Springtime Storylines: Was 2011 a fluke for the Arizona Diamondbacks?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Big Question: Was 2011 a fluke year?

The Diamondbacks went from 70 wins in 2009 to 65 wins in 2010 to … 94 wins in 2011. What in the Sam Hill happened?  Was the Dbacks’ massive improvement sustainable, or will 2012 see them back down to something that bears a more reasonable resemblance to what they were before Kirk Gibson came along?

I think it’s sustainable, or something close to it.  Thee 2010 Dbacks weren’t quite as bad as their record indicated, as one of the worst bullpens in recent memory caused them to lose a lot of games they should have won. That was fixed last year by a revamped and massively improved pen, along with some massive steps forward for Ian Kennedy, Ryan Roberts, Miguel Montero and others.

Now, you can’t count on all of those guys doing that again, but there are others who are poised to step in with improvement or new production to keep Arizona at the top of the West. A full season from Paul Goldschmidt, for example, could give the Diamondbacks a lot of extra pop at first base. The addition of Trevor Cahill to the rotation is a plus too, both pushing Joe Saunders down in the order and serving as Ian Kennedy regression insurance.

So while, yeah, a lot went right for the Dbacks in 2011, I don’t think it was a fluke. There was real improvement there that Kevin Towers has built on. And I think the Dbacks can do it again.

What else is going on? 

  • Not that every move Towers makes makes sense. I still don’t get why he signed Jason Kubel, which means benching Gerardo Parra whose defense likely more than makes up for his lighter bat. I think Kirk Gibson is gonna blow a gasket watching balls drop in front of Kubel in left field that Parra would have reached.
  • I also don’t understand why Towers signed Willie Bloomquist to a two-year deal. And why, it appears anyway, he is gonna be leading off for this team.
  • Aaron Hill is a key bat as well. He was sort of the Dbacks in microcosm, putting up a paltry .584 OPS before coming over in that trade from the Blue Jays (the 2010 Dbacks) and then going crazy to the tune of .315/.386/.492 in his short stint in Arizona. Obviously that’s not repeatable over a whole season, but if his production looks decidedly more like his Blue Jays numbers than something at least within shouting distance of his Dbacks production, Arizona is going to have some issues at the top of the lineup.
  • For all of the regression candidates on this team, it’s scary to think that Justin Upton — who hit 31 homers with 88 RBIs and an .898 OPS — might even be better than those number going forward.

How are they gonna do?

I think they’ll be just fine this year. And I feel better about that when I look around the rest of the division and don’t see anyone who got remarkably better over the offseason. The Dbacks have the potential for a really solid rotation with Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Cahill at the top, a GM who knows how to build a bullpen and a superstar in right field.  They’re my pick in the NL West.

Miguel Cabrera has two herniated discs in his back

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Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera underwent an MRI which revealed two herniated discs in his back, MLB.com’s Jason Beck reports. With six games remaining in the season, if Cabrera plays again, it will be as a designated hitter.

The back issues shed a lot of light on Cabrera’s uncharacteristically subpar season. He’s batting .249/.329/.399 with 16 home runs and 60 RBI in 529 plate appearances this season. He carries an adjusted OPS of 92, which is eight points below the league average and 14 points below his previous career low set in 2003 with the Marlins.

Cabrera, 34, is signed through 2023 and is owed a minimum of $192 million through the end of his contract.

MLB managers weigh in on anthem protests

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No other Major League Baseball player has taken a knee during the National Anthem since Athletics’ catcher Bruce Maxwell‘s protest on Saturday night. The demonstration was sparked by President Donald Trump’s call for the boycott of the National Football League and the firing of any player who chose not to stand during the anthem. The comments drew harsh criticism from many NFL players, coaches and owners and more than a few in MLB have also lended their support. There is still one game left to play on Sunday, but it’s unclear whether any of Maxwell’s league-mates will show their solidarity by refusing to stand as well.

Given a baseball culture that tends toward conformity more often than not, it seems unlikely. But it’s something league managers are prepared for — even if they don’t all agree with the demonstrations themselves.

White Sox’ skipper Rick Renteria specifically addressed Maxwell’s protest on Sunday, speaking to the league’s policy of inclusivity:

None of the White Sox knelt prior to their series finale against the Royals. Neither did members of the Pirates or the Cardinals, though St. Louis manager Mike Matheny and Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington both weighed in on the situation.

Matheny called the president’s comments “hurtful” and, like the Cubs’ Joe Maddon, appeared content to leave the decision to protest up to each player.

The Pirates, meanwhile, took a firmer tone. “We appreciate our players’ desire and ability to express their opinions respectfully and when done properly,” GM Huntington told Elizabeth Bloom of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “When done appropriately and properly, we certainly have respect for our players’ ability to voice their opinion.”

Just what the Pirates consider “appropriate and proper” protocol was left up in the air, and club president Frank Coonelly offered no further insights in a separate statement to the press. Setting strict parameters for players to voice their opinions kind of puts them in a gray area, one they’ll have to clear up should someone elect to protest in the days to come, either with a bent knee and a hand over their heart or in some other fashion.

Equally ambiguous were comments from Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts, who claimed to oppose the movement for personal, if misguided reasons, but also respected the right of his players to make an “educated” statement in protest.

The Indians’ Terry Francona took what was perhaps the most balanced approach of the entire group:

“It’s easy for me to sit here and say, ‘Well, I think this is the greatest country in the world,’ because I do,” Francona told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. “But, I also haven’t walked in other people’s shoes. So, until I think, not just our country, but our world, until we realize that, hey, people are actually equal — it shouldn’t be a revelation — and the different doesn’t mean less. It’s just different. We’ve got work to do.”

These may all be moot points. Maxwell may be the only player to formally protest Trump’s comments, despite the good intentions of his teammates and fellow players around the league. Others may feel too ambivalent, threatened or uncomfortable to protest what the A’s catcher referred to as a “racial divide,” especially in a way that is routinely perceived as unpatriotic.

Even if the protests made by NFL players and Bruce Maxwell fail to gain momentum, however, the underlying issues they speak to are not going away anytime soon. Here, then, is where MLB managers can help foster a more inclusive environment throughout the league, not only by showing respect for a player’s decision to stand against racism but by actively partnering with those who do so. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a start.