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Catching up with The Diamondbacks

Injuries poisoned the Diamondbacks’ 2014, so their last-place finish did not necessarily represent the true talent level of the team. That didn’t stop new Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa from starting the postseason early by cleaning house. GM Kevin Towers was fired and replaced by Dave Stewart, who played for LaRussa on the late-80s/early-90s A’s. Manager Kirk Gibson and bench coach Alan Trammell were fired the day after Stewart was hired and Stewart later hired A’s bench coach Chip Hale to manage the team for 2015.

The new-look front office wasted no time diving headfirst into the off-season. Several players who defined the Towers-era Diamondbacks, such as Didi Gregorius, Wade Miley, and Miguel Montero, were shipped out of town. In a flurry of moves, the front office picked up a tremendous amount of pitching depth, at the major and minor league levels, and made a splash by signing recent Cuban defector Yasmany Tomas to a six-year deal. The Diamondbacks enter the 2015 season with plenty of youth on the roster but with youth comes volatility, which makes it difficult to know what to expect from the team in 2015.

Grit, Heart, and Paul Goldschmidt: The D-backs Offense

How do they score runs? Are they notably home-run dependent? Notably light on power? Is their lineup predicated on depth, or on huge production from a few stars?

The Diamondbacks will likely start seven returning position players and Tomas on opening day. The small sample sizes in which left fielder David Peralta, center fielder A.J. Pollock and shortstop Chris Owings succeeded last year make it hard to determine what they can contribute at the plate this season. In addition, outfielder Mark Trumbo and second baseman Aaron Hill suffered through injuries and poor performance that led to poor seasons. If everything clicks for this team’s offense, they could get on base at a solid rate, hit for above-average power, and threaten on the base paths, making them a formidable offense. On the other hand, if Hill and Trumbo can’t rebound, and the team’s other players’ successes were just a small sample mirage, then Paul Goldschmidt will carry a heavy burden in 2015.

The starting left field candidates for the Diamondbacks are left-handed hitting Ender Inciarte, who needed an above average BABIP to help him to a below average offensive season in 2014, and fellow lefty David Peralta, who was playing in the independent American Association two seasons ago. This doesn’t sound like a dangerous tandem, but they showed some skills to dream on last season. After making his major league debut last June, Peralta smashed right-handers to the tune of a .312/.342/.506 line in 267 PAs but struggled against lefties, batting just .197/.247/.263. Inciarte batted .273/.326/.320 in 140 PAs vs. lefties so it’s plausible the Diamondbacks could test his ability to platoon with Peralta, but it seems unlikely since that’s such a small sample. Peralta’s offensive value is tied to his ability to hit for average and power while Inciarte’s value is tied to speed. Inciarte stole 19 bases in 22 attempts last season so he’s a genuine stolen base threat. Both outfielders surfaced in trade rumors this off-season but Dave Stewart told the Arizona Republic: “It’s a pretty solid outfield, in my opinion,” so it appears both players will remain with the Diamondbacks for now.

An opportunity opened up for AJ Pollock in the Diamondbacks’ crowded outfield when Adam Eaton was traded to the White Sox last off-season and Pollock shined, when healthy, in his first year as a full-time player. Pollock’s strong defense and .372 wOBA led to a 3.5 WAR season, per Fangraphs, in just 75 games. That’s an MVP pace over the course of a whole season. Pollock enters the 2015 season as a controversial player among projection systems, with ZiPS projecting him to hit better than average for a center fielder again, while Steamer and PECOTA project slightly below average offense compared to other starting center fielders.

Mark Trumbo will play right field for the Diamondbacks this season. So far in his career, Trumbo has hit enough home runs to off-set his .247 batting average and .299 OBP. In 2014, however, he displayed the worst of Trumbo. He struggled to get out of the gate, then a stress fracture in his foot cost him 71 games. He hit just .200/.250/.467 in the first half and could not return to form. Pundits speculated that the Diamondbacks did not want to sell low on Trumbo this off-season, so look for him to pop up in trade rumors if he can make corrections early this season.

