Playing Pepper 2014: Arizona Diamondbacks

Since 2009, one of the traditions of the spring has been the Playing Pepper series.  I ask a number of questions of blogs–some in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, some not–that cover the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball.  This year, not only is my son involved–he and I came up with the last question together–but the series is also brought to you by Purpose, Perseverance and Power Arms, the United Cardinal Bloggers annual publication.  Only $2.99 at the Kindle store, so get yours today!  But first, get out the bats and gloves and let’s play some pepper.

Arizona Diamondbacks
81-81, second in the NL West

While the Diamondbacks finished right at .500 for the second straight year, it’s not like 2013 was completely without its moments.  As of the end of June, the Diamondbacks sat two games in front of the Rockies for the divisional crown.  If the Dodgers hadn’t played like a team possessed over the second half of the season, there’s the possibility that Arizona could have snuck into October.

That didn’t happen, though, and now the Diamondbacks, led by their MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt, have to find a way to take down those free-spending Dodgers from a state over.  To talk about that, we’ve got a fine selection of Snakes bloggers to give us their opinion on the matter.  Today, we have:

All of these blogs should be bookmarked if you want to keep up with what’s happening out west and, it goes without saying, should be part of your Twitter feed.

C70: How would you grade the offseason?

AS: I’d give it a D+. To me, none of the moves made really seemed to move the needle much. We swapped one outfielder (Adam Eaton) for another (Mark Trumbo), of questionably better overall value, depleted out pitching depth by also trading away Tyler Skaggs and David Holmberg, then replenished it by signed Bronson Arroyo. If this team is going to compete in 2014, I think the spark is going to be the result of better production from the existing players, rather than the new ones.

DD: Until this past week I would have been forced to give the Diamondbacks an incomplete as their grade for the off-season. After back-to-back seasons of going .500 it is obvious that changes needed to be made. General Manager Kevin Towers suggested at the end of 2013 that he wanted to make several changes to the club including upgrading the starting pitching and finding a power bat to protect Paul Goldschmidt.

What we didn’t realize was that he really meant he would trade away several young players to acquire an outfielder that on paper looks a little less talented than the outfielder he traded to the Atlanta Braves a year before (Justin Upton). The power numbers for Mark Trumbo should get a boost in the rarified air of Chase Field but his tendency to strike out brings back nightmares from the Mark Reynolds era. While many are worried about Trumbo’s defense in left field they need to remember that Diamondbacks legend Luis Gonzalez was not exactly a gold glove caliber fielder and he did quite well in left.

From a pitching upgrade perspective, I’m just not sure Bronson Arroyo was the answer anyone would have come up with when thinking of how the Diamondbacks could become better. I like Arroyo’s consistency and his ability to eat innings. With Patrick Corbin and Wade Miley still fairly young having an inning eater like Arroyo will pay dividends. They only question is whether he will be able to keep the ball down. Chase Field has the ability to make lazy fly balls reach the stands. Overall this off-season seems to be a an exercise in addition by subtraction.

Having Trumbo, Arroyo, and closer Addison Reed could help the Diamondbacks record a winning season for the first time in three years but the amount of young talent they gave up this off-season (Adam Eaton, Matt Davidson, David Holmberg, Tyler Skaggs) could come back to haunt them.

As of right now I would give the Diamondbacks a “C” which seems somewhat appropriate since they have been the definition of “average” the last two years.

VS: I will give the offseason a B. Though I think Mark Trumbo is a pretty good acquisition, I don’t like giving up Tyler Skaggs. I have had the feeling since the Summer they were looking to deal him for reasons I will never understand. Getting Addison Reed for Matt Davidson made sense as the bullpen was a train wreck last season and Davidson wasn’t going to get much playing time with Martin Prado signed for another three seasons. I like the Bronson Arroyo signing because of his dependability and that they didn’t have to give him a big contract (two years and an option).

C70: Is Paul Goldschmidt going to be a legitimate MVP candidate going forward or was last year a career year?

AS: He’s legit. Goldschmidt has been surpassing everyone’s expectations, at just about every level of baseball since he was drafted, and last year was no exception. There won’t be the same “shock value” as he had in 2013, but he’ll combine power, solid defense, plate discipline and even speed on the basepaths. He’s good at just about every aspect of the game – and if he isn’t, you can be assured he’ll work tirelessly to improve it. Is it too much of a stretch to say that he could well be the best position player we’ve ever developed?

DD: I’ll admit, I did not buy into the Paul Goldschmidt hype when he was coming through the Diamondbacks farm system. His monster power numbers were impressive but you could always justify that by the fact that he may just be overpowering the minor league arms he was facing. On paper Goldschmidt seemed to be a below average fielder with the ability to hit.

When Goldschmidt reached the major league level I had an opportunity to watch him as he prepared for the season and for each game. I came away extremely impressed with his work effort and his ability to make adjustments. There were days where he would stay long hours taking ground balls at first base and peppering anyone who would listen asking questions to make himself better.

