2007: 90-72 (1st NL West)
Last year, I told everyone who would listen that the Diamondbacks would win the NL West and make the World Series. I got half of it right. At the time, the Diamondbacks were a shade under .500 in a division that had a lot of teams not too much better than they were, and had made a few moves that could have changed things for the better. They had scored and allowed just shy of 800 runs in 2006, so I figured that if the pitching staff could cut that number by 50 and the offense could score about 50 runs more, they would be right where they needed to win 90 games.
The Snakes won 90 games.
They did it with solid pitching and an improved bullpen, playing better defensively and, frankly, smoke and mirrors.
The pitching staff did improve. Brandon Webb remained an anchor. Livan Hernandez ate innings, Doug Davis was an improvement over the third starter in 2007, Micah Owings was a decent fifth option, and Randy Johnson pitched fantastically in his ten starts before going down with a back injury (again). Jorge Julio was gone – thankfully – and Jose Valverde stepped up and was a near dominant closer. Even the rest of the bullpen, including Juan Cruz, Brandon Lyon, and Tony Pena were solid. Predictably, the Diamondbacks reduced their runs allowed from 788 runs to 732 runs.
The offense, however, did not improve. After scoring 773 runs in 2006, Arizona fell back to 712 runs. So, the Diamondbacks should have won maybe 78 or 79 games. They won 90.
How did it happen?
For about 50 games, the Diamondbacks were about a .500 team, hitting May 24th with a 25-23 record. At this point, Arizona got hot and won 19 of 28 to roar into the race. As good as they were in June, the Diamondbacks were equally poor during the first three weeks of July. Two nasty losing streaks dropped the team all the way back to 50-48, negating every gain of the previous month.
At this point, Arizona won 21 of 26 games to take over the race. Three of the five losses in this period were blowouts – 14-0 to Atlanta, 11-0 to San Diego, 14-5 to Florida. One thing I noticed about the Diamondbacks was that they lost their share of pitching implosions. On eight occasions, Arizona won games while scoring ten or more runs. However, their pitching staff gave up ten or more fifteen times, which contributed to their odd runs scored/runs allowed data. For a good team, you would think that this would have run the other direction.
No matter. From this point, the Diamondbacks hung in there, playing .500 ball until the end of the season – but winning enough to sneak into the playoffs.
Tell me about that offense
Compared to 2006, it went downhill.
It starts at the leadoff position. Chris Young was one of the most impressive rookies because he hit 32 homers and stole 27 bases. He also hit .237 with an on base percentage of .295, which means that he was rarely on base for the people hitting behind him. Another problem was the disappointing rookie season of Stephen Drew, who hit just .238, but with elements of power and plate discipline that suggest he should improve in the next year or so.
Carlos Quentin wasn’t ready to start the season in right field; when he arrived in mid-April he didn’t hit, and injured his shoulder at the beginning of August. Replaced by 20-year-old Justin Upton, Quentin became expendable and was shipped to the White Sox. One hopes he finds his batting stroke there. Just twenty, Upton was decent in 43 games, but still didn’t improve the offense.
Three solid outs in the lineup are two too many. At the same time, while there were some good offensive performances (Eric Byrnes, and Orlando Hudson, for example), nobody really stands out as an exceptional hitter – except, perhaps, pitcher Micah Owings, who hit .333 and slugged .683 with twelve extra base hits in 60 at bats. Byrnes hit for a higher average and got on base more than any other season in his career, but hit fewer homers and doubles. However, he stole 50 bases and was caught just seven times. And, his hustle set a good pace for the rest of the team.
Conor Jackson, Chad Tracy, and Mark Reynolds are all above average hitters, so there is a pretty good power core – however, only two spots are available for the three of them. Tracy will likely take over the role once provided by Tony Clark – big bopper on the bench who can fill in at first and third. Justin Upton looks like he might be a fantastic hitter two or three years from now – he showed power and speed at both Visalia (A) and Mobile (AA) before his late season call up. Even hitting .221 in 43 games, he showed sparks of power.
In terms of range, the Diamondbacks were slightly above average. The average NL team turned 68.4% of the balls in play into outs; Arizona scored at 68.6%. Despite having sinker baller Brandon Webb, their outfielders actually made more plays than the average outfield, which suggests that this is still a flyball pitching staff.
