Playing Pepper 2018: Arizona Diamondbacks

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

Arizona Diamondbacks
93-69, second in NL West, lost in NLDS
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

It was a fun season out in the desert last year.  While the Diamondbacks couldn’t lay much claim to the NL West, what with the Dodgers winning 104 games, they had more wins than the NL Central champs and were able to get past the wild-card game before getting swept by those Dodgers in the divisional series.  Much of the same crew will back this season and there would seem little worry that this will be another successful year, a chance to put together back-to-back over-.500 seasons for the first time in a decade.  We’ve gathered some great bloggers to talk about what to expect in 2018!

Writer Site Twitter
Jeff Wiser Inside the 'Zona OutfieldGrass24
Trisha Garcia Venom Strikes trishaanichole
Jim McLennan AZ Snake Pit AZSnakepit

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Jeff: Did the team improve? That’s hard to say as of this writing. The two biggest transactions were a trade for reliever Brad Boxberger and the signing of Japanese free agent Yoshihisa Hirano who’s also slated to join the bullpen. That’s it. The team avoided arbitration with all of their arbitration-eligible players with the exception of Shelby Miller where they’ll head to trial. Most of the familiar faces will be back. Fernando Rodney and Chris Iannetta are the two notable guys who won’t, but Rodney will likely be replaced by Archie Bradley in the closer’s role. Iannetta leaves a whole that still needs to be filled and I expect them to figure something out so that the catching tandem won’t be Jeff Mathis and J.R. Murphy. Mathis is going to be there, but look for an upgrade over Murphy. It’s hard to say the team got better here, but it’s hard to say they got worse (provided they sign another catcher). In terms of quality, not much changed.

Trisha: There’s no denying that this offseason was mind-numbingly slow. Honestly, I don’t think the Diamondbacks improved. They lost J.D. Martinez, which I think plenty of people saw coming, even when it came down to the wire. That’s a lot of power…and the reason the Diamondbacks took the first Wild Card spot last season. Yes, they added Steven Souza Jr in his place, which will help, but in the process they gave up Brandon Drury and Anthony Banda. Banda is the one that stings. One of their top pitching prospects, the kid is something special. Overall, the Diamondbacks aren’t much worse off than they were last year. But, with the Rockies and Giants picking up significant improvements and the Dodgers being the Dodgers…the Diamondbacks should have done more. 

Jim: It’s hard to say. I think they did a good job at replacing players who departed. Alex Avila should be a decent stand-in for Chris Iannetta, and while Steven Souza won’t hit as well as J.D. Martinez, he does provide better defense and base-running activity. Souza and Jarrod Dyson should combine to good effect in the outfield. The team lost closer Fernando Rodney, and we’ll see who ends up taking over: if I’d to guess, probably Brad Boxberger, but we’ll see. I wouldn’t say they necessarily improved, but they negotiated some potentially tricky losses quite well. 

C70: While he was rumored to be on the market, Zack Greinke is (as of this writing) still with the club. What are the expectations for him this year and how likely is it he finishes the season in Arizona?

Jeff: The expectations are that Greinke will continue to lead the pitching staff and be, once again, one of the better starting pitchers in the National League. His velocity was down last year and it’s hard to see it coming back. Still, he was able to use his excellent command to dominate far more often than not. It’s not always sexy, but he got the job done in 2017 and everyone, including Zack, will expect more of the same. If the Diamondbacks fall out of contention by midseason, I think the team might be willing to bite the bullet and move him. To do so, they’re going to have to take some bad money back and that’s the sticking point. The team is going to have to remake their roster in the very near future and dealing Greinke will be a part of it when that happens. Should the team get off to a slow start, expect the buzzards to start circling again. If the team stays healthy and competitive again, he’ll likely stay in Sedona Red for all of 2018.