Cody Ross will fight for a job on the major league roster to start the season. He’s hit like a backup outfielder, batting .268/.322/.378 since 2013, but it’s hard to believe that’s what the Kevin Towers-led Diamondbacks hoped for when they signed him to a three-year free-agent contract prior to 2013.

With the exception of Paul Goldschmidt, who has emerged into a star, the Diamondbacks’ infield is just as hard to predict as their outfield in 2015. In 2011, Jason Parks wrote about Paul Goldschmidt for BaseballProspectus.com, “I’m still not sold that his bat speed will play against better pitching…” Instead he became one of the elite hitters in the game, even providing some excellent work on the base paths for a first baseman. Goldschmidt could anchor nearly any lineup in baseball and, as a player who has yet to turn 28, is the player the Diamondbacks could continue to build around for several more seasons.

The Diamondbacks hope Yasmany Tomas can start at third base but Baseball America’s Ben Badler seems convinced Tomas should play corner outfield instead. Tomas could be a higher risk than fellow Cubans Jose Abreu or Rusney Castillo, since US college pitchers were able to exploit his tendencies to chase and swing through pitches, but the upside is tremendous if he can somehow stick at third and the power is real. The down-side for Tomas is a one-dimensional player who will need to hit a lot of home runs to provide value on offense, similar to Mark Trumbo.

Chris Owings represents the kind of gritty all-or-nothing player fans have come to expect from the Diamondbacks. He played well enough in 2014 to finish with 1.8 WAR, nearly average value, in spite of missing 76 games due to shoulder issues. That value is largely on the defensive side of the ball, however, as Owings hits for almost no power, strikes out too much, and might not provide enough speed on the bases to significantly lift his value.

Owings will be joined in the middle infield by veteran second baseman Aaron Hill. Hill posted 5.4 WAR (per Fangraphs.com) in 2012, his first full season with the Diamondbacks, thanks to a .302/.360/.522 batting line with 26 home runs and 14 steals. It looked like he was on the verge of becoming one of the game’s best second basemen until injuries cost him a tremendous amount of playing time in ‘13 and his offensive value cratered in ‘14 when he hit just .244/.287/.367 with 10 home runs. Hill turns 33 in a month and is under contract with the Diamondbacks through 2016 so he could be hard to move if he cannot rebound.

The good news behind the plate is that the Diamondbacks can only improve over their projections. All indicators point to the market for catchers being more expensive than the Arizona front office cares for. This means Tuffy Gosewisch reports to pitchers-and-catchers with quite the opportunity. Entering his 32 year-old season, Gosewisch has 55 major league games on his resume with a 33 wRC+. That’s an acceptable wRC+ if you’re an American League relief pitcher. Oscar Hernandez, acquired with the first pick of the Rule V draft from the Rays, could also benefit from the Diamondbacks decision not to pursue more catching depth. Gerald Laird was recently signed to a minor league deal with a spring training invite, so he could provide an option at catcher, and the team re-signed Jordan Pacheco, who provides depth at catcher as well as the corner infield positions. This could also all be a setup for Peter O’Brien, acquired for Martin Prado, and his plus power to get plenty of looks in spring training. Unfortunately, by most accounts, O’Brien doesn’t have a future behind the plate. Thanks to Dave Stewart’s openness with the press, at least we know this is a conscious decision by the organization rather than them waking up the morning pitchers and catchers were due to report and realizing they forgot to sign any catchers for this season.

Does the manager use pinch-hitters and platoons liberally? Does the team have the platoon advantage in an especially large or small percentage of their plate appearances?

Here’s what we know about Chip Hale:

  • Alumnus of the University of Arizona
  • Played in 7 major league seasons
  • Coached 8 seasons in MLB
  • Once hit a baseball that was caught by Rodney McCray. McCray then ran through a wall.

 

 

What is the team’s collective approach? Do they look to take a large number of pitches? Does the manager put on the 3-0 green light very often? Are players benched or criticized by management for striking out too much? Are they more than usually given to fouling pitches off?

