Playing Pepper 2017: Arizona Diamondbacks

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Arizona Diamondbacks
69-93, fourth in the NL West
Last year’s Pepper

There was a lot of excitement out in the desert to start last season, with the team adding Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller to a team that was almost .500 the year before.  What could go wrong?  As D-Back fans found out, plenty.  The team took a step back, losing 10 more games than they had in 2015 and eventually clearing house in a front office that was seen as a woeful throwback in this age of data-driven decisions.

Expectations will be severely tempered this year as the Diamondbacks look to dig out of the hole they have made.  Whether they will or not is, of course, still up in the air.  To tackle that, we’ve got Jeff Wiser and Jim McLennan, both long-time vets of this series, to cover the Pepper 6 this year.  All of their info is in the table below, though I’d also like to mention that Jeff contributed to the Arizona section of this year’s Baseball Prospectus Annual as well.

Name Blog Twitter Podcast
Jeff Wiser Inside the 'Zona OutfieldGrass24 The Pool Shot
Jim McLennan AZ Snake Pit AZSnakePit

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

IZ: It was a good offseason for the Diamondbacks given that the team addressed their weakest attribute: organizational leadership. The biggest move on the players side was shipping away Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger and Zac Curtis for Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte. The team needed more impact pitching and Walker provides a chance for that, though the thin desert air won’t help his cause. Marte will look to use that climate to his advantage and get back on track after a disappointing sophomore campaign. There have been some small free agent deals, like signing Fernando Rodney and Jeff Mathis, but it all pales in comparison to to the front office shakeup. Speaking of which…

ASP: Given the team only escaped the cellar of division by sweeping the Padres over the final weekend, you might have expected more significant changes. But with the new front office, I think they felt the mostly young players deserved another shot before abandoning things entirely to a fire sale. It was a bit of a surprise to see virtually the new GM’s first move being to trade last year’s MVP, Jean Segura. But it was also nice to see the team actually sell high on a player. The loss of Segura and Welington Castillo will hurt the offense, there’s little doubt, and we’ll need Brandon Drury in particular to step up at second.

I do wonder why they didn’t do more to solidify the bullpen, which was terrible last year, especially after trading away Tyler Clippard and Brad Ziegler. They signed Fernando Rodney, but otherwise, the only new arrivals to this point are a bunch of non-roster invitees. I know reliever volatility is a real thing, but this feels more like slinging a bunch of mud at the wall and hoping some of it hangs around. But I guess this is line with the notion this is more likely to be an evaluation season, not one where there is much realistic hope of contention.

C70: There’s been a pretty noticeable shakeup in the front office. How is that going to affect things going forward and have those changes already been felt?

IZ: It was clear to everyone that Dave Stewart and Tony La Russa had a different way of doing business than the rest of baseball. Being different doesn’t mean being bad, necessarily, but in this case, it was just that: terribly bad. They made poor decisions on the international market (Yoan Lopez), traded top prospects (Dansby Swanson, Isan Diaz and others), and tied up a third of the team’s payroll in one player (Zack Greinke) in an attempt to win immediately. The drive to win made sense given Paul Goldschmidt‘s prime and the fact that many of their marquee supporting actors won’t be under team control much longer. But the way they went about it was reckless and misguided as they got fleeced routinely on the trade market and never seemed to understand two important things: player value and the team’s position on the win curve. Those are bad things to misunderstand.

A nearly-clean sweep of the front office saw Mike Hazen take over GM duties and he’s as well regarded as anyone in baseball. Hazen wasted little time filling holes in the structure of the organization with personnel from the Red Sox, Cubs, Indians and other well-run franchises. Better yet, ownership has let him build things his own way. That’s important as the D-backs have a lot of catching up to do to get on the same page as most other modern baseball teams. He’s emphasized pitch framing, defense and OBP through some low-key free agent and minor league moves. He’s added to the back end of the bullpen cheaply and added some controllable, upside starting pitching. What it all adds up to will probably seem underwhelming, but they’re the kinds of trends the previous regime neglected to their own detriment. Analytics and a smarter approach to baseball will pay dividends going forward for the club, even if there’s a mountain to climb at present. Cleaning up Dave Stewart’s mess won’t happen overnight, but one has to be encouraged with the new direction.

ASP: It’s certainly a sea-change for the franchise. GM Mike Hazen is certainly the most forward thinking occupant of the post in D-backs history, and stands in sharp contrast to the likes of predecesssors Kevin Towers and Dave Stewart. He has brought over a lot of similarly minded people, with whom he had worked before in Boston – most obviously, new manager Torey Lovullo. There was also a shake-up of the coaching, including the departure of former D-backs Matt Williams and Mark Grace, though many were surprised to see pitching coach Mike Butcher hang around.

As mentioned, the actual playing staff have not perhaps been changed as much as expected. But if the team struggles in the first half this year, we may well see Hazen move toward a bigger rebuild at that point. If the current window of opportunity is deemed unachievable, then the likes of Zack Grienke and A.J. Pollock could be moved to free up salary and restock the farm system. There’s even the potential nuclear option of trading Paul Goldschmidt, who has yet to be on the Opening Day roster for a D-backs side with a winning record. Wasting a talent like that is criminal.

C70: Can and will Archie Bradley start to live up to the hype in 2017?

IZ: This all depends on what we mean of “hype.” Will he be the top of the rotation arm that was once forecast? I don’t think so. His ability to command the baseball would have to jump two full grades to make that kind of progress and that seems aggressive at this point. Right now, he’s fighting just to stay in the rotation as the team has plenty of back-end starter candidates. There’s no denying that the stuff remains nasty. His fastball has some serious run and his hammer curve is a bastard of a pitch when he can use it as intended. His changeup has flashed at times, but it’s all a matter of consistency for Bradley. If he doesn’t find it before 2017 runs out, he’ll be looking more and more like a candidate for a high leverage relief job. It’s easy to forget how young he is (he’ll turn 25 next May), so the hype isn’t completely gone and perhaps he’s just going to take a little more seasoning, but the sand is passing through the hourglass. 

