The Arizona Diamondbacks have just wrapped up the first “half” of the season. It’s actually 58.6% of the season, but who’s counting? I am, but that is beside the point, because after 95 games, the team’s in first place in the lackluster NL West with a 50-45 record. The Dodgers (47-47) are presumably the toughest competition for the division crown but it would be foolish to count the Giants (43-51) and Rockies (46-50) completely out of the picture. San Diego, on the other hand, doesn’t stand a chance but will try to play spoiler and be a thorn in everyone’s side throughout the second half.
But enough about the first half of the season! This is about what is going to transpire in the next couple of months as the Diamondbacks try to hold onto the division and make a push into the postseason. To make that a reality, the team is going to have to answer a number of questions, which include but are not limited to, the following:
- Will the bullpen become stable enough to turn leads into victories with regularity?
- Can the “core” of the lineup start producing runs?
- Can we expect more quality starts from the rotation?
- The Young Guns: will Paul Goldschmidt continue to mash? Does Patrick Corbin stay in the groove? Will Tyler Skaggs become a permanent part of the rotation and will he become more consistent?
- What moves should the team make at the deadline?
- Ultimately, will the team win the division?
I’d like to tackle these critical topics one at a time, if I may. Leading things off, no discussion about the team can begin without addressing the trouble caused by the bullpen. It’s been utterly horrendous and ranks in the bottom third of baseball just about any way you want to look at it. The culprit? Well, aside from not being able to get batters out, the relievers have given up the 7thmost home runs of any team’s bullpen. They aren’t generating grounders often enough and those fly balls are leaving the yard. Wonder why they’ve gone to Brad Ziegler in the ninth? He generates more grounders than just about any other pitcher in the game and the results speak for themselves thus far. Heath Bell and J.J. Putz have been especially home run prone with David Hernandez having his troubles, too.
The difficulty is in determining which homers have been a result of bad luck and which can be directly attributed to poor execution. This is for the coaches to figure out, but from what I’ve seen, there are far too many pitches being left up in the zone from the back end of the ‘pen. Bell’s heater is not thrown hard enough and does not have enough life to be consistently effective up in the zone, but Putz is back on the shelf (and it doesn’t look good) while Hernandez is a mess and has been burned by poor location time and again.
Anybody with a SABR bent will tell you that home run rates can be flukey and do not stabilize well over small sample sizes, but I’m just not convinced that the relievers can keep the ball down with the consistency to turn in significantly better results. There are some high BABIPs that are a little troubling because rather than just being a result of bad luck, they can perhaps be more attributed to poor pitch location and balls up in the zone getting hammered. I’d expect the bullpen to improve ever so slightly but do not think that this same squad is going to do a 180 any time soon.
Digging into the team’s inability to cash in at the plate, there are a couple of main trouble spots. Miguel Montero, Jason Kubel and Martín Prado have to turn it around if the team is going to improve it’s run-scoring. Swapping Aaron Hill for Cliff Pennington and Adam Eaton for A.J. Pollock will help, but the three above have to give Paul Goldschmidt and Eric Chavez some help. Luckily, the ZiPS ROS projection sees improvements from all three of these guys over the rest of the season. They show the biggest turnaround for Kubel but also forecast solid contributions from Prado and Montero.
What’s behind the expected turnaround? ZiPS sees a spike in power from Kubel who is in the middle of his lightest-hitting season of his career and if averages hold somewhat true, he has nowhere to go but up. Prado is expected to up his OBP as he continues to heat up. ZiPS also sees an increase in power from him. The season-long struggles for Montero have surprised us all, but perhaps the end is in sight. His abnormally-low BABIP should stabilize and allow more hits to fall in while he will continue to get his walks and hit a few out of the park.
These guys have really nowhere to go but up. Baseball is funny in that most players end up near their career averages when all is said and done. For these guys to get there, however, they will have to improve in a big way and that should help take some of the strain off the pitching staff at the same time.
Going forward, there is simply no reason to expect any kind of stark turnaround for these three. Kennedy will likely get hit around but turn in a good start every now and then as he is simply not an ace. McCarthy has pitched better than his ERA would indicate (3.75 FIP) and once he gets healthy, he will likely continue to turn out above average starts. Keeping him healthy might be another matter, however, and the team will have to hold their breath each time he takes his turn. Cahill is going the wrong way and has outperformed his peripherals for a long time. His true talent is beginning to show through and the results are less than inspiring as reality catches up.
Given the information above, this team clearly has needs. A groundball-driven, high-leverage reliever would be great. Putz should not be counted on to contribute in any meaningful way this season, so more reliable depth is a must. Close games will continue all season for this squad and the bullpen will get worked with on a regular basis. A guy like Miami’s Steve Cishek might make sense here as he is a sort of a Ziegler clone with more strikeout potential. Another starter would be great, but I do not know that the team is willing to part with the required pieces to get a impactful deal done. There are plenty of middle to back end types on the team already, so what the team needs is a legitimate number one or two pitcher. The Cubs’ Matt Garza would make sense but Arizona is reluctant to acquire someone on an expiring contract. Jeff Samardzija appears too expensive and Yovani Gallardo is not the most impressive pitcher on the planet. The team is in a tough place and will either have to overpay big time or stand pat and hope that the rotation holds up. Perhaps they will take a run at David Price in the offseason (one can dream, right?). At the plate, there is little need for anything more than bench pieces. The outfield is crowded already and unless there is someone big on the market, there is probably little chance an addition gets made. The infield is also pretty well set, so a bench bat may be the only thing Arizona has room for.
Something everyone wants to know, though, is whether the Diamondbacks will win the division. My gut tells me that they hold off the pack in rather uninspiring fashion. The Dodgers haven’t convinced me and they are an injury away from being awful again. Puig will cool off and I just do not see them being able to sustain the pace they have been on. San Francisco could get hot if the pitching comes around. Perhaps Lincecum’s no-hitter will get them going. A healthy Troy Tulowitzki and the right deadline move could put the Rockies in a position to challenge, too. In the end, however, I see Arizona holding on as it should only take 84-86 wins to take the division and .500 ball will likely keep the Diamondbacks in the driver’s seat.
This is Kevin Towers’ time to shine. The right move could really help stabilize the ‘pen and/or rotation, giving the team just the nudge they need to make a run to the postseason. And as we all know, the postseason is a different beast and anybody has a chance, as it is often a matter of who gets hot at the right time. An ace for the postseason would be nice but it is not absolutely necessary and should be the second priority behind shoring up the relief staff. A cheap bench bat could also pay large dividends as those late-inning matchups become even more critical.
Standing pat is unlikely to get the job done, but a couple simple moves could allow the team to pull away from the pack and take the NL West crown.
So what can you expect in the next few months after the All-Star break? Expect the front office to make a move or two, guys like Kubel, Prado and Montero should pick it up and look for the Goldschmidt and Corbin to continue to lead while Skaggs develops and grows into a legitimate big league pitcher. Do not expect huge turnarounds for Kennedy and Cahill but hope for the best with McCarthy.
With the right move(s), regression and some luck, you can expect to see the Diamondbacks in the playoffs. After that, it’s anyone’s guess.