Last season, the Diamondbacks finished tied for seventh in team strikeout rate but were among the bottom three teams in walk rate. When your GM makes a trade that brings Mark Trumbo to town for a former top pitching prospect and a good and young center fielder, this probably isn’t a sign that he values plate discipline as a major part of roster construction. This is no longer Kevin Towers’ team, but the Diamondbacks’ signing of Yasmany Tomas seems to signal that the team is still willing to take a risk on players with huge power who might not offer other skills while at the plate.

Does the manager call for steals and hit-and-runs often? Is the team aggressive in taking the extra base on hits and outs? Do they lay down sacrifice bunts with unusual regularity, or irregularity?

Let’s just go watch Chip Hale hit that ball to Rodney McCray again?

Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced? What will their optimal batting order be? Is it likely to be adhered to?

As mentioned, no one seems to know what to expect from Yasmany Tomas. While his upside could peak as a Yoenis Cespedes-like hitter, whose home run power will buoy otherwise underwhelming numbers, the downside could be a Dayan Viciedo-esque player who struggles to maintain an average batting line or defend his position. The organization has depth at third base, in Jake Lamb and Brandon Drury, but Lamb struggled in a 37 game emergency call-up last season and may need time in AAA to make adjustments that will allow him to grow into a regular major league player. Lamb could be looking over his shoulder at Drury, who usually ranks a spot ahead or behind Lamb on Diamondbacks’ prospect rankings, but Drury should start the season at AA giving Lamb an opportunity to establish himself at higher levels.

Optimal-ish Batting Order

vs. RHP vs. LHP
A.J. Pollock, CF Aaron Hill, 2B
Paul Goldschmidt, 1B Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
Mark Trumbo, RF Yasmany Tomas, RF
David Peralta, LF A.J. Pollock, CF
Aaron Hill, 2B Mark Trumbo, RF
Yasmany Tomas, 3B Ender Inciarte, LF
Chris Owings, SS Chris Owings, SS
Tuffy Gosewisch, C Tuffy Gosewisch, C

 

Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness? Will the schedule or overall level of competition they face vary widely from the league average?

Chase Field has long provided a friendly environment for hitters. It’s believed that the dry air in Arizona prevents pitches from moving as effectively as they do in other environments. This could be exploited by hitters like Mark Trumbo and, potentially, Yasmany Tomas, who may be able swing for the fences at more at home than on the road. Trumbo, for example, batted for 64 more points of slugging at home than on the road in 2014.

The schedule for 2015 could prove brutal for the Diamondbacks. The NL West not only features one of the most expensive and talented teams in baseball, in the Dodgers, but the resurgent Padres, who stocked their outfield with premier talent over the off-season to complement a strong pitching staff. Interleague play won’t provide the Diamondbacks with any relief, either. With the NL West set to battle the AL West during interleague play, the Diamondbacks will face some of the top contenders in the American League, such as the A’s, Mariners and Angels. This could put extra strain on the Diamondbacks if they end up competing for a wild card spot especially due to the light interleague schedule of the NL Central who will face the worst division in baseball in the AL Central.

Run Prevention: 12 Pitchers Enter, Only 5 Leave

“The Diamondbacks will have 18 starting pitchers in big-league camp when pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 19, manager Chip Hale said. Realistically, 12 could be viable candidates for rotation spots: Chase Anderson, Archie Bradley, Trevor Cahill, Andrew Chafin, [Josh] Collmenter, Rubby De La Rosa, Randall Delgado, [Jeremy] Hellickson, Daniel Hudson, Vidal Nuño, Robbie Ray and Allen Webster.” – Nick Piecoro, azcentral sports

What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned?

At the top of the Diamondbacks’ MLB.com depth chart sits Josh Collmenter. Collmenter pitched just over 170 innings as a starter last season, utilizing a miniscule 1.89 BB/9 rate to off-set an anemic 5.81 K/9. Projection systems see Collmenter as Arizona’s only average starting pitcher for 2015, but there’s plenty of potential in the starting pitching staff.

