Playing Pepper 2022: Arizona Diamondbacks

It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching.  Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside.  Not in this space!  Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch.  There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper!  If you want to keep up with the Diamondbacks during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well.  You can follow that here!

Arizona Diamondbacks
52-110, fifth in the NL West
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by bWAR: Merrill Kelly (2.3)
Top hitter by bWAR: Carson Kelly (2.1)

The bottom fell out for the Diamondbacks last season.  Tossing out 2020, it was the first time the team had finished last in the West since 2014 and you have to go back 10 years from there to find the last time they lost even 100 games.  With two teams finishing well over 100 wins in the division, it would seem Arizona has a lot of work to do.  How quickly can they get back to glory?  Let’s talk to some experts to find out!

Contributor Site Twitter
Jeff Wiser OutfieldGrass24
Jim McLennan AZ Snake Pit AZSnakePit
Jesse Friedman PHNX JesseNFriedman (podcast PHNX Arizona Diamondbacks)

C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Arizona’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?

Jeff: The best thing that happened for the D-backs this offseason was the organization seemingly coming to terms with where they really are and what expectations really look like. For the past couple of winters, the organization has tried to both re-tool and be competitive at once. Merits aside, that’s tremendously difficult with the way baseball has been set up and it didn’t really work for Arizona. They know they need a bigger reset and appear to be moving that direction by leaning on the farm system.

Of course, that also means they didn’t do much on the open market before the lockout. They signed Mark Melancon which has all the makings of a) addressing a massive need, and b) giving themselves a potential trade chip at the trade deadline. They acquired Jordan Luplow from the Rays in an attempt to balance out a very left-handed roster. The team made some upside waiver claims on the pitching but, yeah, that’s about it thus far. If it all feels underwhelming, that’s because it all is. And yet, being realistic, that’s probably okay.

Jim: At the time of writing, it has been quiet, but even with the free-agent market open again, I’m not expecting the Diamondbacks to be big spenders. Then again, I didn’t expect them to sign a proven closer in Mark Melancon either, so what do I know? After a truly wretched 2021, it’s clearly a long haul back to relevance in a particularly tough division. 2022 seems very unlikely to be that year, so the lack of moves is more likely because of the 110 losses, rather than despite them. This team is just not a couple of free-agents away from the playoffs, and it makes sense to let the prospects develop, see what transpires, and then eventually fill in the gaps.

GM Mike Hazen was always vocal about looking to compete, rather than embracing “tanking”. But last year was the least competitive version of D-backs baseball in a long time, and we’ll see if he changes tack now. After a few years of employing experienced but not current closers, the arrival of Melancon is certainly a new approach. Given what we have endured, I’m down for anything new, because the old clearly wasn’t working. If we’re going to lose 100 games again – a distinct possibility – let’s at least do it with young players, who can benefit from the experience.

Jesse: The Diamondbacks haven’t done much, but that’s not necessarily surprising or disappointing. They have several position players — Josh Rojas, Pavin Smith and Daulton Varsho come to mind — who just need playing time. Crowding the lineup with veterans wasn’t going to do any good.

That said, they still had a few holes to fill. They traded for Jordan Luplow from the Rays to help balance their extreme left-handedness. They signed 2021 MLB saves leader Mark Melancon, whose $14 million guarantee is the largest the team has ever given to a free agent reliever in franchise history (what!?). More recently, they added Ian Kennedy as a setup man and Zach Davies as the fifth starter.

I am somewhat surprised they didn’t acquire a third baseman. Rojas will likely get the majority of the time there. That’s not a bad thing for now, but it’s probably not a long-term solution. Rojas’ bat doesn’t play well at third, and it’s hard to say how well he can handle the hot corner defensively after logging just 66 innings there last year. I wouldn’t rule out a trade or free agent signing before the season starts, but it’s unlikely.

C70: Luke Weaver bounced back somewhat from a shaky 2020. How do you think he’ll do this season?

Jeff: Weaver’s surface numbers make it feel like he was better last season than in the one prior, but his underlying numbers were extremely similar. The eye test confirms that he was just as frustrating in 2021 as he was in 2020. The talent is still there, but he’s a two pitch pitcher at this point in his career with a fastball that he struggles to command often and a changeup that can either be devastating or hard to trust depending on the outing. It’s understandable that the Diamondbacks keep trying to fit him into their rotation — and maybe new pitching coach Brent Strom can play a role there — but it’s feeling more and more inevitable that he’s just going to be a relief pitcher. I, for one, would love to see them make that transition sooner than later, before he hits free agency, because I think he can be a good one.

Jim: His ERA was much improved, slashed from 6.58 to 4.25. But truth be told, in 2020 he wasn’t as bad as his ERA painted. His FIP barely changed from that season to this, dropping only a quarter of a run from 4.67 to 4.42, but if he can stick around the latter mark, that’s close to league average, and is valuable enough on its own terms. It’s sadly indicative that his 4.25 ERA was the best of any D-backs’ starter last year.

