Compared to the flashier moves being made by division-mates San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ offseason has largely flown under the radar. But no team’s maneuverings have piqued my curiosity quite like those of the Diamondbacks. Arizona’s general manager, Kevin Towers has been quite the beacon of activity this offseason, swapping out Chris Young, Trevor Bauer, Matt Albers, and Brian Shaw for Heath Bell, Cliff Pennington, Didi Gregorius, Lars Anderson, and Tony Sipp. Towers also set aside $18 million to sign Brandon McCarthy and Eric Chavez to deals that will bring the former AL veterans to the desert. The Diamondbacks still have a couple of small moves remaining to fill their remaining roster spots, but otherwise any renovation Towers had appears to be complete. So what do they have to show for it? Is this roster any better than the one that finished 81-81 a year ago? Did Arizona give up on Bauer too soon? Let’s get to some of these questions and more.
How good is the Diamondbacks rotation now?
Arizona has actually been a remarkably consistent team over the past 2 seasons. The Diamondbacks have scored right around 730 runs each year while their pitching staff has allowed about 675 runs a season. That 55 or so run differential is good for around 85-86 wins most seasons, which means the Diamondbacks only need to add a couple of wins about to make the playoffs. And with this pitching staff it’s easy to see where Mr. Towers believes those wins will come from.
Brandon McCarthy, a highly underrated right-hander, should be one source of improvement. McCarthy has thrown 280 innings over the past two seasons, posting a 17-15 record, a 3.29 ERA (121 ERA+), and a 4-1 strikeout to walk ratio. McCarthy also signed what is probably the most team-friendly deal of this young offseason, inking a two-year deal for a little over $15 million dollars. In a market that’s handing out $80 million to Anibal Sanchez and giving private islands to Zach Grienke, $5 million for a highly productive pitcher is a bargain.
McCarthy’s pinpoint control fits in perfectly with the Diamondbacks’ philosophical approach as well. Since taking over as manager before the 2011 season, Kirk Gibson has had his catcher stand up and issue a free pass fewer than any other manager in baseball. The Diamondbacks have issued just 34 intentional walks in the last two years. Nearly half of baseball issued more free walks in 2012 alone. That’s helped Arizona rank near the top of baseball each season in walk avoidance, which is always a good thing since keeping runners off base prevents them from scoring as easily. With Ian Kennedy and Wade Miley rounding out the top of the rotation, Arizona should safely rank among the best in baseball in preventing the free pass in 2013.
The Snakes should be awash with arms as well. In addition to the Kennedy-McCarthy-Miley triumvirate, the Diamondbacks also have 24-year-old Trevor Cahill, 23-year-old Patrick Corbin, 25-year-old Daniel Hudson, and 21-year-old Tyler Skaggs. That’s a ton of quality pitching depth. Cahill had a 3.78 ERA a year ago and is almost assuredly going to be in the rotation on Opening Day, leaving one spot open for 3 candidates. Hudson is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and won’t be able to help the Major League team until mid-season at earliest, which leaves Skaggs and Corbin to battle it out in Spring Training. Corbin threw about 70 more innings at the big league level a year ago, but Skaggs outperformed him in the minors and comes with a bit more upside. Whichever pitcher Arizona decides to go with will likely be one of the strongest #5’s in baseball, which is a testament to the sheer amount of pitching depth Towers has amassed in just two years on the job. That quality depth should push Arizona into the top 3 or 4 staffs in the National League, and that makes them an instant contender to get to 90 wins.
Speaking of Trevor Bauer, did Arizona give up on the former #3 pick too soon?
Trevor Bauer entered the 2012 season as the #9 ranked prospect in the Majors by Baseball America. Based on his 2012 performance at Double-A Mobile and Triple-A Reno, Bauer should enter the 2013 season safely among the top 10 prospects again. He eviscerated batters over his 130 innings, striking out 157 of the poor saps, while posting a 12-2 record with a 2.42 ERA. Bauer possess a plus fastball that sits around 95 and a variety of breaking pitches, the best of which is a power curve. Those are some fantastic minor league numbers, but Bauer also has some warts that were exposed on his first call-up to the big leagues.