The Diamondbacks have done more than just sell off players this off-season; they flipped two A-ball prospects for Rays pitcher Jeremy Hellickson. Dave Stewart told the media he sees Hellickson as a potential 2 or 3, which is a strange comment considering Hellickson seemed to rely heavily on Tampa’s slick fielding defenders to keep his ERA in check. With Hellickson in the mix, the Diamondbacks have quite the collection of former top pitching prospects, with 9 of the 12 pitchers mentioned by Piecoro placing in top 100 prospects lists at some point. Unfortunately, the luster may have faded on all but Bradley, whom Stewart has indicated will start the season in AAA. Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster, acquired for Wade Miley, were underwhelming in their first full season as starters in 2014 and Trevor Cahill has struggled with his control in his six seasons of major league ball, pitching to just a 1.75 K/BB ratio. Randall Delgado, acquired in the Justin Upton trade, will likely make the major league team in some role as he has run out of options.

In the bullpen, the Diamondbacks will hope Addison Reed can keep the ball in the park this season. Reed’s fastball velocity has dropped over 2 mph since his first full season with the White Sox. The velocity dip combined with the fact that he finished third worst in home runs allowed per 9 innings among relievers with more than 50 innings pitched in 2014 doesn’t bode well for the young closer. Most of the other bullpen roles will likely be determined once the dust settles on the starting rotation battle royale but veterans like Brad Ziegler and Oliver Perez should have the inside track on jobs for 2015. The left-handed throwing Perez posted the best ERA of his career last season, in spite of moving to the unfriendly confines of Chase Field from the spacious pitcher-loving environment in Seattle. Ziegler, on the other hand, recorded the worst ERA of his career last season. Ziegler, who relies on the deception of his submarine delivery and a high groundball rate to retire hitters, increased his strikeout rate to a career high 7.25 per 9 innings but that was offset by an increase in his walk rate and a jump on batted balls in play by nearly 30 points over 2014. Arizona will need strong contributions from Ziegler and Perez to anchor what could be an otherwise volatile and young bullpen this season.

No matter what four pitchers Stewart and Hale pick to open the season in the rotation with Collmenter, they’ll need a hand from the Diamondbacks’ fielders. Unfortunately for the starting rotation, the Diamondbacks may struggle to field a few positions. The presence of David Peralta and Ender Inciarte will push Mark Trumbo to right-field to open the season. Moving Trumbo, who posted a -5.2 UZR in just 358 innings in left field last season, to a more challenging defensive position probably doesn’t bode well for Diamondbacks pitchers. Peralta finished with a negative UZR in left field last season, as well. If Ender Inciarte is used against left-handed pitching or as a late inning substitution, he’ll provide a much needed boost to the outfield defense as he provided strong defensive contributions in left and center last year according to UZR and dWAR.

Questions abound about the Diamondbacks’ infield defense, as well. Yasmany Tomas may not fare well as a third baseman. As Ben Badler, who covered Tomas extensively leading up to his signing, explained on Twitter:

Aaron Hill rounds out the starting players whom pitchers may not be able to count on. While Hill developed a reputation as a solid defender earlier in his career, amassing around 1 dWAR per season from 2005-12, his defense has started to slip according to advanced metrics in recent seasons.

Thankfully for Diamondbacks pitchers, the team isn’t without some strong defenders. Up-the-middle, the Diamondbacks should be able to rely on Chris Owings and A.J. Pollock. Both gained reputations as players who could stick at their positions while they came up through the minors and they combined to amass 13.4 UZR last season, per Fangraphs.com. They may not be the best shortstop-center field tandem in the game but at least they give the team a solid pair of defenders to build on.

Managerial/Miscellaneous

Is the farm system well-stocked? Have any recent performances or additions changed the perceived standing of that system? Are there players on hand, in the upper levels of the minors, who are ready to take over roles with the parent team in the event of injury? Are there players who make especially good potential trade chips?

