Going into the 2016 season, the Arizona Diamondbacks were one of the hot picks to take that next step and make the playoffs. They were 79-83 in 2015, and then they added starting pitcher Zack Greinke, who was supposed to be the team’s ace coming off a near Cy Young 2015 season. Then they traded for Shelby Miller, who was supposed to solidify the team’s rotation as one of the best in the league. Then they traded for Jean Segura, who they were hoping would return to his 2013 success. All of this was supposed to be adding to a strong core of players – Paul Goldschmidt, David Peralta and A.J. Pollock – coming off their age-27 seasons. The only problem for the 2016 Diamondbacks is almost none of what was supposed to happen actually happened.
Greinke had his worst season in a decade with a 4.37 ERA and 4.12 FIP and spent time on the disabled list. Miller had a 6.24 ERA in 100 innings and was demoted to the minors less than a year after Arizona traded their most recent first-round pick, the No. 1 overall pick, Dansby Swanson, plus a solid major-league outfielder, Ender Inciarte, for him. Paul Goldschmidt was still Paul Goldschmidt (24 home runs, 32 stolen bases and 110 walks), but he was more like 2014 Paul Goldschmidt than 2015 Paul Goldschmidt. After posting a .312/.371/.522 slashline in 2015, Peralta hit the DL three times and played in only 48 games, posting underwhelming numbers. To top it off, Pollock fractured his right elbow in spring training, only playing in 12 games at the end of the season. Outside of Segura’s successful 2016 campaign (.319/.368/.499), none of the Diamondbacks’ moves in the offseason panned out.
The Diamondbacks finished 69-93, which led to the firing of general manager Dave Stewart and manager Chip Hale. The 2017 PECOTA projections put the now Torey Lovullo-led Diamondbacks third in the National League West at 77-85. 2016 was obviously an unlucky season for the D-backs, so here’s a more optimistic outlook: a recipe for how they can get one of the two wildcard spots in 2017.
Step 1: Zack Greinke returns to form
Greinke wasn’t bad last season. Actually, if he didn’t get hurt, he would’ve had a pretty good season by normal standards. But when you sign a six-year 206.5-million dollar contract, the expectations are anything but normal.
Greinke, who last season posted his worst peripherals since his early-20s, still showed glimpses of his 2015-self last season. The injury interrupted his best form of the season, as Greinke told Steve Gilbert of MLB.com after a seven-start winning streak with a 1.90 ERA across May and June:
“It was really good,” Greinke said. “Then I got hurt and then I didn’t do that good when I came back. I kind of didn’t pitch as good as I probably could have or should have.”
Last season, Greinke threw only 158.2 innings, which is the lowest innings total for the righty since 2008, due to a midseason oblique strain and late-season shoulder stiffness. Greinke shouldn’t be expected to pitch like he did in 2015 – 19-3, 1.66 ERA, 0.844 WHIP – but for the money they’re paying him, he needs to return to the level of his first two seasons with LA (around a 2.75 ERA and 3.00 FIP).
A possible reason for Greinke’s struggles last season was his defense, which leads into the next step in the recipe…
Step 2: Improve the defense
The new management has already begun this step with non-tendering of last year’s catcher Wellington Castillo and signing of Jeff Mathis. Castillo was one of the worst framing catchers last season, according to Baseball Prospectus, while Mathis was one of the best. In 2016, Mathis was fourth in MLB in Called Strikes Above Average. The move is clearly defense-focused, as what Mathis can do with the glove he can’t do with the bat. The 33-year-old owns an anemic career 53 OPS+, but according to Gilbert, the plan is for Mathis to catch 60 games in 2017.
The problem for Arizona defensively won’t be who the backstop is for the 60 games Mathis is catching, but rather the 102 he isn’t. Along with Mathis, the D-backs signed another catcher in his mid-30s in Chris Iannetta, who has been an offense-first catcher in his career, but who has also recently posted back-to-back sub-80 OPS+ seasons to go along with horrendous catcher metrics. Last season’s back-up, Chris Herrmann, could see time throughout the season as well. Even if the other catchers aren’t much of an improvement defensively on Castillo, the 60 games Mathis contributes behind the dish should give the pitching staff a little more help than last season.
After owning the second-best defensive outfield in 2015, according to Defensive Runs Saved, the outfield became 56 runs worse in 2016 – good for 25th-best in the league, as noted by Mike Petriello at MLB.com. Other than giving up Inciarte – one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball – to the Braves in the Shelby Miller deal, it wasn’t all Arizona’s fault, which brings us to the next step…
Step 3: A healthy outfield
Health is always a major factor in every team’s success in any given season. Last season, the D-backs were counting on Pollock and Peralta to continue their success at age-27 from 2015, but neither player truly got that opportunity.
Left fielder Yasmany Tomas posted horrifically bad numbers in the outfield last season (-35 DRS) – his first full campaign in the outfield. Assuming his defense can only improve, the D-backs are going to need all of the defense they can get out of Pollock, the center fielder who will be catching a lot of balls in the left-centerfield gap this season. In 2015, Pollock saved 15 runs for the star-studded D-backs outfield and won a Gold Glove. Peralta has been a steadily average defensive outfielder in his career, and compared to Mark Trumbo’s right-field play in part of 2015 and the cluster of infielders-turned-outfielders out there last season, Peralta will be welcomed with open arms by Arizona pitchers.
