A lot of new faces will be in the Arizona Diamondbacks clubhouse this season. For its offense, the organization acquired several intriguing hitters to anchor a lineup filled with young talent. On its pitching side, the Diamondbacks prioritized its bullpen, adding some arms to help revamp its unit.
While the organization looked externally to address these different fronts, it looked within its ranks to fix its starting rotation. Heading into this season, Arizona will roll out a nearly identical five-man setup as last year: Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly, Zack Davies, and Madison Bumgarner are locks for the rotation again in 2023, which left one spot for the taking.
Going into this Spring, four homegrown prospects – Tommy Henry, Drey Jameson, Brandon Pfaadt, and Ryne Nelson – were competing for the final spot on the rotation. The week before Opening Day, Manager Torey Lovullo announced Ryne Nelson won the role, with Drey Jameson also earning a roster spot.
While Pfaadt is the only one of the four to not have made his MLB debut yet, many expected him to nab the role. Since making his professional debut in 2021, Pfaadt quickly accelerated through the minors and has cemented himself as one of the most prized righty prospects in the game. Last season, Pfaadt posted unparalleled numbers in the hitter-friendly PCL League and continued with a strong performance this Spring, but General Manager Mike Hazen pointed to Arizona’s strong depth as a motive for the righty beginning the upcoming season in the minors. Furthermore, the 23-year-old has yet to appear in the bigs, so a spot on the Opening Day roster could’ve rushed his development after only two years in the minors.
Joining Pfaadt in the Aces’ rotation this season will be Tommy Henry, who was considered the underdog of the group. The 25-year-old kicked off his MLB career last September when he started nine games. In years past, Arizona’s rotation was braced by a pair of strong lefties – Robbie Ray and Patrick Corbin. Nowadays, Arizona’s only regular lefty in its rotation has been Bumgarner, who has done more harm than good for the Diamondbacks in the first three seasons of a five-year, $85 million deal. A big-league callup for Henry could eventually balance out a righty-heavy rotation that’s been lacking a dependable lefty arm for a while.
Ryne Nelson has already begun to prove Lovullo picked the right man for the job. In an exhibition game against the Cleveland Guardians before the start of the season, the righty pitched 5.1 innings, allowed one earned run on four hits, and struck out five. The Nevada native worked efficiently by attacking hitters, throwing 50 of 66 (76%) pitches for strikes. He is scheduled to make his season debut this evening against the Padres.
After being drafted three years ago in the second round, Nelson has shown what he can bring to a big-league rotation, posting elite strikeout rates throughout the minors. However, the organization must wonder how far he can go in just his first full season in the show. The most Nelson has ever pitched in a single year was in 2022 for AAA-Reno, where he threw 136 innings, which is at least roughly 30 innings short of a standard 33-start season. Barring an injury, Arizona could conceivably have him slated to appear in all 33 starts but just be conscious about his pitch count each game. However, having a starter who might not be able to handle the big-league timetable seems unlikely. Regardless of how the club uses Nelson, if he doesn’t meet expectations, Mike Hazen will not wait to try out another arm from the farm system.
Next in line could be Drey Jameson, who will be used as a long-man to keep him prepared in the event of an injury to the staff, indicating the club hasn’t ruled out Jameson ultimately returning to a starter role. For a rotation that has struggled to stay healthy in recent years – only one starter, Merrill Kelly in 2022, has pitched a full season in the last two years – keeping Arizona’s depth ready for a big-league promotion is crucial. Whether in the majors or minors, Jameson, Pfaadt, and Henry will stay as stretched out as possible to ensure a seamless transition to Diamondbacks’ rotation, whenever that opportunity may present itself.
The Diamondbacks have been able to develop quality ballplayers, but not so much from its rotation. Arizona has overwhelmingly struggled to develop its own homegrown starters. As a frame of reference, the last homegrown starter to pitch a full season for the Dbacks was Wade Miley a decade ago. Arizona has scrambled to assemble a competent staff using its limited resources. After struggling for a long period to develop its starters up to the big leagues, the ballclub now has a surplus ready to contribute.
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Featured Photo: Paul Beckman