Playing Pepper 2019: Arizona Diamondbacks

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

Arizona Diamondbacks
82-80, third in NL West
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

After all was said and done on August 21, the Diamondbacks led their division by 1.5 games and were 70-56.  They then went 12-24 and wound up finishing on the outside looking in as both Los Angeles and Colorado zoomed past them.  Instead of thinking they were close, though, Arizona pivoted toward a rebuild by, among other things, sending the face of their franchise to the Midwest.

So now what?  Where is this team heading and how long will it take for them to get there?  As we did this morning, we have a couple of veteran Pepper players to tell us all about the snakes in the desert.

Writer Site Twitter
Jeff Wiser Baseball Prospectus OutfieldGrass24
Jim McLennan AZ Snake Pit AZSnakePit

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Jeff: This offseason will always be thought of as the winter when Paul Goldschmidt, Patrick Corbin and A.J. Pollock got away. The “bad” of the offseason is pretty obvious — an exodus of talent that’s propped the team up for the last several years. That exodus left a bit of a vacuum that the Diamondbacks weren’t prepared to easily fill. Merrill Kelly was signed from Asia and Luke Weaver came via the Cardinals to fill rotation spots. But there was no heir apparent at first base nor was there one in center field. Jake Lamb and Ketel Marte will likely both make position switches and those are always interesting.

The “good” is a little less apparent, but the team made moves to acquire affordable, younger players who are still developing to fulfill their respective upsides. That’s critical for a team committed to keeping payroll relatively low. The Diamondbacks also stockpiled draft picks, a benefit that will become more obvious come June, then hopefully pay true dividends in the next two to five years. Those draft picks can either support and become the next wave of talent, or become currency to bolster the major league roster. Rather than entirely tearing the team apart over the winter, Mike Hazen is choosing to roll with things a bit, then re-asses. Meanwhile, they’ll make a big effort to obtain impactful amateur talent and brighten the horizon.

Jim: It feels like the team is trying to steer a course between the rocks of a rebuild and the whirlpool of being competitive. After the Goldschmidt trade, and with the departures of A.J. Pollock and Patrick Corbin many fans were expecting further moves to follow. For example, the likes of Robbie Ray, David Peralta, etc. being dealt to bolster the farm system further. It didn’t happen. Given the players we lost, it feels like more work was needed to be done if we were to remain competitive. That’s especially true as we watched the Padres sign Manny Machado, the Rockies extend Nolan Arenado, and the Dodgers/Giants sniffing around Bryce Harper. I liked some of the small moves we made, such as signing Greg Holland. But I’m just not convinced it was enough.

C70: The Paul Goldschmidt trade was obviously a big move. Who do you think will contribute more to the team this year, Luke Weaver or Carson Kelly?

Jeff: This is a great question, partially because there’s no clear answer and partially because the answer could end up being “both.” In the short-term, Luke Weaver fills an important hole. He’s a lot like Robbie Ray was when he came to the Diamondbacks a few years ago — some good stuff that’s played well in stints, but also hasn’t been consistently controlled. Weaver isn’t the same power arm, but his fastball can work to get him ahead and his changeup plays well to both lefties and righties. Like Ray back in his early years, he needs to develop his breaking ball and that could take some time. The results, should the breaking pitch come around, could really take off as we’ve seen with Robbie.

Long-term, Carson Kelly represents something the Diamondbacks haven’t had in almost a decade — a good, young catcher. It’s been since Miguel Montero that the team has had that kind of asset, and while Kelly’s bat hasn’t shown well in the majors, he should finally start getting the kind of consistent reps he needs to go from AAA masher to a quality MLB hitter. He’s already a good receiver and defensive catcher, so some time to mature at the major league level seems to be all that’s missing.

For this year, I’ll go with Weaver, but further out, I’d take Kelly.

Jim: I think Kelly has the potential to be our everyday catcher. This year, he’ll be splitting time with Alex Avila, but it was interesting to note Kelly caught Zack Greinke‘s first spring start. Greinke has tended to have a “personal catcher”, and early signs suggest Kelly might be that man in 2019. After being blocked by Yadier Molina in St. Louis, he’ll have every chance to seize the role in Arizona, and with Avila a free-agent at the end of this season, Kelly could become the team’s most regular catcher since Miguel Montero. 

C70: What do you think will be the strength of the team?

