Arizona Diamondbacks Season Preview: The Wild, Wild West
For many young baseball fans, the first glimpse into the mindset of an MLB front office comes trading baseball cards in the back yard. You run into all sorts of kids in this game – the rich kid who bought all the cards everyone wants, the kid who was always trying to rip you off, the kid who didn't like baseball anyway.
And then there was the X-Factor kid, whose priorities were so strange and unfathomable that trading with him felt weird even though you always got the cards you wanted for practically nothing - he'd trade his Pujols rookie card for Geoff Jenkins, or 30 copies of Alan Embree, or a bag of potato chips.
Kevin Towers is that kid, and the Arizona Diamondbacks are his weirdo trade binder. The more you look at the trades this front office has made, the less sense they make.
They've traded top position-player prospects for proven closers. They've traded high-ceiling arms for stopgaps. They've traded established starters for lefty one-out guys and real major leaguers for Heath Bell.
You have to suspect that Towers and company are employing some kind of of Mizongyi general management, using deception and bizarre lateral motion to throw you off the scent so they can trade their players for worse players without objections from you and your "logic."
But while we may not grasp the heuristic, we gotta respect the zeal. Far from the horrifying strip mining in Miami or the white-collar apoplexy of heyday Steinbrenner, the Diamondbacks' short attention span and organizational covetousness feel kind of endearing. It helps that Towers is among MLB's most enthusiastic and least effective prognosticators, willingly predicting the outcome of the past three D-backs seasons and being off by an average of about 10 wins. It makes you feel like he goes to work dressed like Spaceman Spiff.
It also helps that, even though sometimes it seems like the organization's fundamental strategy is selling low on young talent, it kinda-sorta-if-you-squint works out for them an unusual percentage of the time. Ian Kennedy gave up 1.4 HR/9 in Petco. Trevor Bauer is a complete mess in Cleveland.
So, on the back of the relative success of their bizarre front office, Arizona has put together a pretty likeable team. This is a pleasing, synergistic roster with lots of hidden value, some modest star power, strong reserves and no real holes. I think they're better-positioned than teams of similar talent level -- San Francisco, San Diego, Milwaukee -- to compete. And after some key losses in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Atlanta, it's not looking like the NL Wild Card teams will have to be world-beaters. So let's investigate how, with a little luck, this could be the team to bring October baseball back to Phoenix!
The Killer P's
Arizona's roster of position players is a cool little group, characterized (with one recently added exception) by a contact-oriented approach and an insistence on two-way talent. Since the D-backs won't compromise defense for offense, their hitting grades out as only average or a tick below, while their defense has been the best in baseball by far.
Emblematic of this profile are a few of last season's everyday players that we'll call the Killer P's: right fielder Gerardo Parra, center fielder A.J. Pollock, and third baseman Martin "The Devil Wears" Prado.
The 26-year-old Pollock (.269/.322/.409) and the 27-year-old Parra (.268/.323/.403) were spookily similar on offense last year. Pollock is right-handed, elevates the ball better and adds a few more runs on the basepaths; he stole 12 bases in 15 attempts, an excellent rate considering manager Kirk Gibson's Yosemite Sam trigger finger. (The D-backs succeeded in an ugly 59% of stolen base attempts last season). Parra is lefty and pops a few more doubles (43 last year). But on offense, they're virtually identical, both a hair below league average when adjusted for park.
However, they both grade out exceptionally well on defense. Parra in particular had a ridiculous UZR of 31.0, and added 17 outfield assists in what some metrics measured as the best defensive season of all time from a right fielder. Look for Pollock to play just about every day, but Parra gets absolutely eaten alive by lefties (a sub-Yunieskian .198/.276/.226 last year). Captain Kirk, headstrong as always, was unperturbed by Parra's 0 HR and 4 RBI in 200 plate appearances against lefties last year despite the presence of Cody Ross, who plays good D and bats .297/.362/.576 against lefties for his career. (Ross is recovering from a broken hip; in his stead, look for professional hitter vet Eric Chavez to play third occasionally, shifting Prado into the outfield.)
