It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning. For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper! We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat. This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal. It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.
79-83, third in the NL West
Last year’s Pepper
A new manager came into the desert last year and whether it could be credited to him or not, the fact is the Diamondbacks improved by 15 games and two spots in the standings. The fact that they still didn’t crack the .500 mark should tell you just how much work they had to do. However, they were one of the most active teams (measured by headlines) in this offseason and a return to contention shouldn’t be out of the question in 2016.
To see how accurate that is, I’ve got two great D-Backs bloggers joining me in this kickoff of the Playing Pepper series. This is the fourth straight year Jim McClennan of AZ Snake Pit has been our guest, so you are already probably following him on Twitter @AZSnakepit, but if not you should do so. For the second straight year, we’ve got a representative from Inside the ‘Zona helping us out. This year it’s Jeff Wiser, who you can follow @OutfieldGrass24 for some fun insights.
C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?
ASP: The main focus going into this winter for Arizona definitely needed to be on the starting pitching. We had only two starters, Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray, in whom I had any real confidence, with a bunch of question-marks everywhere else. The offense didn’t need much attention: the D-backs scored more runs than anyone bar the Rockies last year, and lost no-one to free agency, so more or less took care of itself.
On that basis, hard to argue the team did what was necessary, picking up arguably the top free-agent on the market to front the rotation, in Zack Greinke, and also acquiring another solid starter, Shelby Miller. The cost was high, undeniably, But it’s a price which needed to be paid: we’ve been at or below .500 for the past four seasons, and the existing approach wasn’t working. There was a real danger of watching Paul Goldschmidt‘s MVP caliber production be entirely wasted, so I’m glad – albeit nervously! – that the team owners opted to go all-in.
IZ: The offseason was incredibly productive for the D-backs. The rotation was the biggest need and they addressed it. Subtracting Jeremy Hellickson and adding both Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller to a rotation with Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray is hugely helpful considering the quality of opponents in the NL West and the way Chase Field plays for hitters. The fifth rotation spot will be a battle between Rubby De La Rosa and Archie Bradley, which will be a fun to watch although Dave Stewart seems to prefer De La Rosa.
The addition of Tyler Clippard helps and hurts the bullpen as it adds a proven arm but limits flexibility. Projections never value guys like Brad Ziegler, Clippard and Josh Collmenter enough since they’re outliers and WAR does a poor job valuing relievers in general. The bullpen is better than some will give credit. They could have used a more effective backup catcher than Chris Herrmann who will fill in while Tuffy Gosewisch is on the shelf. Welington Castillo had a strong first season as a Diamondback, but betting on him to remain as effective or healthy might put the team in a precarious positions. He’s a poor framer and a strong backup option would have been a boost.
C70: How surprising was the Zack Greinke signing and what are your expectations of him this year?
ASP: It was the biggest shock in the decade-plus I’ve been writing about the Diamondbacks. Truly, it came out of nowhere, and only took a couple of hours from the first rumors of “Hey, the Diamondbacks are talking to Greinke” to “They’ve signed him.” We were hoping to sign a free-agent starter, certainly, but were thinking maybe Johnny Cueto, tops. To steal him out from under the noses of both the Dodgers and the Giants was the greatest coup in our history.
He’ll be good. I don’t think he’ll be quite as good as last year – how could he be, realistically? But he doesn’t have to be, to become the best pitcher we’ve had in a while – the last time we had even a four bWAR pitcher, say, was 2011. I’d settle for an ERA of three this year. In the longer term, I don’t have any expectations he’ll be as good at the end of his contract as he is now, but if he can give us five good seasons, and take the team to the playoffs in three of those, it’ll be worthwhile.
IZ: You know, the signing of Greinke pretty much came out of nowhere. I was in San Diego at the time and saw a tweet that a team like the D-backs could make a run at him. I laughed and closed my phone. About 90 minutes later, I’m stopping by a bar and the first thing I see on the ESPN ticker is that Greinke had agreed to terms with Arizona. It happened incredibly fast and took everyone by surprise (especially the Dodgers).
My expectations are still forming. I’ve seen the early projections and I expect him to exceed them. I’ve seen him pitch – he can add and subtract, move the ball around and the stuff is still plus across the board. He does have a lot of innings under his belt and he’s 32, so that’s where I have some pause. The mechanics are obviously good, but pitchers wear down and get hurt almost inevitably. All that said, Greinke is a guy who I think can and will age well. He’s going to lose a little more velocity, but I believe he can survive that given his command and offspeed stuff.
The biggest thing he’ll provide in the immediate future is a bulk of quality innings and I expect him to take a big load off the shoulders of the bullpen. By shortening games and giving more innings to Zack Greinke rather than middle relievers, that should be a huge upgrade over what the team faced last year when the rotation was a mess and they set a franchise record for relief innings pitched.
C70: David Peralta seemed to come out of nowhere to put up solid numbers last season. Can he do it again?
ASP: I think it was very interesting that the team decided Ender Inciarte was surplus to requirements, rather than Peralta, when it came to dealing an outfield piece for Miller. Peralta’s an amazing story: a failed pitching prospect who reinvented himself as an outfielder and made his major league debut less than a year after he was playing independent ball. Can’t help but root for a guy like that.
While, for obvious reasons, “old” for a rookie, he was insanely hot last year, especially in the second half where he batted .360 and had a higher OPS than Paul Goldschmidt. Again, it would be a stretch to expect that to continue at the same level, but there’s no reason to consider him as less than an everyday major leaguer. His offense might take a step back, but I think you’ll see his defense make up some of the ground. He has less than 700 pro games as an outfielder, and is still learning that aspect of his game.
