Playing Pepper 2023: Arizona Diamondbacks

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Arizona Diamondbacks
74-88, fourth in the NL West
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Zac Gallen (4.3)
Top hitter by fWAR: Daulton Varsho (4.6)

The Diamondbacks made some improvement last year, but was it a “dry heat” (not as impressive as it looked) or does it have some humidity behind it.  (I know, I know, this metaphor can’t take this kind of stretching.)  The Snakes are in a tough division but perhaps they can make a rattle or two.  Let’s see what the experts say!

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Jim McLennan AZ Snake Pit AZSnakePit
Jesse Friedman PHNX JesseNFriedman

C70: While it didn’t reflect as much in the standings, Arizona made a huge jump in wins in 2022. Does that upward trend continue and how do you feel about where the club stands going into 2023?

Jim: I’m optimistic it can. They improved their W% by fifty points in the second half, going almost .500 after the break (32-34), as the young players found their feet and began to contribute. A full season from the likes of Corbin Carroll, Jake McCarthy plus new arrivals Gabriel Moreno and Lourdes Gurriell, feel like it should be a step up. And surely, there’s no way the bullpen can be as dismal as it was in 2022. The loss for an extended period of Mark Melancon – ten losses in relief last year, more than Zach Davies and Zac Gallen in their 58 combined starts – sucks for the player, but you’d be hard pushed to find many D-backs fans upset at the loss.

Jesse: It’s important to understand that the Diamondbacks’ 22-win improvement from 2021 to 2022 said a lot more about their 2021 season than it does about their 2022 season. That 2021 team lost four-fifths of the starting rotation by May and depth was lacking. That team was never going to be a contender, but it was much better than 52 wins would have you believe. In my mind, winning 74 games last year was less of a surprising breakout than a return to normalcy.

As far as the 2023 season is concerned, trading arguably your best position player in Daulton Varsho certainly doesn’t help the outlook. Nonetheless, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. might be a better hitter than Varsho this year, and the addition of Gabby Moreno looks like a lifesaver with Carson Kelly expected to miss time with a forearm fracture. The bullpen was a big problem last year, and the team did enough there — namely, signing Miguel Castro, Scott McGough and Andrew Chafin — to convince me that it will at least be better.

Unfortunately for the D-backs, the NL West continues to be one of the best divisions in the game, with a pair of juggernauts at the top in the Dodgers and Padres and the Giants looking formidable as well. Even if a lot of things go right, this team is probably a year or two away from the postseason. Nonetheless, I think the D-backs have a good chance to win more than they lose, and they could conceivably sneak their way into the playoffs if they get enough from youngsters like Alek Thomas, Jake McCarthy, Corbin Carroll and a new wave of young pitchers.

C70: Zac Gallen had a great 2022 and has two years of arbitration control left. Is an extension for him being discussed and how do you think he’ll do this season?

Jim: As you probably know, the team did already sign Carroll to a long-term deal: the longest contract in team history, which is startling considering he has played less than a season. But Gallen is very different, being a much more established player. He’s also a Scott Boras client, and they have a tendency to be reluctant to sign away their future, preferring to try the free-agent market. Certainly, we’d like to lock up Gallen for the future, but after going 12-4 and finishing in the top five for Cy Young voting, he would not come cheap, and the upside for the D-backs seems a bit limited. They are perhaps more likely to look to extend lock up more of their pre-arbitration players, such as they did with Carroll.

Jesse: I’m not aware of any extension talks, nor would I expect an extension to happen. Gallen’s agent is Scott Boras, and we all know how that tends to work out. My guess is that Gallen departs in free agency after the 2025 season.

As far as Gallen’s 2023 season is concerned, he has looked a bit shaky in spring training. In addition to having more walks than strikeouts and allowing 11 runs in 10.2 innings — things that don’t necessarily warrant concern for a pitcher of his caliber — his four-seam fastball velocity has been noticeably down this spring. In his most recent start, he averaged 91.4 MPH with the heater. Last year, his four-seamer averaged 94.4 MPH in spring training and 94.1 in the regular season.

It’s also worth noting that Gallen outperformed his peripherals last year. His 2.51 ERA in 2022 was significantly lower than his 3.05 FIP and 3.31 xFIP, and his .237 BABIP is almost certainly unsustainable. He probably needs to be better in 2023 to finish in the top five in Cy Young voting again.

All that said, Gallen is not the type of guy I would bet against. Even if his velocity takes a step back, he still has the secondary weapons to be effective. His curveball graded out as the most valuable hook in baseball last year, according to Baseball Savant’s run value. His cutter keeps hitters off balance, and his changeup, once his best secondary, is a solid weapon against lefties.

C70: There are a number of veterans either in their last year or with mutual options for 2024. Do you expect the Diamondbacks to be busy at the deadline flipping these players or are they looking to use them to make a run?

Jim: It could go either direction. Last year, we saw them trade the likes of David Peralta at the deadline, and this year, someone like Evan Longoria could be in a similar place. But again: in late July last year, they were ten games back in even the wild-card race, so it made sense to sell at that point. The team will be hoping for considerably better than that. Whether they’ll be close enough to merit buying is the question. If so, Mike Hazen has been very cautious about trading prospects for veterans. Should there be any kind of deal like that, it’s going to be for a player who can help the team over several seasons, not just a two-month rental.

Jesse: General manager Mike Hazen has gone on record saying that success in 2023 means being in position to buy at the trade deadline. The Diamondbacks would like to avoid selling, but it’s an undeniable possibility. They’ve sold at the trade deadline three years — one could argue four years — in a row.

