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2017 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 2017 season. Next up: The Arizona Diamondbacks.

2016 was supposed to go much better for the Diamondbacks than it did. The team had just signed superstar pitcher Zack Greinke to a six-year, $206.5 million contract and acquired starter Shelby Miller from the Braves in a trade that sent No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson and more – pitching prospect Aaron Blair and outfielder Ender Inciarte – to the Braves. Instead, the Snakes finished with a not-so-nice 69-93 record, narrowly outpacing the 68-win Padres to avoid the cellar of the NL West.

The D-Backs cleaned house in the front office, ousting advisor Tony La Russa and GM Dave Stewart as well as manager Chip Hale. The club hired Mike Hazen from the Red Sox to serve as the new GM and he brought bench coach Torey Lovullo with him to replace Hale as the manager.

The Diamondbacks’ offseason was otherwise relatively quiet. The club acquired starter Taijuan Walker from the Mariners and signed free agents Fernando Rodney, Chris Iannetta, and Jeff Mathis. Everyone else is returning.

Let’s start with Miller, though, whose 2016 was perhaps the strangest story of the season. 25 years old at the time, the right-hander was coming off of a dominant season with the Braves despite leading the league with 17 losses. He had a 3.02 ERA with a 171/73 K/BB ratio in 205 1/3 innings. After his 10th start to begin the 2016 campaign, Miller carried a 7.09 ERA and failed to reach the fourth inning in three of those starts. He had this strange issue where he would scrape his fingers against the dirt of the pitcher’s mound with his follow-through. The D-Backs mulled demoting him to Triple-A Reno but ended up placing him on the disabled list. After four mediocre starts back in the bigs, Miller was demoted after all in mid-July and returned to the team at the end of August. He was slightly improved the rest of the way, but still wasn’t back to his old self. The Diamondbacks will need a lot to go right this year in order to be competitive, but it starts and ends with Miller returning to All-Star form.

Greinke, too, needs a turnaround. With the Dodgers in 2015, the right-hander went 19-3 with a major-league best 1.66 ERA and a 200/40 K/BB ratio in 222 2/3 innings. While one would expect some slightly inflated numbers moving from a pitcher-friendly park in L.A. to a hitter-friendly park in Arizona, Greinke’s 4.37 ERA and 134/41 K/BB ratio in 158 2/3 innings fell tremendously short of expectations. He battled a strained oblique, which is one of the few injuries left where you just kind of hope for the best. All of the peripheral markings of good pitching were down for Greinke compared to years past and, in fact, his 4.12 FIP was his worst mark in a full season since 2005.

Walker joins the rotation, coming to the D-Backs along with Ketel Marte in the November trade that sent Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger, and Zac Curtis to the Mariners. Walker was the Mariners’ first-round pick in 2010 and has long held tremendous promise, but injuries and a proneness to home runs have left his stats underwhelming. Last year, in 25 starts, Walker posted a 4.22 ERA with a 119/37 K/BB ratio in 134 1/3 innings. The D-Backs don’t have a history of turning coal into diamonds the way, say, the Pirates do. Plus, Walker is moving from the spacious Safeco Field in Seattle to the relative bandbox that is Chase Field. On the birght side, he’s only 24 years old and has plenty of time to grow.

Robbie Ray was, at the very least, consistent last season en route to posting a 4.90 ERA. He yielded no more than five runs in any one start, but yielded four or five runs in 14 of his 32 starts. The lefty never put his team in an unrecoverable hole, but his offense needed to work to bail him out, which is why he went 8-15. Ray made huge strides in missing bats, though, whiffing 11.3 batters per nine innings. He’s potentially a hidden weapon.

Archie Bradley rounds out the rotation. The 24-year-old put up a disappointing 5.02 ERA in his first full season as a major leaguer. The former top prospect had constant battles with control, walking three or more batters in 15 of 26 starts. Bradley did strike out 143 in 141 2/3 innings, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the spotty control. If everything goes right, the Diamondbacks’ rotation – Bradley included – has the potential to make for one of the best rotations in baseball, but it’s hard to believe it looking at last year’s performance.

Veteran Fernando Rodney joined the club on a one-year, $2.75 million contract to serve as the new closer, replacing Brad Ziegler. Between the Padres and Marlins last year, Rodney saved 25 games with a 3.44 ERA and a 74/37 K/BB ratio in 65 1/3 innings. The 39-year-old still has the ability to miss bats at a high rate, but his control issues will make many ninth innings nail-biters. Randall Delgado and Jake Barrett will help bridge the gap to Rodney in the late innings.

On offense, the charge will be led by two-time NL MVP Award runner-up Paul Goldschmidt, the veritable face of the franchise. The 29-year-old, who is only signed through 2018 (’19 if the Diamondbacks pick up his option), hit .297/.411/.489 with 24 home runs, 95 RBI, 106 runs scored, and 32 stolen bases in 705 plate appearances. It was actually a down year compared to his normal level of production. One wonders if the Diamondbacks falter by the time the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches, perhaps Hazen considers dealing the four-time All-Star to help rejuvenate what many consider to be the worst minor league system in baseball.