IZ: David Peralta is one of the best stories to come out of baseball in the last few years. The guy was a pitcher for the Cardinals who flamed out due to serious shoulder injuries. He was told he wouldn’t pitch again, which must have been devastating, but he chose to reinvent himself as a hitter, head to independent ball and ultimately ended up in the outfield at Chase hitting bombs and playing adequate defense in the final part of 2014 and all of 2015.
The best part of it is, David Peralta can keep this up. Based on a number of advanced metrics and after digging deeply into the data, his performance looks sustainable. The biggest indicator lies in his batted ball numbers – namely exit velocities. Peralta hits the ball excessively hard very frequently. We know that hard-hit balls turn into hits, especially extra-base hits, more frequently than average. We also know that extra-base hits really drive offense. I’d fully expect him to continue raking and help drive the Diamondbacks’ run-scoring efforts.
C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?
ASP: The player we need to make the greatest strides is certainly Yasmany Tomas, who will be expected to hold down an everyday right-field job, with the departure of Inciarte. His first season in the majors was not all that impressive: the batting average of .270 was okay, but he had poor plate discipline, often looked lost in the field and fell off a cliff in the second half, with an OPS of just .553 after the All-Star break.
Part of that may have been Tomas wearing down; he didn’t play at all in 2014, and had never been in more than 81 games while in Cuba. I tend to think we’d have been better off letting him acclimatize the entire season in the minors. But that ship has sailed, and in 2016, we need to see the guy for whom we’ll be paying $7.5 million. That’s more than any other position player on our roster, bar Aaron Hill, and with the team shifting into “win now” mode, Tomas needs to deliver.
IZ: This is a great question. The Diamondbacks are still on the fringes of contention. They’re going to need some internal improvement in order to be a real threat. Yasmany Tomas had a tough season in 2015 and could stand to rebound significantly after getting his feet wet last year. Chris Owings had a down year after a shoulder injury plagued him all year long, but has reported feeling better in the new year. Jean Segura is hopeful a new setting provides the spark to return him to productivity. Those are three guys who could take a step forward, although if they do, it’ll be on the back of improved plate discipline.
Instead, I expect Archie Bradley to finally put himself on the map in a major way. When he debuted last season, he was successful despite poor fastball command and a bevy of walks. Basically, he got lucky in several starts before he was struck in the face by a line drive off the bat of Carlos Gonzalez (that was launched at 117mph). A long DL stint kept him from the majors for the rest of the year. Reports out of fall instructs, however, suggest that Bradley had upped his velocity by a couple of ticks and was back to the throwing the slider/cutter he’d shown the year before, then shelved when he reached the majors.
If he can locate the fastball more consistently, get a few more whiffs on it given the velocity jump, and mix in the slider/cutter with some success, I could see him take off. If not, I think he’s going to end up in the bullpen sooner than later.
C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?
ASP: Right now, I’d say 88 wins and second-place. We probably need a few things to break our way, in order to be truly considered contenders for the division title. Good, full seasons from Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray would be the most likely there, with Chris Owings and Tomas discovering their mojo other possibilities. That’s the upside: maybe the main potential downside would be health-related, as the team was quite fortunate in that area last year, If we lose Goldie or A.J. Pollock for any extended period, it’s going to be very difficult for the team to recover.
IZ: The Dodgers are still the head of the class. Even without Greinke, they have such a deep collection of pitchers, mixed with some young talent, making them the clear leader of the NL West. The Giants have made some strides, but I don’t think Cueto and Samardzija are enough to put them ahead of Los Angeles. In the end, I can see the Giants and D-backs fighting it out for second place ahead of the Padres and Rockies. I’ll put the D-backs at 87-75, which should put them neck and neck with the Giants, but perhaps just outside the Wild Card picture.
C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?
ASP: It’s always fun to beat the Dodgers, especially if we get to whack around Clayton Kershaw – the SnakePit voted two such drubbings as our Games of the Year for 2014 + 2015! There has been some tension since 2013, when the sites brawled at Dodger Stadium, and the season ended with LA celebrating the division title with a dip (and, by some accounts, more than a dip!) in the pool at Chase Field. The transfer of Greinke from the Dodgers to the D-backs is only going to make those contests even more intense in 2016. Last season, we went 6-13, and if we are to compete with them, we need to improve that significantly. If we can’t beat LA, we probably won’t be playing in October.
IZ: This is easy: the Dodgers. I live in Los Angeles and I can honestly say Dodgers fans are the most entitled group of fans I’ve ever been around. Some of that is justifiable in the sense that Dodger baseball is an institution that dates clear back to the early days in Brooklyn. For the West Coast, that kind of institutional nostalgia is very rare. But with the money the Dodgers have and the market they play in, fans expect them to be the best team on the field 162 days a year.
By contrast, the D-backs are an upstart franchise with a short history and limited success. They’ve scrapped and clawed and tried to win games and fans while operating with modest resources. Any time the Diamondbacks can earn a victory against the Dodgers, it’s extra sweet. Not only are they beating the best team in the division – they’re also proving that sometimes the young upstart can succeed against the established dynasty. That probably sounds cliche, but it’s definitely an underdog type of mentality for Arizona.
My thanks to Jim and Jeff for their time talking about their team. With Tony La Russa in charge out there, we always pay a little attention and there’s usually some exciting things happening!