MLB March Report: Arizona Diamondbacks

The Arizona Diamondbacks showed the fire and grit of their manager, Kirk Gibson, as they played their best baseball down the stretch last season, pulled away from San Francisco to win the NL West and then came within a run of winning their playoff series with Milwaukee. Now Arizona comes to a new season with higher expectations. Is the talent set to meet the aspirations? TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the D-Backs’ and their ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Arizona is perhaps the hardest team in baseball to draw a line between the players who get on base, and the ones who drive in the runs. It’s also difficult to find a true table-setter here. There’s no clear strength in this area, but conversely there’s no obvious liability. When shortstop Stephen Drew is healthy—and that won’t be by Opening Day, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered last July—he’s capable of a solid .350 OBP, even though he did struggle in ’11 prior to getting hurt. Miguel Montero is a consistent bat at the catchers’ position. One player Gibson does need to see improvement from is 30-year-old second baseman Aaron Hill, whom the team acquired from Toronto in exchange for Kelly Johnson. For the past two seasons Hill’s OBP has been a huge liability, although the overall track record of his career suggests he can at least be acceptable.

POWER: Most of the Arizona hitters slightly incline to the power side if you had to categorize them. No one’s better than Justin Upton in Arizona, and few are better than him in all of baseball. The 24-year-old rightfielder already has four big league seasons under his belt, he hit 31 home runs a year ago, and his .529 slugging percentage continued a pattern of steady improvement. Chris Young in center has hit 47 home runs the past two seasons. Perhaps no young power hitter is as exciting as first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who slugged .474 in 156 at-bats a year ago and can easily be good for 25-30 jacks over a full season. Ryan Roberts hit 19 home runs last year, although he did slip in the second half of the season. He needs to improve, as do American League imports Hill and Jason Kubel. Over 2009-10, Hill hit 62 home runs, before his power tanked last year. Given his poor hitting all the way around, perhaps the new environment in Phoenix will be just what he needs to get his bat cranking again. In Kubel’s case, the three-year period of 2008-10 saw him go deep 69 times, until his numbers slipped to more pedestrian levels a year ago. With everything in Minnesota going awry last season, perhaps this is another case where a fresh start will be what a new player needs.  And lest I forget, Montero is good for 15-20 home runs, and a healthy Drew has decent power to the alleys.

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STARTING PITCHING:  Let’s begin with the obvious—Ian Kennedy is not going to go 20-4 again, so evaluations of the Diamondbacks pitching staff have to presume they won’t have an ace delivering a Cy Young-caliber performance. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be depth. Kennedy still had a decent 3.80 ERA the previous year, and given that he’s 27 it’s just as fair to assume that at least some of his big improvement in ’11 will sustain itself. Daniel Hudson got his first chance as a regular starter and won 16 games with a 3.49 ERA. Trevor Cahill was acquired from Oakland, and at age 24 he’s already got three straight years of 30-plus starts, though the ERA is close to 4. That’s a little high for being in a pitcher’s park. But Arizona’s only asking him to be a #3 starter and in either case, Cahill’s age suggests improvement is more than likely. Veteran Joe Saunders finally returned to the form he’d shown with the Angels through 2009—nothing that’s going to dazzle, but someone steady who will take the ball and give you 6-7 decent innings every fifth day. And in a world where the words “fifth starter” brings shivers to managers, Arizona’s got a good one in Josh Collmenter, who got 24 starts in his first crack at a big-league rotation and posted a 3.38 ERA. Collmenter can also swing to the bullpen effectively if that’s what Gibson wants.

RELIEF PITCHING: J. J. Putz showed he can still handle the closer’s job, nailing down 45 of his 49 save chances and doing with a 2.17 ERA. David Hernandez, the talented setup man the team got from Baltimore in exchange for Mark Reynolds, closed 11/14 and had a 3.38 ERA. At age 26, it’s safe to say that Hernandez is the closer of the future. Brad Ziegler and Craig Breslow are veterans who provide competent, if unspectacular work, and if Takashi Saito can keep his 42-year-old frame healthy, he can still pitch. Saito’s ERA stays in the high 2s and if Gibson could get 50-60 appearances from him it would be a coup.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 86—This is an area where I’m probably going to overthink this whole thing. I’m leaning toward picking Arizona to win the NL West in TheSportsNotebook’s final baseball preview on Wednesday, and that probably requires about 88 wins. But…it’s easy for me to see this team slipping back to the .500 level, especially if they don’t get runners on base consistently. I’d place the overall range the D-Backs are likely to fall in as between 83-88. I might pick them to be on the high end of that, but for a straight Over/Under pick, there’s more room for the Under and that’s the side I take.