Offensively, Peralta was heading into 2016 with a head of steam, building off an impressive rookie campaign in 2014 with a 137 OPS+ in 2015. Pollock also enjoyed the best season of his career in 2015, hitting 39 doubles and 20 home runs while also snagging 39 bases. The health and production of Arizona’s center fielder and right fielder will be instrumental to the team’s success, which transitions us to the infield…
Step 4: Young infield takes next step
Outside of Goldschmidt, who is still only entering his age-29 season, the infield for the D-backs is very young, like most of the team. Third baseman Jake Lamb is entering his age-26 season, while second baseman Brandon Drury is 24. Chris Owings (25) and Nick Ahmed (soon to be 27) are both currently competing for the shortstop spot in spring training.
After putting up a 92 OPS+ in 2015 with only six home runs in 390 plate appearances, Lamb was second on the Diamondbacks in home runs in 2016 with 29. Drury played in 134 games at five different positions and ended the season with a 103 OPS+. The season was quite streaky for the 23-year-old, and according to Nick Piecoro of The Arizona Republic he wasn’t thrilled about that aspect of his game.
“I didn’t think it was that good of a season,” he said. “I just got hot a couple of times.”
In some ways, he is right. He hit .350 for a 25-game stretch spanning mid-April to mid-May, then was hot again for the final six weeks, when he hit .362 in his final 35 games, including launching an opposite-field homer in his final at-bat of the season on Oct. 2. He hit .208 the rest of the season, finishing with a .282 average and 16 homers.
In his first season of everyday play, Owings, a relatively good defender, owned a 57 OPS+ with a 26.1 percent strikeout rate in 2015 before bouncing back in 2016 with an 89 OPS+ and 18.7 percent strikeout rate while playing multiple positions with good speed (11 triples and 21 stolen bases in 2016). Ahmed was the only one of the four players to take a step back in 2016. In 2015, Ahmed posted a 2.5 bWAR, almost solely due to his defense, to make up for his 69 OPS+. Last season, Ahmed’s offense couldn’t balance out his defense in the 90 games he played, as he slashed an abysmal .218/.265/.299. Recent acquisition Ketel Marte will also be in the mix, if not to start the season, then certainly at some point in 2017. Marte failed to build on a promising rookie campaign with a disappointing .610 OPS as the Mariners’ shortstop in 2016, but he is still only 23 and has both batting average and speed upside.
If the D-backs can find a solid regular shortstop out of those three and Drury and Lamb can prove to be more consistent, the infield starts to look like a strong unit.
Now back to the pitching…
Step 5: Three of these five things happen for the starting rotation.
- Taijuan Walker reaches his potential. After acquiring Walker in the Jean Segura trade, the D-backs hope the 24-year-old does in Arizona what he was expected to in Seattle, which is be a top-of-the-line starting pitcher. Last season, Walker posted a 4.99 FIP mostly due to a 1.8 HR/9 while pitching in the pitcher-friendly confines of Safeco Park.
- Robbie Ray strikes out 11 per nine again. Read this piece by Sam Miller of ESPN, and you won’t really know how well Ray threw last season, but if the 25-year-old lefty posts another crazy strikeout year like he did in 2016, it’s hard to imagine his ERA being near 5 again, especially with an improved D-backs defense.
- Patrick Corbin returns to what he was pre-injury. Corbin was an All-Star in 2013, owning a 3.41 ERA and 3.43 FIP in 208.1 innings pitched as only a 23-year-old. The lefty had to miss the next season due to a torn ulnar collateral ligament, which required him to undergo Tommy John surgery. Corbin looked like himself in his 85 innings in 2015, but last season he scuffled to a 5.15 ERA, walking nearly four batters per nine and giving up more than 10 hits per nine.
- Shelby Miller is what they traded for. Yes, the Shelby Miller trade was bad. OK, it was horrible. Maybe it was the worst trade ever. But that doesn’t mean he can’t still be a good pitcher for the D-backs this season. In his three seasons before joining Arizona, Miller owned a 3.27 ERA with St. Louis and Atlanta.
- Archie Bradley reaches his potential. This one is more of a stretch than the others, but a former first round pick in the 2011 draft, Bradley ranked as high as No. 9 on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects List before the 2014 season. Last season, Bradley struggled with a 5.02 ERA, but the righty’s FIP was a promising 4.10, as he struck out 9.1 batters per nine.
While there are a lot of ifs in the D-backs rotation, the upside is promising. No one would be shocked if Step 1 (Greinke returning to form) or any of these five things happened. All of them happening is obviously unlikely, but three of the five is possible. Arizona has six starting pitchers for five spots, unless they go the unconventional route with a six-man rotation.
If everything in the recipe happens, the D-backs will make the playoffs. The likelihood of anything in that recipe happening is high, but all of it happening this season is probably farfetched. While the ceiling may be a wild-card berth, the Diamondbacks will prove PECOTA’s 77-85 prediction right.Next post: 2017 Season Preview Series: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
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