Speaking of Prado, he's basically what would happen if you stapled elite contact ability onto a player with otherwise completely average tools. Prado has regular speed, a decent arm and a solid glove at multiple positions (he'll be at third base this season, but he's played a capable second and a shaky left field in the past). Prado has just average power and selectivity, and he has trouble with a solid fastball; pitchers challenge him accordingly (he faced the highest percentage of strikes among Diamondbacks last season). This renders him reliant on BABIP to accrue much value on offense.
But Prado's strikeout rate is so low - just 8.0% last year - that he's still a reasonable offensive player given only average luck. So while randomness limits his upside, his contact skills make his floor low, too. So don't worry about the fact that Justin Upton's top Baseball Prospectus PECOTA comp this year is Barry Bonds, D-backs fans. You have a few years of a steady, low-variance veteran, plus some other stuff too. It's all part of the plan.
Naturally, Kevin Towers figured that, since he liked the little contact-oriented defensive whiz profile so much, he should swap Adam Eaton for Mark Trumbo. (Oh, and he should throw in a high-ceiling arm too. Always be closing.)
Jumbo Trumbo is a divisive player, a raw power monster with 34 home runs (a league-leading 13 of those the no-doubt variety) to go with a dizzying 27.1% K rate that quashes his batting average and on-base profile (just .294 last year).
I tend to be one of Trumb-Trumb's supporters. The '90s kids among us, who grew up when a dozen players would hit 40 home runs every year, might not be able to appreciate just how much power 34 home runs represents in baseball today, especially coming in power-suppressing Anaheim. Relative to the league, Trumblebee is more like Greg Vaughn or Cecil Fielder than Tony Clark in terms of power production.
Ol' Trumbly's walk rate has also been moving rapidly in the right direction, hitting a respectable 8% after coming into the league with serious selectivity issues three seasons ago. So I can't imagine Mr. Trumble being anything other than an offensive upgrade over Jason Kubel. His natural position is first base, but his outfield defense is actually better than Kubel's or even Prado's. He's below average, but he's no butcher; more Lance Berkman than Adam Dunn. And Berkman even played some center field! (Please don't consider playing Mark Trumbo in center field.)
Sidebar: Trumbotron did only have a .270 BABIP last season, which seems to indicate that he could hit for a better average next year. In fact, there's a particular brand of all-or-nothing player that actually hits exceptionally well on balls in play in spite of poor foot speed, Chris Davis being the poster boy. But it's no sure thing that Slide Trumbone fits into that band. Those players tend to plaster the ball whenever they do make contact, but Trumblestiltskin hits line drives at a below-average rate and pops out an alarming percentage of the time, well over 10% of balls in play in each of his MLB seasons and almost 15% last year. For reference, Paul Goldschmidt popped out six times all season. Trambo could do that in one game if he were feeling frisky.
Goldschmidt was the (ahem) gold standard of D-backs baseball last season, blossoming from a solid lefty-mashing first baseman into a bona fide star. Goldy is basically what would happen if you asked a computer program to come up with the most typical star player ever. His slash stats were .302/.401/.551, which is basically a bloop single better than the platonic ideal of a star first baseman. He strikes out, but not too much. He plays outstanding defense (+4.4 runs in UZR, +3 runs in dWAR and a ridiculous +15.9 runs in FRAA) but not at a premium position. He's 26; young, but not too young.
He basically has no splits of any kind. He hits righties and lefties, grounders and fly balls, at home and on the road. His stats in high-leverage situations were completely absurd (.410/.520/.872 in a small sample size). He's a boy scout with the media. He has an insanely team-friendly contract. His BABIP was high (.343), but it always is (.340 career). He's perfect. But you know, whatever. So over that. I don't want him on my team anyway.
If Goldy maintains his production and Trumbo improves on Kubel/Eaton, the other place where Arizona has room to improve their offense next year is catcher. Miguel Montero has a history of All-Star performances that caved all the way down to replacement level last year, with just a .230/.318/.344 batting line and uncharacteristically poor defense. He should rebound somewhat; his BABIP was just .282, down 80 points from 2012 which accounts for his entire OBP differential. But his contact rate has yo-yo'd through his career, and his ISO was down last year; at 30, it's unlikely he'll be a four-win player again.
However, his previous season-low in BABIP was .317, and his line drive rate is just as healthy as ever (though his groundball rate has gone up). Like Parra (and shortstop Didi Gregorius), Montero's numbers suffered from Gibson's allergy to the platoon; he was just miserable against lefties, batting .190/.254/.238 against them in about 25% of his plate appearances. Part of this is the lack of a decent platoon partner. I'll probably name a puppy after Tuffy Gosewisch someday, but he's not a projectable major leaguer.
