Starting today, FanGraphs is offering a season preview for each team in baseball. We’ll begin with the NL West and do three teams each day. Check back later for our thoughts on the Giants and Rockies, and stay tuned over the next few weeks where we break down each team’s chances in 2011.
After dealing Dan Haren to the Angels during the 2010 season, the Diamondbacks have gone into full rebuilding mode under new General Manager Kevin Towers. The team traded Mark Reynolds, but much of the relatively young talent which keyed Arizona’s powerful offense remains. Towers has surrounded that young talent with aging veterans, ostensibly hoping to use 2011 as a season for the young guns to learn how to win from the older guys. Unfortunately, much like last year, the Diamondbacks roster doesn’t project to do much winning this season.
Lineup (* indicates left-handed hitters)
The positional battles for the Diamondbacks come in at first base and left field, where the quadrumvirate of Nady, Allen, Miranda and Branyan will be fighting for some 1,200 plate appearances. Branyan and Allen are likely the two best players of the group, but Miranda is young and has shown some power potential in the minors, which may earn him some playing time if not the bulk at one position. Nady appears to have some favor with management, but he showed no sign of recovering to his pre-Tommy John surgeries (yes, plural) days.
Regardless of how the left field/first base situation resolves itself, the Diamondbacks should field another powerful lineup. Third base is a position of weakness with Mora and Geoff Blum as the only options. But the Diamondbacks have talent everywhere else. Johnson (6.0 WAR in 2010) exploded in his first season in the desert, and Chris Young (career high .354 wOBA in 2010) took a major step forward as well. Drew is a good hitter who relies on good power (.176 career ISO) and looks utterly fantastic next to one of the weakest shortstop crops in years, and Miguel Montero’s bat was considered good enough for the franchise to evict Chris Snyder despite the weakness of the catcher position. Upton, despite a down 2010 season, is still one of the great power talents in the game, and healing from a shoulder injury should improve his stock.
Even without Reynolds, we can still expect the Diamondbacks to take their hacks and score a decent amount of runs. There are some question marks at the corners, but there is plenty of offensive talent on the roster. Team defense doesn’t appear to be a particular strength of this team, and a few players (Nady, Mora, and Allen, at least in left field in particular) will be question marks in the field. But there are some slick gloves in the form of Drew and Upton, who can pick up some of the slack.
Pitchers (* indicates left handed)
A few other pitchers will compete for roster spots as well, most notably starter Barry Enright and reliever Sam Demel, both right handed. Other candidates potentially include Kam Mickolio, Brian Sweeney, and Micah Owings.
This is a rotation that could really use Dan Haren. Joe Saunders is a disaster of a top-of-the-rotation starter, and shouldn’t be counted on as more than a fourth starter. Dan Hudson showed flashes of talent last season and Ian Kennedy is young and intriguing. The Diamondbacks, however, just don’t have the rotation depth that can mask the lack of top-tier talent at the top. Zach Duke persistently proved that he is nothing special over his time with the Pirates, and Armando Galarraga’s near-perfect game was almost certainly a fluke, as even if he can maintain his BABIP success (.261 2010 and .263 career), his 4.58 career ERA doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
For as bad as the starting rotation looks, all the questions regarding horribleness in the pitching department must be directed straight toward Arizona’s bullpen. Last season’s group compiled a 5.74 ERA and 5.09 FIP to go with a historically bad -8.37 WPA. There are a few holdovers from last year’s group – most notably Juan Gutierrez (5.83 FIP, -0.18 WPA), but also Esmerling Vasquez (4.94 FIP, -1.43 WPA), and Aaron Heilman (4.47 FIP, -1.33 WPA). The addition of Putz at closer could stabilize things if he pitches like he did for the White Sox last season (10.8 K/9, 2.52 FIP), but at 34 and with a recent injury history, nothing is guaranteed. The concept of regression tells us it is nearly impossible to be as bad as last season’s version again, but with the talent on hand, it is difficult to describe this squad as even close to average.
Both for the limited chance at success for this season as well as the long-term health of the franchise, the Diamondbacks need Daniel Hudson to definitively cement his role as a top-half-of-the-rotation starter, if not an ace. Although Hudson put up good ERA numbers with the White Sox prior to his trade, control issues loomed in his Major League numbers despite the fact that not once in the minors did he post a BB/9 over 3.4. Upon arrival in the desert and the National League, Hudson’s control issues evaporated and, at least for 79 innings, Hudson pitched like a great pitcher.
Even though a 1.8 BB/9 might be high expectations for Hudson going forward – his rates generally played in the high twos in the minors – the strikeout and walk part of his peripherals should be fine. A repeat of the 20 walks in 35 innings Hudson posted with the White Sox is highly unlikely, and even at his worst, Hudson has shown the ability to generate strikeouts with his fastball-slider-changeup repertoire. No, the potential problem for Hudson comes in his propensity for the fly ball particularly in a dry-air hitters park like Chase Field. Of 310 batted balls Hudson has allowed in the Major Leagues, only 106, or just over one third, have been ground balls. Ground ball rate tends to stabilize relatively quickly, and a 1.25 HR/9 in 90+ AAA innings suggests that this may have been a problem previously as well.
Still, if Hudson can keep runners off the base, the inevitable home runs produced by the combination of fly balls and Chase Field will have less of an impact. We only have 114 MLB innings of data to go on, but Hudson could be one of the steals of the 2010 trade deadline and a real impact player for Arizona going forward. A full season of solid control and continued excellence in striking out batters would go a long way towards making that notion a reality.
2011 doesn’t appear to be a banner year for Arizona, as San Diego, San Francisco, Colorado, and Los Angeles (in some order) all look to have better prospects for the division than the snakes. The team should provide some entertainment, at least, as the offense is capable of producing some fireworks on any given night. The problem is, with the pitching talent on hand, opposing teams will be at least as likely to put on a show of their own, which will lead to many a high scoring loss for Arizona. Work is left to do on the rotation and the bullpen, and Kevin Towers won’t have this team in contention until those problem areas are fixed.