Read the methodology behind the ratings here. Remember that the grading scale is 20-80, with 50 representing league average.
#30 – Baltimore
#29 – Houston
#28 – Oakland
#27 – Pittsburgh
#26 – San Diego
#25 – Minnesota
#24 – Chicago AL
#23 – Seattle
#22 – Kansas City
#21 – Cleveland
#20 – New York NL
#19 – Los Angeles
#18 – Colorado
#17 – Miami
Arizona’s 2011 Ranking: #29
2012 Outlook: – 55 (12th)
Combine an offense that is well above average with a pitching staff that is a touch above average, and you have a playoff team. It wasn’t enough to get the D-backs into baseball’s final four, but they came about as you could come, taking the Brewers into extras in the deciding Game 5 of their National League Division Series. Most of the principals from that team are intact this year. They are once again faced with mediocre competition in the NL West, and are in a position to win the division in consecutive years since the Randy Johnson-Curt Schilling-Luis Gonzalez-mountains of debt years. And while Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson may be in for a bit of regression, the team may be better this year than last.
The team received almost no production out of first base last season — Arizona’s .318 wOBA from first base was 24th in the game, a particularly egregious mark considering the team’s environment. Paul Goldschmidt doesn’t need to be that great to improve upon that, and if he lives up to his projections (his projected wOBA ranges from .344 to .382), he will be much better than that. Justin Upton may get better as well, as he will only be 24 this season, and while already spectacular, he may not be done improving.
The rotation could either be a weak spot or a huge plus. Trevor Cahill should be a solid addition to the team, especially if he can keep his ground-ball rate at the level it was last year. And while Mssrs. Hudson and Kennedy may come back to earth if their obscenely low walk rates tick back up this year (and if Kennedy doesn’t have the same good fortune his LOB% afforded him last year), the real trouble spots may be Josh Collmenter and Joe Saunders. Much of the season could come down to how the D-backs react if the duo struggles. If they provide one or both with a long leash and they continually get battered, it could be an opportunity missed, as the D-backs have talent ready to replace them on the farm. Collmenter may not get much rope with which to hang his unorthodox delivery, but Saunders is the highest-paid pitcher on the team, and may not be pushed aside so easily.
The other big question mark is shortstop. With Stephen Drew unlikely to take the field before May, the team is once again casting their lot with Willie Bloomquist. This is a confusing decision, especially with the glovelier John McDonald now in the fold. Following Drew’s July 20th injury last season, Bloomquist hit .261/.315/.337. If Drew doesn’t come back quickly, sticking with Bloomquist could come back to haunt Arizona.
2013+ Outlook: 56 (8th)
By most accounts, the D-backs have a top 10 farm system. Our own Marc Hulet has them eighth, Keith Law at ESPN has them sixth, and Baseball America placed them fourth. Having a deep stable of pitchers will do that. Even after trading Jarrod Parker, in Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs, Archie Bradley and Patrick Corbin, the D-backs have more pitching depth than just about every team in the game.
The positional player crop on the farm isn’t as strong, but part of that is because much of it has graduated — Goldschmidt, Parra and Upton are all homegrown (and another homegrown player, Collin Cowgill, was shipped off to Oakland as part of the Cahill package). Combine them with young veterans like Drew, Miguel Montero and Chris Young, and Arizona had one of the youngest teams in the game last year. That won’t change this year — of the key components of the 2012 team, only J.J. Putz, Ryan Roberts and Saunders are north of 30. And with the exception of Montero, all of the team’s young players are locked up through at least the end of next season. Talent-wise, the D-backs are in an excellent position moving forward.
Financial Resources: 42 (23rd)
The Diamondbacks have a relatively new ballpark, and are improving the quality of the product on the field, but are unfortunately stuck in a market that is going to keep them behind their NL West rivals financially. Of the five members of the division, the D-backs came in last in Forbes’ 2012 MLB team values. While Arizona is in a closely clustered group — eight teams were valued from $447-480 — they were on the low end of that spectrum, and the club’s upside is financial mediocrity. The team is still highly leveraged, and while they wisely reinvested in payroll this offseason, with the Opening Day payroll up by almost $15 million over last year, there probably will not be much wiggle room to take on salary during the season.
