Playing Pepper 2015: Arizona Diamondbacks

It’s one of the annual traditions here at C70 At The Bat, our trip around the majors in blog form.  Since 2009, I’ve been asking bloggers from other teams about what’s going to happen with their squad in the coming season.  It’s always fun to see what the opposition is thinking and how optimistic some of their most devoted and intelligent fans are.  This year, the Pepper series is brought to you by Out of the Park Baseball 16, coming soon for PC.  Preorder this outstanding baseball simulation today!

Arizona Diamondbacks
64-98, last in the NL West

It’s been a wild and gritty ride for Arizona fans over the past few years.  After two straight 81-81 seasons, the bottom fell out from Kirk Gibson‘s squad in 2014.  While injuries played a part, it’s probably not a coincidence that Gibson and GM Kevin Towers were let go after the season.  Now the club has new faces with a bit of late ’80s flare, as Tony La Russa‘s in the front office and Dave Stewart is the GM.

To guide us through the desert, we turn to Jim McClennan from AZ Snake Pit, the SB Nation blog that covers the Diamondbacks.  Jim’s on Twitter @AZSnakepit, so give him a follow.  We also have Ryan Morrison from Inside the ‘Zona, which is the Arizona blog selected for ESPN’s Sweetspot blog network.  You’ll find Ryan on Twitter @InsidetheZona.  Two great bloggers to bring the heat of Arizona to lead it off this year!

(As an added bonus, you can hear Ryan and his co-blogger at ITZ talk about the questions on their latest podcast.)

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

AZ: In some ways yes, in other ways no. Whenever you get a new GM, part of the job is always clearing out whoever the new arrival perceives as “dead wood,” and we saw that with the departure of Miguel Montero. I’d like to have seen more – Aaron Hill, certainly, and I’d also have got rid of Mark Trumbo – but it was a start. The signing of Yasmany Tomas to the biggest contract in franchise history was certainly a bold move, but the trade for Jeremy Hellickson is a dubious replacement for the loss of Wade Miley. The starting rotation in almost entirely a series of question-marks and don’t even get me started on the catcher’s position.

However, the plan appears to be for this year to be a season of assessment, giving us a chance to see what we have in terms of young players like Ender Inciarte, Rubby de la Rosa, etc and discover if they can be building blocks going forward. I’m comfortable with that, and we should have a better idea of what we need to do at the end of the season. A new stream of revenue from local TV is approaching, and next year’s free-agent class of starting pitchers is deeper than this winter’s, so I’m okay with us missing out on James Shields, etc.

ITZ: This offseason, the D-backs moved aggressively to re-make the club – and as is often the case when that happens, the moves themselves were a little all over the place. The main focus appears to be 2016 or 2017, but the team is at the same time committed to being at least competitive in the short term and avoiding embarrassment. In that context, they did do what they set out to do – the Jeremy Hellickson trade doesn’t quite fit, and the team is probably going to find out that they didn’t fully appreciate what they had in Wade Miley, but they’ve put themselves in a position to get lucky.

C70: What do you think the biggest change will be now that Chip Hale is the manager?

AZ: Probably a greater level of passion? When we got Kirk Gibson, we were all expecting fire, but that hardly ever happened: most of the time, it was like watching a statue manage the team. Even his trips to the mound seemed like a painful and arduous ordeal by the end. It’s hard to be sure beyond that was Hale’s style will be like, as this is his first time managing in the major-leagues. But I get the impression that sound execution of basic fundamentals is going to be stressed, and perhaps also more emphasis (sigh) on putting the ball in play. I sigh, since I’m not of the opinion that strikeouts “matter”, except in a very small and specific fraction of circumstances. Tony La Russa has publicly stated his aversion to sabermetric analysis in the dugout, which I think is shooting ourselves needlessly in the foot.

ITZ: We keep hearing that Chip Hale is bringing a ton of energy to the job of manager, but I do expect that he’ll be working closely with the new D-backs front office by committee. I doubt that Tony La Russa will be injecting himself into day-to-day decisions normally reserved for the manager – he’s been pretty blunt about how the manager needs to run that show on his own – but Hale is going to be one part of a larger community of baseball men. “True baseball” men, even.