The power numbers with the bat were there and continue to improve. What is more impressive is that he takes a lot of pride in all aspects of his game. When manager Kirk Gibson suggested in Spring Training that he wanted his team to be better base runners, Goldschmidt worked on stealing and taking an extra base. That’s not something you see a lot of from a young player so that was refreshing.

I have now been won over and expect Goldschmidt to continue to improve. I don’t think we have seen his best yet. The addition of Mark Trumbo will help give Goldschmidt some protection in the line up and if that is the case look for him to put up some amazing numbers. For the first time in a very long time the Arizona Diamondbacks have a legitimate superstar in the making though you would never know it by how humble and down-to-earth he is.

VS: Goldy will be an MVP candidate for the next seven years. As far as 2013 being a career year, it will be awfully hard to lead the league in home runs, RBI’s, Slugging and OPS in the same season again. That being said, he is only 26 and is just entering his prime. It is not hard to imagine him outing up similar stats in 2014. Teams can’t say, “well, we know the book on him now, he just snuck up on us last year” because he already had 750 Major League plate appearances before 2013. Whatever adjustments come Goldy’s way this season will be negated by the work he will put in to defeat those adjustments.

C70: Which roster battle will be the most intriguing during spring training?

AS: The shortstop battle will be interesting, with two young players fighting it out. Didi Gregorius is the incumbent, and so likely starts as the favorite, but Chris Owings performed very well in his September debut, and is the better offensive hitter. However, both have flaws in their game as well: Gregorius struggles against left-handed hitters, while Owings’ walk-rate in the minor-leagues was extremely low. Which one shows they can do a better job of mitigating those weaknesses is perhaps as big as factor as the more positive aspects of their spring training.

DD: If you would have asked me a week ago I would have said the battle for the fifth starter would be the battle I was most looking forward to in Spring Training. Randall Delgado has been inconsistent but he seemed destined to have a good spring to secure the fifth starter job. Of course all eyes will be on Archie Bradley who is the gem of the Diamondbacks farm system and looks to be worth the hype being placed on his broad shoulders. With the signing of Bronson Arroyo there seems to be less of a battle with the starting rotation relatively set with Arroyo, Patrick Corbin, Wade Miley, Trevor Cahill, and Brandon McCarthy. The question now becomes can Delgado become a long reliever or will he be traded since he is out of options. My gut feel is they will find a spot in the bullpen especially with the rather delicate health of McCarthy and Cahill last season. Bradley will likely be sent to the minor leagues for a little more seasoning. Given the past history of McCarthy’s health the Diamondbacks could bring him up during the year.

With the pitching staff relatively set the most intriguing battle will be at Shortstop between Didi Gregorius and PCL MVP Chris Owings. There is no doubt that Gregorius is amazing defensively. The question will be can his bat be even average to keep him as the starter. Owings is a much better hitter (or at least he has seemed to be in the short time he is been in the big leagues). Like Goldschmidt before him, Owings is touted as an average to slightly below average fielder with his bat keeping him in the line-up. We heard something similar with another shortstop prospect the Diamondbacks had. His name was Stephen Drew and he did ok for himself.

In the end I expect to see Gregorius win the starting job and Owings will be sent back to Triple-A Reno which will be unfortunate since I don’t think he has anything else to prove at that level. Kevin Towers has already said he cannot see a scenario where he would keep both Gregorius and Owings on the 25-man roster.

VS: Shortstop will be interesting but I think the question of who stays in the rotation provides the most intrigue. The givens are Patrick Corbin, Wade Miley and Brandon Arroyo. I know others want to include Trevor Cahill as a given, particularly since the team gave up Jarrod Parker for him but I won’t. So now you have Cahill, Brandon McCarthy, Randall Delgado and Archie Bradley fighting it out for the final two spots. Bradley is the big rookie who has never pitched above Double A but GM Kevin Towers has been on record stating that if he is one of the best five in spring, he will stick with the team.

C70: What rookie, if any, will make the most impact on the team in 2014?

AS: Everyone is waiting for the arrival of Archie Bradley, who has been named the best pitching prospect in all of the minors. There’s no doubt he will have an impact, but the signing of Arroyo certainly reduces the need to rush Bradley up – he’s likely seventh on our overall rotation depth chart, behind Randall Delgado. The team may well try to delay Archie’s arrival for a bit, so his service clock starts later, but it’s likely that the eventual decision will be, to some extent, forced by injuries to those higher up the chain. We have had some disappointments – perhaps expecting too much? – with the performance of top-rated prospects recently, e.g. Tyler Skaggs, Trevor Bauer, so from a fan perspective, a lot is riding on Bradley.

