Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Big Question: Will Kevin Towers’ odd offseason pay dividends?
After winning 94 games and the National League West in 2011, the Diamondbacks took a step back last year with an 81-81 record and a third-place finish. General manager Kevin Towers then embarked on an interesting offseason in which he unloaded outfielders Justin Upton and Chris Young and talented young right-hander Trevor Bauer in a series of controversial moves. However, now that the dust has settled on all the wheeling and dealing, Kirk Gibson’s grit-infused roster isn’t demonstrably better on paper than they were a year ago. In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that Towers undersold on his assets.
To be fair, I think that the starting rotation has the potential to be pretty solid. Ian Kennedy isn’t an ace, but he has a 3.55 ERA in three seasons with Arizona and has made at least 32 starts in all of them. Trevor Cahill’s strikeout rate has jumped in each of the last three seasons while his ground ball tendencies are well suited for Chase Field. Wade Miley is coming off a second-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting while offseason addition Brandon McCarthy quietly owns a 3.29 ERA over the past two seasons. The fifth spot in the rotation will come down to either right-hander Randall Delgado, who came over from the Braves in the Upton deal, or left-hander Patrick Corbin. While not outstanding, the starting pitching should be good enough to keep them in the hunt.
I liked Arizona’s lineup a lot more on Thursday than I do right now. 24-year-old rookie Adam Eaton was poised to replace Young in center field and bat leadoff, but he’s now expected to miss 6-8 weeks with a strained ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow. Cody Ross joined Arizona on a three-year, $26 million contract over the winter, but he’s dealing with a nagging calf injury and could miss the start of the season. This means we could be looking at an outfield of Jason Kubel, Gerardo Parra and A.J. Pollock on Opening Day. Upton and Young could be missed in that outfield, at least in the early going.
This isn’t to say that the Diamondbacks won’t get anything out of their lineup. There are still plenty of exciting pieces here. Miguel Montero is one of the best hitting catchers in the National League and is getting better and better behind the plate. Aaron Hill’s resurgent 2012 season didn’t get much attention even though he hit for the cycle twice. Paul Goldschmidt was impressive during his first full season in the big leagues. Martin Prado, the big get in the Upton deal, should hit for average and hold down the hot corner.
I could certainly see the Diamondbacks being a playoff team if things break right now, but another .500 season (or worse) is possible, too. Perhaps Miley and/or Goldschmidt regress during their second full seasons in the majors. Maybe McCarthy’s shoulder is an area of concern all season. Heck, Eaton’s elbow injury could turn out to be more than a two-month thing. None of these scenarios would surprise me. Towers made some bold moves over the winter to build a roster in Gibson’s image and he could take a lot of flak if things don’t work out.
What else is going on?
• The Diamondbacks entered the offseason with shortstop as an area of need and it’s still a question mark today. Cliff Pennington came over from the Athletics in the Chris Young deal and projects to start and bat eighth, but he’s a .249/.313/.356 hitter in the majors. 23-year-old Didi Gregorious was acquired in the three-team trade that sent Bauer to Cleveland, but he’s currently working his way back from a slight strain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and likely won’t be ready to play in games until mid-April.
• J.J. Putz has been rock solid since joining the Diamondbacks in 2011, compiling a 2.48 ERA while going 77-for-86 in save opportunities. The 36-year-old hasn’t thrown more than 60 innings in a season since 2007, but the Diamondbacks have the proper depth to give him rest when needed. David Hernandez would likely be first in line for save chances in the event of an injury, as he has compiled a dominant 2.94 ERA and 11.4 K/9 since coming over from the Orioles in the Mark Reynolds trade. He’s probably one of the most underappreciated relievers in the game today. Towers acquired Heath Bell from the Marlins over the winter -- and will pay $13 million of the $21 million left on his contract -- but he’s a major wild card coming off a 5.09 ERA last session.
• The Diamondbacks and Goldschmidt are reportedly in talks about an extension. There’s no rush to get something done, as he isn’t arbitration-eligible for the first time until after 2014 and remains under team control through 2017, but the Diamondbacks clearly see him as a long-term building block at first base. With 83 homers over 315 games in the minors and 28 over his first 193 major league games, the 25-year-old has the sort of middle-of-the-order power potential to fill the void left by Upton.
• Two interesting reinforcements for the rotation could be on the way soon. Tyler Skaggs struggled in his first taste of the majors last season and was optioned to Triple-A Reno last week, but he’s one of the top left-handed pitching prospects in the game and owns a 2.98 ERA over four seasons in the minors. Daniel Hudson had Tommy John surgery last July and should be ready to rejoin the starting rotation at some point during the second half.
Prediction: Third place, NL West