As we explored on Tuesday, the Diamondbacks are about to embark upon a season in which there are a ton of questions and very few answers. Quite honestly, I’m not very comfortable doing this kind of brainstorming since we tend to focus on fact-based, analytical outcomes here and not speculation. But in this instance, there are simply so many variables in play that it’s nearly impossible to sort through it all at this stage of the game. Make no mistake, we’ll be digging into the particulars just as we have all offseason long, but I’d like to finish the thought exercise that is the Grand D-backs Experiment by examining a bevy of pitching options in Arizona.
*If you missed the first installment of this two-part feature, please don’t miss it
Can Injured Pitchers Get Back to Form?
The best Diamondbacks pitcher is still Patrick Corbin, and frankly, it’s not even close. Looking at his past performance, this much is clear, but perhaps even more convincing is his 2015 projections compared to the rest of the cadre of starters. Unfortunately, we won’t be seeing Patty until sometime around mid-season provided his rehab from Tommy John goes well. Along similar lines, David Hernandez is among the best relief options for Arizona, a team deep with bullpen options. The timing of his return is more questionable, although it should be sooner, and it’ll be anticipated nonetheless. Like Corbin, Hernandez’s projections are quite strong he should help solidify what is already a pretty decent relief staff.
Of perhaps slightly less importance is the health of rare relief lefty Matt Reynolds. He was quite good before he got bitten by the TJ bug prior to 2014. With Oliver Perez not much of a lefty-killer despite being left-handed, a healthy and effective Matt Reynolds could conceivably be a big boost to a team that will need someone to at least fill the LOOGY role. Bronson Arroyo is due back at some point, too, and he may at minimum be able to provide average innings at some point in late spring or early summer. Then again, there is no shortage of guys that appear capable of filling that role, so the value there is seemingly somewhat diminished.
But those are all glass half-full statements. Despite advances in modern medicine and the fact that just about everyone’s having Tommy John these days, there are still some cases of guys not returning to form either due to decreased velocity, a loss of “feel” or the dreaded second UCL injury. We obviously don’t have to look very far to find an example of this with Daniel Hudson, the once-prized rotation piece, currently slotted for a bullpen slot at the very least as he continues on his comeback journey after missing more than two seasons. Strong returns from all five of these guys (I’m still counting Hudson here) could conceivably have a big impact on the team’s success. While the biggest concern is getting Corbin back to form, the rest of the crowd’s transition back to the majors will have a ripple effect on the rest of the pitching staff and the Diamondbacks’ win total.
Can Young Starters Prove They Belong?
Maybe discussing injured pitchers first was burying the lede, because as far as I can tell from the Diamondbacks fans in my life (of which there are oh so many), the biggest questions revolve around which young arms will pay off. The organization has been stockpiling said arms over the last few seasons, starting with the 2013 draft in which they added a pair of righties in Braden Shipley and Aaron Blair to develop along with Archie Bradley. Then they went out on the trade market this winter and acquired Robbie Ray, who should join the AAA rotation to start 2015, and once-top prospects Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster who will begin the year in the majors.
Each of the aforementioned youngsters have their warts. Bradley’s scuffled of late, Shipley still has a ways to go to prove he’s a big league starter, Blair’s raw stuff is questionable to some, Ray got hit around hard in a MLB audition while de la Rosa and Webster have been inconsistent since seeing The Show. But the strategy being employed by the organization has plenty of merit, because just as there are questions about these six young pitching assets, there are sure to be some compelling answers revealed in relatively short order.
The quantity here shouldn’t go without its attention. I introduced a non-original acronym to Inside the ‘Zona a while back and perhaps you remember it: TINSTAPP. Representing the notion that There Is No Such Thing As a Pitching Prospect, it serves as a valuable reminder that pitchers break, pitchers flame out, pitchers lose their feel and are just volatile in general. With this in mind, having six options is critical. Now, don’t get me wrong, the likelihood of each of these pitchers becoming at least average starters is not equal. Some have more upside than others, some have higher floors than the rest of the bunch. But, it’s like the old saying that if you throw enough shi… stuff at the wall, something is bound to stick. If I was forced to power rank these six, which I’m not, I’d create the following list (because why not?):
- Archie Bradley: high ceiling, great stuff, relatively high floor, close to ready for the majors
- Aaron Blair: moderate ceiling, decent stuff, high floor, needs another minor league season
- Rubby de la Rosa: moderate ceiling, good stuff, relatively high floor, major league ready
- Braden Shipley: high ceiling, great stuff, moderate floor, needs at least one more minor league season, maybe two
- Allen Webster: average ceiling, good stuff, low floor, major league ready
- Robbie Ray: average ceiling, decent stuff, low floor, needs at least half a minor league season
Want to bet on raw stuff? Go with Bradley and Shipley. Like to play it safe? Take Blair all day and maybe a side of de la Rosa. Looking for an upside lottery ticket? Cast your lot with Webster and Ray. Better pitching prospects than Bradley have flamed out and worse pitching prospects that Ray have gone on to have All Star careers. You get the idea, it’s a total guessing game with pitchers.