At second base, the Diamondbacks are open to the possibility of Brandon Drury being their everyday guy. As a utilityman last year, he hit .282/.329/.458 with 16 home runs and 53 RBI in 499 PA. Veteran Daniel Descalso, who bats left opposite Drury, could see some playing time at second base if the club doesn’t see Drury as a reliable everyday option. Segura did an outstanding job at second base for the D-Backs last year, but they had to give him up to acquire Walker.

Chris Owings appears to be the favorite for regular work at shortstop despite Hazen previously suggesting that Owings would get corner outfield work in the spring. Thus far that hasn’t happened. The 25-year-old hit .277/.315/.416 with 40 extra-base hits, 49 RBI, and 52 runs scored in 466 PA last year. The light-hitting Nick Ahmed is likely to back up Owings at the position.

Former top prospect Jake Lamb returns to third base after hitting a solid .249/.332/.509 with 29 home runs and 91 RBI in 594 PA last year. He needs to make some strides defensively, but that bat looks good in the middle of the order.

A.J. Pollock will look to have a fully healthy season after playing in only 12 games in 2016 due to a fractured elbow. He was coming off of a breakout campaign in ’15 during which he hit .315/.367/.498 with 20 home runs, 76 RBI, 111 runs scored, and 39 stolen bases. Since the start of the 2010 season, there have been just 14 player-seasons in which an outfielder has hit at least 20 home runs and stolen at least 30 bases.

David Peralta will continue to handle things in right field. Like Pollock, Peralta’s 2016 was marred by injury, limiting him to 48 games. And, like Pollock, Peralta broke out in 2015, batting .312/.371/.522 with 53 extra-base hits, 78 RBI, and 61 runs scored in 517 PA. While expecting both Pollock and Peralta to return to their 2015 heights or higher is a bit unrealistic, both are great candidates for productive bounce-back years.

Yasmany Tomas will get full-time work in left field. Offensively, he finally lived up to his billing, hitting .272/.313/.508 with 31 home runs and 83 RBI. The only problem was that he erased any good he did with the bat by performing so poorly defensively. The D-Backs have had him play both infield and outfield corners in an attempt to find him a home, but his glove just doesn’t play anywhere. The best case scenario for both sides is for the club to eventually trade him to an American League team that can hide him at DH.

Iannetta and Mathis will be Yin and Yang behind the plate. Iannetta can hit (or, at least, used to be able to), but isn’t great defensively. Mathis can’t hit, but is great defensively. The D-Backs curiously non-tendered Welington Castillo, who was decent in both avenues, back in December.

It’s fair to expect more than a handful of key players on the roster to make big improvements in 2017. Namely, those would be Greinke, Miller, Goldschmidt, Pollock, and Peralta. However, the club is noticeably weak at three crucial positions, the back of the rotation is unreliable, and the bullpen figures to be quite volatile. The D-Backs won’t lose 90 games, but they’ll probably come close.

Prediction: 78-84 record, 4th place in division

Joe Girardi won’t use Masahiro Tanaka in Game 7

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The Yankees and Astros are set for Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday, and neither team will hold back as they seek a World Series berth. The Astros are prepared to back starter Charlie Morton with any able-bodied pitcher in their ranks — including Justin Verlander, though A.J. Hinch said it would be a “dream scenario” to get anything more from his ace — while the Yankees are prepared to utilize all but a few of their arms. One pitcher you won’t see? Right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who last took the hill for the Yankees during their Game 5 shutout on Wednesday.

Tanaka expended 103 pitches over seven scoreless innings in his last start, fending off the Astros with three hits, a walk and eight strikeouts. He hasn’t pitched on fewer than three days of rest all year, and even with a do-or-die scenario facing the Yankees on Saturday night, manager Joe Girardi doesn’t want to compromise his starter’s ability to stay rested and ready for the World Series.

Girardi will also play it safe with fellow right-hander Sonny Gray, who dominated in a five-inning performance in Game 4. All other pitchers should be available and ready to go, though the club is hoping for a lengthy outing from veteran starter CC Sabathia. Sabathia is no stranger to the postseason: over eight separate playoff runs, he touts one championship title and a collective 4.24 ERA in 123 innings. He held the Astros scoreless in his Game 3 start, blanking them over six innings on three hits, four walks and five strikeouts for an eventual 8-1 win.

Even without Tanaka or Gray likely to take the mound for Game 7, the Yankees will enter the series finale with history on their side. Per MLB.com, they have a 4-3 road record in Game 7s and are 6-7 in all 13 Game 7 finales to date. The Astros, on the other hand, dropped their first and only Game 7 clincher back in 2004, when the Cardinals capped the NLCS with a 5-2 win in St. Louis. The teams are scheduled to face off for the first-ever Game 7 at Minute Maid Park on Saturday at 8:00 PM ET.