Few teams took more public heat than the Arizona Diamondbacks this winter, and for good reason: They seemed to be on the short end of the talent stick in nearly all of their trades. Out went the defense and power of longtime center fielder Chris Young, shipped to the Oakland A’s in a three-way deal that brought back low-offense middle infielder Cliff Pennington and Miami Marlins free agent/bullpen bust Heath Bell. Gone was 21-year-old starter Trevor Bauer, barely more than a year removed from being the No. 3 pick in the draft, for reliever Tony Sipp and the questionable offensive track record of minor league shortstop Didi Gregorius.
Those moves were merely appetizers for the main course: the trade of outfielder Justin Upton to the Atlanta Braves despite his being just a year removed from a top-five MVP finish and headed into his age-25 season. Upton (along with third baseman Chris Johnson) brought back Martin Prado and four prospects, and, although Prado had long been a solid, versatile player for the Braves, few would argue he possesses anything like the pure raw skill Upton does.
The tenor of the moves might have been easier to infer if not for the fact that general manager Kevin Towers was more than happy to be upfront with his intentions, even telling reporters, “We kind of like that grinding, gritty player.” In essence, he wanted to remake the team in the image of Kirk Gibson, his famously crusty manager.
So the new gritty direction must be working out, right? Well, not exactly. Prado has been mostly awful, and Pennington has been replacement-level. Willie Bloomquist — the epitome of grit — and outfield import Cody Ross have battled injury while contributing little. Grit is very often associated with small-ball tactics, and this Arizona club doesn’t really play that way; the Diamondbacks rank 26th in stolen bases and are tied for 23rd in bunt hits, and only two other NL teams have fewer sacrifice bunts.
Although there’s certainly an argument to be made for Arizona’s improved clubhouse culture, the Diamondbacks’ current standing atop the NL West isn’t really because of the “grinder” squad. It’s because of talent: They’ve had a few hot starts on both sides of the ball, while facing rivals who have failed to live up to expectations.
Any discussion of Arizona production starts first and foremost at first base, where Paul Goldschmidt has turned himself into an absolute stud. After a solid first full season in 2012 (.286/.359/.490 with 20 home runs), Goldschmidt has broken out as one of the better hitters in baseball, already collecting 15 homers in 300-plus fewer plate appearances than last year. His line of .313/.390/.565 is impressive, and not only because the resulting .406wOBA is good for third among first basemen, behind Chris Davis and Joey Votto. He’s also among just nine hitters at any position with a mark north of .400. Before this season, Arizona inked the first baseman to a five-year, $32.5 million extension, a move that is quickly looking like a steal, considering that Votto is making more than half of that total in 2013 alone.
The other surprising offensive cog so far — with apologies to productive outfielder Gerardo Parra — has been shortstop Gregorius, who came up in April when second baseman Aaron Hill broke his hand. In parts of five seasons in the Cincinnati Reds’ organization, Gregorius put up an OBP higher than .324 just once, back in rookie ball in 2009, and otherwise had failed to show particularly impressive power or baserunning ability. That, despite flashy defense, made for valid concerns about his future as a major league hitter.
But that didn’t prevent Gregorious from making a big splash this year, hitting .369/.424/.595 in his first 22 games — 14 of which were Arizona victories. But that stretch came with a clearly unsustainable .412 BABIP, and, in the 21 games since, he’s back to a more realistic .241/.330/.329. But those hits (and team wins) from his first few weeks have already been banked.
The pitching staff has its own breakout artist, 23-year-old lefty Patrick Corbin. He didn’t even lock down a spot in the rotation until the final days of camp, but, by June 2, he was the first nine-game winner in the big leagues. Although no one should expect him to keep his ERA around 2.00 through the season, a 3.05 FIPremains solid, and he has been a surprisingly reliable piece in a rotation that has dealt with a poor season from Ian Kennedy and further injury to Brandon McCarthy.
Interestingly enough, Corbin’s peripherals aren’t all that different from those in his rookie season of 2012, when he put up a 4.54 ERA. He’s striking out fewer and walking more batters this year than he did last year, and his ground ball and fly ball rates have remained relatively consistent. What Corbin has done this year is almost completely avoid the big hit, allowing only four homers in 86 2/3 innings after allowing 14 in 107 innings last season.
Corbin, Goldschmidt and Gregorius have been the three most notable names, but the heart of the Diamondbacks’ success comes from the impressive depth Towers has put together. When young outfielder Adam Eaton was injured before the season, rookie A.J. Pollock stepped up to replace him with outstanding defense despite mediocre offense. Eaton, Ross and Jason Kubel have all missed time in a revolving-door outfield, but Parra has been there with a line of .322/.388/.475 that makes him a borderline All-Star candidate. And, in the bullpen, Bell has been good enough to revive his career as he has replaced injured J.J. Putz in the ninth inning.
Should Arizona’s success be attributed to grit, talent or foresight? It’s difficult to say. The simple fact that Arizona is in first place is a pretty effective rebuke to those who laughed at its offseason strategy. That said, the team, as a whole, hasn’t been spectacular in any particular way.
On offense, the Diamondbacks rank 14th in wOBA, sitting between two losing clubs, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Milwaukee Brewers. On the mound, the pitching staff ranks 15th in FIP and 14th in ERA. By those metrics, Arizona is, perhaps, the most average team in the big leagues.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the NL West has been weaker than expected. The defending-champion San Francisco Giants are struggling to stay above .500 as their once-vaunted rotation falls apart, and the big-spending Los Angeles Dodgers have been a total mess as their roster has been destroyed by injury. Arizona’s 37-29 record is the lowest winning percentage of any division leader, and it has had difficulty pulling away from the struggling pack.
Although Corbin and Gregorius can’t be expected to maintain their early performances all season, their slides might be mitigated by the healthy returns of Eaton, Hill and Putz and the expected return to form of Prado. As its division rivals try to get back on their feet, Arizona looks positioned for a season-long run at the playoffs — regardless of the particular intangibles driving its success.
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