Kevin Towers AP

2013 Preview: Arizona Diamondbacks


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 2013 season. Up next: The Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Big Question: Will Kevin Towers’ odd offseason pay dividends?

After winning 94 games and the National League West in 2011, the Diamondbacks took a step back last year with an 81-81 record and a third-place finish. General manager Kevin Towers then embarked on an interesting offseason in which he unloaded outfielders Justin Upton and Chris Young and talented young right-hander Trevor Bauer in a series of controversial moves. However, now that the dust has settled on all the wheeling and dealing, Kirk Gibson’s grit-infused roster isn’t demonstrably better on paper than they were a year ago. In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that Towers undersold on his assets.

To be fair, I think that the starting rotation has the potential to be pretty solid. Ian Kennedy isn’t an ace, but he has a 3.55 ERA in three seasons with Arizona and has made at least 32 starts in all of them. Trevor Cahill’s strikeout rate has jumped in each of the last three seasons while his ground ball tendencies are well suited for Chase Field. Wade Miley is coming off a second-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting while offseason addition Brandon McCarthy quietly owns a 3.29 ERA over the past two seasons. The fifth spot in the rotation will come down to either right-hander Randall Delgado, who came over from the Braves in the Upton deal, or left-hander Patrick Corbin. While not outstanding, the starting pitching should be good enough to keep them in the hunt.

I liked Arizona’s lineup a lot more on Thursday than I do right now. 24-year-old rookie Adam Eaton was poised to replace Young in center field and bat leadoff, but he’s now expected to miss 6-8 weeks with a strained ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow. Cody Ross joined Arizona on a three-year, $26 million contract over the winter, but he’s dealing with a nagging calf injury and could miss the start of the season. This means we could be looking at an outfield of Jason Kubel, Gerardo Parra and A.J. Pollock on Opening Day. Upton and Young could be missed in that outfield, at least in the early going.

This isn’t to say that the Diamondbacks won’t get anything out of their lineup. There are still plenty of exciting pieces here. Miguel Montero is one of the best hitting catchers in the National League and is getting better and better behind the plate. Aaron Hill’s resurgent 2012 season didn’t get much attention even though he hit for the cycle twice. Paul Goldschmidt was impressive during his first full season in the big leagues. Martin Prado, the big get in the Upton deal, should hit for average and hold down the hot corner.

I could certainly see the Diamondbacks being a playoff team if things break right now, but another .500 season (or worse) is possible, too. Perhaps Miley and/or Goldschmidt regress during their second full seasons in the majors. Maybe McCarthy’s shoulder is an area of concern all season. Heck, Eaton’s elbow injury could turn out to be more than a two-month thing. None of these scenarios would surprise me. Towers made some bold moves over the winter to build a roster in Gibson’s image and he could take a lot of flak if things don’t work out.

What else is going on?

• The Diamondbacks entered the offseason with shortstop as an area of need and it’s still a question mark today. Cliff Pennington came over from the Athletics in the Chris Young deal and projects to start and bat eighth, but he’s a .249/.313/.356 hitter in the majors. 23-year-old Didi Gregorious was acquired in the three-team trade that sent Bauer to Cleveland, but he’s currently working his way back from a slight strain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and likely won’t be ready to play in games until mid-April.

• J.J. Putz has been rock solid since joining the Diamondbacks in 2011, compiling a 2.48 ERA while going 77-for-86 in save opportunities. The 36-year-old hasn’t thrown more than 60 innings in a season since 2007, but the Diamondbacks have the proper depth to give him rest when needed. David Hernandez would likely be first in line for save chances in the event of an injury, as he has compiled a dominant 2.94 ERA and 11.4 K/9 since coming over from the Orioles in the Mark Reynolds trade. He’s probably one of the most underappreciated relievers in the game today. Towers acquired Heath Bell from the Marlins over the winter — and will pay $13 million of the $21 million left on his contract — but he’s a major wild card coming off a 5.09 ERA last session.

• The Diamondbacks and Goldschmidt are reportedly in talks about an extension. There’s no rush to get something done, as he isn’t arbitration-eligible for the first time until after 2014 and remains under team control through 2017, but the Diamondbacks clearly see him as a long-term building block at first base. With 83 homers over 315 games in the minors and 28 over his first 193 major league games, the 25-year-old has the sort of middle-of-the-order power potential to fill the void left by Upton.

• Two interesting reinforcements for the rotation could be on the way soon. Tyler Skaggs struggled in his first taste of the majors last season and was optioned to Triple-A Reno last week, but he’s one of the top left-handed pitching prospects in the game and owns a 2.98 ERA over four seasons in the minors. Daniel Hudson had Tommy John surgery last July and should be ready to rejoin the starting rotation at some point during the second half.

Prediction: Third place, NL West

Concerns over Jon Lester’s throwing ability much ado about nothing

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 20: Jon Lester #34 of the Chicago Cubs pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game five of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images)
Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

Going into Thursday night’s NLCS Game 5, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts planned to have his team be annoying and distracting on the base paths for Cubs starter Jon Lester. Lester, you see, has a hard time making throws when he’s not pitching from the rubber, as seen here.

