2014 Preview: 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 2014 season. Next up: The Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Big Question: Can the Diamondbacks withstand the injury to Patrick Corbin and get over the .500 mark?

The Diamondbacks won 94 games in 2011, the first year that general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson were paired together, but the team has underperformed expectations since. Towers attempted to remake the team in the (gritty) image of his manager last offseason, most notably by dealing Justin Upton and Chris Johnson to the Braves for Martin Prado, Randall Delgado, and a trio of prospects. However, his bold moves didn’t make much of a difference in the standings, as the club finished at 81-81 for a second straight year.

While Towers attempted to make a splash on the free agent market this winter, most of his moves were once again made through significant trades. The big one was a three-team deal that brought Mark Trumbo to Arizona and sent Tyler Skaggs to the Angels and Adam Eaton to the White Sox. He later made another deal with Chicago, this time dealing third base prospect Matt Davidson in exchange for closer Addison Reed. After trying to acquire a frontline starting pitcher for most of the winter, the club added Bronson Arroyo on a two-year, $19 million contract last month.

Will these moves be enough to challenge the rival Dodgers for the NL West crown? Realistically, no. And let’s face it, they probably wouldn’t have been favored even if they did land Masahiro Tanaka, David Price, or Jeff Samardzija. However, Towers’ inability to acquire a frontline starter this offseason stands out even more now that Patrick Corbin has a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow, setting up the possibility of season-ending Tommy John surgery.

Without Corbin, the Diamondbacks project to begin the year with a rotation of Trevor Cahill, Wade Miley, Brandon McCarthy, Bronson Arroyo, and Randall Delgado. Decent, but it doesn’t exactly scream playoffs. As for the lineup, Trumbo and last year’s NL MVP runner-up Paul Goldschmidt should provide plenty of thump in the middle of the order. Trumbo still has his flaws, as he doesn’t get on base often and figures to be a poor defender in the outfield. Fortunately for Arizona’s pitchers, A.J. Pollock and Gerardo Parra can cover a lot of ground. Martin Prado continues to fly under the radar on both sides of the ball while Aaron Hill should be an asset if he’s healthy and Miguel Montero should be a pretty good bet for a rebound. This is an interesting team, but make no mistake, the Corbin injury takes some wind out of their sails.

What else is going on?

  • Top pitching prospect Archie Bradley has been the talk of camp this spring and Corbin’s injury makes it more likely that he’ll see significant time in the majors this year. The 21-year-old right-hander posted a 1.84 ERA and 162 strikeouts over 152 innings last season between High-A Visalia and Double-A Mobile and was recently ranked as the No. 9 prospect in the game by Baseball America. His command is said to be a work in progress, but it might not be long before we see him in the majors. My guess is it could happen as soon as the end of April.
  • The Diamondbacks are currently holding a competition between Didi Gregorius and prospect Chris Owings for the starting shortstop job. Gregorius, who was acquired from the Reds last winter in a three-team trade, hit .252/.332/.373 with seven home runs and 28 RBI in 103 games as a rookie last year and provided solid defense at shortstop. Owings, who is more known for his bat, is reportedly the favorite at this time. Whoever loses the battle could begin the season in the minors, though it’s possible one of them could be traded. The Mets and Tigers are among the teams who could inquire.
  • Arizona’s bullpen was in a state of flux for much of last season, as they used three different pitchers (J.J. Putz, Heath Bell, and Brad Ziegler) out of the closer role and their relievers tied for the major league lead with 29 blown saves. Ziegler actually enjoyed success as the closer despite a low strikeout rate, but Towers acquired a more traditional swing-and-miss option over the winter in Addison Reed. While some worry about Reed’s fly ball rate in the desert, he has survived in a hitter-friendly ballpark before and the Diamondbacks are better off having Ziegler available for high-leverage situations in the seventh and eighth innings when they really need a ground ball.
  • The Diamondbacks declined their 2015 options on Towers and Gibson after last season, which effectively set them up for lame duck status this year. Team brass apparently wasn’t comfortable with the perception and possible distractions involved, as they had a change of heart and extended the contracts for both of them. Exact terms weren’t announced, but we’ll likely hear more speculation about their job status if they miss the playoffs or take a step back this year.

Prediction: The offense should be there, but the rotation isn’t anything special and you can’t count on Bradley to be a savior. Fourth place, NL West.

No one pounds the zone anymore

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“Work fast and throw strikes” has long been the top conventional wisdom for those preaching pitching success. The “work fast” part of that has increasingly gone by the wayside, however, as pitchers take more and more time to throw pitches in an effort to max out their effort and, thus, their velocity with each pitch.

Now, as Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer reports, the “throw strikes” part of it is going out of style too:

Pitchers are throwing fewer pitches inside the strike zone than ever previously recorded . . . A decade ago, more than half of all pitches ended up in the strike zone. Today, that rate has fallen below 47 percent.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Most notable among them, Lindbergh says, being pitchers’ increasing reliance on curves, sliders and splitters as primary pitches, with said pitches not being in the zone by design. Lindbergh doesn’t mention it, but I’d guess that an increased emphasis on catchers’ framing plays a role too, with teams increasingly selecting for catchers who can turn balls that are actually out of the zone into strikes. If you have one of those beasts, why bother throwing something directly over the plate?

There is an unintended downside to all of this: a lack of action. As Lindbergh notes — and as you’ve not doubt noticed while watching games — there are more walks and strikeouts, there is more weak contact from guys chasing bad pitches and, as a result, games and at bats are going longer.

As always, such insights are interesting. As is so often the case these days, however, such insights serve as an unpleasant reminder of why the on-field product is so unsatisfying in so many ways in recent years.