C70: Who is the Opening Day starter and who will be the best starting pitcher by the end of the year?

AZ: Probably Josh Collmenter, though might be Jeremy Hellickson. The former was our best pitcher last year, but the latter has the advantage of being a shiny acquisition of the new management. Could be just about anyone by the end of the season, as last year showed: Collmenter wasn’t even in the rotation on Opening Day, starting the season on the bullpen. This year, it’s possible our best starter may not even be on the 40-man roster at this point, with prospects Archie Bradley and Aaron Blair both potentially making their debuts in 2015. Of those that are, I think de la Rosa has the potential to have a breakout season, and may have the highest upside for 2015, but that’s by no means certain.

ITZ: I expect that Josh Collmenter will be given the ball for Opening Day – he’s one of only two starting pitchers that have a rotation spot more or less guaranteed, and he’s a safe choice as an organization guy who has already ingratiated himself with the fan base. By season’s end, I think it’ll be Patrick Corbin who will reclaim his 2013 role as the team’s ace, however – the command may not be all the way back this season and he may rely less on the slider that helped him take that next level step in 2013, but everyone on the staff has warts that are likely to make them less reliable.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

AZ: If Tomas lives up to expectations, he should have a Rookie of the Year-worthy campaign, though I’m not sure how he’ll handle the expected transition to first-base. But since there are already expectations there, not sure how much “strides” actually apply. Who the team really needs to step up is Chris Owings. With the trade of Didi Gregorius to the Yankees, the shortstop position is now unequivocally his, and he has to demonstrate he has the ability to take it. He’s still only 23, so would be among the youngest regular starters in the league, and the potential is there: we saw that in flashes last season. Delivering on that over the course of a full, 162-game season is what we need in 2015.

ITZ: I think Yasmany Tomas is the player most likely to take some big strides this year, as I expect he’ll struggle at the outset of the season. Thing is, on the position player side, there really aren’t that many candidates (other than Jake Lamb, who I believe in, but who might not get the necessary playing time). The team had some breakthroughs last year from David Peralta, A.J. Pollock and Ender Inciarte, and Chris Owings established himself as well – but other than Owings, even projecting a repeat is being optimistic. Once the season is over, I think we’ll definitely find that it’s a pitcher who made the biggest jump this year. Robbie Ray, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Archie Bradley, or even someone else – we just don’t know who.

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

AZ: I don’t think they’ll be as bad as last season, and I’m thinking around a 76-86 mark. If they can get back to the .500 level, I’ll be delighted with that, but I just want to see a platform on which we can then build going forward. Teams don’t go from the worst mark in the majors to the playoffs in a single season, so I’m willing to be patient, as long as there’s a sense of a real plan in place, and some semblance of progress. I don’t think they’ll crack the top three in the division, but might just be able to hold off the Rockies for fourth place, and stay out of the cellar.

ITZ: I’m going to end up on the optimistic side, 75 wins. I think this team is committed to not giving away this season, which means there’s going to be no fire sale in July. That alone could keep the team from sinking into the 60s again. And call me crazy, but I think the team will end up third in the division when all is said and done, ahead of the Rockies, but also ahead of one other team that suffers a collapse (most likely Giants or Padres).

C70: What do you like best about being a Diamondbacks fan?

AZ: Right now, following the young prospects. We have arguably the best set of pitching prospects in the majors, and I’m optimistic these will give us a solid foundation on which the team can build going forward. The future is certainly looking a lot more fun than the recent past! Historically? Having won the best World Series in recent history.

ITZ: The best thing about being a D-backs fan is the community. I’m a Boston guy, born and raised, and still live there – and the great thing about it is you can have a Red Sox conversation whenever you want, whether it’s an acquaintance on an elevator or an old woman in a waiting room. It feels like a whole universe, though. The D-backs fan base feels much more like a community, and the organization does a great job of fostering that.

My thanks to Jim and Ryan for their thoughts on the club.  With TLR out there, some Cardinal fans will be paying a bit more attention to the Snakes or at least have a team to watch on when the St. Louis game is over!

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