Christopher Reina. 5th April, 2010 - 3:16 pm
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Since being swept in the 2007 NLCS, the D-Backs blew their 2008 NL West lead to the Dodgers and then were basically a no-show in 2009.
The Bob Melvin era ended early in the season and the very young A.J. Hinch replaced him, but couldn't salvage Arizona's disappointing 2009 season. The D-Backs were 20-27 in one-run games, blamed at least in large part to their relievers as the D-Backs were one of the better late inning hitting teams in baseball.
Arizona's excellent young core has gone from 'darlings on the verge' to 'loaded with question marks' in a span of about 550 days.
2009 Opsera Finish: 19th
What Happened In The Winter
Arizona had an underrated summer on the fascination and fireworks scale. They mysteriously decided to deal the higher upside, cheaper Max Scherzer for Edwin Jackson, though it did net them a young back of the rotation guy in Ian Kennedy. The financials comparing Jackson and Scherzer don't make sense and I believe Detroit absolutely sold high with him, while Arizona decidedly sold low on their guy.
I have never been a huge fan of Adam LaRoche, who was passed around like Mae West by Pittsburgh, Boston and finally Atlanta in 2009. He did rebound at least a little bit back with the Braves, hitting for an OPS of .957 in 242 plate appearances. I expect production more in line with his career mark of .834, as his strikeouts continue to plague him. It is difficult to find the downside in signing a hitter of LaRoche's caliber for just $4.5M with a mutual option of $7.5M for the following season. Arizona likes Brandon Allen, who came over in last season's Tony Pena trade and raked in Reno (1.055 OPS, 12 homers in 167 PAs), as their future first baseman and LaRoche buys him another season of development. It also will allow Connor Jackson to simply stay in left.
Coming with LaRoche from Atlanta is his right side of the infield partner in Kelly Johnson. Josh Byrnes was able to land Johnson for just $2.35M, which is an affordable price for a second baseman who is capable of posting an .800 OPS if he gets healthy.
The departures of Chad Tracy and Doug Davis will be significant only in name.
Arizona made underrated improvements to their bullpen in signing Bobby Howry and Aaron Heilman.
D-Backs Offensive Preview
The individual development of the Baby Backs either took a step backward or stagnated for everyone except Mark Reynolds and Justin Upton. Both players look like legitimate stars in this league for many seasons to come.
Reynolds' 223 strikeouts very clearly is a focal point of any conversation concerning him, but his .349 OBP isn't horrible and there aren't too many guys who hit one homer for every 13 at bats anymore. The strikeout rate can't conceivably worsen, so at the very least Arizona has a highly productive two-outcome machine.
Upton, meanwhile, hit a blistering 1.208 OPS against righties with 12 homers in just 122 at bats and .899 overall. He is a true five-tool guy who continues to show marked improvement and won't turn 23 until late August. Arizona overpaid in their $51.25M extension over six seasons, but he has the kind of talent where he should still outperform it and messing around financially with a player of his caliber is justifiably unwise.
Beyond the Reynolds and Upton pair, Arizona absolutely needs better offensive seasons from Stephen Drew, Chris Young and Conor Jackson.
Young hasn't been able to duplicate the 32 homers of his rookie season, while also remaining the Strikeout Prince to Reynolds' Strikeout King. His OBP was a measly .311 and given his inadequacy defensively, he is looking like a bust and a liability.
Drew had a great 2008 when he hit for an OPS of .836 with 21 homers and 44 doubles, but the power dipped and so did the OBP down to .320. He's been on the every other year plan and he should safely be expected to rebound from his .748 in 2009.
Jackson's 2009 was erased due to Valley Fever, but he's been looking healthy and back to his old self this Spring. He had three consecutive seasons of an OPS over .800 between 2006 and 2008 and I think a lot of people are sleeping on him. I've heard he might be in the number two hole, which would be a good position for one of the few hitters on this team that makes consistent contact.
LaRoche and Johnson are the kind of veterans that will overachieve to an OPS of .890 and .825 respectively or underachieve to marks of .775 and .715. They are extremely unlikely to either boom or bust significantly at this point in their careers.
Miguel Montero busted out with an .832 OPS and 16 homers in 470 plate appearances. The lefty mostly sat against southpaws, but his splits were great against them and he is probably the most under-appreciated player in the NL West. Arizona is extremely fortunate to have his type of production from a young catcher like Montero.
The D-Backs were an error-riddled team in 2009, but UZR/150 actually liked them quite a bit, as they placed 10th. Reynolds, Young and Jackson are particularly bad, which offsets Upton's excellence in right and Drew at shortstop.
D-Backs Pitching Preview
If Brandon Webb gets healthy, the Diamondbacks will have a potentially dominant front three in him, Danny Haren and Jackson.
Webb had a string of extremely effective 1,315 innings between 2003 and 2008 in which he didn't miss starts and consistently threw for an ERA in the low 3.00's, didn't give up many hits and rarely yielded homers with his sinker. The early reports on Webb's shoulder look promising, but he still won't be ready for Opening Day.
Haren had a 3.14 ERA in 2009, while posting career best numbers in WHIP, K/9 and K/BB. He is one of the game's most reliable starters and should repeat the high level of production he has since becoming a full-time starter in 2005.
Scherzer has the chance of being a truly special ace, given his strikeout rate and how live his fastball is, but Jackson will be an effective NL starter, though unspectacular. He has been around forever, but he won't turn 27 until September and he has room for improvement. Given his move to the NL, he should repeat his 2009 output, though he must keep his walk rate down as it was with Detroit. His first half/second half ERA split of 2.52/5.07 is disconcerting as he became very prone to yielding homers. Jackson also comes to a ballpark that is more homer friendly than Comerica.
Kennedy struggled in his nine starts in 2008 with the Yankees, but his minor league numbers are uniformly excellent and I expect him to develop into a very good middle of the rotation pitcher.
Billy Buckner will likely be Arizona's fifth starter and he clearly has fifth starter stuff, while Kevin Mulvey, Rodrigo Lopez and Bryan Augenstein will be in the conversation and one will get a chance to win the job from Buckner until Webb returns.
The Arizona bullpen is far from shutdown dominant, but have reputable guys in closer Chad Qualls, Howry, Heilman, Juan Gutierrez and Blaine Boyer. The D-Backs ranked 25th in reliever ERA in 2009 and they will likely be in the bottom half again this season.
What Are Their 2010 Chances?
The D-Backs are a team you increasingly fall for as you keep on looking at them. The shear scope of talent both in the lineup and the pitching staff makes them playoff eligible and every bit as dangerous as the Dodgers, Giants and Rockies.
Assuming Webb makes at least 25 starts and the offense gets better production outside of Upton and Reynolds, the D-Backs will be playing meaningful games into September where they could become an extremely difficult out in the playoffs.
The D-Backs had a 70-92 record where they weren't nearly that bad, so a 20 win improvement is absolutely within the realm of possibility.
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