Getting Out of the Cellar: Arizona Diamondbacks

Before they knew it, the Diamondbacks were out of it. Before the calendar even flipped to June they were double digit games back in the NL West. They got to 20 games behind just after the All-Star break. They did hit something of a stride in August, going 16-13, but an 11-18 September/October put a fitting end to a bitter season. The Diamondbacks have plenty work ahead of them if they’re going to make up the 15 games that separated them from fourth place.

Considering their mid-season moves, it appears as though the Diamondbacks are prepared to make those changes. They fired GM Josh Byrnes after a disappointing start, despite having him under contract through 2015. They then traded their best pitcher, Dan Haren. We’ll likely see them make even more changes this winter. But will they be enough to compete in the NL West?

The changes for the Diamondbacks should start with pitching. The staff was absolutely horrible in 2010, producing the NL’s worst FIP — and its worst tERA by a long shot (5.20 to 4.61 for the next closest). They also ranked 15th in ERA and xFIP. This was mostly due to the bullpen, which finished last in the NL in all component ERA categories, and last in ERA by a full run. The starters weren’t much help either, finishing in the bottom third for all ERA categories.

Rebuilding the bullpen will be the most difficult task, simply because it’s tough to target quality relievers without overpaying in free agency — and even then there are no guarantees. New GM Kevin Towers does have a history of building marvelous bullpens; almost all of the 2010 Padres bullpen, the NL’s best in all ERA categories, was acquired under Towers’s watch. That doesn’t mean that the 2011 Diamondbacks bullpen will be a world beater. But it does give the team some hope for the future.

In terms of starters, the team does have a few options. The top of the rotation will essentially be empty, since the team is absent an ace. Daniel Hudson should prove to be an excellent acquisition. He and Ian Kennedy constitute a solid middle of the rotation. Then there are pitchers such as Joe Saunders and Barry Enright to fill out the bottom portion. We could also see the Diamondbacks explore the free agent market for a veteran. Perhaps Brad Penny would fit.

The biggest wild card for the team right now is 2007 first rounder Jarrod Parker. He missed all of 2010 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but the team still has high hopes for him. He is advanced for his age — 22 later this month — even considering the setback. He is reportedly looking good during his rehab, hitting 95 on the gun, which is where he sat prior to the injury. He’s the team’s best chance right now at an ace. He might not act as that in 2011, but he can probably help the team in some way.

On offense the Diamondbacks had weaknesses at three positions in particular: third base, left field, and first base. They have an immediate opportunity at first base. Adam LaRoche, who produced a .339 wOBA in 2010 after having a hot start, will not be retained. That opens the door for Brandon Allen, who performed well during his cup of coffee last year. He also produced excellent numbers at AAA, a .407 wOBA. That was in the PCL, a hitter’s haven, but it’s an impressive line nonetheless.

At third base the team faces quite a different situation. For the past four seasons they’ve had Mark Reynolds at the position, and he has rewarded them with a couple of solid seasons and a monster 2009. In 2010, though, he struggled considerably. His strikeout rate, high in a normal year, shot up to 42.3 percent. His walk rate also rose, but he still managed a mere .320 OBP. That’s because of a .198 batting average. Reynolds experienced a precipitous drop-off in his line drive rate, which might help explain the poor production. The question is of whether this was a one-year blip or a sign of things to come. His salary jumps from $500K in 2010 to $5 million in 2011, so the Diamondbacks might explore moving him this winter.

In left field the team has its biggest opening. At that position they had the NL’s lowest wOBA, .294 — which was actually raised by Ryan Church‘s contributions. They did play Allen out there as well, but with LaRoche gone chances are he’ll move back to his natural position. The internal options are scarce, and there’s no chance they’ll land a big-time OF such as Jayson Werth or Carl Crawford. Despite a poor 113 PA in 2010, Cole Gillespie could get a chance, but count on the Diamondbacks bringing in a veteran to take the bulk of the playing time.

With the third in our Getting Out of the Cellar series, we see yet another team in a completely different situation. The Orioles have a long way to go, but have plenty of talent on hand. The Royals are the closest to leaving the cellar, but their best bet is patience. The Diamondbacks actually have a decent group of talent, but need work with their bullpen, one of the most difficult aspects of team building. We might not see Arizona contend for the NL West crown in 2011, but with an active winter they could leave the cellar, where they’ve finished for the last two seasons.

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.