Five questions: Arizona Diamondbacks

Will the Diamondbacks’ young hitters produce enough offense?

This is where the Arizona season will likely stand or fall. Some of the projections are bullish on this; Baseball Prospectus expects the team to score 910 runs, an increase of about 90 over the previous year. There is some grounds for this, since they’re still a very young team. On Opening Day, it’s likely all eight starting position players will be 28 or younger, so age is on their side. It was notable that a number of the young players, particularly Stephen Drew, Justin Upton, Miguel Montero and Chris Young, had markedly better numbers in the second half of 2008.

Sustaining those improved levels of performance over an entire season will go a long way toward driving the offense to the projected levels of production. As would cutting down on the monstrous rate of strikeouts from Young, Upton and Mark Reynolds—the latter setting a new single-season strikeout record in

Is Jon Garland an acceptable replacement for Randy Johnson?

Diamondbacks fans were disheartened by the loss of Johnson, especially to a division rival, but the downturn in the free-agent market meant the team picked up Garland for little, if any, more money. He is certainly much less of a risk than the Big Unit, being more than 16 years younger and having made more than 32 starts every season for the past eight.

On the other hand, the second half posted by Johnson last season showed that there was still life in the Big Unit, to put it mildly. Overall, however, Arizona went only 14-16 in the games started by the future Hall of Famer, a number that Garland, who has a career ERA+ of 104, should be able to match. Indeed, the five anticipated starters for Arizona all have lifetime ERA+ better than 100, giving them a rotation among the strongest in baseball, top-to-bottom and a chance to win, almost every day.

Can the Arizona bullpen stop sucking quite so hard?

Despite a very respectable ERA of 4.09, the Diamondbacks’ relief corps had a miserable 2008 record of 17-28, which should improve, simply because it can’t be much worse. They were lights out when the game was already won or lost, but a good deal less reliable if it was on the line. The poster-boy for their struggles was Jon Rauch, who came over from Washington in late July and promptly went 0-6 with a 6.56 ERA for Arizona. Chad Qualls supplanted Brandon Lyon as closer in September, and Qualls has the job on Opening Day, despite a lack of experience in the role. He’ll probably be fine: the issue is more whether Tony Peña and others will be able to preserve the leads and pass them on.

The usage of Scott Schoeneweis may also be crucial: in his time in New York, few relievers were better at getting left-handed hitters out, but few were worse facing right-handed ones. If veteran signing Tom Gordon can come back from injury and contribute, that’d be nice, but personally, I’m not counting on that.

Is Max Scherzer ready to be a full-time starter?

As recent major-league debuts go, few in baseball have ever been more impressive than Scherzer’s. On April 29, 2008, he pitched against the Houston Astros and retired all 13 batters faced in 4.1 perfect innings, with seven strikeouts. He ended with 66 strikeouts’s in 56 frames, but there are doubts over whether he will stick in the rotation. These are partly related to his stamina (he’s the No. 5 in Arizona, so will be skipped when possible), partly to the question of whether he has three pitches consistent enough to get him through the opposing lineup a few times.

Although it wouldn’t be a disaster if he ends up as the Arizona closer down the line, the Diamondbacks will certainly give Max every chance to succeed in the rotation. With four proven innings-eaters, the bullpen should be able to handle the load should Scherzer have a relatively short and stellar outing on the fifth day.

Are the Diamondbacks able to tame Manny?

They certainly didn’t do a very good job last season: against the Diamondbacks, Ramirez hit .512/.588/1.000, driving in a dozen runs. Yes, you read that correctly: 22-for-43, with seven walks and five homers in 12 games. Arizona need to get over the hump and start retiring him, if not quite like any other hitter, then at least a good deal more often than 41 percent of the time. The Dodgers are very likely to be the biggest threats to the Diamondbacks this season, and whoever wins the head-to-head series between the two teams will probably take the NL West.

Last season, that was Los Angeles, 10-8—after Manny arrived on July 31, the Dodgers won seven of nine. The opening series between the two teams is April 10-12 in Phoenix, and establishing they can handle Ramirez and the rest of the potent Dodgers offense is probably a psychological necessity for the Diamondbacks if they are to compete for the rest of the year.

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