The infield was solid at three positions, and weak at third base. In terms of range, Hudson was slightly above average and Drew was slightly below average – but as a team, Hudson and Drew were above average on the double play, removing more than 7% of opposing baserunners with twin killings. On the whole, that’s a pretty good combination. Augie Ojeda, in limited innings, was solid at both positions. Conor Jackson looks like he can play the field at first base, but Mark Reynolds was a liability at third base. In terms of range, Reynolds was well below average – by my calculations, he added ten points in batting average to every hitter. (The average third baseman makes 2.8 plays per nine innings; Reynolds was at 2.46 after accounting for the fly ball tendency of the staff.) However, he did a decent job in terms of handling what he got, turning twice as many double plays at third than committing errors.
Their outfield was generally above average, but only because Eric Byrnes was a centerfielder playing left or right. Playing several innings in center, he was slightly below average but still showed better range than Young (-2.3 to -3.9), but when in left or right, he was a stud. Young may be able to improve, as will Upton, who looked a bit out of place for a couple of months. Not only was his range poor (-6), but he committed five errors in 42 games in the field.
On the whole, I think the Diamondbacks might actually play better but win fewer games.
First, the addition of Oakland starting pitcher Dan Haren gives the Diamondbacks a huge upturn in the rotation. Haren replaces Livan Hernandez, and if he pitches anywhere near as well as he did last year, he could help reduce the runs allowed total by 15 to 20 runs. Assuming no change in the rest of the rotation (Brandon Webb, Doug Davis, Micah Owings, Randy Johnson, and possibly Edgar Gonzalez or Yusmeiro Petit picking up whatever starts Johnson misses), this is a solid starting core. If Johnson can somehow make 25 starts and pitch like he did last year, this is the best rotation in the NL.
The bullpen lost Jose Valverde, which hurts, but Juan Cruz has closer stuff (45 hits and 87 Ks in just 61 innings). They still have Brandon Lyon and Tony Pena, Jr. Chad Qualls arrives from Houston and could be a setup man or alternative for the closer role as well. Brandon Medders is a good mop up option. Edgar Gonzalez is another good option for long relief, and Max Scherzer could get the last spot (or spend a year at AAA). One might give the twelfth spot to Esmerling Vasquez, who pitched well in Mobile (AA), but will likely join Billy Buckner and Juan Gutierrez to form a solid rotation in AAA. This is easily one of the deepest pitching staffs in all of baseball. (Looking at the opening day roster, I nailed it.)
So that leaves the offense.
Reynolds, Jackson and Drew are likely to improve some, and Justin Upton will likely begin his climb toward stardom. It might be hard to replace Tony Clark, who hit 17 homers and drove in 51 runs in just 221 at bats, but Chad Tracy looks like he would be able to do it if he comes back from knee surgery.
If Eric Byrnes and Hudson remain steady, that leaves you with six solid hitters. Catchers Chris Snyder and Miguel Montero combined to hit 23 homers and did a solid enough job behind the plate. That leaves Chris Young as the big question mark. He is the one player who has a chance to be a stud next year, but only if he cuts his strikeouts down (141 in 569 at bats) and gets on base more. If he hits .260 and walks 20 more times, Young might become a stud. He’s not a bad #7 hitter but batting leadoff he’s getting in the way. Upton has tons of potential, but is an unproven commodity.
And that’s the glaring hole – there is no lead off hitter and there are no studs on this offense. You have six or seven decent hitters, but no Miguel Cabrera-type and nobody to set the table for the guys who can hit. If it were me, I’d move Hudson to the leadoff spot, bat Byrnes second, move Reynolds to third, followed by Jackson, Upton and then Drew. Young bats seventh and the catchers hit eighth. There are no easy outs in the offense until you get to the pitcher – and none at all if Owings is the starter.
The bench remains strong if Jeff Salazar and Augie Ojeda can produce as they did last year. Chris Burke is ten years younger than Augie Ojeda (another Houston import, arriving in the Valverde trade), but hits less and didn’t flash the leather in limited opportunities last year. He still probably makes the roster as the 24th man. Alex Romero (.310 with limited power and 12 SBs at Tuscon in AAA) might make it as the fifth outfielder. Robbie Hammock is a third string catcher who can play first, third, and left field. And, Chad Tracy has to produce as many runs as Tony Clark did last year – which could be tough to replace.
Assuming the young guys improve – and this is a young team – you might see an increase of 20 to 40 runs offensively. Heck, Upton might give the Diamondbacks an increase of 25 runs by himself. Arizona should score more runs than their opponents in 2008, which would be a step up from the last two years. However, they might not be as lucky as last year – which means 84 wins and not 90, and missing out on the playoffs. I expect Arizona to be competitive, but without a breakout offensive performance, they will fall just short.