The Diamondbacks’ farm system ranks 14th in baseball according to Keith Law’s pre-season rankings. The overall ranking doesn’t do justice to the backlog of high ceiling starting pitching the Diamondbacks have at the moment, though, as Law explained, “I might take their top four starting pitching prospects over anyone else’s in baseball.” Those four prospects, Archie Bradley, Aaron Blair, Braden Shipley and Touki Toussaint, represent pitchers spread out throughout the system, with Bradley a possible call-up in 2015. The backlog of pitchers could make any of the pitchers on the major or minor league rosters a trade target at some point in the near future. With the Diamondbacks appearing to prioritize their younger talent, I would be surprised to see them deal from the younger end of the spectrum at this point, though.

As mentioned earlier, Jake Lamb could play third base for the Diamondbacks this season if Tomas moves to the outfield. Nick Ahmed, Cliff Pennington, Jordan Pacheco and Nick Punto provide infield depth if the team faces a rash of injuries again but there is little impact infield depth beyond Lamb in the upper minors or on the bench.

On a brighter note, the Diamondbacks added an important weapon toward developing their farm system this off-season. When scouting director Ray Montgomery left for a larger role in Toronto, the Diamondbacks lured Deric Ladnier, who was scouting director for the Royals until 2010, away from Washington. Ladnier, who selected Zack Greinke, Alex Gordon, and many of the core 2014 players for the Royals, will get the chance to strike gold again in 2015 when the Diamondbacks pick first in the amateur draft.

Speaking of injury, who is particularly fragile, or coming off off-season surgery that might impact their season? How deep is the team at the positions where they have injury-prone players?

After last season, it’s tempting to give the entire Diamondbacks’ roster a mulligan on injuries. The spotlight could be on Daniel Hudson in 2015, in regard to injuries. Hudson did not pitch in a major league game in more than two years due to back-to-back Tommy John surgeries, but could pitch in the bullpen in 2015. Hudson posted a 111 ERA+ over 360 innings in his career prior to exiting for the first surgery but was nine starts into a season that saw him post a 7.35 ERA when he headed to his first surgery.

Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away? Is their current course the most advisable one? Do they have payroll flexibility, either to make another addition before the season begins or to supplement the roster as needed during the campaign?

While the Diamondbacks may be holding on to Mark Trumbo and Aaron Hill in order to allow them to rebuild value, they appear to be shooting mostly to rebuild their farm system right now. The team traded catch-framing savant Miguel Montero to the Cubs and Didi Gregorius to the Yankees for minor league prospects this off-season. Saving money by trading Montero also allowed them to lower their payroll, as gm Dave Stewart stated that he wanted to keep it under $100 million.

What move (or moves) should they make as soon as possible, in order to bring their long-term goals into focus (without setting them back in regard to their short-term ones)? Make a recommendation.

The Diamondbacks are dealing with a Kevin Towers-sized hangover. Under Towers, cost-controlled players with good-to-great ceilings, like Adam Eaton, Tyler Skaggs, and Trevor Bauer, were traded for players with questionable value, like Didi Gregorius and Mark Trumbo. If the organization wants to contend any time in the future without adding a lot to their payroll, they need to make the most of their in-house talent. The next evolution for the organization appears to be addressing their use of analytics. Longtime La Russa friend Dr. Ed Lewis was hired this off-season to head their analytics department. This seems like an odd choice as Lewis is a scientist with a background in stock market analytical work rather than someone with a strong baseball analytics background, but would anyone question this decision if it were made by a statistically progressive team like the Astros or Rays?

What’s likely to happen? Will the composition of the team change? Will they compete? Will they win anything? Make a prediction or two, as specific or as vague as you would like, but make a prediction.

If everything comes together for this team, I see an outside chance they could compete for the lesser wild card spot in 2015. That would require rebound seasons from certain players as well as other players establishing 2014 was a floor for their potential rather than a fluke. That also does not account for potential trade targets like Aaron Hill or Mark Trumbo, if they get off to a hot start but the team as a whole does not end up in contention. PECOTA sees the Diamondbacks as a 74-win team, but that includes certain players, like Tomas and Trumbo, playing a significant amount of time at positions different from those the front office has indicated. In this writer’s opinion, they have a better team than the Phillies and Rockies and more potential than a team like the Braves, who are relying on veterans to carry the team. Regardless of the final win total, I see them finishing fourth in the NL West and 12th out of the 15 teams in the National League

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