Last season, I went out on a limb for the Arizona Diamondbacks, saying "it’s hard to imagine this roster being a sub.-500 team in the AL West." The D-Backs finished the season with the worst record in baseball. While I got that prediction horribly wrong, I did point out the haphazard wheeling and dealing that then-GM Kevin Towers was relying on to shape the roster. That endless tinkering – combined with "hilariously regressive ideas about baseball" cited by David Raposa in the 2015 Baseball Prospectus annual – ultimately cost Towers and manager Kirk Gibson their jobs.
Now, Dave Stewart and Tony La Russa are in charge with a rebuild akin to the one Dave Dombrowski had to undertake when he was hired by the Tigers. The Diamondbacks have a bit more talent in their coffers than the Tigers did after Randy Smith got axed, including one of the best hitters in baseball on an extremely team-friendly contract. Beyond Paul Goldschmidt, there are major issues throughout the organization. It will likely be a long season in the desert, and a few years before they are ready to compete with the Dodgers and Giants in the NL West.
Manager: Chip Hale (1st season)
2014 record: 64-98
SB Nation blog: AZ Snakepit
To illustrate how bad things have gotten for the D-Backs, consider that they are relying on something called a Tuffy Gosewisch to be their starting catcher in 2015. While he possesses an excellent Twitter handle, Gosewisch is a 31-year-old with a .512 OPS in 179 MLB plate appearances to his name that was thrust into a starting role after the club traded Miguel Montero to the Chicago Cubs. Prospect Peter O’Brien is the starter-in-waiting, but there are questions about his defensive abilities behind the plate. The club will give him as many chances as possible to prove scouts wrong, as there is nowhere else to put him. Former Tiger Gerald Laird signed a minor league deal with the team this winter, and the D-Backs also picked up Oscar Hernandez from the Tampa Bay Rays in the Rule 5 draft.
The reason for the D-Backs’ unwillingness to move O’Brien from behind the plate is the presence of superstar first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. After finishing second in the National League MVP voting in 2013, "Goldie" was in the midst of another monster season when he was hit in the hand by a pitch from Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Ernesto Frieri. Goldschmidt went on the disabled list the next day* and missed the rest of the season. Second baseman Aaron Hill would have been better off missing the 2014 season, costing his team nearly a full win in 133 games. He hit a career-worst .244/.287/.367, a far cry from the .882 OPS he put up just two years ago. The soon-to-be 33-year-old Hill is still owed $24 million over two years and there is no replacement in sight, so the team is hoping for a bounce-back season.
*If you’re looking for a definitive low point of the Towers and Gibson era, this was it; in order to maintain the organization’s "tough guy" status, Gibson ordered a retaliatory hit-by-pitch to Pirates star Andrew McCutchen the next night despite there being no evidence whatsoever that Frieri’s pitch was intended to bean Goldschmidt.
Shortstop Chris Owings was excellent during the first three months of 2014, hitting .277/.313/.458 in 254 plate appearances. He injured his shoulder on a play at the plate in June – an attempted inside-the-park home run, no less – and spent two months on the disabled list. Owings had surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder in October and all signs – including the team’s decision to trade Didi Gregorius in December – point to him being ready for 2015. Nick Ahmed was called up when Owings was shelved last season, but he doesn’t project to be more than a utility infielder down the road. Also in the fold are infielders Cliff Pennington and Nick Punto, the latter of whom will be in spring training on a minor league contract.
Unlike the other infield positions, third base is a bit of a mystery. The Diamondbacks are hoping that Yasmany Tomas can man the position despite spending most of his time in Cuba as an outfielder. Scouts were adamant that Tomas would play a corner outfield spot in the majors. What makes the decision to put Tomas at third equally puzzling is the presence of Jake Lamb, an MLB.com top 100 prospect that forced his way to the majors by hitting .318/.399/.551 in Double A last season. Like Tomas, Lamb comes with questions about how much contact he will make, but his raw power should make for some impressive moonshots when he does launch one into the Arizona night.
The insistence on putting Tomas at third is doubly confusing when you consider that the D-Backs’ outfield isn’t set in stone. Mark Trumbo will stand in left field with a glove on his hand, just like he did during a -1.3 WAR season in 2014. The poor defense was part of the trouble, but so was a massive drop-off in power despite moving to one of the most hitter-friendly home ballparks in baseball. Still only 29, Trumbo is a decent bounce-back candidate for 2015. A.J. Pollock, whose season was also shortened by a hand fracture, will play center field. Former Rule 5 selection Ender Inciarte is around to step in if needed, just as he did in 2014. The real question mark remains in right field, where David Peralta came out of nowhere to hit .286/.320/.450 in 348 plate appearances last season. He mashed for three years in independent ball before signing with the D-Backs, but it’s still anyone’s guess whether he can handle a full-time role at the MLB level.
