in wherever needed on the infield. That will frequently be second base, which will be vacant if and when the Diamondbacks choose to use Ketel Marte in center field. Marte’s small, Hobbit-like stature, and 28.7 ft/sec sprint speed should allow for an excellent transition to the outfield, but if we end up with a Dee Gordon level disaster, he can easily slide back to second. For what it’s worth, Lovullo has publicly said that Marte is the everyday center fielder, which means more playing time for Flores. 

Ketel Marte is primed for a breakout 2019 campaign. Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/143615892@N05/41684217022

Of all the players on the Diamondbacks, I think Marte is the one that intrigues me the most. The last three seasons, he’s hit .259, .260, and .260; he doesn’t strike out or walk all that often; and despite his above average speed, he doesn’t steal a lot of bases. But last season, he hit balls hard at the highest rate of his career (36.5%) and barreled balls at the highest rate of his career (5.0%). He’s been incredibly average since his debut in 2015, but the ingredients are there for him to take a step forward in his age-25 season…

Which only made it more confusing when the Diamondbacks signed Adam Jones. Don’t get me wrong, I love the player, and I’m looking forward to purchasing a charcoal gray jersey with his name on it the second I move to Phoenix in August. But at the time of the signing, it seemed as if Jones was a strange fit. Luckily (or, more appropriately, terribly), some playing time just freed up. In the final game of the Diamondbacks Spring Training, Steven Souza Jr., who had been slated as Arizona’s primary right fielder, suffered a gruesome knee injury that required season ending surgery. It is a terribly development for the Diamondbacks, but more than that, for Souza Jr. Acquired from the Rays after a very solid 2017 campaign in which he hit 30 homers, stole 16 bases, and was worth 4 wins, Souza has now lost essentially all of his first two years with Arizona to injury. He’ll attempt to make a comeback in his age-30 season, and his final year before free agency. 

So, with that awful recent development, Adam Jones now appears to be first in line to play right field for the Diamondbacks. Jarrod Dyson will serve as a fourth outfielder, primarily backing up Marte in center. Unfortunately, Arizona designated Socrates Brito for assignment mere hours before Souza’s injury. If there is a God, someone in Arizona has clearly done something to wrong him, and he is showing no mercy to the snakes. Brito was, perhaps, the best organizational depth piece that the Diamondbacks have, but now there is a real chance they’ll lose him to waivers, and be left to deal with the ramifications of Souza’s injury without him. 

Left fielder David Peralta is set to be the most crucial piece of the Diamondbacks offense. He’s really good, and has legitimate power, so there’s a very real chance that Arizona will trade the 31-year old outfielder. He only has a single year of team control left, and with Souza now out of the picture, the Diamondbacks’ playoff hopes look even bleaker than they did just 48 hours ago. 

Season Outlook

A lot went right for the Diamondbacks in 2017 to get them to the playoffs, and then a lot went wrong in 2018 for them to finish 82-80. If they were returning Paul Goldschmidt, then I’d be completely sold on this group as a playoff team. However, without Goldy, the offense lacks a true star, and will often have trouble scoring runs. Jake Lamb is the key player for me. If he can get back to hitting homers, then Arizona will have a solid player to pair with David Peralta in the middle of the lineup. They’ll need that, a breakout from Ketel Marte, good seasons from Eduardo Escobar and Nick Ahmed, and for Steven Souza Jr. to miraculously recover and play like he did in 2016. That’s an impossible list to overcome, and even then, it would only make the offense passable. Instead, Adam Jones, Jarrod Dyson, and Alex Avila are probably going to get regular at-bats, and sadly, it isn’t 2011 anymore.

Meanwhile, I’m very upbeat about the rotation, and optimistic that their plethora of young arms will take steps forward, but injuries, bad luck, or me just being totally wrong about the quality of these players could mean disaster for the Diamondbacks. I think the most we can hope for is for the young players to make improvements, however minor, that line the team up to be more successful in 2019 and beyond. 

Overall, a playoff berth isn’t impossible, but more likely than not, this team will win about 80 games, and regroup next October. The team should have sold off more pieces this offseason to avoid being in stuck in the middle with a bloated payroll. Hopefully, Zack Greinke is traded at the deadline as opposed to next offseason, because the longer they wait to trade him, the older he gets. Trading Goldschmidt signaled the start of a new era in Arizona, but there are still steps to be made towards a larger-scale rebuild. If by October, the Diamondbacks have taken a few more of those steps, than the 2019 season will be a success.

Bonus! One non-Greinke trade the Diamondbacks should make in 2019

Hey, what, whoa! A bonus piece of the season preview!? Heck yes! I’m here to show you that I’m a serious Diamondbacks writer, and what better way is there to do that then a little extra free content? We’re talking bonus baseball, baby! Get ready for a next-level bit of analysis, because this is a truly revolutionary idea. 

In my years (0) as a Diamondback fan, I’ve spent a lot of time (like two minutes) contemplating their team name. Ultimately, I decided that Diamondbacks isn’t that cool of a nickname, and since the Diamondbacks are a relatively new franchise without that much history, there is still time to come up with a better one. The prefix “Diamond” is perfectly fine, as it invokes imagery of sparkly, valuable gems that we all like to own. The suffix of “Backs” is pretty bad, though. All it makes me think of is this time I hurt my back dancing to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” at my 8th grade talent show, and I watch baseball specifically to forget about that terrible memory. Together, “Diamondbacks” forms a clunky nickname for a team that has shuffled through logos and uniforms pretty rapidly in its efforts to find a classic look. 

The solution? The Diamondbacks should trade the “Diamond” part of their team nickname for prospects, and adopt the name “Arizona Carnegiea Gigantea” (the scientific name for the Saguaro Cactus, a notable inhabitant of the Arizona desert).

A mighty Saguaro Cactus, the future mascot of the Arizona Carnegiea Gigantea. Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/arizona-desert-saguaro-cactus-1443336/

The Arizona “Carnegiea Gigantea” ticks all the boxes: it is difficult to pronounce, nobody really knows what it is, and it’s science related (science is sexy). With this new team name would come new uniforms, completely green, and covered in actual cactus pricks that could be to distract the opponent throughout the game. The foul poles would also be replaced by saguaro cacti, and Chase Field would become a desert-themed terrarium where kids could go to not only enjoy baseball games, but study a fascinating ecosystem in the process. Various desert creatures would roam the field at all times, so be careful! You might be competing to catch that homer Robbie Ray just surrendered with a rabid pack of coyotes! (Editor’s Note: Diamond Digest is not liable or responsible for any injuries caused by this idea.)

All of these ideas are really great, and they aren’t even taking into account the sweet trade package the team could get by trading away the “Diamond” portion of their name. You can imagine how quickly this would become the hottest commodity on the trade market. Any team that wouldn’t want to add “Diamond” to the front of their nickname would be stupid. The New York Diamond Yankees. The Boston Diamond Red Sox. The Miami Diamond Marlins. It doesn’t matter if you’re a classic team, a good team, or a bad team, it would instantly increase your “it” factor by a billion. The name would improve a team’s brand, uniforms, and fan interest, all of which equal more revenue. The bidding would be high, perhaps higher than any trade in history, but four teams would rise to the top of the rumor mill, leaving the Carnegiea Gigantea with their pick of prospects, star players, or both. Here are the proposals they would decide between:

  • The Cleveland Indians become the Cleveland Diamonds in exchange for Corey Kluber, catching prospect Noah Naylor, and Trevor Bauer signing a legally binding contract that he will never tweet again. Cleveland doesn’t have to be the Indians anymore, Corey Kluber goes 21-3 with the Diamondbacks in 2019, finishing second in Cy Young voting to Rick Ankiel following his successful comeback with the Reds, and Trevor Bauer stops harassing women on the internet. It is a win-win-win.
  • The Pittsburgh Pirates become the Pittsburgh Diamond Pirates in exchange for the top three prospects in the Pirates system and a zip lock bag of Andrew McCutchen’s old dreadlocks that Clint Hurdle keeps in a drawer in his desk. Pirates are fine, but they aren’t really “in” anymore. There were some pirates in Aquaman, but that wasn’t a very good movie. But Diamond Pirates? That is something I would pay to see. 
  • The Los Angeles Angels become the Los Angeles Diamond Angels of Anaheim and Phoenix and Los Angeles Angels (Sponsored by Sierra Mist) in exchange for Shohei Ohtani when he bats (when he pitches, he still does it for the Diamond Angels), Andrelton Simmons, Tyler Skaggs, and three games of Mike Trout to be used at Arizona’s discretion throughout 2019. This is perhaps the most interesting trade scenario, as the Angels would use the opportunity to expand from just Los Angeles and Anaheim into Phoenix and into Los Angeles a second time. They also would become the first team to put ads on their jerseys and in their team name, as Sierra Mist gives them an offer they can’t refuse. They use the revenue to sign Gerrit Cole in the 2020 offseason. Now playing in Sierra Mist yellow and green colored uniforms, the Angels go 89-73, and Mike Trout puts up a 13-WAR season (0.7 of which come with Arizona), good enough for 4th in the MVP voting.
  • The Tampa Bay Rays become the Tampa Bay Diamond Rays in exchange for the super cool 1970’s Turn Back the Clock jersey the Rays wear. The Diamondbacks make it their Friday home uniform, and go 11-3 when wearing it in 2019. The Rays keep doing Rays things, and win 101 games, but finish in 3rd place and miss the playoffs.

Featured Image Credit: Ken Lund, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kenlund/3441029894

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Dakota Lovins

Dakota is a sophomore in college, and one day he wants to be a baseball announcer. He is 6'5'' with size 17 shoes, a fan of the Boston Red Sox, and he is afraid of moths. Last year he finished in 5th place out of 10 in his fantasy baseball league. Follow him on twitter @kotalov16.

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