DD: Every year it seems to be the same answer; the Diamondbacks most impactful rookie will likely be a pitcher. Two years ago a relatively under-valued Wade Miley went from potentially battling for a fifth starter roster spot to become an all-star. Last year going into Spring Training the battle was again around the fifth starter spot. Everyone expected Tyler Skaggs to win the job with Randall Delgado nipping at his heels. Instead it was Patrick Corbin who ran away with the spot and ended up representing the Diamondbacks along with Paul Goldschmidt at the All-Star game.

So this year it should not be a surprise if the Diamondbacks get their biggest impact from an arm down on the farm. What may be a surprise is that the player might not make the team out of Spring Training. Archie Bradley will likely start the season in Reno but given the injury history of McCarthy and others look to see Bradley see action at the major league level. When he arrives it will difficult for the Diamondbacks to send him back down; he just looks that good.

VS: Archie Bradley. Even if he doesn’t make the team out of Spring Training, he will be in Arizona early enough in the season to make a difference. The D’backs used nine starting pitchers last year so you know that he will be either the first or second guy to get a shot if one of the starting five goes down with injury or ineffectiveness. MLB.com has him ranked as the top-ranked pitching prospect in all of baseball right now. I think that says a lot.

C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

AS: 82-80, and probably second. The Dodgers, much as it pains me to say it, are clear favorites: once they got their house in order, they were practically unstoppable, and there’s little reason to expect much less in 2014. The rest of the division are in more or less rebuild mode, except for the Giants, who are in denial mode, apparently believing 2012 was the fluke, rather than last year. The Padres could be a dark horse, with a nice collection of young prospects, but I think they’re still at least another season away from contending.

DD: If at the end of the season we look at the standings and the Diamondbacks finish at 81-81 I may have to try and drown myself in the Chase Field pool. I’m not sure the fan base could deal with another “average” season. I think Bill Murray said it best in the movie Groundhog Day, “Anything different is good”.

I am going to go out on a limb and predict the Diamondbacks will go 86-76 and finish second in the division. Of course I also predicted that the Mayans were right and the world would end in 2012. I wasn’t that far off, the Diamondbacks missed the playoffs that season so it just felt like the world had ended.

VS: The only thing I will guarantee is that they will not finish 81-81 for a third straight season unless they have become the baseball version of the Dallas Cowboys. The NL West is arguably the toughest division in baseball. The D’backs held onto first place last year for over two months but that was mainly because the rest of the teams were playing so poorly. I do think this club has the ability to get to 90 wins, it’s just a matter of is that good enough to win the division. The Dodgers won it last year with 92 victories but they were also ten games under .500 at one point. My first thought when I looked at this question was they will finish second and compete for a Wild Card. I will stick with that.

C70: Which player from your team do you most enjoy watching?

AS: The obvious answer would be Goldschmidt, but I think my favorite is probably the master of the double-play, Brad Ziegler. There’s nothing quite so amusing as seeing the opposition mount a serious threat, only for Ziegler to come in and generate groundball after groundball, to snuff out the rally. I like watching submarine pitchers in general, and have done since the days when Byung-Hyun Kim was closer. It’s just such a funky delivery mechanism, I can’t figure out how anyone ever gets a hit off one of them!

DD: That’s a great question. When I stopped to think about it I realized I don’t have an answer to this question. There is not one player that I focus on with the Diamondbacks. Normally I’ll attend around 81 games per season (mostly because I cannot convince Major League Baseball to expand the baseball season beyond 162 games). I’ve found that I now focus on aspects of the game.

I love watching Gerardo Parra’s defense in the outfield. It never ceases to amaze me how many players attempt to test his arm only to be gunned down. I cannot even guess how much he has changed the strategy of the game just based on his arm.

Paul Goldschmidt has an amazing work ethic and I love watching him before the game starts as he focuses on a specific aspect of his game. He is perhaps the hardest working player on the Diamondbacks roster and he is rewarded for his efforts. I admire that he tries to be better every game.

While Miguel Montero had a tough year last season I came away very impressed with his leadership qualities working with the pitching staff and getting them all on the same page. He has become a sometimes outspoken clubhouse presence that keeps things loose but focused. He shows that even though you may be struggling at the plate you can still change the outcome of the game.

I’m a big Patrick Corbin fan. Watching his intensity on the mound is amazing. From an outward appearance Corbin seems like the nicest guy, very laid back but when he is on the mound you can see the drive and competitive nature he has. He is almost like a surgeon the way he dissects hitters.

VS: I like watching Josh Collmenter. Part of it has to do with pitching but some of it also has do with the fact he might be the most underrated man on the staff. Here is a guy who won’t pitch for a week or 10 days and then pitch five innings of one run ball because the day’s starter got hurt or was cuffed around. He then could pitch in three out of the next four games and be superb. Josh has a tremendous throwing style and has one of the best beards in the game. I am very happy he signed a two year deal with the club.

My thanks to Jim, Jeff and Tom for their time and great insight on the Diamondbacks.  It may be tough for them to unseat the Dodgers out in the West, but stranger things have happened and, with the second wild card, October is not that far out of reach.

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