I’ve just got done releasing the last of the Diamondbacks’ Steamer projections. Don’t believe me? You can find them on this very website! Because I like you, I’ll even link them here: Primer | Rotation | Outfield | Bullpen | Infield. You should check them out because they’re loaded with information from one of the most advanced baseball projection systems that forecast the Arizona roster’s production in 2014. Another reason to take a look is because they took me a really long time to put together, but that’s neither here nor there. And I guess at this point I should just cut to the chase: the Diamondbacks are essentially going to be right on the border of making the playoffs again next season.
There are reasons for this, the main one being that this team is, for the most part, the same team that competed in 2013. Sure, Addison Reed took Heath Bell’s spot, a small-ish improvement, and Mark Trumbo was brought in to take at-bats away from Cody Ross and/or Gerardo Parra, which is pretty much a wash. Reed’s impact is limited because he’s a reliever and won’t likely pitch more than 65 innings and Trumbo adds home runs to the team but takes away some OBP and defense. These moves appear nice on paper and in press releases (“Hey, look at us, we’re trying!”) but the substantive gain projects as pretty small. Then again, a small improvement might be all it takes when you’re right on the cusp.
As you’re well aware, the team went 81-81 last year and Steamer likes them for somewhere between 82 and 83 wins in 2014 according to the current standings page on FanGraphs. That’s skewed because Steamer can’t possibly know how Kirk Gibson plans to fill out his lineup card every day, but projections are all we have to go on until things kick off in Sydney. For what it’s worth ZiPS, the projections system of Dan Szymborski, likes the Diamondbacks to win around 88 games in 2014. That sounds better to me, but my gut says the truth is somewhere in the middle. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call that middle 85 wins.
It took 90 wins to last year to make the wild card play-in round. If we can pencil in the Diamondbacks for 85 wins right now, that means they likely need to add five wins get in. While I’d welcome Masahiro Tanaka, I’m not holding my breath on the team acquiring him and as Rod and Ryan pointed out here earlier this week, giving guys like Garza or Jimenez the kind of money they want is not a good use of resources compared to what’s already on the roster. That essentially means that the team is going to have to make due with what it has and find a way to squeeze extra wins out of a ball club that underachieved last year. How can this be accomplished? I’m glad you asked (you did ask, didn’t you?)!
The projection systems already account for some player improvements. They like Miguel Montero to get back on track and for Aaron Hill to stay on the field for something like 140 games. But I think there’s more room for roster growth. How much more? A win, maybe two if things break right. We can’t expect Goldschmidt and Corbin to repeat their performances, but they just might have to for this team to make it to October. McCarthy has to get back to his averages and Cahill has to find some consistency. These things are all very possible but the players who underperformed last season have to regress back to their career averages at the very least.
Appropriate use of platoons
This one’s on Kirk and it’s really one of the few areas where a manager can effect the game. He’s going to have to find the most reasonable way to split up time in the outfield that maximizes offensive production without sacrificing too much defense. I don’t want to see a gold glover on the bench, but I also don’t want to pay Cody Ross to do it and I suppose it’d be a waste of Matt Davidson’s future to stick Trumbo there. Oh, and AJ Pollock is the only true center fielder, but he doesn’t hit very well. Gibby’s gonna need to find a way to mix and match this group, while also working Martin Prado in on occasion, in a way that is best for the ball club.
In the infield, he’s going to have a productive hitter at his disposal in Eric Chavez whenever he wants to employ him and have to make the right choice on a shortstop. Gibson and Towers will have to decide if the odd man out in the Gregorius/Owings battle stays on the roster or heads to Reno with Pennington being the sub. All of these time shares have to be maximized as extra production cannot afford to be wasted on the bench or toiling in the minors. We know Gibby likes to mix up his lineups, let’s just hope he does it in the way that is most beneficial.
Perfect the bullpen
Here’s the other key area where Gibson will have an impact: bullpen usage. The rumors of dealing away Putz were troubling, not because JJ is amazing on his own, but because keeping him means that the team can be flexible in it’s use of Brad Ziegler, one of the best kept secrets in baseball. Ziegler needs to be available at any point in the game, not saved for the eighth inning. One move I’d make if I were them, and I’m surprised this hasn’t happened, is to acquire another left-handed reliever. Thatcher should rebound, but he’s risky and I’ve never been a fan of bullpens with only one lefty. There’s a chance that Will Harris will maintain his reverse platoon splits but he has a short major league track record and I don’t want to pin my hopes on reverse platoon splits holding up when the other team’s best left-handed hitter comes to the plate with the bases loaded late in a game. Holding leads will be critical as the NL West is a good division and there’s going to be a ton of close games again in 2014 and a flexible bullpen has a better chance of holding those leads than one that relies on rigid roles.
Maximize Archie Bradley
The organization has a literal ace up it’s sleeve in Archie Bradley. Kevin Towers is going to have to work closely with his minor league staff to develop the young stud and nurture him for an MLB call-up at some point. Is he a reliever? A starter? Is he up before the All Star Break? I don’t know, but the organization can’t leave wins on the table by keeping him in Reno too long just as it can’t risk losses by promoting him too soon. It’s a fine line and one that I won’t pretend to know where to find it, but the organization needs to find that line and make the right decision at the right time to get some extra production from the best pitching prospect in baseball.
What can I say? Baseball’s a game of luck, both breaks and pitfalls. Arizona has to stay healthy, they need guys return to form, they have to have their stars remain stars and that might not even be enough. When you’re as close as the Diamondbacks are to making it to the post season, at least on paper at this point, there are some breaks that you’re going to need to go your way in order to get over the hump. And while luck may not be something you can bet on, there’s no denying that it exists and no reason to think, at least in January, that the Diamondbacks can’t find it. Lady Luck played hard-to-get last season and it’s time Arizona runs her down.
It’s clear to me that the Diamondbacks have absolutely no room for error heading into 2014. Every loss is going to sting as this team looks and projects to be right on that fine line of making into the postseason. Dave Cameron recently wrote about how the Orioles are utlizing a stars and scrubs approach to building their roster in hopes of making it to October. The Diamondbacks aren’t using the exact same approach, as they’ve tried to use slightly above average guys to fill in around their one, maybe two stars. That said, they’re in the same boat as the O’s in that it likely leaves them just short of where they want to be. Arizona can’t afford to go out and buy the difference it needs (unless they pull out a Tanaka miracle) and is going to have to make it work with the assets the franchise already has.
It’s going to be a tough year to be Kirk Gibson and Kevin Towers, because there’s no room for error in Arizona.
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