A key question is going to be his health. He was limited to just 13 starts and 65.2 innings last year, mostly due to a shoulder issue. He did come back well enough, making five appearances in September without apparent issue. But after only 52 innings in 2020 (albeit for reasons outside his control), and 64.1 in 2019, Weaver has yet to prove he can be relied upon for a complete season with Arizona. I’ll be a lot happier once he has a full, 30+ start campaign under his belt for the D-backs.

Jesse: On paper, there’s a lot to like about Luke Weaver. He gets whiffs with a four-seamer that touches 97 MPH, and he complements it with a pretty good changeup. He’s also masterful at repeating his delivery. Granted, he’s basically a two-pitch pitcher (fastball/changeup comprised nearly 92% of his pitches last year), but I think he can still be successful without needing to add anything else.

Noted Weaver apologist Ben Clemens from FanGraphs wrote a couple months ago about how Weaver has struggled to locate his changeup the past couple of years. Regaining command of that pitch is the key to success for him moving forward. That’s going to be easier said than done, but the Diamondbacks hired arguably the best pitching coach in baseball this winter in Brent Strom. If anyone can help Weaver return to form, it’s probably Strom. I’m not sure Weaver will ever be a frontline starter, but at 28 years old, he’s relatively easy to bet on.

C70: Ketel Marte could be a player to build around or a piece to jump start a rebuild with. Which way will the Diamondbacks go?

Jeff: Oh man, I love this question. I can go either way here and, frankly, I think the team can, too. So here’s the deal: they’ll make their move on Marte when their hand is forced. They don’t want to trade him before they have to, but it kinda feels like they’ll have to. I just think they have time to keep assessing the status of their remodel and I expect them to use it. The way that teams are hoarding prospects these days, the prices might not be that attractive considering the risk of prematurely ditching one of the more talented players in the National League. If I’m betting, I bet they trade him but not for at least half a season and more likely some time in 2023.

Jim: The answer to that may well depend on how 2022 goes, but there’s no rush. Even after this year, he’ll be under contract for two more seasons, at team-friendly options ($8m and $10m). If Arizona thinks their window of contention will be back open in 2024, and Marte can be part of that team, then hanging onto him makes sense. But if there’s no real improvement this season, and the prospects we hope will be everyday players by then don’t mature as hoped, then there’ll be no shortage of suitors.

Obviously, the more control he has, the higher his trade value will be (presuming good health, and his performance remain at previous levels). But few moves would signal a white flag more by management, than trading the player who has been the team’s MVP since the departure of Paul Goldschmidt. I suspect Hazen and team will only trade Marte if things are particularly dire, and all hope of even mediocrity is clearly gone.

Jesse: Funny you ask. Reports surfaced on Sunday that Ketel Marte and the Diamondbacks have agreed to a $76 million extension that guarantees Marte’s club options in 2023 and 2024 and tacks on three additional years. The deal keeps Marte in Arizona through 2027 with a team option for 2028. It guarantees a base value of $56 million in new money, which is an incredible value for three additional years of one of the best second basemen in baseball.

It’s really an ideal outcome, in my mind. The Diamondbacks have never had a reputation for retaining star players (cough, Paul Goldschmidt), so perhaps this long-term commitment to Marte can quell past hurts for an ailing fanbase. His $25 million AAV over the final three years is the second-highest the team has ever given to one player. Only Zack Greinke has received more. Marte is really freaking good, too. He’s batting .318/.374/.543 in nearly 1,200 plate appearances since the beginning of the 2019 season. It’s not a fluke. The guy rakes — if he’s healthy.

Unfortunately, that has proven to be a big “if.” Marte played just 90 games last year due to recurring hamstring problems. The team is planning to move him from center field back to second base, which hopefully helps him stay on the field. If it does, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Marte in the MVP conversation. He’s that good.

C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?

Jeff: The answer here is outfielder Corbin Carroll. We’ll see Alek Thomas sooner and he’s going to be a good one, too, but Carroll could really be a game changer for the organization. We’re talking about a super-talented, cerebral, hard-nosed kid with an advanced plan at the plate, a chip on his shoulder, and strong tools across the board aside from raw power. If you wanted to create a blueprint for what a modern, dynamic leadoff hitter would look like, you might just end up drawing a portrait of Carroll. He’s coming off shoulder surgery but expectations are that he’ll be 100% to open the season and I think it’s likely he makes his debut at some point in mid to late 2023. Carroll is the best prospect this team has had in their midst for quite some time.

Jim: There’s no shortage of potential candidates, with some pundits rating Arizona as having the third-best farm system in baseball. However, many of the leading prospects are at the lower level and so probably won’t be seen in the majors this year. Among those who should, outfielder Alek Thomas might be the best. Despite still only being 21, he hit .313 with 18 HR between AA and AAA last year. Now, the Pacific Coast League is notorious for inflating hitters’ stats, but even adjusting for that, Thomas could still be here as soon as Opening Day.

