Last season, the Arizona Diamondbacks snuck up on everyone.
The Diamondbacks, who hadn't enjoyed a winning season since 2011, had overhauled their front office and coaching staff during the winter, leading most to assume a rebuild was coming. But the new showrunners decided to give the old core another shot -- it paid off. The Diamondbacks secured a spot (and then a victory) in the Wild Card Game before bowing out in quicker order to the eventual National League champions, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Now the Diamondbacks will try again to dethrone the Dodgers, who are perhaps more attentive toward their Arizona-based rivals. There's no doubt Arizona should be in contention for a playoff spot all season long. But what are the biggest points of interest?
2017 record: 93-69 (plus-153 run differential)
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Life after J.D.
The top questions facing the Diamondbacks this winter were if they could re-sign J.D. Martinez, and how they would replace him if not. They could not.
Hours after Martinez's deal with the Boston Red Sox was reported, the Diamondbacks grabbed Jarrod Dyson on a two-year pact. Soon thereafter, they acquired Steven Souza Jr. from the Tampa Bay Rays as part of a three-team deal that cost them second baseman Brandon Drury and pitching prospect Anthony Banda. While the combination of Souza and Dyson is unlikely to result in the kind of jaw-dropping performance that Martinez authored during his brief time in the desert -- as a reminder, he hit 302/.366/.741 with 29 home runs in 62 games -- there is reason to think that pairing should be okay.
Souza himself is coming off a breakout season, during which he homered 30 times and posted a 121 OPS+. He's older than he seems (he'll turn 29 a month into the season), and his track record suggests he's not quite this good. Though he possesses above-average pop, his tendency to swing-and-miss and work deep counts prevents him from posting a good average. He's also a durability risk, having recorded fewer than 500 plate appearances in his other two seasons. He's a solid to good fielder, however, and any retention of his skills -- and who knows how much the livelier ball was to blame -- could see him be more than a league-average player.
Dyson, meanwhile, is sort of the inverse. He's not a good hitter, especially versus left-handed pitching, but he adds value with his well-above-average defense and wheels. Defensive metrics are notoriously untrustworthy, so don't take this as gospel, but Dyson has accumulated nearly 60 Defensive Runs Saved over the past four seasons while averaging 107 appearances per pop. That's impressive. He's also stolen 120 bases at an 83 percent clip. Presuming Torey Lovullo leverages Dyson well -- keeping him away from lefties as much as possible -- everything should be fine.
So, Souza and Dyson? They're not going to replace Martinez, but they should be fine.
Can Ray repeat?
Robbie Ray was a sensation last season, earning an All-Star nod and Cy Young Award consideration for the first time in his career after turning in 28 starts of 2.89 ERA (166 ERA+) ball. His strikeout rate, north of 12 batters per nine, was second in the majors to Chris Sale.
To address the header, you would think yes based on Ray's stuff. He has a splendid fastball-slider combination that he uses to toy with hitters. His heater plays above the belt, just as his back-foot slider is too tempting to let pass without a swing. He is, in the simplest sense, an absolute chore to bat against. Yet, even with that acknowledgement, there is just cause for hesitation before marking down Ray for ace-level production.
Consider that the biggest statistical difference for Ray in 2017 was his hit rate. He allowed 6.4 hits per nine, down from 9.6 the previous season. It stands to reason that Ray should allow fewer hits than the normal pitcher, and that the Diamondbacks defense will be closer to their '17 performance (a .705 defensive efficiency) than their league-worst '16 selves (.680). Even so, Ray still has to deal with his wavering command -- hence his walk and home-run rates remaining largely unchanged from the past.
None of this is to dock Ray, or to cast him as just another arm. He has a lot of talent, and he's likely to be an above-average starter again. His ERA just might not be quite as shiny as it was last season.
Outside of Martinez and Ray, the biggest revelation on last year's club was Archie Bradley.
Previously a top prospect turned middling back-end starter, Bradley took well to his transition to the bullpen, chucking 73 innings across 63 appearances of high-quality ball (1.73 ERA, 2.61 FIP). Bradley recorded just one save, though, as Lovullo stayed loyal to Fernando Rodney all year. With Rodney in Minnesota, it would seem that Bradley is destined for the ninth inning, which could alter how the Diamondbacks operate in a few years.
One of the advantages Bradley provided was that he could go multiple innings. He actually recorded more than three outs 20 times, and entered with a runner on 23 times. In a sense, he was used as a roving high-leverage relief ace. If Bradley is locked into the ninth, that limits Lovullo's ability to deploy him as he sees fit in the later innings.
Perhaps the Diamondbacks will instead turn to Brad Boxberger in the ninth. Any idea of using him as a spiritual successor to Bradley seems dead upon arrival -- he complained in the past about irregular usage at the hands of Tampa Bay's Kevin Cash. Beyond Boxberger, the D-Backs have few options for ninth-inning work. Yoshihisa Hirano, a 33-year-old Japanese import with a good splitter and ample closing experience from his time with the Orix Buffaloes, is the other name most often mentioned.
Beyond that, the Diamondbacks will spend the rest of the spring sorting through a lengthy list of non-roster invitees with the hopes of striking oil. Remember Fernando Salas, Neftali Feliz, Antonio Bastardo, and Michael Blazek? They were all useful at one point or another, even if they're unlikely to be so again.
The wild card here is Shelby Miller. It's unclear if the Diamondbacks would ask him to pitch out of the bullpen once he returns from Tommy John surgery. It's something to think about though.
One more move?
If there's one area besides the bullpen that looks like it could need some help, it's the Diamondbacks' double-play combination. Ketel Marte is young and fun, while Chris Owings would seem better deployed as a super-sub (emphasis on sub) and Nick Ahmed is a glove-only shortstop. The Diamondbacks traded Drury, giving them a little less depth than they'd like.
It's nearly impossible to look at the roster and wonder if Arizona wouldn't benefit from splurging on Neil Walker. Walker has been a consistently above-average hitter who would serve as an upgrade over any of the above. That doesn't mean a deal is likely or anything, but for as long as Walker is out there, Arizona will be one of the most sensible landing spots.
- LF David Peralta
- CF A.J. Pollock
- 1B Paul Goldschmidt
- 3B Jake Lamb
- RF Steven Souza Jr.
- C Alex Avila
- 2B Chris Owings
- SS Ketel Marte
The bench, on the other hand, is entirely devoted to defense. That includes Mathis, one of the best game-callers in the business.
The rotation looks the same as last year. Greinke and Ray lead the pack, while Walker and crew aim for being average or a little bit better.
Then there's the question mark -- the bullpen, specifically middle relief. If there's one area where the Diamondbacks seem likely to scour the market for upgrades come July, it's here.
Closer: RHP Archie Bradley
Setup: RHP Brad Boxberger