The 2016 Arizona Diamondbacks were among the most disappointing teams in all of baseball. Off the heels of a 79-83 season, the D-Backs added ace Zack Greinke, traded for All-Star Shelby Miller and had expectations of making the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Instead, so many things went wrong. Star center fielder A.J. Pollock fractured his elbow just days before the season started, Greinke wasn’t very good, Miller was awful and the Diamondbacks lost 93 games. The aftermath was general manager Dave Stewart being fired, manager Chip Hale being fired and front office exec Tony La Russa being stripped of most of his power.
By way of Boston, it’s a new day in Arizona. General manager Mike Hazen and manager Torey Lovullo come over to lead the D-Backs in 2017 and beyond. They bring a lot more “new school” leadership in the form of more forward-thinking analytics and less “gut feeling” type moves, as Stewart was prone to making. Can they right the ship? Down the road, sure. For this season, it’s a tall order.
There are good pieces, of course. If Pollock can stay on the field, he’s one of the better center fielders in baseball. Paul Goldschmidt is still a top-five first baseman in the middle of his prime. David Peralta, Jake Lamb and some others provide excellent offensive upside, as the D-Backs ranked fifth in the NL in runs last season despite losing their second-best piece in Pollock.
It’s reasonable to believe the D-Backs again sit in the top five in the NL in runs scored. It’s preventing runs that has been the problem and probably will be the problem again.
The problems with the pitching last season had something to do with the pitchers, of course, but a good defense can make a sub-par pitcher look average. A bad defense does quite the opposite.
Arizona was one of 10 teams with at least 100 errors last season. Defensive runs saved showed the Diamondbacks at a negative-12. Defensive efficiency, which measures the percentage of the time balls in play are converted into outs, shows the 2016 Diamondbacks at 29th in the majors (66.5 percent -- by way of comparison, the Cubs were first at 72.8 percent), ahead of only the Twins.
Whether you want to blame the latter fact on the defense, the pitching or a combination of the two, it’s pretty obvious that the Diamondbacks ability to get outs was downright dreadful in 2016. Few teams had such a poor all-around defensive profile and that pretty well matches up with their pitching staff having a 5.09 ERA (worst in NL, yes, worse than the Rockies) against a 4.50 fielding-independent pitching (FIP). Even with poor performances from several pitchers -- at the very least, we could say Greinke and Miller underachieved pretty badly -- the defense was making things worse. Sometimes significantly worse.
Will it be any better?
Behind the plate, a Jeff Mathis/Chris Iannetta tandem actually should be an improvement. Goldschmidt will still be good at first. Up the middle, Nick Ahmed at short is very good, but otherwise things look ordinary. Jake Lamb at third base leaves a lot to be desired in the range capacity and the corners of the outfield (Yasmany Tomas, David Peralta) are worse. A full season of Pollock in center will be a huge upgrade, but overall the defense still looks to be less than average.
All this in mind, so much of the turnaround hopes hinge on the ability of the pitching staff to get better on its own. There isn’t a new pitching coach, as Mike Butcher has retained his spot. What’s it come down to? Performance from Greinke, Miller and Patrick Corbin. That is, much better performance than 2016. It’s 2015 form for Greinke and Miller while it’s pre-TJ form for Corbin. Robbie Ray is a “fantasy sleeper” darling thanks in part to his 218 strikeouts in 174 1/3 innings last year, but the run prevention has to improve from his 4.90 ERA last year. Sure, the aforementioned ERA/FIP split got Ray (3.76 FIP), but not everything could be pinned on the poor defense. Allowing fewer than 24 home runs is good way to decrease the runs allowed on his own.
In fact, all the pitching staff could stand to keep the ball in the yard a little better. Ray, Greinke and Corbin all allowed at least 23 home runs while the staff as a whole coughed up 202. Among NL teams, only the Reds and Phillies allowed more home runs. For comparison’s sake, the Mets and Marlins only gave up 152 homers. The league average was 178. Working that 202 down closer to the league average would go a long way in improving the D-Backs run prevention in the face of their likely-bad defense.
In the bullpen, they’ll need the good version of Fernando Rodney with breakout performances, possibly from someone like Kevin Jepsen and/or Tom Wilhelmsen, as they’ve done it in the past.
For now, the 2017 season will be about Lovullo putting his stamp on the on-field product while Hazen looks to build organizational depth. This probably means selling off some veterans in front of the trade deadline, though there’s probably too much talent here to start gutting the major players.
In looking at the rotation and offense, there really is enough talent here to make a run at contention if everything breaks right. We’ve already said the offense is good and if the five members of the rotation pitch to their absolute ceiling, things would then fall into place for a mid-to-high 80s win total and wild-card spot.
Overall, though, it’s hard to be bullish on this Diamondbacks club due mostly to its lackluster ability to hold down the opposing offenses they face. Expect an above-average run total on offense and a pretty bad ERA -- even if not awful like in 2016 -- which results in a low-70s win total.
- A.J. Pollock, CF
- Jake Lamb, 3B
- Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
- David Peralta, RF
- Yasmany Tomas, LF
- Brandon Drury, 2B
- Chris Owings, SS
- Chris Iannetta, C
Bench: Jeff Mathis, C; Nick Ahmed, SS; Daniel Descalso, UTIL; Jeremy Hazelbaker, OF; Chris Herrmann, C/OF
- Zack Greinke (R)
- Taijuan Walker (R)
- Robbie Ray (L)
- Shelby Miller (R)
- Patrick Corbin (L)
ALT: Archie Bradley (R)
Fernando Rodney is the closer while Andrew Chafin is the lefty. Possible righties in setup duty are Jake Barrett, Randall Delgado, Tom Wilhelmsen and Kevin Jepsen.
SportsLine projection: 72-90 record, fifth place in the NL West.
Related: Check out the CBS Sports Fantasy Baseball outlook for Arizona