Trisha: I think Greinke finally came into his own last season, but I only see improvements for him. It takes him a little while to settle in and I think this year will just solidify that he’s finally at home in Arizona. I definitely think he stays in Arizona throughout the season, he has a huge contract that teams aren’t going to take lightly. Plus, the Diamondbacks are in a “win now” mode and unless they absolutely tank, they aren’t going to start selling off pieces just yet. 

Jim: After a disappointing first year here, Greinke delivered what we expected from him – and more of the same will be needed in 2018. The good thing is that the rise of Robbie Ray might help lift some pressure off Greinke, in the same way the Randy Johnson/Curt Schilling tandem used to work in Arizona. There won’t be the same “need to win” on Greinke’s shoulders, knowing Ray is lurking behind him in the rotation.

I can’t really see him being traded during the season. The current window of contention probably runs through the end of 2019, when Paul Goldschmidt becomes a free-agent, so it’d take a real disaster for the team to go into full-on sale mode at the trade deadline.

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Jeff: Yasmany Tomas. It’s low-hanging fruit, but Tomas is a major problem for the Diamondbacks. He hasn’t been productive, has had a major issue this winter off the field, and is owed escalating salaries through 2020. He doesn’t have a defensive position and takes too many poor at-bats to keep his head above water. The team would love to trade him, but he has negative trade value and the only way to improve that trade value is to play him and hope he figures something out. He’s the third-highest paid player on the team (making only $1 million less than Paul Goldschmidt), takes up a roster spot and just isn’t providing anything. Yet, the team is stuck with him.

Trisha: Positively, the chemistry that the team has together. They are just so much fun to watch. Seriously, if you aren’t following Archie Bradley on social media, you’re missing out. But the guys are a blast…and they have a blast together. It makes winning more fun and losing a little easier to take (at least for me).

Jim: How good Ray potentially is. His K-rate last year was among the top 10 of ALL TIME for a qualifying starter. His dominance was somewhat masked by a relatively high walk rate, and if that comes down a bit this year, he could be giving Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw a battle for the Cy Young. Obviously, the “if” is key there. But he’ll be 26 for the entire year, so there’s still upside potential. 

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Diamondbacks to do well?

Jeff: You can bet on Paul Goldschmdit to be productive again with a good cast of players around him, so that puts the pressure on Zack Greinke. He’s eating up nearly a third of the team’s payroll and needs to be excellent again. Robbie Ray took a big step forward and Patrick Corbin had some great starts in 2017. Zack Godley was very good and Taijuan Walker did more than hold his own. The team is going to rely on these younger pitchers holding steady or taking small steps forward, but they’re far from proven commodities. Zack Greinke is going to have to lead the way and take up any slack that forms throughout the rest of the rotation. Everyone has hopes for the younger players but the burden is on Greinke to perform well again, at age 34 with diminished stuff, if the team is going to have a good year.

Trisha: I’m going to go off course a little with this one…but Taijuan Walker. I have no doubt in my mind that Zack Grienke and Robbie Ray are going to be work horses in the rotation. I’m not going with Patrick Corbin, because if anyone gets traded at the deadline, it’s him. Around that time, they should see Shelby Miller back too. But, they’ll get a full year from Taijuan, who is the middle of that rotation. His career high is 11 wins with Seattle, but the Diamondbacks need more from him. I think if we see 12 wins, maybe even 14, with an ERA hovering around 3.00, it’ll be the difference maker. 

Jim: I’ll go with A.J. Pollock. When healthy, he has been very, very good. By WAR/162 games, his career rate of 5.63 is not far short of Goldschmidt’s 6.04. But staying on the park has always been an issue: he has averaged only 99 games per season over the last five years. This is his last year under contract, and if he wants a big free-agent deal, he’ll need to put up another All-Star cailber season. The gap between a healthy Pollock and anyone else we can put out at center is as big as almost any other spot on the roster (perhaps bar, inevitably, Goldschmidt?)

