If a tie is like kissing your sister, then how do you explain a .500 season? The Arizona Diamondbacks were a symmetrical 81-81 last year, but finished second in a weak NL West division. They spent most of June and July in first place, but were eventually passed by the Los Angeles Dodgers, who won the West by 11 games. This season, the Diamondbacks return largely the same roster, but have made a few interesting changes. Mark Trumbo will provide more thump in the lineup, while Addison Reed should be a large improvement over Heath Bell. If both of those moves work out like they should on paper and the team stays healthy, the Diamondbacks could be in the playoff picture come September.
Manager: Kirk Gibson (5th year)
2013 record: 81-81, 2nd in NL West
SB Nation blog: AZ Snakepit
Other Diamondbacks coverage: Arizona Republic
First series vs. Tigers: July 21-23 @ Chase Field
The Diamondbacks were fifth in the league in runs scored and batting average, and fourth in on-base percentage last season despite sporting below-average power numbers. The lack of power is surprising, but when you look past Paul Goldschmidt's league-leading 36 home runs and .551 slugging percentage, there was not much else to work with. Goldschmidt was good enough to carry the offense himself at times, adding a .302 batting average and 125 RBI to those totals. He was also intentionally walked 19 times, which makes sense when you consider only one other player -- third baseman Martin Prado -- had more than 50 RBI. Prado was an early disappointment after arriving from Atlanta, but came alive in the second half of the season with an .864 OPS and 48 of his 82 RBI.
Up the middle, the Diamondbacks got surprising production out of shortstop Didi Gregorius. Gregorius got off to a torrid start, hitting .297/.364/.446 in his first two months of action, but slowly dropped off en route to a .704 OPS at season's end. Despite the decent production -- he posted 1.4 WAR in just 103 games -- the D'Backs are content to let Gregorius battle with prospect Chris Owings for the starting shortstop gig. Owings, who hit .291/.361/.382 in a late season call-up last year, has been moving around the diamond so far this spring and could see time at multiple positions. This versatility could be invaluable, especially if second baseman Aaron Hill spends more time on the disabled list in 2014. Hill has a blistering .862 OPS in two-plus years with Arizona, but missed nearly half of the 2013 season with a fractured hand.
Meanwhile, Miguel Montero was not his usual self in 2013. After suffering an infection in his left thumb during Spring Training, he got off to a slow start with a .571 OPS in April and May. Things turned around once the calendar flipped to June, and Montero hit .260/.352/.409 in 179 plate appearances before a back injury sidelined him in late July. He had finger surgery after the season to clear up the infection issues and should be healthy in 2014.
In the outfield, the Diamondbacks will be relying on a core quartet of Mark Trumbo, A.J. Pollock, Gerardo Parra, and Cody Ross. Ross is currently recovering from offseason hip surgery, and I would be surprised if he is ready by Opening Day. Parra was the best defensive right fielder in baseball last season, which accounted for most of his 4.6 WAR. His .318 wOBA and 96 wRC+ were nice, but would be easier to stomach if he were the best defensive center fielder in baseball. Actual center fielder A.J. Pollock was not bad himself, and his .321 wOBA and 98 wRC+ were a nice surprise. Left fielder Mark Trumbo -- a phrase that really should never be used -- is going to hit a bazillion home runs. Hashtag analysis.
Diamondbacks pitchers allowed 176 home runs in 2013, the highest total in the National League. They may top that mark this season after signing the extremely homer-prone Bronson Arroyo to a two year contract with a team option for 2016. Arroyo allowed 32 home runs last season while pitching in Cincinnati, a figure only slightly above the 31.5 dingers he gave up per season in his eight-year run with the Reds. Despite the homer issues, Arroyo had an ERA lower than league average in six of those years. He has also been extremely durable, though that run of health will be tested with a disc flare-up he suffered this week. If Arroyo misses time, swingman Randall Delgado -- who also had homer troubles in 2013 -- will likely slot into the back end of the rotation.
