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.

Astros take their third bite at the apple in response to Assistant GM Brandon Taubman’s comments

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Last night Sports Illustrated reported that, following the Houston Astros’ Game 6 victory over the Yankees on Saturday night, Astros Assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman shouted at a group of three female reporters, “Thank god we got [Roberto] Osuna! I’m so [expletive] glad we got Osuna!” Taubman reportedly repeated the phrase half a dozen times. The Sports Illustrated report was later corroborated by no less than four reporters apart from the Sports Illustrated reporter who were in the clubhouse and witnessed the incident.

The comments and their context strongly suggested that Taubman was, at best, making light of the criticism the Astros received for trading for Osuna following his domestic violence suspension resulting from very serious domestic violence charges lodged against him in 2018. To some it smacked of Taubman taking something of a victory lap over the Astros’ controversial — and poorly handled — acquisition of Osuna and came off as extraordinarily insensitive and abjectly tone deaf.

The Astros originally declined comment before the report was published. Late last night, after the story went live and once it became apparent that it cast Taubman in a bad light, they issued an angry and defensive statement, calling the Sports Illustrated article “misleading and completely irresponsible.” Again, despite the fact that the report was corroborated by multiple eyewitnesses. The team’s statement was itself then subjected to intense criticism today.

The Astros are now taking their third bite at the apple, releasing the following statements:

It’s worth noting that nowhere here do the Astros apologize or even reference last night’s statement which, in essence, called Sports Illustrated reporter Stephanie Apstein a liar. A statement which they no doubt would’ve let be the last word if it hadn’t been met with such pushback. Which suggests that the above statements — of the “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” non-apology apology variety — are more about damage control than sincerity.

It’s also worth noting that Taubman’s comment takes the oh-so-common tack of referencing the fact that he is a “husband and a father,” which is irrelevant given that at issue were his acts and words, not his identity. We are not what we believe ourselves to be in our heart of hearts. We are what we do. We are how we treat one another. That’s all that matters. Attempts to deflect from that basic fact of humanity are, just that, deflections. And patronizing ones at that. Taubman’s statement would’ve been way better if it had stopped after the second sentence.

As for owner Jim Crane’s statement, it continues the Astros’ tack of wanting to have it both ways. There is no rule that says they could not have traded for Roberto Osuna. What made the whole episode unseemly, however, is how they claimed to have a “zero tolerance” policy against domestic violence and claimed not to be breaking it when they clearly did so because, hey, Osuna was cheaply had. Which means that they actually have a “some tolerance” policy — as do a lot of teams — but they wanted to act like they were better than that and deflect criticism from those who took issue. Here again, Crane wants it both ways by using what should be a straight apology for one of his top employees’ boorish behavior as an opportunity to once again claim that they are better than they truly are when it comes to domestic violence.

If you don’t have to care about an issue and you, in fact, don’t care, well, fine. You may catch hell from people for that stance, but you can do what you want. If, however, you want credit for being on top of an issue, do the work to earn it. If you fall short of your or society’s expectations, apologize and try to do better. What you cannot do is fail and then try to use your failure as a means of turning the tables on those who criticize you while claiming that, actually, you’re really really good on the topic.

Major League Baseball has also weighed in:

“Domestic violence is extraordinarily serious and everyone in baseball must use care to not engage in any behavior — whether intentional or not — that could be construed as minimizing the egregiousness of an act of domestic violence.  We became aware of this incident through the Sports Illustrated article.  The Astros have disputed Sports Illustrated’s characterization of the incident.  MLB will interview those involved before commenting further.”

The comment came out at almost the exact same time the Astros’ comments were released, which suggests to me that they were coordinated. Which, hey, they’re all trying to end the conversation about this before the first pitch of tonight’s Game 1. I will not hold my breath for anything to come of MLB’s “interviews” of those involved.