2015 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 2015 season. Next up. The Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Big Question: There’s nowhere to go but up, right?

Since winning the National League West in 2011, the Diamondbacks have turned in three straight disappointing seasons and finished last season with the worst record in the majors at 64-98. Tony La Russa was hired as chief baseball officer early on in the year, which essentially signaled that Kevin Towers and Kirk Gibson were living on borrowed time. Sure enough, they were both fired in September.

Tasked with taking the franchise in a new direction, La Russa hired one of his former pitchers from the Athletics, Dave Stewart, to serve as general manager while De Jon Watson was brought over from the Dodgers as senior vice president of baseball operations. Chip Hale, who has coached with the Mets and Athletics in recent seasons, was then brought aboard for his first managing opportunity in the big leagues.

Stewart was outspoken when he was an agent and he has already said his fair share of interesting things as Arizona’s general manager. Most notably, when the Diamondbacks were briefly courting right-hander James Shields in free agency, he said they were more of a “true baseball team” as opposed to teams which are more geared toward analytics. This was likely just an attempt at a sales pitch to appeal to a player they only had a small chance of actually signing, but it’s not the first impression you want after the grit-centered philosophy of Towers and Gibson fizzled out.

Getting back to contender status is going to be a process. The team’s big offseason move was signing Yasmany Tomas to a six-year, $68.5 million contract, but the third base experiment has been a bust so far and he’s still learning to hit major league pitching. Interesting arms like Jeremy Hellickson, Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, Robbie Ray, and Yoan Lopez were brought in over the offseason, but this is a team that is going with Josh Collmenter as their Opening Day starter. He would be a back-end starter on a good staff. After dealing catcher Miguel Montero to the Cubs, Stewart didn’t seem so keen (or didn’t have the budget) to acquire a suitable replacement, so Tuffy Gosewisch stands to get most of the playing time in the early going. Peter O’Brien, who Stewart was hoping could be a solution behind the plate, was having trouble throwing the ball back to the mound this spring and could be bound for the outfield. Barring a last-minute move, this could be the weakest catching situation in the majors.

This lineup has a couple of interesting pieces in place, which I’ll get to in a minute, but expectations are understandably low for 2015 in a division which also has the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres.

What else is going on?

  • After finishing second in the NL MVP balloting in 2013, Paul Goldschmidt was well on his way to a comparable follow-up last season by hitting .300/.396/.542 with 19 home runs and 69 RBI across 109 games before he suffered a broken hand on a hit-by-pitch in early August. He’s back to 100 percent now and remains the shining light on this roster.
  • Aside from the excellence of Goldschmidt at first base, the infield is in flux. Assuming Tomas doesn’t work out at third base, young Jake Lamb is a possibility there, but Aaron Hill could also get some time at the hot corner if the D-Backs go with Nick Ahmed at shortstop and try Chris Owings at second base. Trading Hill, which has been rumored, could clear the way for all of the youngsters to get playing time. I’m guessing we’ll see that configuration sooner or later.
  • This outfield has a lot of moving pieces and not all of them are ideal fits. A.J. Pollock is locked in as the starting center fielder while Mark Trumbo appears set to start in right field, but David Peralta, Ender Inciarte, Cody Ross, and Tomas are also in the mix. Trumbo and Tomas in the corners might not be pretty. They also have similar offensive profiles. Which is to say, power without much patience.
  • This rotation doesn’t look particularly strong right now, but it figures to get better as the season moves along. Patrick Corbin and Bronson Arroyo are both working their way back from Tommy John surgery and should be ready to return by mid-season. Things didn’t go as planned for top prospect Archie Bradley last year, but he could surface in the majors soon with a good showing in Triple-A.
  • Perhaps my favorite story to watch with this team will be Daniel Hudson, who has lost much of the last three seasons due to a pair of Tommy John surgeries. The 28-year-old returned for three relief appearances down the stretch last year and has flashed mid-90s velocity this spring. It’s unclear if he’ll be used as a starter or reliever, but here’s hoping he can finally stay healthy and deliver on the promise he showed in the early part of his career.

Prediction: This could really go either way with the Rockies, as they look like two of the weakest teams in the majors, but I’m going to say a repeat of Fifth Place, NL West.

Myles Garrett and Mason Rudolph: meet Juan Marichal and John Roseboro

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Last night the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the Cleveland Browns. No one is gonna be talking nearly as much about the outcome today, however, as they are the carnage.

Specifically, the carnage that led to Browns defensive end Myles Garrett getting ejected from the game after ripping Steelers’ quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet off, swinging it at him and connecting with Rudolph’s skull as the game came to a close. Things were already chippy as all get-out, but that obviously led to a brawl which will lead to a ton of suspensions, including a possibly record-breaking one for Garrett. For all your analysis on that, check out PFT, obviously.

