AnalysisNL West

Arizona Diamondbacks Season Preview

The Diamondbacks’ 2019 season ended four games out of a wild card spot, but they still managed to win 85 games despite trading their best pitcher, Zack Greinke, at the deadline. It was a year that saw breakout seasons for Christian Walker and Ketel Marte, but it was also a year full of injury issues for players like Steven Souza Jr. and Jake Lamb.

Heading into 2020, the NL West is still dominated by the Dodgers, but the Diamondbacks are far from out of the playoff picture. The shortened season and expanded playoffs gives them a golden opportunity to contend in a division where their only competition for second place is the Padres. With an underrated offense powered by reliable veterans, Arizona definitely has the ability to overcome their lack of pitching depth.

Offseason recap:

Arizona was one of the most active teams this offseason, making several key moves that made significant improvements to a team that already won 85 games in 2019. Some of the most important moves happened in-house, as they locked up two key position players to multi-year extensions, David Peralta and Nick Ahmed. Peralta, currently in his age-32 season, has been a major offensive producer for the Diamondbacks since his debut in 2014. Over the past three seasons, the corner outfielder compiled 7.5 fWAR, making him the third-most productive Diamondback over that span, behind just Ketel Marte and former teammate Paul Goldschmidt. At three years, $22 million, Peralta’s extension locks up left field through at least 2022 with a reliable middle-of-the-order bat.

Nick Ahmed, on the other hand, is a completely different type of player. He’s never been an above-average hitter, holding a career wRC+ of just 74, but he is an extraordinary defensive talent, which is what makes him a valuable player. Last year he earned his second consecutive Gold Glove, and he leads all shortstops with 50 Outs Above Average since 2017. Ahmed is 30 years old and is signed through 2023 on his four-year, $32.5 million extension.

The Dbacks were also active in the free agent market after losing a few bats to free agency. Wilmer Flores had a great year, putting up an .848 OPS in 89 games, but the Diamondbacks declined his option this offseason and the versatile infielder hit the market. Veteran Adam Jones was not as valuable of a piece, but nonetheless left a hole in right field when his one-year deal expired. Jones has since gone to Japan, where he plays for the Orix Buffaloes.

The team also non-tendered Steven Souza Jr, and Taijuan Walker in December. Souza missed all of 2019 with a gruesome knee injury that required surgery to repair his ACL, LCL PCL, and posterior lateral capsule. Walker, a talented right-hander, spent most of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery. Neither really contributed last year, but if healthy they were expected to contribute in fairly major roles for the team. In other words, the Dbacks had a lot of holes to fill this offseason — and they did a fantastic job of it.

The biggest free agent acquisition the Diamondbacks made last year was the second largest deal in franchise history. In December, they signed Madison Bumgarner to a five-year, $85 million deal that would keep him in Arizona through 2024. The veteran lefty is only 30 years old, but has been in the majors since he was 19, having spent his entire career with the Giants up until joining the Dbacks. Despite some injury troubles in 2017 and 2018, Bumgarner basically returned to his former self last year, throwing 207.2 innings and putting up a 3.90 ERA. Fangraphs’ ZiPS projections are unfriendly to him heading into 2020 (4.29 ERA), but he’s been one of the most consistent, reliable starters in baseball for almost a decade now. A decent enough replacement after the Greinke trade, Bumgarner will likely sit atop the rotation for at least a few more years.

Filling in at right field will be Kole Calhoun, who signed a two-year, $16 million deal. While nothing special in any realm of the game, Calhoun is another piece who the team can depend on to play every day and put up decent numbers at the plate. Calhoun has logged at least 2.1 fWAR in every season since 2014, with the 2018 season being the only exception. At first glance, his 2018 numbers look pretty bad (.208/.283/.369), but a closer look reveals that it was pretty unlucky — his .283 wOBA was almost fifty points lower than his xwOBA (.330), and his exit velocity and hard hit rate were both in line with every other year of his career.

Other signings, though more minor, should make an impact on the team this year. Stephen Vogt will take over the backup catcher role on a one-year deal, while Hector Rondon and Junior Guerra will fortify the shaky bullpen. Rondon should take over as the setup man, while Guerra saw success in middle relief with the Brewers in 2019.

Along with the Bumgarner deal, the Diamondbacks’ other huge acquisition came via trade. In January, the team acquired centerfielder Starling Marte from the Pirates for minor leaguers Liover Peguero and Brennan Malone. It’s a great pickup for the Diamondbacks after having lost two outfielders in Jones and Souza, and it allows them to play Ketel Marte at second base, where they seem to prefer him. For the most part, Starling Marte is another reliable producer to add to this Arizona lineup. Despite a relatively low launch angle and below-average exit velocity, last year’s xwOBA of .360 was his highest mark since Statcast’s tracking began in 2015. Marte is under contract through the 2020 season with a club option for 2021, which will probably be picked up at a team-friendly $12.5 million.