The Shortstop Battle
The Diamondbacks are in an enviable position in the middle infield, with four potentially legit MLB players qualified to play shortstop or the keystone (counting Prado). Arizona has two viable shortstops, which is two more than about ten other teams. Sometime around November of 2012, Kevin Towers was consumed with an uncontrollable urge to obtain every marginal offensive shortstop in the professional baseball, leading him to swap former muse Trevor Bauer for Didi Gregorius. (Towers also managed nab Nick Ahmed and fetch Cliff Pennington before falling asleep in his water bowl).
The starter last year and the Towers-anointed favorite to win the job, Gregorius is, amazingly, a third lefty batter whose ho-hum offensive stats (.252/.332/.373; .311 wOBA) would look a lot better if Gibson would just use a damn platoon. This guy was helpless against lefties. He batted .200/.267/.245. He was Alan Trammel against righties, a .275/.359/.425 hitter with very good selectivity stats (12.3 K% and 10.6 BB%). But he walked half as much and struck out twice as often against lefties. And yet, he faced lefties a third of the time. It's astonishing to me. It's a platoon. It's so simple. It was popularized by Casey Stengel, for Pete's sake.
Okay. Deep breath.
Gregorius competes this spring against five-tool prospect Chris Owings, the clear shortstop of the future in Arizona. Owings does a little bit of everything, with a great line drive stroke and a balanced profile that handily beats out the limited Gregorius on a simple tools level. Owings's questions are on defense, where his average speed and range limit his impact at short. He is a shortstop, though, as his arm is plenty good enough and scouts believe the profile will play.
But if the D-backs believe in their scouts' positive evaluation of Didi, Owings may have his work cut out for him this spring. Owings's unrefined secondary skills could lead him to struggle at the plate as a rookie, too, so I'm betting that Didi wins this one and Owings spends a few months in the minors. But Owings has shown an excellent ability to make an adjustments; he had major contact issues before last season, when he cut his K rate by 25% and led the PCL in total bases at just 21. So don't expect Didi to hang onto the job for long. Or, maybe more likely, look for one of them to get traded before April (the Yankees and Mets have been mentioned as possible destinations for Gregorius). For what it's worth, Owings is whipping Didi at the plate so far this spring, putting up .286/.375/.429 to Didi's .214/.267/.286. Fifteen at-bats, after all, is science.
Of course, there's always the possibility that they play together (if they do, look for Owings to play second). The underrated Aaron Hill is guaranteed a job if he can stay healthy, but he didn't do that last year, missing 75 games with a broken hand. Even though it was a freak injury, don't look for Hill to play a full season; he's 32 and he's a second baseman, who tend to break down abruptly in their early-to-mid-thirties (think Brian Roberts or Roberto Alomar).
But Hill has been outstanding since being traded to Arizona at the end of the 2011 season, batting .300/.358/.500 since joining the Snakes. Some of that is home cooking - particularly in the power numbers, where his ISO has been over 100 points higher in Phoenix - but mostly it's just quality hitting. Hill's swing has no major holes, and generates good loft (0.97 GB/FB ratio) with a lot of line drives (21 LD%). His fielding was average at best last season (-0.8 FRAA, -4.2 UZR/150) after an outstanding 2012 (+23.2 FRAA), so it's possible that his athleticism is beginning to fade. But Hill likely has a bit of D left in him, making his wood all the more appealing (man, baseball is fun to write about for some reason).
Arizona has a neat, cohesive strategy when it comes to run prevention. Their oustanding defense allows them to skimp on pitcher strikeouts without getting burned too badly, shaving cheap hits away from the WHIPs of high-contact pitchers. To wit, Arizona was below average in K rate last season and their big offseason addition to the rotation was Bronson Arroyo. In exchange, this is a rotation of hardcore strike-throwers; four of the six starting pitchers entering camp – Arroyo, Randall Delgado, Patrick Corbin and Brandon McCarthy – allowed fewer than two walks per nine innings last year.
