It’s Now or Never for the Struggling Snakes

The Arizona Diamondbacks have had a disappointing season after being one of baseball’s biggest surprises a year ago when they won the NL West and pushed Milawaukee in the NLDS before eventually falling in 5 games. They’ve lingered around .500 all year in 2012, never going further than 4 games over or 6 games under the mark and they currently sit at 64-65. The offense ranks slightly above average in the NL in runs scored and the pitching staff ranks slightly below average in runs allowed. The team recently traded away a couple of usable pieces in Joe Saunders and Stephen Drew, neither of which had made any sort of significant contribution to the 2012 team, in the hopes that another player would step up and play a little better if given more playing time. Arizona is going to need somebody to step up if they have any hopes of playoff contention this season.

Last season’s breakout stars, Justin Upton and Ian Kennedy, have struggled this year and have put up middle-of-the-road numbers respectively. After laying a foundation for a bright future a year ago, manager Kirk Gibson and his staff have to be a little bit frustrated to see the team mired in the middle of the NL West, 7.5 games back of division leading San Francisco and 5 back of 2nd place Los Angeles. Time is running out if Arizona wants to return to the playoffs this season, and with Los Angeles loading up over the weekend that task just became more difficult.

The Giants are currently on a 90 win pace, meaning that Arizona will more than likely need to win at least 24 to 26 of their final 34 games if they want to sniff October baseball this year.  Fortunately for Arizona, their schedule over the final month of the season sets up nicely if the team intends to make a stretch run. Arizona is slated to play 6 more games against the Dodgers and has a whopping 10 games left against the Giants, which allows for plenty of chances to directly make up games in the standings.

Other than the final 2 games of their current series against the Cincinnati Reds, all of Arizona’s other 16 games will come against teams with a losing record, including 10 of their final 13 games. Remember last year the Cardinals finished with a similarly weak schedule and were able to parlay their advantage into a playoff birth. If the same thing is going to happen in the desert in 2012, the Diamondbacks will need some crucial players to step up.

Justin Upton would be the first and foremost out of that group. He’s hitting just .277/.358/.406 this season with 10 homers and 51 RBI in 116 games. Upton has lost over 100 points off of his OPS (.764 down from .898) this season and nearly 40 points off of his OPS+ (139 to 101). Part of his problems at the plate this year can be chalked up to a wrist injury that handicapped him for most of the first 2 months of the season, but that doesn’t explain all of his struggles.

Upton is hitting the ball with less authority than at any other point in his career, posting a career low ISO (isolated power) of .129, down from his career high of .240 last year. This is all somewhat alarming for a 24-year-old, 4th year player who is supposed to be entering the prime of his career. The younger Upton has been a little better over the past month (.315 batting average), and the snakes will needs that to continue if they have any hopes of playing past September.

The rest of Arizona’s offense has actually been solid, led by Jason Kubel and Paul Goldschmidt. The latter was USA Today’s Minor League Player of the Year last season and he’s proving that he can produce in the major leagues as well. Goldschmidt is hitting .290/.358/.517 (127 OPS+) with 18 homers, 36 doubles, and 66 RBI. He’s striking out less this season (23.1% of his at-bats end in a K, down from 29.9% last year) while making solid contact much more often. Kubel on the other hand was acquired via free agency after playing his entire career up to this point in Minnesota. He’s playing some of the finest baseball of his career in the desert, hitting .267/.338/.525 with 26 homers and 79 RBI.

On the run prevention side of the ball club, Arizona has had to mix-and-match quite a bit this year due to some struggles out of the rotation. Projected staff ace Ian Kennedy, soft-tossing Josh Collmenter, and 25-year-old Daniel Hudson all lost the battle with regression this season after having excellent 2011 seasons. Hudson is out for the year, Collmenter was bombed out of the rotation, and Kennedy has been mediocre going 11-11 with a 4.22 ERA (97 ERA+). Instead Arizona has turned to Wade Miley, who has been brilliant this year and is ahead of the pack for the Rookie of the Year award. Miley has gone 14-8 with a 2.80 ERA in 151 crucial innings for Arizona.

The Diamondbacks have also recently called up one of their best prospects in the hard-throwing Tyler Skaggs. His second career Major League start is scheduled for tonight, and his first was very successful. The 21-year-old worked around 5 walks while striking out 6 in 6.2 innings against Miami to earn his first career win. If Skaggs can provide a handful of quality starts over the last month of the season, Arizona will increase their odds of playing meaningful games during the final week of the season.

The rest of the rotation, Trevor Cahill and Patrick Corbin have been solid, providing slightly better than average production. The bullpen hasn’t been as good this season either, but is still rates near the middle of the National League in ERA, strikeouts, and batting average against. They’ve probably cost Arizona a couple more wins than last year’s unit did, but on the whole they aren’t the reason the team is struggling.

It’s been odd season in Arizona to say the least this year. Last year’s team snuck up on nearly everybody and probably overachieved by winning the division. This year’s team has faced some nasty regression in places, while finding a few nice surprises in others, which has allowed them to hang around without ever falling too far behind. If a couple hitters (Chris Young or Justin Upton would be nice) can get hot and buoy the offense and Skaggs, Miley, and the rest of the young rotation can work some magic, Arizona still has a chance albeit a slim one. Whatever happens, we will know soon enough, because with so many games against LA and San Francisco on the horizon, Arizona will finally be forced to either make a push or collapse into oblivion in 2012.

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