Projected starting lineup:

  1. Starling Marte, CF
  2. Ketel Marte, 2B
  3. Eduardo Escobar, 3B
  4. David Peralta, LF
  5. Christian Walker, 1B
  6. Kole Calhoun, RF
  7. Jake Lamb, DH
  8. Nick Ahmed, SS
  9. Carson Kelly, C

This is a very deep lineup. Every hitter except Ahmed and Kelly is projected to have a wRC+ of at least 100 by ZiPS, making it one of the longer lineups in baseball. Walker’s 2019 breakout was completely backed up by his expected statistics, with an xwOBA of .360, fourteen points higher than his actual wOBSA of .346. Veteran Eduardo Escobar may have just had the best season of his career, hitting 35 home runs and batting .269/.320/.511. Carson Kelly, the youngest and least seasoned of this starting lineup, held his own as one of the better offensive catchers in the league last year, batting .245/.348/.478. He was no slouch defensively either, coming 11th among catchers in Runs from Extra Strikes, a framing index developed by Statcast.

Jake Lamb is one of the more interesting cases on the team. He has a lot going for him, including good plate discipline (career 11.8 BB%) and an excellent hard hit rate (career 38.6%), but injuries have really held him back over the past few years. Going back to 2017, his last healthy season, he hit 30 homers and knocked in 105 runs. He’s still just 29, so the ability should still be there — the question is if he can stay healthy. That’s where the universal DH should help him a lot. Not a good fielder in the first place, Diamondbacks can put him in at DH to keep him healthy in the hopes he can recapture his success as a power bat.

Projected bench:

Stephen Vogt, C

Kevin Cron, 1B

Ildemaro Vargas, IF

Tim Locastro, OF

Jon Jay, OF

Josh Rojas, OF

If there’s one thing to counter an exciting starting lineup, it’s the Diamondbacks’ startling lack of depth. Vogt is a solid backup at catcher, but the next five names are tough to see. Veteran Jon Jay is the only other player of note among this bench, with several productive seasons under his belt in St. Louis. Cron, Vargas, Locastro, and Rojas are all 29 or younger, but have almost no promise as offensive assets. Their roles will center around their versatility and defense, like many other benches in the league. Luckily, the team doesn’t have any injuries to their starting lineup heading into the season, but if injuries do start rolling in, it may be very bad news for their season.

Projected starting rotation:

LHP Madison Bumgarner

LHP Robbie Ray

RHP Zac Gallen

RHP Luke Weaver

RHP Merrill Kelly

A decent rotation, though not one of the best in the league. Robbie Ray is an acceptable number two starter, with top-flight strikeout ability but questionable control. Zac Gallen, not yet 25, is an exciting young arm who enjoyed a breakout rookie season. Merrill Kelly’s most important job will be to eat innings at the back end of the rotation, and at age 30 he doesn’t have much upside.

Luke Weaver has shown flashes of brilliance — his two good seasons, 2017 and 2019, were both shortened by injuries to 10 and 12 starts, respectively. Fortunately, in this 60 game season, between 10 and 12 starts will be all he needs to get through the year healthy. If he can find his groove this year he could force himself into the Diamondbacks’ long-term plans as a starter.

Projected bullpen:

RHP Archie Bradley

RHP Hector Rondon

RHP Kevin Ginkel

RHP Junior Guerra

LHP Andrew Chafin

LHP Alex Young

RHP Yoan Lopez

RHP Stefan Crichton

RHP Taylor Clarke

RHP Tayler Widener

Aside their bench and offensive depth, the Dbacks’ bullpen is one of the weakest areas of the team. Archie Bradley is definitely a relatively strong option at closer, having finally won the job in 2019 — over the past three years Bradley has a 2.95 ERA and 10.0 K/9 in 205 appearances. Hector Rondon was a good signing, strengthening the setup role, while Guerra, the other bullpen signing, will provide middle relief and length when needed.

Right-hander Kevin Ginkel pitched a great 24.1 innings last year, giving up just four earned runs and striking out 28; he’ll slide in as one of the top options in middle relief. In a similar position is Crichton, who had a 3.56 ERA in 30.1 innings last year.

Stefan Crichton is one of the veterans of the bullpen, having compiled three good years in a row for the Diamondbacks as a lefty reliever. Since 2017, he’s thrown 153.1 innings, striking out 10.7 per 9 and holding lefties to a .642 OPS.

All things considered, the bullpen has some bright spots, but it’s not one you’d feel confident in heading into a playoff series. If they end up in a playoff race, this is definitely an area they could look to bolster before the trade deadline on August 31.

Outlook and season projections:

Fangraphs’ projections has the Diamondbacks finishing the 60-game season at 31-29, just barely above .500 and tied with the Reds, Padres, Cardinals, and Phillies for the second NL Wild Card (using the expanded 16-team playoff plan). Considering the questionable pitching staff and lackluster offensive depth, a .500 record should be the overarching goal for this team this year, but a playoff run is more than possible. With the second-place team in every division guaranteed a playoff spot, all Arizona needs to do is beat out the Padres and Rockies for second place in the NL West (behind the Dodgers).

The bottom line is that this is a team that won 85 games last year, and then significantly improved during the offseason. Sure, Greinke contributed a lot last year before he was traded, but they made big acquisitions in Bumgarner and Marte, locked up productive position players to multiyear contracts, and built a starting lineup with potential to be top-10 in baseball — when healthy. The key for this team is the health of their starting lineup. If they can get everyone to put together 60 games, the Diamondbacks will be headed toward a 35-win season and an easy playoff spot.


Featured Photo: Jennifer Stewart, Getty Images

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