Elsewhere, the Diamondbacks feature four solid starters but no true ace. Patrick Corbin, Trevor Cahill, Wade Miley, and Brandon McCarthy can be anywhere from #2 to #4 caliber arms depending on the season, but none -- save for Corbin in the first half last year -- have pitched like a true #1 for an extended period of time. Corbin's final numbers (14-8, 3.41 ERA in 208 1/3 innings) belittle how good he was in the first four months of the season. He started out with a 9-0 record to rival Max Scherzer's undefeated start, and was 12-2 with a 2.24 ERA at the end of July. After that, he seemed to lose steam, resulting in a 6.04 ERA in the final two months of the year. His slider is so good, it made Jeff Sullivan more Jeff Sullivan-y than usual last May.
As for the other three? Meh. Wade Miley's ERA was almost as good in 2013 as it was in 2012 but people think he was much worse because (a) he walked way more dudes, and (b) he had a 4.01 ERA in the first half and did not make the All-Star team. Meanwhile, I am intrigued by the big jump in ground ball rate. If he maintains that, he could put up another ERA in the 3.30s. Trevor Cahill allowed more ground balls than Miley, but he also allowed more of everything else, including runs. A horrible June that culminated in hip taking a line drive off the hip was the culprit. Porcello out that month and Cahill had a 2.90 ERA in 122 innings. Brandon McCarthy continued to save his best work for Twitter, especially when he spent two months on the disabled list because of a shoulder injury.
The Diamondbacks' bullpen was also a below average unit in 2013, but it was not quite as bad as you would expect. That is largely because Heath Bell was not quite as bad as I expected. He did allow a bunch of homers, though. Bell is gone, and taking his place will be former White Sox closer Addison Reed. There is no telling whether he will get the D-Backs' closer job, though. A google search for "Diamondbacks closer" turns up a mildly hilarious smorgasbord of names. Reed had the best advanced numbers of the group -- which also includes J.J. Putz and Brad Ziegler, based on that lazy research above -- including a 3.17 FIP in 71 1/3 innings. Putz and Ziegler had better ERAs, but their peripherals suggest that regression is in order. In particular, Putz will not strand 91% of the baserunners he allows in 2014 like he did last season.
Because we born in the 80s, that A.D.H.D crazy
No one has or will ever confirm that Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers is easily distracted, but his propensity to toss aside young prospects on a whim suggests that he is an impatient man. Over the past few years, the D-Backs have traded away Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs, Matt Davidson, Ryan Cook, and Jarrod Parker. In fact, look at the sheer number of trades they have made in the past three calendar years. Some may call Towers a dealer of sorts, while others are wondering whether he has an actual plan in place. Some trades -- like the Bauer move in which the Diamondbacks received Gregorius -- made sense, while others -- like the one that brought Addison Reed to the desert -- were bashed by everyone. People did not like the Justin Upton deal either, but I'd call that one a draw. Whether the Diamondbacks are in win-now or "eh, let's wait a while" mode, a plan will be necessary to compete with the money that has infiltrated the division in the past two years.
Player to watch: Mark Trumbo
The Diamondbacks were a productive offense -- they ranked fifth in the National League in runs scored -- despite ranking in the bottom third of the NL with 130 home runs. The lack of power is undoubtedly what fueled the team's decision to trade for former Angels slugger Mark Trumbo. Trumbo has a .299 career on-base percentage, but has hit 95 home runs in just 460 games. These numbers become more impressive when you consider that he played his home games in the oppressive Angels Stadium. The ball carries well in the thin desert air at homer-friendly Chase Field, making Trumbo a legitimate 40-homer threat. His defense may be horrible -- another reason to watch, if you're into that sort of thing -- but a glut of home runs will easily balance that out.
The Diamondbacks' 2014 season could go any of a number of ways, but it's hard to imagine this roster being a sub-.500 team in the NL West. When healthy, they have a lineup that can rival the Dodgers' star-powered order. Their pitching staff is a step or two below Los Angeles' rotation, but no one expects the Diamondbacks to compete for the division crown. Instead, the D'Backs are hoping steal enough games against divisional foes to climb into contention for one of the Wild Card spots. With questions abound for every team in the National League -- except maybe the Cardinals -- there is a good chance that Arizona will be in the hunt late in the season.