2018 Preview: Arizona Diamondbacks

Getty Images

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 2018 season. Next up: The Arizona Diamondbacks.

The 2016 Arizona Diamondbacks disappointed. After that season they cleaned house in the front office, firing Chief Baseball Officer (whatever that was) Tony La Russa and GM Dave Stewart as canned manager Chip Hale too. 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. Those moves were lauded but a relatively quiet season on the player acquisition front followed, so most people figured that the 2017 club would rebuild, reposition and look to contend somewhere down the road.

Then they went out and won 93 games, won the Wild Card game and played in the NLDS. So much for the rebuild.

It’s not like they got lucky, either. Their pythagorean record — the projection of how many games a team should’ve won or lost based on their run differential — had them at 96 wins, so by that measure they were actually a little unlucky. Fact was last year’s Dbacks were a good team that most of us just didn’t recognize as a good team heading into the season. We had ’em winning 78 games for cryin’ out loud.

With our Diamondback myopia acknowledged, what do we see from them this year? Good things on balance, I think.

They had the fourth best offense in the NL last year. A big reason for that was less than half a season’s worth of J.D. Martinez in which he put up close to a full season’s worth of production, smacking 29 homers in only 62 games. He’s gone, of course, but the Dbacks did acquire a couple of outfielders in Jarrod Dyson and Steven Souza. Dyson will likely be a fourth outfielder because he’s just not a consistent offensive threat, but he’s a plus defender and he still has great wheels. If he comes in late, subs a good bit and faces primarily right handers, he’ll be pretty darn useful and will actually give Lovullo more flexibility with the outfield than he had last season. Souza had an excellent year in Tampa Bay in 2017, hitting 30 homers and posting a 121 OPS+. That may be a bit more than we can expect to see again, but the two of them, A.J. Pollock and David Peralta form a solid outfield rotation, with Yasmany Tomas — who stunk in 2017 but is having a nice spring — trying to play his way into the picture as well.

Another newcomer is catcher Alex Avila, who had a nice little renaissance in Detroit last year. He’s not likely to be quite the hitter that Chris Iannetta was last season, but he’s no slouch and can probably play more games than Iannetta did. The other change on the infield is the departure of second baseman Brandon Drury. With him gone, Torey Lovullo will shuffle some combination of Ketel Marte, Chris Owings and Nick Ahmed around second and short. Not the most inspiring offensive crew — man, this is a club that could’ve used Neil Walker — but again, not much worse than what the Dbacks featured in the middle last year. The corners are set with perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt at first and Jake Lamb at third.

The rotation should look pretty much the same as it did last season, with Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray — who was better than Greinke in 2017 — anchoring the top and Taijuan Walker, Zack Godley and Patrick Corbin following up. It’s a more than solid crew — by ERA the third best in baseball last year — that should be a clear strength for Arizona. In the age of bullpenning, these guys go deep into games and take the pressure off the pen. The only real question is depth, as there is not a ton of starting talent after the big five. Eventually Shelby Miller will be back, but he’s recovering from Tommy John surgery and we likely won’t see him until the second half. Depth notwithstanding, a lot of teams would like to have the rotation Arizona will feature.

The bullpen loses Fernando Rodney, but Archie Bradley was clearly the best fireman at Lovullo’s disposal all last year. On most teams Bradley would’ve been anointed the closer now that Rodney is gone, but Lovullo and the Dbacks front office is well aware of how useful he was in multiple-inning and high-leverage situations last year. At the moment they’re characterizing it as a wide open battle between Bradley, Brad Boxberger, and Yoshihisa Hirano for the closer’s spot, but it’d be a shame if Bradley was used less, in lower-leverage situations, as the closer so often is. At the same time, closer-by-committee and role shifting scenarios often make pitchers uncomfortable, even if they say they’re flexible when the press is around. Whatever Lovullo settles on, though, he has some good arms at his disposal.