A fifth, Wade Miley, would've joined with a repeat of his 2012 rate (1.74 BB/9). Only Trevor Cahill was liberal with free passes among Arizona's starter crop. This gives them a feel kind of like the mid-2000s Minnesota Twins, a bunch of playoff teams led by legions of pitch-to-contact, mediocre-velocity right-handers like Brad Radke. Only problem is, that team had Johan Santana. This team has Randall Delgado.
In the absence of a true ace, Corbin is the top pitcher on the staff, and a wonderful young pitcher. He pounds the strike zone with a low-'90s heater and a monster slider, a legit out pitch which accounted for more than half of his strikeouts last season. He gets plenty of grounders (46.7 GB%) and he'll only be 24. He broke down a bit under a heavy workload last year (208 innings, with a 4.91 FIP in September), so be wary of signs of wear on his arm in the early season. But if he avoids injury his peripherals indicate he'll be well above-average for a long time. Miley, McCarthy, and Arroyo all profile rather like a poor man's Corbin, although Arroyo is about eleventy billion years older.
The 27-year-old Miley saw his walk rate spike last year, in large part because his extremely hittable 91-mph fastball got punished, yielding a Goldschmidtian .329/.402/.529 line. Happily, his groundball rate spiked too (especially against fellow lefties), which helped mitigate the damage and allowed him to finish with a FIP under 4.00. I like McCarthy a lot; the 30-year-old righty has shown the ability to completely reinvent himself since his fly balling rookie days in Chicago and Texas.
Last year marked the second massive spike in his groundball rate in his career, relying on an 89- to 90-mph fastball-cutter mix to generate 78% more groundballs than fly balls. He struck out a scant 5.09 batters per nine, but only walked 3.6% of batters (1.4 BB/9) and gave up very few home runs for a solid 3.72 FIP. Arroyo did get burned by homers, and didn't even crack 88 mph on his average fastball last year (those two facts are related), but he also didn't walk anybody and his curve remained as effective as always, despite the fact that he throws it at a visibly lower arm angle.
Randall Delgado will fight Trevor Cahill for the fifth spot in the rotation, and man is this a strange battle. Delgado had one of the weirdest seasons by a starting pitcher ever, transforming overnight from an extreme groundball pitcher who struggled with walks to an extreme control pitcher who struggled with home runs. His pitch rates (mostly fastballs and changeups with the occasional curve) and velocity (low-'90s fastball with 10 mph differential in the change and 12 in the curve) didn't change at all. Hitters just did completely different things with what they were given.
Cahill, meanwhile, has turned into one of the least successful pitchers ever to throw 197 innings of 2.97 ERA ball at age 22. His groundball rate is still outstanding, but his walk rate - never sparkling to begin with - has only gotten worse, until last year his K:BB ratio was 1.58. If I had to guess, I'd see Cahill winning the job (until somebody gets hurt, anyway), as Delgado's minor league numbers last year betrayed the same command problems he'd shown up until last year and Cahill really only got hit hard for a month last year, a 9.85-ERA June. Top prospect Archie Bradley is a beast, with a high-90s fastball and the best curve in the minors, but he's only 21 and he'll be spending the season working on his command. He's a difference-maker for 2015, but he'll probably only get a cup of coffee this year.
The bullpen has been a white whale for Towers and the D-backs, having devoted substantial financial and personnel resources to acquiring J.J. Putz, Heath Bell, Brad Ziegler, Addison Reed and Joe Thatcher. Bell is gone, but the rest of them form a core (along with Josh Collmenter) that should be among the better pens in baseball this year. Reed is the nominal closer, with mid-'90s heat and solid secondary offerings that situate him nicely among the game's middle tier of closers. Veteran submariner and groundball artist Brad Ziegler had another great year, his third in a row with a groundball rate over 68% (!). They can use Putz or David Hernandez if they need a K, Thatcher against a tough lefty and Collmenter if they need a couple of innings. I see no reason why it shouldn't be a solid group.
So will Arizona compete? I think they've got a shot. Between excellent defense, improved offense and bullpen, and a passable starting rotation that plays off the team's strengths, they should probably outscore their opponents this season. But they're an ace and a couple platoons short of being a legitimately scary team for the Nationals and Braves, let alone the Dodgers. They're probably around an 84-win team, and it sure seems that they'd be better with Justin Upton. But who am I to say? This is Kevin Towers we're talking about. Wolves don't lose sleep over the opinions of sheep.