As far as who could actually be dealt, there aren’t a whole lot of candidates. Nick Ahmed is a free agent at the end of the year, but I’m not sure how much he would fetch in a trade at this point. Defense has always been his calling card, and his arm strength appears to have taken a significant step back after shoulder surgery. Mark Melancon is coming off a brutal year, and he will miss the first few months of the year with a subscapularis strain in his throwing shoulder.

The most realistic sell candidate for me is newly acquired outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. The D-backs still have plenty of outfielders and Gurriel’s bat could prove valuable for a contender, particularly if he can rediscover his power stroke.

I would also keep an eye on Zach Davies, who signed for a reasonable $4.7 million (plus a mutual option for 2024) and could provide valuable innings for a contender down the stretch. Given the influx of young arms the Diamondbacks have in the upper levels of the minors, they might benefit from clearing some space.

Relievers could be on the table as well, though the team might be inclined to hold onto Chafin and Castro since they have club options on both for 2024.

C70: On the flip side, there are some less experienced folks that are (or could be) on the roster. What rookie or limited experienced player will have the most impact for Arizona?

Jim: The obvious name is Carroll, who is a consensus pick as front-runner for this season’s NL Rookie of the Year. It’s easy to say why, as he has all the tools, including insane speed, and has hit everywhere he has played. He’s a lot of fun to watch, and it has been a long time since I’ve been so excited about a Diamondbacks’ rookie. But a name to watch for later in the season might be starting pitcher Brandon Pfaadt. He struck out more players than any pitcher in the minors last year, across all levels, and should join Arizona’s rotation at some point this season. He could be a big help down the stretch.

Jesse: As far as rookies are concerned, the easy answer is the aforementioned Corbin Carroll. Widely regarded as a top-two overall prospect in baseball, Carroll is a dynamic hitter with surprising power for his small frame, off-the-charts foot speed and a solid glove. He is the favorite for the NL Rookie of the Year Award.

All he did last year in his first 32 big-league games is hit .260/.330/.500 and lead all National League left fielders in outs above average. The Diamondbacks certainly believe that production is for real, as indicated by their eight-year, $111 million extension with Carroll that was made official last week.

Other rookies to watch include starting pitching prospect Brandon Pfaadt, who led all of Minor League Baseball with 218 strikeouts last year, and fellow right-hander Drey Jameson, who has impressive stuff and put up a 1.48 ERA in his first four big-league starts last year. Jameson appears to be the frontrunner to land the D-backs’ fifth rotation spot, and Pfaadt is almost certain to start games for the D-backs at some point this year, too. Ryne Nelson was also impressive last year in his first taste of the majors, and he is in the mix with Jameson for that fifth rotation spot as well.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Jim: There’s a huge variance here. The team could win anywhere between 70 and 90 games and I wouldn’t be surprised at all. There are a lot of variables at play, and individuals who be great, terrible or anywhere in the middle, which makes them a very difficult side to predict.

Best case: Carroll wins Rookie of the Year, Ketel Marte returns to All-Star form, Madison Bumgarner doesn’t suck, and the D-backs secure a wild-card spot to the playoffs – where, as we all know, anything can happen!

Worst case: Carroll turns into a pumpkin, Zac Gallen gets hurt and the bullpen decides to deliver an encore performance of 2021, as the D-backs fight with the Rockies for the cellar.

Most-likely case: I do think Carroll could be our first Rookie of the Year, but tend to think the team will finish short of the post-season, albeit with a winning record. I’m definitely taking the over on the current Vegas line of 74.5 wins though, and feel we could pass the Giants for third.

Every month, we get fans to rate their confidence in the team. The current figure is the best it has been for March since 2020. Though if you remember March 2020 when… [/gestures vaguely], you’ll understand life can surprise you, and not always in a nice way! I’m trying to keep my expectations in check, at least until I can see the team on the field. But I’m definitely more enthusiastic about baseball, both generally and specifically for the D-backs, since those long ago, pre-COVID days.

Jesse: The best scenario for the Diamondbacks is probably snagging the final NL Wild Card spot. Given how crowded the NL landscape is, it looks like they would have to beat the Giants, Cubs, Phillies and either the Brewers or Cardinals (whichever doesn’t win the Central) to do so. It’s hard to bet on that.

Unlike recent years, however, it is at least possible to squint and see something along those lines happening. If Jake McCarthy and Alek Thomas build on their rookie seasons, Gabriel Moreno excels in his first full big-league season, Corbin Carroll blossoms into the star that many believe him to be, Ketel Marte rediscovers his offense from 2021, etc., it’s not all that difficult to dream up where those additional 10-15 wins come from.

As far as the worst case scenario is concerned, I’m not sure I could see the D-backs winning fewer than the 74 games they won last year. Most of the team’s offseason moves were geared at raising the floor rather than the ceiling. Suffice it to say the wounds of that 2021 season run deep, and the front office has paid close attention to ensure there is adequate depth all over the diamond.

Granted, the D-backs did have quite a few things break their way last year. McCarthy went from supposed fourth outfielder to one of the better players in the National League in the second half. Christian Walker ranked third in fWAR among all MLB first basemen, trailing only Paul Goldschmidt and Freddie Freeman. Merrill Kelly had a 3.37 ERA over more than 200 innings. The team had good injury luck across the board.

Not all of those things are likely to repeat in 2023, but a full year of Carroll, a full year of Moreno, an improved bullpen and better starting pitching depth should, at the very least, counteract any regression that happens.

The most likely win total range for me is 80-83 wins. That means the D-backs are likely looking at extending what would become the longest playoff drought in franchise history at seven years. On the flip, it could also be their first winning season since 2019, and the future hasn’t been this bright in a while. The 2023 D-backs might not be good, but the “Orioles of the West” should to be a lot of fun watch.

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