But if you had to make a bet to at least break even, would you rather bet on one guy or six? I’m just okay at math, but even I paid enough attention in 7th grade to know that having a bevy of options is the best bet to find one that will pay off. In this case, maybe we place the over/under at 2.5 since just about everyone loves the big three of Bradley, Shipley and Blair, but again, scouts and analysts have loved a lot of pitchers over the years who have evaporated into the ephemera. We simply don’t know who’s going to make it and who won’t. We have some clues, but the type of impact that’s ultimately felt is a vague and fickle proposition.
So that’s what we’re left with: a bunch of options and no sure bets. But hey, that’s the name of the game with pitching prospects to start with. And with guys like Trevor Cahill, Randall Delgado and Vidal Nuno playing the role of the opposition, it’s not too unlikely that we see the team gamble on the some of the arms that will start the season in the minors before 2015 is out. There’s plenty of opportunity for the pitcher(s?) who can separate themselves from the pack. Maybe de la Rosa and Webster will run with their new lease on professional baseball life and hold down their rotation spots, or maybe they’ll falter and give way to younger arms. The water couldn’t be any murkier, but it’ll be a lot of fun to swim in this season despite the fact that there will be plenty of disappointment along the way. That’s baseball, whether we like or not.
Will Any Young Flame-Throwers Displace Bullpen Veterans?
Similar to the situation in the rotation, there are plenty of young options to run out of the bullpen down the line. While the Opening Day bullpen should look pretty familiar, there are bound to be injuries and struggles because, if you thought starters were volatile, relievers are on a whole other level of toxicity. That knife cuts both ways, though, because just as some of the status quo relievers will scuffle, the younger options will, too. But there are simply so many candidates that at least a couple will emerge from the flames. Take a look at some of the notable options on the farm:
- Matt Stites – RHP
- Jake Barrett – RHP
- Jimmie Sherfy – RHP
- Kevin Munson – RHP
- Enrique Burgos – RHP
- Kaleb Fleck – RHP
- Will Locante – LHP
Each of the above name has plus to plus-plus velocity and at least one average or better secondary offering. They’re all capable of generating strikeouts, but they’re also universally learning to command their stuff. Walks are a common problem among young relievers in general, not just this group. If they could locate consistently, they’d probably still be in a rotation somewhere learning to develop a third pitch. Instead, they’re a group that largely consists of right-handed flame throwers who are knocking on the big league door while trying to throw strikes consistently enough to push through.
And while it might not matter so much in April, it might matter a lot in August. Remember, when the trade deadline comes calling, it’s relief pitchers who are usually in the highest demand. It’s not uncommon to see a contender overpay to acquire a guy or two to shore up their bullpen as they push towards the playoffs. The Diamondbacks aren’t likely to be buyers in this market, but they sure as hell could be sellers. With guys like Oliver Perez, Brad Ziegler and maybe even Addison Reed as enticing options for a team looking to play in October, there’s no shortage of guys to slot in to replace some tradable assets.
Much like we discussed with the young rotation options, some of these guys will never turn into reliable relievers. Honestly, most of them won’t. That’s not exactly a surprise, that’s how it works. But the D-backs are in a great position to promote from within should they suffer from injuries, ineffectiveness or decide to make a trade or two. These guys are close to ready, all that’s holding them back is a chance. And maybe some command issues. But hey! Relievers!
The Revolving Door Phenomenon
The Diamondbacks want to be better in 2015 and they will be. Rest assured, they will be. They got killed on the mound last season and weren’t prepared for the depth that was needed when four guys went down with TJ while others were still recovering from it. But a year later, there’s more depth, more talent and the guys that the organization is counting on to lead the youth revolution have an extra year under their belts. They’re closer to needing a major league opportunity, and for some, that opportunity will come this season.
In which case I’d like to make one final analogy: the pitching staff might end up looking like a revolving door as the season pushes onward. There will be players returning from injury, there will be some who lose their spots through poor performance, others will get hurt and some will just prove that they deserve to see time on the mound based on their hard work and results. But the roster is only so big and to make one change, a corresponding move will have to take place. For guys who have options left, they may be making a lot of trips between Reno and Phoenix. Others may find themselves DFA’d or traded before the year’s out. There are just so many options and the time is drawing near for the organization to start exploring them in earnest.
Regardless of what actually pans out, I’m incredibly excited for 2015. There are options all over the field and ton of questions to be answered, but the only way to answer them is to let guys take the field and fight it out. If you subscribe to the notion that competition breeds success, well, there’s bound to be plenty of competition to go around. So don’t get caught up in negativity if the team falls back in the race before the All Star Break. This Grand Diamondbacks Experiment isn’t about wins and losses. At least not yet. But expect that, too, to change in the very near future.
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