Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Scrum for the NL West: Diamondbacks

The Arizona Diamondbacks had such a magical season in 2011 and won 94 games. Despite their success, Baseball Prospectus does not even project the team to win the division in 2012. In fact, BP projects the division to be among the closest and yet nearly the most mediocre division in baseball with only seven games separating the teams from top to bottom. In this, the first segment of a five post series, an attempt will be made to sort out the division. First up, those same Diamondbacks.

Baseball Prospectus most likely based their projection for the Diamondbacks in 2012 on the fact that nearly the same team will return in 2012 and the team beat its Pythagorean won-lost record by six games in 2011. The Pythagorean system as it relates to baseball looks at the amount of runs a team scores and allows and with math that only Jason Wojciechowski would understand, figures out how many games a team should have won provided their run differential. No doubt the formulas involved are longer than that last sentence. At any rate, the Diamondbacks should have only won 88 games last season. BP's projections are similarly based and project to only 83 wins in 2012 and a second place finish (behind the Giants).

Looking at the Diamondbacks' roster, such a pessimistic projection for a division winning club is understandable. They have questions at shortstop, first base, left field and the bottom two spots of their pitching rotation. Plus, you have to remember that this club is only two years removed from winning only 65 games in 2010. Manager, Kirk Gibson, was given much of the credit for the club's turnaround and deservedly so. The question is whether Gibson can consistently coax more wins out of a team than its talent level. Let's take an in-depth look at this team starting with the pitching staff.

The starting rotation begins with two of the best young pitchers in baseball in Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy. This dynamic duo won 37 games between them last season. Kennedy led all starting pitchers in WPA and won 21 games. Hudson won 16 but his overall stats were nearly identical to Kennedy's. Both keep walks to a minimum, are fairly stingy with allowing balls to be hit over the fence and let batters pound the ball into the ground to a very good defensive infield. While a lot of good fortune goes into the won-loss record, serious regression should not occur in the statistics for either pitcher overall.

The Diamondbacks did make one major move in the off season to bolster the rotation and brought in Trevor Cahill from the Oakland Athletics. Cahill is a solid, if unspectacular starting pitcher. He is an extreme ground ball machine and has made thirty or more starts for three years in a row. However, his somewhat unexciting statistics drew great benefit from pitching all his home games in Oakland's house of horror. To say that his splits from home and away are extreme would be an understatement.  His success for the Diamondbacks will largely depend on how many of his ground balls find infielder gloves.

Cahill should be a great improvement on the third starter from a year ago. That's the good news. The bad news is that the Diamondbacks brought Joe Saunders back to be their fourth starter. Nearly the only possible good thing to say about Saunders as a starter is that he'll consistently take the ball every fifth day. He is a durable innings-eater. Plus, he is left-handed. The reality is that he doesn't miss any bats and tends to be homer prone. His ERA of 3.69 of a year ago was more than a run less than his FIP. There is little hope of him being able to replicate that in 2012. 

The fifth starter might be less dicey with Josh Collmenter and his funky over the top delivery. Collmenter became a sensation as a rookie a season ago when his first eleven appearances led to a 3-1 record and an ERA under two. But the league caught up with him in June and he was somewhat mediocre after that fast start. But the nice thing about Collmenter is that he helps his cause by limiting home runs fairly well and is very stingy with giving away free passes. Low walk rates are stressed with success in Arizona and Collmenter was their flag bearer.

If any of the rotation faulters, Trevor Bauer is nearly ready for prime time. The Diamondbacks' preference would be for Bauer to start the season in the minors, but he could prove to be a factor as the season hums along. Wade Miley could prove to be another decent option. Fortunately, the Barry Enright, Armando Galarraga and Zach Duke days won't have to be repeated.

The Diamondbacks have the makings of a terrific bullpen. J.J. Putz was money last season and his last two seasons have proved that if you use him wisely, he shouldn't break down like he did after the Mariners ran him into the ground. Putz has been Rivera-like in avoiding walks and might be the most underrated closer in the game today.

Putz is backed up by the returning solid trio of David Hernandez, Joe Paterson and Brad Ziegler. They have been augmented by what might one of the sleeper off season upgrades of the season when they received Craig Breslow in the Cahill deal. Breslow, if used correctly, is one tough lefty out of the bullpen.

