Bill Baer

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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

Jake Arrieta says if a young player flips his bat after a home run, “He might wear the next one in the ribs.”

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Jake Arrieta joined David Kaplan and Jesse Rogers on Chicago’s ESPN 1000 on Tuesday. He was asked about players flipping their bats in celebration after a home run.

It’s not surprising that Arrieta feels this way, but it’s also disappointing. Major League Baseball wonders why fans are gravitating towards other sports like the NBA and it’s because their players can actually express themselves in the arena. Mike Trout is the best player baseball has seen since Ken Griffey, Jr. and he’s about as interesting as paint drying on a wall. That’s because baseball tamps down players’ impulses to express themselves, to show emotion. Active pitchers (like Arrieta), former players (like Goose Gossage), and commentators preserve this outmoded mentality where emotionless play is correct and it is sapping the sport of personality.

If I were commissioner, I’d stop trying to fiddle with the rules to try and make the sport interesting. Instead, I would try to bring out the best in the players, make them relatable to fans. And I’d make a phone call every time someone like Arrieta speaks in favor of hurting players who dare to show emotion on the field.

Israel defeats Chinese Taipei 15-7 in World Baseball Classic

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The World Baseball Classic continued on Monday night as Team Israel “visited” Team Chinese Taipei at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea. Team Israel had just come off of a 10-inning, 2-1 victory over Korea early Monday morning, but wasted no time jumping out to a convincing lead against Chinese Taipei.

In the first inning, Sam Fuld led off with a single and promptly moved to third when Ty Kelly doubled. Ike Davis singled to right field to bring both home for a 2-0 lead. The barrage kept coming as Nate Freiman singled to put runners on first and second. Chinese Taipei starter Chun-Lin Kuo managed to strike out Zach Borenstein, but Ryan Lavarnway singled to load the bases. Kuo then struck out Blake Gailen, but Tyler Kreiger kept the rally going with a single to center, scoring two more runs to make it 4-0. Team Israel tacked on two more runs in the third inning when Lavarnway smoked a two-run home run to center field off of Kuan-Yu Chen.

Team Israel Starter Corey Baker went 4 2/3 scoreless innings, limiting Taipei to three hits with no walks and three strikeouts on 59 pitches. R.C. Orlan relieved Baker and got the final two outs of the fifth. Taipei finally got on the board in the sixth. With one out, Chin-Lung Hu reached on a single, Chih-Hao Chang reached on a missed catch error on a force attempt at second, and Chih-Hsien Chiang drew a walk to load the bases. Tyler Herron came in for Orlan, but immediately gave up a two-run double to left field to Chih-Sheng Lin. Yi-Chuan Lin lifted a sacrifice fly to center, making it a 6-3 game. Herron struck out Kuo-Hui Kao to end the inning at long last.

Davis led off the top of the seventh with a triple that was very nearly a solo home run to center field. He came around to score on a Freiman single to left to push the lead to 7-3. Fu-Te Ni relieved Ming-Chin Tsai, but Israel kept their foot on the gas pedal. After Zach Borenstein lined out, Lavarnway was hit by a pitch. Cody Decker, pinch-hitting for Gailen, singled to left to load the bases. Kreiger then laced a single to center, pushing Israel’s lead to 8-3 and keeping the bases loaded. Chen-Hua Lin came in for Ni and thought he’d have at least one out when Scott Burcham dropped down a bunt. Lin fielded the bunt down the first base line and threw to… no one covering the first base bag. The throw went into right field and three more runs crossed the plate to make it 11-3. In the eighth, Israel tacked on one more run. Borenstein doubled and Nick Rickles singled to plate Borenstein. The game went from rout to laugher in the top of the ninth. After Israel drew two two-out walks, Nate Freiman lined a three-run homer to left field, turning it into a 15-3 lead.

Chinese Taipei threatened in the bottom of the ninth, putting their first two runners on base with a walk and a single. After pitcher Troy Neiman got Hu to ground out, Chang ripped a two-run double to left field. Dean Kremer relieved Neiman and served up a double of his own to Chiang, plating Chang. Chi-Hsiang Lin singled to put runners on first and third with one out. Yi-Chuan Lin grounded a single to right to bring in another run, cutting the lead to 15-7. Kuo-Hui Kao fouled out down the right field line for the second out. Finally, the game ended when Chi-Hung Hsu whiffed on strike three from Kremer.

Israel has jumped out to a convincing 2-0 lead in Pool A. They will take on Team Netherlands on Wednesday evening in an attempt to go undefeated through Pool A. If they make it through, they’ll enter Pool E which will be held in Tokyo.

The World Baseball Classic continues on Tuesday. In the early morning, Team Korea takes on Team Netherlands. Shortly after that game gets underway, Pool B play begins with Team Cuba and Team Japan square off. At night, Team China will host Team Cuba.