Where does that leave us? The club is likely taking a step back offensively with a big downgrade in the outfield and minor downgrades in the middle infield and behind the plate. Offense, of course, can always be added during the course of the season, just as the Snakes added offense last year. The staff should be solid, even if the miles begin to catch up a bit to Zack Greinke and even if Robbie Ray comes back down a bit from his amazing 2017 run. As is the case with most teams, health of the pitching staff is everything here.

I think all of that makes the Dbacks a tad worse off heading into 2018 than they were ending 2017, but not significantly worse. An improved Giants team may give them more competition than they had last year, but I still think they’ll be in the thick of the Wild Card hunt. Toss a coin to see which of them will be better, but since Bill picked the Giants to be in second place, I’ll say . . .

Prediction: Third Place, NL West. Not that I’d be shocked if they did better.

Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz remains upbeat as rehab from broken left ankle nears midway point

oneil cruz rehab
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH — Oneil Cruz slowly made his way on crutches across the Pittsburgh Pirates clubhouse on Saturday toward a locker replete with a massive walking boot that the towering shortstop still uses to protect the left ankle he broke during an awkward slide home in early April.

The days when he’ll need to rely on the crutches are numbered. Ditto for the walking boot. The 24-year-old’s recovery remains on track, meaning he could return sometime late this summer barring any setbacks.

Given the way Cruz’s left leg rolled up underneath him as he collided with Chicago White Sox catcher Seby Zavala in the sixth inning of what became a 1-0 victory, Cruz will take it. He had surgery the next day and the team optimistically said it expected him to miss four months, a timeline it has not deviated from as his rehab reaches the halfway point.

“You never want to get hurt, obviously, but that’s part of the game and it happens to me,” Cruz said through a translator. “I’m just going to take it the way it is and get better as soon as possible.”

The Pirates have found a way to remain in contention in the NL Central even without their leadoff hitter and one of the more physically intriguing young players in the majors, one prone to testing the limits of StatCast. Pittsburgh entered play on Saturday at 29-27, a half-game back of Milwaukee for first place in a division where no one has been able to run away and hide.

The club has used a handful of players at short to fill in for Cruz, from Rodolfo Castro to Tucupita Marcano to Ji Hwan Bae to Chris Owings. None of them possess Cruz’s unique mix of size, power and speed. Yet they’ve been solid enough to help soften what could have been a devastating early blow to a club that is trying to climb back into relevance following consecutive 100-loss seasons.

Cruz has leaned on his wife and his children to help ease the mental sting of the first major injury of his still-young career. Watching longtime teammates Castro and Marcano – who came up through the minors with Cruz – have some level of success has helped. The duo is hitting a combined .264 with eight home runs and 28 RBIs.

“Every time I see them doing well, it makes me happy,” Cruz said.

Still, they understand they are placeholders for Cruz, who was poised to take a significant step forward following a tantalizing rookie season in which both highlights that quickly went viral on social media – and strikeouts – were plentiful. He worked seven walks in his nine games of the season, showing the kind of patience at the plate that was difficult to come by in 2022.

Cruz believes he is poised to come back stronger than he was when he went down, and the Pirates have been adamant that the hope is he returns this season no matter where the team is in the standings whenever he comes off the 60-day injured list.

While he’s eager to get back he’s also not trying to force things, saying several times he will stick to the recommendations of the medical staff. He has remained engaged, not missing a game of Pittsburgh’s somewhat uneven – the Pirates started on a 20-8 tear followed by an 8-18 skid through May – but overall promising start.

There are also no concerns – at least at this point – about any sort of lingering memories of the slide that derailed his season haunting him during his rehab.

“I should be good when I get out there because when I go out there I understand I’m not going to hesitate,” Cruz said. “I’m just going to go out there and do my best.”

Cruz’s appearance at PNC on Saturday coincided with the team giving out thousands of bobbleheads in his likeness.

Asked if the trinkets bear at least a passing resemblance to him, Cruz laughed.

“They did real good,” he joked. “Ugly, like me.”