Paul Goldschmidt certainly had a whirlwind season in 2011 as he made the jump from an A+ league in 2010 to Double A in 2011. Late in the season and in desperation, the Diamondbacks turned to the eighth round draft pick who put together three Pujols-like seasons in the minors. Goldschmidt had some huge moments for the Diamondbacks down the stretch. Despite the heroics, he can look over-matched at times and struck out nearly thirty percent of his at bats. The first base job will be his, but it will be interesting to see how he fares over a full season. Projections are fairly bullish for him to have a fine season, but this one falls in the question mark category here. Lyle Overbay is a good guy and will back up Goldschmidt.

Another question mark is at shortstop with Stephen Drew trying to return from a very serious ankle injury. Early indications are that he should be physically ready to go, but the injury is a scary one and the Diamondbacks will have to hold their breath. Drew is an excellent shortstop when healthy though his bat never seemed to develop the way it was thought it would. If Drew can man his position, that will be terrific because otherwise that would lead to more serious playing time for Willie Bloomquist. Bloomquist at best is a utility guy and the Diamondbacks lose a lot at short if he has to play there a lot.

The last question mark is left field. Gerardo Parra had his best season in the majors last year with a career best offensive and defensive season. He won the Gold Glove Award. His reward this year after such a fine season was to possibly lose his starting spot to newcomer Jason Kubel, who was signed as a free agent. Kubel can be an effective slugger but the Diamondbacks will lose a lot of defensive capability to put him in left over Parra. Parra is expected to play all over the outfield as the fourth outfielder and could see significant at bats. But this observer is not a big fan of this move.

Everyone fell in love with Ryan Roberts last season as he became a bit of a cult personality with his tattoos and at times flamboyant play. Roberts is a terrific fielding third baseman with some pop in his bat and good plate discipline. Third base is currently a market inefficiency in baseball and Roberts is a valuable player for this team.

Second base should probably have been put in the question mark category. Aaron Hill will occupy the position and he is a plus defender but a very confusing offensive player. Hill followed a career year in 2009 with the Blue Jays to two years of ridiculously low BABIP scores and troubling statistics. He seemed to find himself at the plate after a trade deadline deal sent him to the Diamondbacks. So his offensive 2012 will be fascinating to watch.

Chris Young has developed into a terrific center fielder but fell off slightly at the plate last season. But he is coming into his peak seasons. His combination of good power, plus base running and the way he can go get the ball in center make him a rare commodity. He has put together two 4.6 fWAR seasons and could be even better. Young is definitely a strength of this team.

And, of course, his outfield partner in right is one of the best young players in the game and Justin Upton is the core of this team. Amazingly, Upton will only be 24 in 2012 and his superstar status will continue to grow year by year. Upton has also become a fine fielder in right after adjusting to the position for a couple of seasons. 

The Diamondbacks also have one of the best catchers in the game right now in Miguel Montero. Montero is in the last year of his contract and will have the extra incentive in this, his walk year. Montero is that rare breed of good offense and good defense. He's everything you'd want in a catcher. But he'd better stay healthy because if he goes down, he is backed up by Henry Blanco. And you don't want to go there full time.

Blanco is part of a pretty weak bench completed by Overbay, Bloomquist, John McDonald and Geoff Blum. This lack of depth is a bit troubling if any of the regulars miss significant time.

The opinion here is that the Diamondbacks could easily win 90 games this coming season in a division where 88 wins could win the division. Despite BP's projection, the projection here is that they are the team to beat in the National League West. We shall see in the next four installments of this series if any of the other four teams in the division will have anything to say about that.


Pitch 1 said...

I don't agree with pushing the panic botton after two or three ST games. This is a sold team and the infield is good even without Drew. Better with him, Hill is a solid hitter for the DBacks, Pitching is a concern which brings me to what I do agree with on your assessment the kubel trade did not make sense to me after the DBack outfield was voted best in the NL, The money they threw at kubel should have been spent on pitching ?

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Oh man, Pitch. If you've spent any time here at all, you know that two or three spring training games are never taken seriously about anything. The roster as a whole was considered for the piece and not anything that has happened this spring.

Kevin Rehberg said...

The D'Backs are going to run away with that division.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

The gut says you're right, Kevin. But time will tell, right?

Thomas Slocum said...

As a bit of a Kirk Gibson fan, I'm almost tempted to agree with you. But this team has at most four players any first division team would be happy to have - Justin Upton, Miguel Montero, Daniel Hudson, and Ian Kennedy. Everyone else is a supporting cast member at best. If that supporting cast comes through, this team could certainly win 90+ again; it could also lose 80-85 if the big horses don't get the help they'll need.