Playing Pepper 2020: Arizona Diamondbacks

If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper!  For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear.  It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about.  It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.

Arizona Diamondbacks
85-77, second in NL West
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Last year’s Pepper

Playing in the NL West can’t be easy, especially with the Dodgers going full bore to erase that three decade lapse in World Series titles.  That kind of thing can overshadow other squads that are making their own impacts.  Arizona is one of those teams, putting up a better-than-expected record in 2019 after trading away Paul Goldschmidt and then spending the winter adding more pieces for an October run.  Was it enough?  Let’s find out!

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Jeff Wiser Baseball Prospectus OutfieldGrass24
Jim McLennan AZ Snake Pit AZSnakePit

C70: After watching him against the Diamondbacks for so long, how strange will it be to see Madison Bumgarner pitching for them? What were your thoughts on the acquisition?

Jeff: It’s going to take some getting used to, but I think fans have already embraced Bumgarner and there certainly won’t be any push-back. He’s a bit of a cowboy at heart and that’s endearing to folks in Arizona — a place that really was the Wild West not all that long ago. He’s not going anywhere, so I’m sure he’ll just be “one of the guys” by the end of Spring Training.

The acquisition caught everyone by surprise. In a press conference, GM Mike Hazen said he didn’t set out this winter to chase a pitcher. But Bumgarner was willing to adjust his salary in such a way that the D-backs were able to make it work and he’s the kind of dependable starter (keep him off a dirt bike) that most teams desire. He’ll serve as a sort of mentor for younger guys like Luke Weaver, Zac Gallen and others. He’s reportedly a very good teammate and will be reunited with Stephen Vogt, so I think he’ll fit in seamlessly.

On the field, I expect him to be relatively good in the short term and just okay long term. The Diamondbacks’ best prospects are all position players, so Bumgarner can serve as a sort of pillar of the rotation for years to come — even if he’s more league average than dominant. He hasn’t lost a ton of velo in recent years and the movement on his pitches trended up slightly last season to approach his career norms, so as long as he stays healthy, he should maintain some effectiveness for a few more years. The final year or two of the deal are anyone’s guess given the mileage on his arm.

Jim: Probably less strange for us than for Giants fans! We’ve been here before of course: our last big free-agent pitcher signing, Zack Greinke, came over from the Dodgers, and he ended up slotting in quite well. I think it’s a solid deal. While MadBum may not be quite the ace he once was, like Greinke, he’s not a pitcher who has to rely on pure “stuff,” and that should age decently. It’ll be nice to have him around to mentor some of the young pitchers as well, and we look forward to seeing Bumgarner at the plate as well. Just be sure to keep him out of the rodeo arena during the season, please!

C70: Did the season Christian Walker had take a bit of the sting out of losing Paul Goldschmidt? Can he continue to provide that sort of production?

Jeff: No one’s ever going to replace Goldy — he’ll be a legend in the desert forever. But Walker did a good job of making sure the team got some value out of first base in his rookie-ish season. CWalk had never had anything close to full season’s worth of plate appearances before, so I’d imagine he learned a ton in 2019 and, despite his age, I think he still has a little more improvement to come. He was a tremendous defender at first base, so the D-backs didn’t see a big drop off in that department. The one thing about Walker is that he often ran very hot and very cold. He had prolonged stretches of time where he looked absolutely lost at the plate, but would follow them up with two weeks of scorching-hot production. The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle, but given Walker’s limited big league track record, I might skew expectations a little higher. If he can just limit some of the long cold spells, he’ll be an average first baseman at the plate and continue to be well above average in the field. That ain’t no Paul Goldschmidt, but it’ll work in a pinch.

Jim: It was definitely unexpected to see Walker basically match the production of Goldschmidt last season. Admittedly, that was partly because Goldy had one of his worst years ever. But given the difference in cost, Arizona fans had absolutely no complaints. Walker was one of those players who has basically been blocked at his position for his entire career, so it was nice to see him finally get a chance, and seize it with both hands. There’s no reason why he can’t repeat those numbers this year, though it’s hard to see him ever entirely replacing Goldy in our hearts. He may get a bit less playing time, with Jake Lamb perhaps working a part-platoon at first. But if both men perform as they did in 2019, Walker will become the everyday guy once more.

C70: Former Cardinal Zac Gallen made his way to the desert last year and put up some good numbers. What will his role be in 2020 and what do you expect out of him?

Jeff: Gallen had a tremendous season in Miami and Arizona in 2019. He went from a guy who was a decent prospect but not a capital “D” Dude, then pitched like guy who wasn’t out of place in the least. He’ll be located right in the middle of the Diamondbacks’ rotation for the foreseeable future. His stuff did back up a tiny bit in September and he was shut down in the middle of the month, but he reached a new career high in innings in 2019 and should be ready for a full season in 2020. I won’t bank on him running an ERA that starts with a two again, but his stuff and command are above average and he should be a well above average starting pitcher for a long time to come. He’s the complete package — good enough stuff, good enough command, and enough pitches to keep both lefties and righties guessing. That’s a pretty good asset to have if you’re the D-backs.

Jim: He’s certainly someone on whom the team is going to rely, not just for 2020 but in the seasons beyond that, as the team seeks to bridge the gap towards their farm prospects (the best of whom are mostly still in the lower tiers). He pitched very well after coming here, but he will need to get the walks down a bit if he’s to become truly successful. But if he can refine his repertoire a bit as well, he could end up being the most productive pitcher on the team this year. He’s young enough that more experience can only benefit him, and that will come as he sees more major-league hitters.