The Dodgers got an immediate opportunity to test their strategy, as Enrique Hernandez drew a four-pitch walk to start the game in the bottom of the first inning. Hernandez was taking leads between 15 and 25 feet, just taunting Lester to throw over to first base. Lester never did. And despite being given the luxury of such a large lead, Hernandez never attempted to steal second base.

It ended up costing the Dodgers a run. After Justin Turner struck out, Corey Seager lined a single to center field. Hernandez, large lead and all, should’ve been well on his way to third base, but he settled for staying at second base. Carlos Ruiz then flied out to right field on what should’ve been a sacrifice fly. Hernandez instead just advanced to third. Howie Kendrick grounded out to end the inning with the Dodgers having scored no runs.

In the bottom of the second inning with two outs, Joc Pederson dropped down a bunt, but Lester was able to field it and make a bounce-throw to Anthony Rizzo at first base to end the inning. Lester stared angrily into the Dodgers’ dugout as he walked off the field. If it were me, I’d have been glaring angrily not because the opposing team was attempting to exploit my weakness, but because the strategy is so poor.

The bunting would continue in the seventh inning as first baseman and noted power hitter Adrian Gonzalez tried to sneak a bunt past Lester on the right side of the infield. Second baseman Javier Baez was able to scoop it up and fire to first. Gonzalez was initially ruled safe, but the call was overturned upon replay review.

Lester countered the Dodgers’ bunting and greedy lead-taking by just pitching his game. He went seven innings, allowing just one run on five hits and a walk with six strikeouts on 108 pitches. The Cubs went on to win 8-4, taking a 3-2 lead in the NLCS. A worthy consideration for the National League Cy Young Award based on his regular season performance, Lester now has a 0.86 ERA in 21 innings spanning three starts this postseason. Turns out, the yips isn’t debilitating if you’re really good at your main job.

Cubs swat their way past the Dodgers 8-4 in NLCS Game 5

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 20:  Addison Russell #27 of the Chicago Cubs hits a two-run home run in the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game five of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

During the regular season, the Cubs had the second-best offense in baseball behind the Rockies, averaging 4.99 runs per game. It was the best after debiting the Rockies for playing in Coors Field. There was no way, after getting shut out in NLCS Games 2 and 3, that the offense was going to stay dormant much longer. They broke out for 10 runs in a Game 4 victory on Wednesday night. They scored eight more to beat the Dodgers 8-4 in Game 5, taking a 3-2 NLCS lead.

The Cubs took an early 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning when leadoff batter Dexter Fowler greeted Kenta Maeda with a single to center field. He’d come around to score on a one-out double by Anthony Rizzo who, like teammate Addison Russell, hadn’t hit much until breaking out in Game 4.

Starter Jon Lester was able to silence the Dodgers’ offense despite their strategy of attempting bunts and taking big leads, knowing Lester has trouble throwing when it’s not from the pitching rubber. They managed just one run, coming around in the fourth inning to knot the game at 1-1 when Howie Kendrick doubled, stole third base, and scored on an Adrian Gonzalez ground out.

Ultimately, Lester lasted seven innings, holding the Dodgers to five hits and a walk with six strikeouts on 108 pitches. Addison Russell allowed him to leave with a lead, slugging a two-run home run off of reliever Joe Blanton in the sixth to break the 1-1 tie.

The Cubs tacked on plenty of insurance in the top of the eighth against reliever Pedro Baez, which proved to be rather necessary. Russell reached on an error by Baez, Willson Contreras singled, and Albert Almora, Jr. moved both runners up a base on a sacrifice bunt. Dexter Fowler then hit a single to first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, but Baez didn’t break to cover first base. Gonzalez wasn’t able to beat Fowler to the bag, allowing the Cubs’ fourth run to score. Kris Bryant hit a weak grounder to third base and he was able to beat that out as well, pushing across another run in the process. Anthony Rizzo lined out, but Baez prolonged the inning by walking Ben Zobrist. Ross Stripling relieved Baez, but he served up a bases-clearing double to Javier Baez, making it an 8-1 ballgame. Jason Heyward, as has often been the case, popped up feebly, mercifully ending the inning with the Cubs having hung up a five-spot.

Pedro Strop took over for Lester in the bottom of the eighth. He gave up a double to Andrew Toles, then hit Justin Turner to begin the inning. Though Strop was able to induce a ground ball double play from Corey Seager, Carlos Ruiz followed up with a double to left-center to push in a run. Howie Kendrick flied out to send the game to the ninth.

Closer Aroldis Chapman took over with a six-run lead in the bottom of the ninth. He issued a leadoff walk to Gonzalez, then served up a single to Yasiel Puig. Joc Pederson grounded out, but Josh Reddick knocked in Gonzalez and moved Puig to third with a single to center. Toles plated Puig with a sacrifice fly, making it 8-4. Turner grounded out to shortstop to end the game, finalizing the victory for the Cubs.

The two clubs will take Friday off to travel back to Chicago. Game 6 will take place at Wrigley Field at 8:00 PM EDT. Clayton Kershaw will start for the Dodgers opposite the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks.