Let’s take a Quantum Leap for a moment. I’ll be Al Calavicci to your Dr. Sam Beckett. We materialize in the dry heat of the desert. As I check my handlink, I inform you that we are somewhere near Phoenix, Arizona. You have leapt into the body of Dave Stewart, former World Series MVP and current general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The year is 2014. The handilink also informs us that you have these current tools at your disposal:

  1. Three all-star caliber or better players in catcher Miguel Montero, center fielder A.J. Pollock, and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt
  2. An upper tier farm system, according to baseball publications of this era
  3. A dozen or so pitchers ready to contend for the 2015 starting rotation including recent top pitching prospect Archie Bradley

Unfortunately for you, the handlink also points out that you’re working against the following constraints:

  1. A nearly maxed out payroll
  2. Several dead-weight veterans locked into contracts for 2015: Aaron Hill, Cody Ross, Trevor Cahill, Mark Trumbo, and Bronson Arroyo
  3. A meddling owner who alienated fans and players with his criticism of two of the team’s top African-American players

The pragmatic person, upon learning this information, would most likely make the some of the following logical decisions:

  1. Find a way to cut the dead weight while minimizing the impact on the payroll and organization
  2. Use the pitching surplus to supplement the major league team and bolster an already strong minor league system
  3. Continue to build around your strong core of controlled players

And if you did that, you’d almost completely rewrite the recent history of the Diamondbacks as we know it.

Ari Record wRC+ SP ERA- RP ERA- DRS UZR BsR Pay – $M
2013 .500 (16) 93 (19) 106 (19) 90 (13) 86 (2) 51 (2) -19 (29) 91 (19)
2014 .395 (30) 84 (28) 116 (28) 103 (23) 21 (10) -4 (18) 1 (14) 108 (17)
2015 .418 (18) 96 (17) 107 (19) 87 (10) 71 (1) 24 (3) 13 (3) 77 (28)

 

What David Stewart and the Diamondbacks’ front office did in the time between the ends of the 2014 and 2015 season flies in the face of the strategies of most of their successful contemporaries. Before the season began, they further complicated their subpar and crowded rotation by trading for Jeremy Hellickson. They later took a public flogging for what seemed like a miserly strategy that led them to dump Montero to the Cubs for a couple fringe prospects, this coming not long after signing Yasmany Tomas to a 68.5 million dollar deal. As the season opened, they again drew the ire of baseball pundits by sending a recent first round draft pick to the Braves in order to get the Braves to take on all of Bronson Arroyo’s remaining contract. In spite of these moves, the Diamondbacks flourished in many ways in 2015.

Rookie manager Chip Hale emerged as a manager of the year candidate by the season’s end. Not only did the Diamondbacks far surpass statistical and pundit expectations, but they did so while successfully stealing bases at a crisp rate of 75%. They finished second in team steals only to the Reds, for whom Billy Hamilton swiped 57 bases, over 40% of the teams’ total. Hale also balanced a roster that struggled with key injuries to Jake Lamb and Archie Bradly. He never found a reliable replacement at third base but he showed he was willing to try different players at the hot corner by giving Yasmany Tomas an opportunity to show if he could handle the position as well as prospect Brandon Drury. Other than the times he was seemingly forced to try to play Tomas at third, he didn’t try to force square pegs into round holes by playing the one dimensional duo of Yasmany Tomas and Mark Trumbo in the field. He even demonstrated the ability to ask the right questions when it came to lineup construction and platooning their versatile role players, even if he didn’t always arrive at the right answer.

The front office proved there might really be some method to their madness. Not only did their patience with Trumbo and their catching situation pay off but infielder Phil Gosselin, the player received for Arroyo and Toussaint, returned from the broken hand he suffered with the Braves to hit .303/.382/.545 with 6 home runs in September.

Of course, the Diamondbacks success wasn’t completely fueled by front office luck and managerial tinkering. Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock combined for 16.2 bWAR; pretty good for a player Baseball Prospectus once considered a “budget” first round pick and the guy selected 8 rounds after him. Ender Inciarte posted 5.4 WAR on the strength of phenomenal right field defense and an above-average bat. David Peralta continued to defy odds as the former pitcher/independent league player contributed a 138 wRC+. The catching tandem that fell into the team’s lap even combined for 2.2 WAR. And the infield comprised of ¾ glove-first players helped the team hold opposing hitters to the 5th-worst opposing BABIP in the NL in spite of the fact that their pitching staff surrendered the 3rd-worst hard-hit ball rate in the league.