Arizona’s outfield has openings, with Marte likely moving back to the infield, and Kole Calhoun not returning. Other prospects like Pavin Smith and Daulton Varsho may have their role to play there, alongside veteran left fielder David Peralta, but we’ve already seen a good deal of what they can offer. Unseen prospects like Thomas are probably more exciting, in the same way nicely-wrapped Christmas presents sitting under the tree are more enticing than the ones you’ve already opened. Probably excessive hopes and expectations for them are part of the fun!

Jesse: Outfielder Alek Thomas is arguably the organization’s best position player prospect since Justin Upton, and the question is when, not if, he makes his big-league debut in 2022. The 21-year-old could still crack the Opening Day roster, but a slow start in the Cactus League hasn’t helped his case. The team will probably send him to Triple-A to start and then promote him a month or two into the season. Thomas is more than competent as a center fielder, and he’s basically never stopped hitting in the minors. Last year, he slashed .313/.394/.559 in 106 minor league games. He spent the majority of the year with Double-A Amarillo before finishing the year with Triple-A Reno. Both are hitter-friendly environments, but several dozen rave scouting reports say his success probably wasn’t a fluke. He may be the team’s everyday center fielder before long.

My honorable mention is switch-hitting shortstop Geraldo Perdomo, who got his first taste of the majors last year at age 21. Perdomo’s defense at short has been major-league worthy for years, and he made significant strides with his bat last year. With veteran Nick Ahmed dealing with a shoulder issue right now, Perdomo could open the season as the team’s everyday shortstop.

C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?

Jeff: The D-backs have another tough season ahead, but it’ll be one that should contain some silver linings in terms of prospect development, rookie debuts, and a shot in the arm from young players. They should finish fourth in the division, ahead of Colorado, and amass something like 75 wins. It’s about the future at this point. Sad as it is, wins and losses won’t mean a lot in 2022.

Jim: It can only be better than last year, can’t it? I mean, going into the final weekend, this could have been the worst record in franchise history, so it surely can’t be as bad again… can it? CAN IT???? I’ve had a lot of faith in Hazen, and he’s done a lot of good work rebuilding a farm system that was basically strip-mined under Dave Stewart. But my faith in his ability to assemble a major-league roster has been increasingly shaken. GMs who post 110-loss seasons don’t tend to keep their jobs, but the team has so far kept faith with Hazen. However, there needs to be progress.

I’d be happy with the team simply being respectable, which means in the 65-70 win range. That would be a clear improvement over last season, though still likely means they’ll be fighting with the Rockies for the cellar in the NL West. Even approaching .500 seems unlikely, considering the team appears unlikely to make a splash in the upcoming frantic free-agent marketplace. If the young players don’t deliver, however, it could be another long season with few reasons to watch the team.

Jesse: As Jack Sommers of AZ Snakepit said on our podcast a few months ago, the Diamondbacks will probably win more games just by getting out of bed in the morning. The team faced an unprecedented number of injuries last year, and 52 wins was a first-percentile sort of outcome. They’re not that bad. ZiPS projects 72 wins for 2022, and PECOTA has them at 73. I think those figures are reasonable, but I’m going to be optimistic and say they claw their way to 75. That’s still not great, but a 23-win improvement is nothing to sneeze at.

As far as their rank in the (very brutal) NL West is concerned, I think we can all agree the Diamondbacks aren’t in the same stratosphere as the Dodgers or Padres. I’m not high on the Giants, but I don’t see the D-backs catching them either. I expect the team to finish in fourth place in front of the Colorado Rockies, who are still pretty bad even with Kris Bryant.

C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Diamondbacks Twitter accounts to follow.

Jeff: I’m going to assume that people are already following the ever-excellent duo of Nick Piecoro and Zach Buchanan, so let’s go with these two: Jesse Friedman (@JesseNFriedman) and Joshua Inman (@RoofNPanelsOpen). Jesse has been excellent in his work for the emerging PHNX with D-backs coverage and I think that Joshua is one of the brightest minds following the game that people don’t know about. I’ve also had the privilege of working with both of them over the last few years and gotten to see their talents on a regular basis. It’s worth tossing them a follow right now.

Jim: Long serving beat reporter @nickpiecoro, top prospect @jordanlawlar, and @Blodog17 – the dog of manager Torey Lovullo.

Jesse: You can follow all my site’s Diamondbacks coverage at @PHNX_Dbacks. I collaborate with Derek Montilla, who you can follow at @Cap_Kaveman. I also want to shout out Joshua Inman (@RoofNPanelsOpen), who did incredible D-backs analysis at my previous site and is probably only a few years from being snatched up by an MLB front office.

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