The incident will dominate the sports shows today because malicious attempts to injure another player with a piece of equipment are pretty rare in professional sports. There was at least one incident in baseball history, however, that was analogous to what went down in Cleveland last night.

It took place on August 22, 1965 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco during a Dodgers-Giants game. That’s when Giants ace Juan Marichal, playing the role of Garrett, took a baseball bat to the head of Dodgers catcher John Roseboro, standing in for Rudolph.

The Dodgers and Giants are rivals, of course, and in 1965 the two teams were in a pitched battle for the N.L. pennant, with the Dodgers leading San Francisco by a game and a half as the day began.

Pitchers in 1965 were a bit more aggressive about claiming the inside part of the plate than they are today, and on that day, everyone seemed cranky. Marichal knocked Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills down with some chin music in the top of the second for, it appears, committing the terrible transgression of bunting for a single in his first at bat of the game. In response Koufax fired a fastball over Willie Mays’ head, sending the ball to the backstop. So everyone was even, yeah?

Nah. Marichal responded in the top of third with an inside fastball that sent Dodgers first baseman Ron Fairly sprawling to the dirt. At that point home plate umpire Shag Crawford issued a warning, indicating that that the next close pitch from either team would result in an ejection. Walter Alston’s Dodgers, though, were a clever bunch. Sure, maybe a close pitch was going to get an ace ejected in a pennant race, but there are other ways to buzz someone’s tower, right?

Pitchers batted in every game back then, of course, and Marichal came to bat in the bottom of the third. Koufax didn’t throw at him, though. Instead, Roseboro, catching for L.A., threw the ball back to Koufax in such a way as to have it sail close to Marichal’s head as he stood in the batter’s box. He later admitted in his autobiography that it was no accident, he was trying to intimidate Marichal.

Marichal flipped out, clubbing Roseboro with his bat, after which all hell broke loose (all photos, and the original caption from 1965, are from Getty Images):

 

Juan Marichal holding bat, John Roseboro attacked, and Sandy Koufax closes in.

 

Roseboro throws a punch at Marichal while latter swings bat and Koufax comes in to try and break it up.

 

On deck batter Giant Tito Fuentes pulls Roseboro away while Marichal wields bat at Koufax while umpire Shag Crawford and Giant coach Charlie Fox try to break it up.

 

Umpire Shag Crawford wrestles with Marichal while Dodgers Jim Gilliam (19) and Koufax come in. Rear is Giants coach Charlie Fox. Marichal falls to the ground on top of Shag Crawford while Giants Orlando Cepeda joins the melee.

 

Umpire Shag Crawford is shown here wrestling with Marichal as Dodgers Jim Gilliam (#19) and Sandy Koufax join in. In the rear is Giants’ coach Charlie Fox.

 

Identifiable L-R: Dodger Jim Gilliam (19); John Roseboro (with chest protector); Giants Orlando Cepeda (30); Cap Peterson (17); Warren Spahn; and Mgr. Herman Franks (3).

Willie Mays was credited with keeping the brawl from getting worse. Roseboro had military and martial arts training and, as you can see in the second photo, he was not slowed by his head injury — an injury that would require 14 stitches — from trying to take Marichal apart. Mays was the one who ultimately pulled Roseboro away and out of the fracas. He even held a towel to Roseboro’s head which by then had begun to bleed profusely. The fight eventually ended, with several players sustaining injuries due to kicks and accidental spikings of hands and legs and stuff.

The incident delayed the game for 14 minutes but the fallout beyond that was pretty tame compared to today’s standards. Marichal got an eight day suspension which, because of scheduled doubleheaders, caused him to miss ten games. He was also fined $1,750, which is around $15,000 today. Roseboro only missed two games due to his injury. The Dodgers would lose this game thanks to a big homer from Mays off of Koufax, but the Dodgers would go on to win the pennant and defeat the Minnesota Twins in the World Series.

There was additional fallout: Roseboro sued Marichal for $110,000 in damages. They’d eventually settle, with Roseboro receiving $7,500 from Marichal.

But there was no lingering bad blood. In interviews after the incident both players admitted that there was much more on their minds in 1965 that might’ve contributed to their aggression on that day. There was the rivalry, of course, and the pennant race. But Marichal had been much more personally distracted by a civil war in his native Dominican Republic that raged in 1965 and would not end until September. Roseboro had been, understandably, affected by the Watts Riots in Los Angeles which had taken place just over a week before this game. When you feel helpless about situation A, you often channel your feelings into situation B and both men said that something like that was probably simmering.

Marichal would play for the Dodgers for two games in 1975, the final year of his career. Roseboro had already retired, but Marichal’s cup of coffee with L.A. allowed them to meet up at a Dodgers old-timers game in 1982. There they posed for this photo: 

Getty Images

“There were no hard feelings on my part,” Roseboro told the L.A. Times in 1990. Roseboro died in 2002. Marichal was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral.

Let’s check in with Garrett and Ruldolph in 37 years to see how they’re doing.