If I’ve spent too much time in the past for a 2016 preview, it’s only to remind you that the Diamondbacks are not to be taken lightly, even if statistical projections don’t see them taking the league by storm this season.

What Lies Ahead

It would be easy to pass off the 2016 Diamondbacks as a team of stars and scrubs. The Diamondbacks grabbed headlines when they signed Zack Greinke to a 6 year deal that includes opt-outs and a record $34.3 million AAV. The well-chronicled deal came together in a matter of hours when ownership decided to sign Greinke in what reads like a fit of mania. It’s no surprise the former Cy Young winner projects to lead the team’s pitchers in WAR by a large margin in 2016: Greinke does everything well. If voters paid more attention to stats pitchers can control, they might have even awarded him the Cy Young in 2015. While Arizona’s ballpark is far from a pitcher’s dream park, Greinke is a student of the game who wouldn’t surprise anyone if he is able to augment his strategy to fit the Diamondbacks’ slick fielding infield.

The almost-Cy Young Greinke joins a roster that features the near-MVP in the NL last season, Paul Goldschmidt. Most projection engines see Goldschmidt slipping back to being merely very good in 2016 but it’s always helpful to keep in mind that it’s pretty hard to project a player to top a career year (even if he’s Mike Trout). When A.J. Pollock burst onto the stage in 2014 only to see his season disrupted by an injury, it was hard to say if he could continue to slug, steal, and defend his way to an 8 bWAR per 600 PA pace. While he fell short in 2015, the Diamondbacks certainly didn’t mind his 20 HR, 39 steal, 132 wRC+ season. While projections see Pollock falling back to simply a slightly above-average wRC+ this season, it’s easy to understand since he posted poor stats in his first two seasons in the majors.

Greinke, Goldschmidt and Pollock: those are the three names everyone knows will lead the Diamondbacks but they’re far from the only names you should know entering this season. David Peralta has reportedly been told he’ll play every day in 2016. That means more plate appearances against left-handed pitching, which he’s struggled against so far in his career. He won’t be able to hide behind the carefully selected platoons that helped him achieve rookie of the year consideration in 2014 or, when healthy, helped the Diamondbacks start one of the most feared 1-4 lineups in baseball last season. It’s tough to improve against left handed pitchers if you never face them, though, so it may be too soon to write-off Peralta as a player needing a platoon partner just yet.

The rest of the Diamondbacks’ starting lineup presents somewhat of an enigma, beginning with the 68 million dollar man, Yasmany Tomas. When the Diamondbacks signed Tomas, it drew criticism from insiders who couldn’t imagine him playing 3rd base in the majors and worried that his subpar bat-speed would prevent him from contributing to a major league lineup. He didn’t live up to his contract in 2015, batting just .273/.305/.401 with 9 home runs in 426 plate appearances. He fared poorly in right field and at third base, too, leading to a -1.3 WAR. Projections don’t paint a pretty picture for Tomas in 2016 as ZiPS, Steamer, and Pecota all see him as a below-average hitter. The Cuban defector is slated to open the season as the Diamondbacks left-fielder, pushing him as far down the defensive spectrum as the team’s roster allows, but he’ll need to make big adjustments at the plate for the team to keep stride with their competitors this year.

On the left side of the infield, no one seems to know who will open the season at shortstop in Arizona. Nick Ahmed, acquired from the Braves as part of the Justin Upton trade by the previous front office, smote left-handed pitching last season to the tune of a 116 OPS+ in limited plate appearances but that wasn’t enough to lift his anemic overall 67 OPS+. His glovework was good enough to lift his WAR to 2.5 or 1.7, though, depending on if you’re checking Baseball Reference or Fangraphs. Ahmed may face competition from once-promising prospect Jean Segura, though. The Diamondbacks gave up fringe prospects to acquire Segura, so it seems like they’re betting on him to hone his natural speed and athleticism before long. At the very least, they won’t give up much in the way of defense as Segura has proved himself capable of holding down the shortstop position so far in his career according to UZR, and his speed plays on the basepaths.

Chris Owings is another returning starter who could face competition for his starting spot. Owings earned high marks for his defense from advanced metrics in his first two seasons at the keystone but took a significant step back last season according to UZR. Phil Gosselin’s 2015 September performance means he’s earned the chance to unseat Owings.