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Jeff: The “scientific” projections aren’t out yet as I put this together, but the D-backs will probably be projected to win something like 80-83 games. They overperformed last year based on those projections, but they played the way fans thought they should. J.D. Martinez won’t be around, though, and the catching situation is a bit weaker. If they don’t make any major splashes on the market, I think they can win something like 85 games, give or take a few. The Padres could go back to tanking, but the Giants got better, the Rockies are good and then you’ve got the Dodgers in the division. It’s going to be an all-out brawl in the NL West in 2018 with virtually no easy contests. I expect them to be right there in the wild card race again, but a key injury for any of the Rockies/Giants/D-backs could upset the apple cart.

Trisha: It’s so hard this early. But, I’m going to stick with what I’ve said so far. While I think the Dodgers will have a little hangover from last year, and potentially trying to hard to prove they CAN win a World Series, they will still take first place. The Rockies with all of their improvements will take second. Third is up for grabs, I think if the Diamondbacks play true to how they did in 2017, then they have a legitimate shot at third and the second Wild Card. I firmly believe the Giants are overrated, but they will give the Diamondbacks a run for their money and could absolutely take third and knock the Diamondbacks out. I don’t think it surprises anyone that the Padres will be in last. But the NL West will be one of the best divisions to watch, yet again. 

Jim: 92 wins and another wild-card berth. It’s really hard for any team to chase down the Dodgers. They have the resources and, unfortunately, now that’s combined with a smart front-office, who have created a farm system that churns out Rookie of the Year candidates on a seemingly monthly basis. However, the D-backs took the first wild-card spot by six games, and by Pythag, it should have been nine. I don’t see the other contenders for the wild-card spots as having taken enough significant steps forward to close that gap. 

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Jeff: The one question you could have asked and didn’t was this: how was Mike Hazen’s first year as GM? The answer to that question is “excellent with an asterisk.” Hazen avoided any long-term commitments in his first year and pulled off a trade with the Mariners that helped the Diamondbacks (and the Mariners, too). He scooped up some veteran relievers off the scrap heap on minor league deals that paid dividends and made a move for J.D. Martinez that pushed Arizona over the edge and into the NLDS without surrendering any critical minor league pieces. It should be noted, however, that the roster he inherited was the one that largely got the job done. For all of the fun we’ve had with Dave Stewart, most of his trades worked out fairly well for Arizona (though we all miss Dansby Swanson and Touki Toussaint) even if they were made in accordance within an inferior framework. Hazen has used the pieces at his disposal well and made the little tweaks necessary to improve the team under serious budget constraints. The day of reckoning is coming, however, as Pollock, Corbin and others are set to walk a year from now. There has been no extension for Paul Goldschmidt, Tomas is clogging things up, and Greinke is a major issue for the budget while other younger players are just now hitting arbitration or progressing through it and becoming more expensive. Unless the payroll situation changes, the team is going to have to be remade and that’s when Mike Hazen should shine. We’re all anxious to see what kind of team he will build when he gets the chance and it shouldn’t be long.

Trisha: I just have one additional comment and that’s that the Diamondbacks need to stay healthy. They weren’t plagued by injuries last year, but every week it seemed like it was something. Goldy out for a few days here, Peralta a few days there, Miller went down early, the infield was rolled over with broken hands…if they can minimize the minor injuries to keep their hot-hitters in the lineup, it’s another half game in the standings every few weeks.

Jim: How will the humidor affect play this year? I’m very curious to see. While Chase Field is not as high as Coors Field, it IS a great deal less humid, and that’s where the change could really have an impact. There have been suggestions it could come close to halving the number of home-runs there, which would turn it from one of the most hitter-friendly venues in baseball to… AT&T Park. It’s likely one of the reasons the team didn’t make a bigger effort to pursue J.D. Martinez, a fly-ball hitter who might well affected. Outfield defense will become more important, and Souza/Dyson make more sense there.

I appreciate our Arizona friends giving us the relevant info on what to expect this season.  Likely a fun time will be had by all!

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