The other question that will continually crop up is do they have the money to keep their own players. The team was unable to come to terms with Montero on a contract extension, and as Matt Klaassen discussed earlier today, the team might not have the wherewithal for such a deal. With Saunders coming off the books, there may technically be room in the budget for Montero, but then that could hamstring the team when it comes to other players. Kennedy and Hudson (and to a lesser extent, Parra) will be due large raises in the near future, and if Goldschmidt takes off, they may want to lock him up as well. It’s a good problem to have, but Arizona is going to have to work hard to keep all of their talented players in the fold.
Baseball Operations: 48 (17th)
Kevin Towers came on board following the franchise’s faceplant in 2009 and 2010, but instead of a total teardown he made changes on the periphery, making low-risk, high-upside plays. He claimed Joe Paterson on waivers from the San Francisco Giants, where he was blocked by the immortal Jeremy Affeldt. He also took gambled on guys like Russell Branyan, Sean Burroughs, Wily Mo Pena, and J.J. Putz. Not all of those moves worked out, but you could see the logic in each one, and when one paid off, it paid off big — Putz was one of the most valuable relievers in the game last season. Throw in the in-season acquisition of Brad Ziegler, and three of the four most valuable relievers on last year’s D-backs squad were Towers’ imports. He and his staff drastically improved the bullpen, and did so on the cheap.
The gambles were not isolated to the bullpen either. Towers had the gumption to let former face of the franchise Brandon Webb walk, and that paid off in spades when his comeback lasted all of 12 innings…in Double-A. The Aaron Hill acquisition worked out as well as it possibly could have, and as the price of pitching steadily increased as the offseason progressed, the Trevor Cahill deal began to look like highway robbery. Of course, the biggest gamble was retaining Kirk Gibson — he of the 34-49 record — as the team’s manager. Gibson showed a firm hand with his players (at least publicly), eschewed traditional managerial tactics and took home Manager of the Year honors in his first full season. If he keeps it up, he will be on the short list for best manager in the game.
That isn’t to say that Towers and Co. have been bulletproof. Many questioned the Jason Kubel acquisition, and the team’s affinity for Bloomquist and Saunders is strange. It also would have been nice to see them give Goldschmidt 600 plate appearances, but Lyle Overbay — despite not being good with the bat or glove in 2011 — and his veteranness are likely to steal some playing time. But overall, things have been positive. While their ranking is 17th, one more point would have pushed their ranking to 13th.
Overall: 50 (16th)
It’s amazing how much difference one season can make. We buried Arizona in these org rankings a year ago, placing them higher than only Houston. The club’s 13-spot climb this season is tied for the largest jump, along with the Nationals. A lot went Arizona’s way in 2011, and more should go their way in the future. Their baseball operations base is solid both on the field and in the front office, they have a young team with a superstar who is locked up for four more seasons, and a groundswell of pitching on the farm that could transform their rotation from middling to monstrosity. If they make the right moves and catch some breaks, we may look back on 2011 as the beginning of a great run for the franchise.
The one thing they don’t have, however, is extra money. Their payroll may be maxed out for the season before it starts, and that gives the season a make-or-break feel. If Drew can suit up for 130 games, if Kennedy, Hudson and Roberts turn in consecutive good-to-great seasons, if Goldschmidt is the real deal, if they call up the kids at the first sign of trouble from Collmenter and/or Saunders, they could run away with the division. But if not, they will have a fight on their hands. Still, the opportunity is there. With the Phillies, Cardinals and Braves all already dealing with significant injuries, the NL lacks a clear favorite, and the D-backs are as poised as anyone to step into the breach.