The Diamondbacks have only been in existence for 17 seasons, yet have five Cy Young winners to their name. Sure, four of those belong to Randy Johnson, but this organization has also employed the likes of Curt Schilling, Dan Haren, and 2006 NL Cy Young winner Brandon Webb. This pitching pedigree makes it all the more puzzling – and somewhat depressing – that Josh Collmenter will likely be their 2015 Opening Day starter. The Mount Pleasant native has been effective throughout his career, as his 114 ERA+ in 516 innings attests. However, roughly one-third of those innings have come as a reliever. His ERA is over a full run higher as a starter, and opposing batters are slugging nearly 70 points higher than when he comes out of the ‘pen.
Collmenter may end up being the only D-Backs starter who was in the organization at the start of 2014. Right-hander Jeremy Hellickson was the centerpiece of a three-player trade with the Tampa Bay Rays back in November. The Diamondbacks are hoping that Hellickson, who has two years of club control remaining before free agency, can bounce back from a pair of subpar seasons and anchor the front end of the staff. Bringing an extreme fly ball pitcher to Chase Field doesn’t seem like the best way for that to happen, though. Left-hander Vidal Nuno, who was acquired from the New York Yankees in the Brandon McCarthy trade last year, will be part of a spring training competition for the other rotation spots. Also involved will be incumbents Chase Anderson, Randall Delgado, and Trevor Cahill, and newcomers Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, and Robbie Ray. Top prospect Archie Bradley could also sneak into the mix, though minor league options and arbitration clock concerns are two factors working against his chances.
General manager Dave Stewart has indicated that De La Rosa and Webster are frontrunners for two of the three remaining spots. Both players were members of the Boston Red Sox organization in 2014, but neither pitched very well. De La Rosa spent the most time at the major league level, allowing a 4.43 ERA and 4.30 FIP in 101 2/3 innings. He will need to improve his strikeout rate if he wants to keep opponents from batting .293 against him in 2015. Webster has not fared well at the MLB level so far, allowing a 6.25 ERA and 5.08 FIP in 89 1/3 career innings. He allowed four runs in his last three starts in 2014, and at 25 years old, there’s still time for him to reach his potential.
With minor league options at a premium, there is a good chance that one or two of the starting pitchers listed above will be sent to the bullpen. Randall Delgado followed this route for much of the 2014 season, and he still allowed a 4.87 ERA and 1.37 WHIP. Brad Ziegler was one of the best relievers in baseball in the first half, but an injury-marred second half – complete with offseason microfracture knee surgery – resulted in some rather pedestrian numbers. Closer Addison Reed struggled in his first season in the desert, but still struck out nearly five batters for every walk. Left-hander Oliver Perez proved that 2013 was no fluke by allowing a 2.91 ERA while maintaining a 3.23 FIP.
Down on the farm
The Diamondbacks have a few interesting prospects in their system, and all of them are starting pitchers. Right-hander Archie Bradley is still one of the premier pitching prospects in baseball despite an injury-riddled 2014 season that sapped his velocity. Reports from the Arizona Fall League indicate that the fastball is back. He only has 24 1/3 innings at Triple A under his belt, but Bradley will make his MLB debut at some point in 2015. Braden Shipley is another consensus top-100 prospect who got a cup of coffee at Double A to end the 2014 season. Aaron Blair hasn’t received the same ranking recognition as Shipley, but he is at the same point in his development curve. Touki Toussaint, the team’s 2014 first round draft pick, was praised as a high-upside prep arm and his early strikeout totals did nothing to sway that evaluation.
Player to watch: Yasmany Tomas
Tomas does not possess the foot speed of predecessors Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig, but the wild success of recent Cuban imports has fans hopeful that Tomas will be the next big thing. His jaw-dropping raw power had scouts salivating enough to earn him a six year, $68 million contract despite concerns about his defense and hit tool. Puig and Jose Abreu have gotten on base at a decent clip in the majors, but others – Cespedes, in particular – have reinforced the old saying "you don’t walk off the island." Will Tomas hit 35 home runs? Will he strike out 200 times? His mystery is what makes him so intriguing. Regardless of his actual production, road at-bats at Coors Field should be must-see TV.
If you squint, you can see a hypothetical situation in which the Diamondbacks compete for a playoff spot. They have a potent lineup, a decent bullpen, and a battalion of solid pitching prospects ascending through the ranks. Their abysmal 2014 record is partially due to a rash of fluke injuries – Goldschmidt and Pollock missed a combined 130 games due to broken hands resulting from hit-by-pitches – so there is hope for 2015. Bradley isn’t the key to their season, but he could help anchor a starting rotation that needs a lot of help. However, we’re talking about a best-case scenario here. In all likelihood, parts of the offense fizzle, the rotation falters, and their poor defense costs them a small handful of games. They might not be as bad as they were last season – it’s hard to lose 98 games in this era and there’s some real talent here – but anything north of 75 wins would be a surprise.