Gosselin also plays third base but that position appears to be Jake Lamb’s to lose. Another glove-first infielder, Lamb has yet to post an above-average offensive line but he did miss several weeks last season with a fracture to his foot so we’re still speaking in relatively small samples about his offensive stats.

Behind the plate, Welington Castillo will start the season with the starting catching job. Castillo, who hit .255./.317/.496 after joining the Diamondbacks, has hovered around league average as a hitter, according to OPS+ and wRC+. Catcher framing metrics aren’t high on Castillo nor are they a big fan of his backup, Tuffy Gosewisch.

We could also see a couple young players try to push their way onto the roster. Socrates Brito hit well with the major league team last season but was named only the 25th-best center field prospect in baseball this off-season by Baseball America. The realistic ceiling doesn’t look high according to the publication. The player everyone wants to see shine is Pete O’Brien, though. O’Brien got a cup of coffee last season but he’ll need to learn to play a position competently before he can play everyday in the majors.

The Zack Greinke signing wasn’t the only shocking pitching move the Diamondbacks pulled off this off-season. They made waves again when they sent Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson (the top pick in the 2015 amateur draft), and top pitching prospect Aaron Blair to the Braves for Shelby Miller. Miller doesn’t project particularly well in Chase Field. With a strikeout to walk ratio just slightly above 2, Miller has maintained an above-average era largely by giving up only a .274 BABIP over his career, meaning his peripherals don’t predict sustainable success. As a pitcher who relies largely on his fastball, it will be interesting to see how Miller fares in the dry Arizona air. He did increase the vertical drop of his change-up quite a bit last season, though, and his secondary pitches may be even more important this season.

Depth Chart aside, Patrick Corbin may end up the real #2 starter in the Diamondbacks’ rotation. After returning from Tommy John surgery, Corbin looked great last season. He struck out 4.5 batters for every walk, his fastball velocity ticked up a bit, and he posted a career best 3.27 xFIP. As things stand, Rubby De La Rosa and Robbie Ray appear to be on track to round out the Diamondbacks’ rotation in the early season. De La Rosa is the kind of post-hype player people have been waiting to see break out for years. He can get swings and misses with his pitches and is effective against right handed batters but he’s terrible against lefties who lit him up for a .404 .wOBA last year. Ray, on the other hand, turned a corner with the Diamondbacks last season after arriving from the Tigers in a 3-team trade by adding velocity to his fastball and striking out over 8 batters per 9 innings.

Look for Braden Shipley, the one top pitching prospect the Diamondbacks have left, to make his debut this season. Shipley’s selection of pitches project to be solid major league offerings but he may need to sharpen his control and add some movement to his fastball if he’s going to succeed. Archie Bradley will also look to make his return this season. Bradley looked like he was off to a nice start before a line drive to the head seemed to lead to everything unraveling for him.

In the bullpen, the Diamondbacks will turn again to sandwich artist Brad Ziegler. At 35 years of age last season, he pitched his way to a 1.85 ERA. Time will tell if his delivery will continue to keep him one step ahead of the youngsters. Tyler Clippard represents the Diamondbacks’ only non-Greinke major league signing this off-season. As he enters his age-31 season, it will be interesting to see if he shows signs of any wear-and-tear. Clippard has pitched at least 70 innings of relief every season since 2010.

The rest of the Diamondbacks bullpen is far from settled but it appears that Daniel Hudson will play a late-inning role. Hudson returned from a horrific run of injuries and setbacks that saw him miss nearly 2 years of his career before pitching extremely well in relief last season. Watch for Silvino Bracho to make a run at some high leverage innings as well. The Venezuelan fireballer gave up just a 1.41 ERA in his first 12 innings in the majors and struck out over 12 batters per 9 innings in the minors.

While it may not look like the Diamondbacks have a very exciting pitching staff, and many projection engines agree that they won’t be a top tier staff, there does appear to be some upside. This is a pitching staff that, if nothing else, seems to fit well with the mysterious outlook for their position players. This is a young, volatile team with the chance to exceed all expectations again but probably has equal odds of disintegrating into a million pieces. The only way we will know for sure is to open the Arizona box.

 

Check out Effectively Wild‘s season previews and the schedule of our own companion previews.

2013-15 team stats via FanGraphs. Salaries via Spotrac. Prospect evaluations via Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, and Fangraphs.

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