Jeff: This is a really difficult question to answer. In 2018, the Diamondbacks leaned heavily on their defense but with the two of eight players making position changes and the recently-added Wilmer Flores projected to play a lot of second base, the defense appears far less stable. For 2019, the strength just might be the rotation as Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray are a very capable 1-2 punch. Getting Zack Godley back on track will help and Taijuan Walker will be back over the summer. Meanwhile, Merrill Kelly and Luke Weaver should be able to provide stability while the team waits for guys like Jon Duplantier and Taylor Widener to make their big league debuts. There’s some quality at the top and plenty of depth when it comes to the rotation, so I would expect the pitching staff to hold their own — so long as the defense can convert batted balls into outs at a decent rate. 

Jim: Flexibility. It feels like most of the position players have the ability to handle more than one spot, and that will help the team to play match-ups, keep people rested, and move men around in later innings. Classic National League ball, in fact. 

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Jeff: The general outlook for 2019 is that the team projects to be walking a very fine line. If healthy, they have enough talent to hang around at .500-ish pace. Bounce-back campaigns from guys like Jake Lamb and Steven Souza could really help round out the offense. But a key injury or two, especially on the position player side of things, could leave the team extremely vulnerable. Should a guy like David Peralta or Ketel Marte miss significant time, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the team fall way off the pace — convincing Mike Hazen to continue the sell-off he started this winter. I’m not without hope for a better outcome than many are predicting, but I’ll guess they finish a tight fourth in the division. 

Jim: I’m not optimistic. I’m looking toward the future more than this year – significantly, the single event I’m looking forward to most is the draft, where the Diamondbacks have a slew of early picks. At the major-league level, I have concerns about our depth, both for our starting position and in the outfield. 162 games makes for a long season, and if we lose someone like David Peralta or Zack Greinke, it could become a particular test of stamina for fans. 

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

Jeff: The biggest question going into the season is probably whether or not Archie Bradley will be the team’s closer. Greg Holland was signed recently for a back-end role, and while he had a really terrible start to his 2018 season, he finished stronger down the stretch and won’t be heading into the season unprepared as he did a year ago. In short, he could be capable of closing for the team, as could Yoshihisa Hirano. While the Diamondbacks could look to repress Bradley’s next arbitration salary by keeping out of the ninth inning, I think it’s time to give him the reins and let him run with the closer’s role. That might not always end up rosy, but he’s at a point in his career where he needs to establish himself firmly as a legit, impact reliever for an entire season. He needs the opportunity and the Diamondbacks need a clear resolution, so I expect him to be the closer and he should be. When he’s on, he has the best stuff in the bullpen and it’s time for him to take that next step forward. 

Jim: Center field is the question. Right now, the team seems to be leaning toward plugging infielder Ketel Marte into that position. It’s not the first time Arizona has done something similar, with Chris Owings moving from the middle infield to become our Opening Day CF starter in 2016. However, that was an emergency move following Pollock breaking his elbow. This time, it is at least more planned, after Pollock’s departure to free-agency, and the dearth of suitable replacements in the free-agent market. Marte is a great athlete, but to what extent that can overcome his lack of experience remains to be seen. 

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Jeff: Two part answer: David Peralta at the plate and Nick Ahmed in the field.

Peralta’s the anchor of the offense now and he’s a lovable character. David’s been through hell and back to get to where he is today, going from pitching flame-out to All-Star level contributor. He’s matured as a hitter over the years and he was really, really good a season ago. He’s the rare guy who’s getting better into his 30’s as his approach continues to improve and he’s hitting the ball hard consistently. Most of all, he’s extremely likable, easy to root for, and backs it up on the field. It’s anyone’s guess how long he’ll be around, so fans will have to enjoy it while they can.

Meanwhile, Nick Ahmed remains a damn magician with the glove. Seriously. Every single game, he’ll make a play that makes your head spin. It’s easy to overlook because he makes it look so easy, but I challenge people to do this: go to a minor league game and watch the shortstop intensely, then watch Ahmed play short. It’s like watching a tuned Honda Civic race a Lamborghini. We get spoiled watching him play defense night-in and night-out, and like Peralta, he may not be around all season. Get in on the action while you can.

Jim: The little things. I’d be surprised if they end up much above .500 overall, so it’s going to be the occasional blowout win, beating the Dodgers, etc. that is probably going to be the source of most pleasure. Also the development of Arizona’s prospects and young players, because the future is likely brighter than the present.

My thanks to Jeff and Jim for getting us up to date on Arizona.  There’s no doubt that there will be a number of Cardinal fans keeping a bit of an eye on that team this year!

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