ASP: That’s going to be one of the key questions for the D-backs. Right now, it’s not even certain if he’ll make the Opening Day rotation – it’s likely to come down to whether or not the team wants to move Patrick Corbin back from the bullpen. Bradley’s FIP was close to a run better than his actual ERA last year, so there is certainly hope for regression. It’s also worth remembering 2016 was still only his age-23 season: only four NL pitchers that age or younger, made more starts than Archie.

Certainly, he has to deliver on that promise. Before the 2014 season, he was rated a top 5 prospect in all of baseball by MLB.com, and has not come anywhere close to showing that so far. He needs to walk fewer people, and develop a reliable third pitch he can use along with his fastball and curve. With Arizona’s pitching being so unreliable last year, it’s almost essential Bradley reaches the next level.

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

IZ: Call me stubborn, but I can’t let people forget about Socrates Brito. He was unfairly pressed into action last year when A.J. Pollock busted his elbow in the spring and the team was caught without a viable back up. The tools remain unchanged, however, despite a debut to forget. He’s still adding polish to his game and there’s plus raw power potential, he’s a plus runner, is a plus fielder in a corner with a tremendous arm and can cover center easily enough. The hit tool will hold him back some, but he can be a big league contributor if he can be a bit more discerning at the plate, helping the team in a myriad of ways. In a post-hype world, he’s easily forgotten. True, he’s not going to be a star, but there’s a chance he eventually hits enough to let his athleticism play all over the place. He’s a physical specimen that’s taken some time to mature, but there’s still plenty of potential there.

ASP: The Arizona farm system is relatively bereft of high-level talent, but if there’s an unknown name who could break out, it’s perhaps reliever Jared Miller. He started off 2016 in A-ball, but finished it in AAA, fanning 80 batters over 61.1 innings across four levels. Miller then finished off with 18.1 shutout innings in the hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League, with another 30 strikeouts. As a yardstick, the last pitcher to throw 15+ shutout innings in the AFL was Jake Arrieta in 2007. The D-backs bullpen could certainly use the help!

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and/or where will they finish in the division?

IZ: This is a super tricky question to answer because the organization hasn’t yet defined their path. They’ve not added aggressively to the team’s core, but they also haven’t started selling players off. While just getting out from under Zack Greinke’s contract would be a feat unto itself, there are plenty of guys who’d fetch useful returns on the trade market, starting with Paul Goldschmidt, Pollock, Patrick Corbin, David Peralta, Jake Lamb, and others. If the team gets out the gate well, they could be a sneaky pick to add a piece at the deadline and remain competitive. More likely, however, they’ll fall off the Dodgers’ and Giants’ pace and have to really ponder blowing the whole thing up. If they played all year with their current crop, I think they could finish around .500, probably just short. If they decided to start selling, it’s anyone’s guess. They could be the next team to begin tanking to build for the future. Sorry for the non-answer, let’s check back on August 1st! 

ASP: I think they’ll be back towards .500, but I would not bet on them necessarily breaking past it. A full season of a healthy A.J. Pollock will be a big help, and I think there is a lot more upside for Greinke, Shelby Miller, Robbie Ray and Taijuan Walker in the rotation, than there is downside from their 2016 performances. A lot will depend on how the bullpen holds up. If the young relievers can blossom, perhaps with the help of the crafty veterans, then we’d be in a better place at the end of 2017. Which is about all I want to see. I think it’ll be a three-way battle between Arizona, San Diego and Colorado for third through fifth place in the NL West. If forced to make a prediction, it’s 78-84 and fourth place for the Diamondbacks. 

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Diamondback and why?

IZ: My favorite Diamondback is also perhaps my favorite Mariner (my childhood team): Randy Johnson. The Big Unit was simply filthy with both franchises, though it did take Johnson some time to harness his stuff. By the time he reached Arizona, he was the “1” in perhaps baseball’s best modern 1-2 punch along with Curt Schilling. He threw gas, his slider was untouchable and he led the team to a World Series crown just three years after their inception. Perhaps better yet, Johnson has embraced his role within baseball since retirement as a mentor and all-around good guy. I listened to him speak about his proudest accomplishments and he shared that while it was exciting to rack up the strikeouts in his prime, he was most proud to be able to roll a double play ball on command late in his career when he was throwing 88. Johnson’s career had many stages and the Diamondbacks saw arguably his best years. I’m a sucker for the greats who age gracefully, even after the prime of their career. Randy Johnson is one of those guys.

ASP: Luis Gonzalez, because he’s why I’m married. To explain… I was watching Game 7 of the 2001 World Series with my then-girlfriend, and decided, “I’m going to propose – but only if the D-backs win, because if we lose, we’re both going to be too annoyed.” At that time, Arizona were 1-0 up, and I started wording the proposal speech in my mind. Then, the Yankees came back and had the lead going into the bottom of the ninth, so I’d screwed up and tossed away my mental notes.

Of course, then the Diamondbacks came back, capped off by Gonzo’s game-winning bloop. So I dropped to my knees and delivered this beautiful, eloquent proposal – to which my girlfriend replied, “Yes, wonderful, isn’t it?” There was so much noise, she hadn’t heard a single word of what I’d said. I had to redo it, but I’m certain the second time around wasn’t as good. Still, it must have done the trick, for she said yes! Thanks, Luis…

As always, my thanks to Jeff and Jim for filling us in on what’s going on out in the desert.  This definitely could be a team to keep an eye on, especially if they decide to sell around the deadline!

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