C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?

Jeff: One of the great things about baseball is that anything can happen. But over 162 games, talent wins more often than not. And in that regard, the Diamondbacks still lag pretty far behind the Dodgers. On the pitching side, it’s a relatively even split. But the Dodgers’ lineup is a venerable force that seemingly cannot be tamed. The D-backs will definitely have a steep uphill to climb if they want to supplant Los Angeles. Grabbing Starling Marte was a another excellent move (I really like Liover Peguero and Brennan Malone, the prospects he was dealt for), but Arizona is still not going to put up offensive numbers like Los Angeles. They’re still at least one bat short.

The rest of the division is a bit harder to sort out. The Giants don’t look to be very good, but they were a stubborn team a year ago. The Rockies are impossible to figure out, but it does appear to be a down year for them as they’ve done next to nothing over the winter. The Padres, however, could really scrap with the Diamondbacks for the second spot in the division. The team playing in April almost surely won’t be the same as the team playing in July as some of San Diego’s prospect talent will reach the majors this season. With Fernando Tatis, Jr. and Manny Machado in the lineup, plus guys like Chris Paddack, Dinelson Lamet and Kirby Yates pitching, the Padres have some talent. They’ll add even more (especially in the pitching department) as the season goes along. Holding them off isn’t a foregone conclusion.

Jim: I can see another second-place finish. It’s hard to argue against the Dodgers who now have both enormous resources AND a smart front-office, which is a tough combination to overcome. The Giants and Rockies seem to have all but given up hope before the season has begun. So I think it comes down to us versus the Padres, and I think San Diego’s farm system is still not quite ready to deliver all the team needs at the major-league level. I’m looking for the D-backs to be one of the leading contenders for a wild-card spot, and build on last year’s unexpected winning record. If they can surpass last year’s 85-win total, I’ll call this season a success.

C70: What’s the main topic Diamondbacks fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?

Jeff: Payroll might be the issue that’s being bantered about a little bit. Mike Hazen has done a really good job of working within the constraints that ownership has placed upon him. While we never know the true figures until well after the fact, it looks like the team might have a little money left to spend entering the season. If it doesn’t get spent, then it usually goes away — this isn’t a savings account situation where they can carry the money over to the following season. Leaving cash on the table isn’t a great look, but could also be useful if the team were to go after a pricey mid-season addition like they did a couple of years ago with J.D. Martinez.

But more broadly, the Diamondbacks have run a very middling payroll for a long time now. They have a progressive, well-received GM in place that’s had success in turning the franchise around. He’s had to move money around on some deals to get them done (i.e. Bumgarner) because of his constraints (and things like Yasmany Tomas‘ salary). But what would happen if he could spend $140 million? Or $155 million? The team seems to be comfortable in the $115-$125 million range, and yes it’s a business, but one can’t help but wonder what Hazen might able to do if he had more resources to work with. So far, he’s proven a rational spender and one would presume that would carry over even if he had a bigger budget.

Jim: Probably the future of Chase Field. There was a nasty spat between the team and their local authority landlords over what repairs were needed and who should pay for the maintenance. As a result, the team has clearly been looking into various alternatives. Those included getting architecture firms to come up with plans for a new park, or even talking to cities like Henderson, Nevada about the possibility of relocating. How much of this was just posturing, to apply pressure to the landlords, is hard to say, and an agreement was reached which gives the team more control of the facility. But the current lease expires at the end of 2027, and they could potentially leave Chase Field for another site in the Phoenix area as early as the end of 2022.

C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?

Jeff: Aside from actual baseball happening (finally!), it’ll be really fascinating to see if this team can improve upon last year’s success. They projected as a .500 ball club entering 2019 and people weren’t buying it. But the team hung around and even made a late push before a minor collapse ended their pursuit of the second wild card spot. They’ve now subtracted Greinke from the rotation but have added a some new assets in Bumgarner, Kole Calhoun, the aforementioned Vogt and Marte, and Hector Rondon and Javier Guerra to the bullpen. What is that all worth? Bumgarner is a drop off from Greinke, but they’ll hope for a full season out of Gallen and something like 120-innings from Weaver. Right field won’t be a black hole anymore. Adding one Marte to the outfield puts another in the infield. Vogt is a great compliment to Carson Kelly. The bullpen needed some help and got it. I’m most looking forward to seeing what these moves are worth in the aggregate. Running down the Dodgers seems too much to ask for, but can a push for the wild card be within reach? That’s the question and you’ve got to like Arizona’s chances to do so given that the N.L. West is the only National League division with two expected bottom-dwellers. Let the N.L. East and Central scrap a little harder against one another and hope for the best.

Jim: Watching the Dodgers fail to win the World Series, yet again? Oh, you mean the Diamondbacks! 🙂 It’s always fun to see the development of young players that you’ve followed since they were drafted, and that’s what I’ll be keeping an eye on most. While, as mentioned, Arizona’s strength is mostly some way off, players like catcher-centerfielder (and that’s not a typo!) Daulton Varsho could potentially contribute as soon as this season. At the major-league level, watching Nick Ahmed play shortstop. He’s arguably the best fielder the team has ever had, and having signed an extension this winter, it looks like he’ll be a pleasure to watch for years to come.

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