Bauer has struggled quite a bit with his command over the course of his minor league career, walking over 4 batters per inning every year of his professional life while throwing quite a few wild pitches as well. His walk rates haven’t improved at all in 3 years in the D-Backs system and these issues were exposed like an open sore once Bauer hit the big leagues. He walked 13 batters and threw 2 wild pitches in just 16.1 innings, and if you watched his starts, his lack of control was startling. There were also reports that Bauer’s pitch selection and off-day throwing regiments, which involve strenuous long toss, were starting to grate on the Diamondbacks which could have also led to the trade.
But it’s also just as likely that GM Kevin Towers saw the diminishing shortstop market and decided to make a deal for the best young player he could get. Arizona has as much young pitching as any team outside of Tampa Bay. In a market that is wild for pitching, Towers was an obvious seller thanks to his supply of young arms. Bauer was just the guy he picked to cut bait on rather than letting go of Tyler Skaggs or Patrick Corbin, Arizona’s two other young, talented pitchers. If Didi Gregorius can play shortstop at an above average level and Corbin or Skaggs can make a solid contribution to the 2013 team, then this will go down as a very good deal for Towers. While I still think Bauer can turn into an ace, he’s also just as likely to turn into another AJ Burnett. And with Arizona so close to being a legitimate World Series contender, Towers couldn’t afford wait and see.
Enough about Bauer. Who’s going to take over for Chris Young in centerfield?
It was Chris Young, not Justin Upton, changing addresses this offseason despite the nearly two years of hype surrounding a potential deal for the latter. With Young gone, the centerfield job is now open to a pair of intriguing candidates: Adam Eaton and Gerrado Parra.
Parra’s the more experienced of the two players, having accumulated around 400 at-bats for the D-Backs in each of the past 4 seasons. We basically know he’s a 26-year-old .280-ish hitter with very little pop and a wee bit of speed. We also know Parra is a premium defensive talent with great range and plus arm strength.
Eaton’s case is a little bit different. He’s only received 100 or so Major League plate appearances, but he’s already shown some of the same skills that made him a .355 hitter in 3 minor league seasons. Eaton has displayed plenty of plate discipline already, walking just 19 fewer times than Parra despite a 300 at-bat difference between the two. Eaton has flashed some solid speed in the minors as well, swiping over 30 bags in 2011 and 2012. That kind of speed could be very valuable to an Arizona team that ranked in the bottom third in baseball in stole bases a year ago. This race probably won’t be decided until the end of Spring Training and whoever winds up on the bench will be a damn good 4th outfielder.
What about the shortstop position? Can an all-defense/no-offense platoon work in Arizona’s favor?
Outside of centerfield, the only other positions currently up in the air are shortstop and 3rd base. Kevin Towers was very active on both of those fronts already this winter, acquiring Eric Chavez, Cliff Pennington, and Didi Gregorius. Finding adequate players for the left side of the infield was a chore for Arizona for most of 2012. The Diamondbacks never found an answer from a group including Cody Ransom, Willie Bloomquist, Ryan Roberts, Stephen Drew, Jake Elmore, and Josh Bell among others. That led to the snakes ranking 25th in OPS at 3rd base and 15th in OPS at shortstop, with very little pop or adequate defense at both positions.
While Chavez should man 3rd most of the time, Gregorius and Pennington have the potential to work nicely as a defensive-first platoon at shortstop. Despite what Kevin Towers may think, neither player will ever be an offensive force, but both field the position very well. Pennington is a .249 career hitter with a .319 on-base percentage, and Gregorius projects to be about the same at the Major League level. He’s hit .271/.323/.376 in nearly 2000 minor league plate appearances. If these two players can combine to form a cheap, league-average platoon that provides great defense, Arizona should be very happy.
This 2013 Arizona Diamondbacks team is shaping up to be a perfect dark horse contender. All of the attention in the National League West is currently being showered on the defending World Champion Giants and the rich-kid-in-a-candy-store Dodgers. Arizona’s rotation may not have the same bite at the top, but it figures to make up for that by overwhelming the enemy with quantity. Most of Arizona’s ball club is still fantastically young as well. Justin Upton and Paul Goldschmidt are going into their age 25 seasons and are potential 30+ home run hitters. The entire starting staff is under 30 and has plenty of room for improvement still. Even the senior contributors on the roster, Jason Kubel and Aaron Hill, are 31 years old and coming off of career seasons. The NL West is the wildest division in baseball and it seems to crown a new champion just about every year. Don’t be surprised if the snakes are back on top when all is said and done in 2013.