The Diamondbacks, like most other professional baseballers, are about to head back to work in earnest. Just about everyone’s got a countdown going to when pitchers and catchers report since we’re all eager to see what the 2015 story of baseball has in store for us. Foreshadowing: it’ll be great. No, really, I think Arizona Diamondback fans have a lot to look forward to in 2015. Because, if you’ve been paying attention, there’s a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. But guess what! We’ll soon have a bunch of those answers.
I’ve just recently come around to this point of view after an entire offseason of analyzing the team. There are some sources around the greater baseball community that we at Inside the ‘Zona lean on for information or to cross-reference ideas. It’s rare for those sources to come to us and ask what the hell is going on, however. But that’s just what happened when one such source reached out and asked what the plan was heading into 2015. I replied that there are a bunch of experiments to run and that the team is in a great shape to run those experiments. I’m not sure if that was a satisfactory answer or not (leaning towards “or not”), but that’s how I see it. The Diamondbacks are in a great position to find out just what they have at a bunch of positions.
Last week I took some time to briefly discuss the projections for Diamondback hitters and pitchers. As you could have guessed, they weren’t rosy. There was a lot of average and below average performances projected outside of Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock. But you knew that and so does everyone else. We can choose to look at that two ways. A) the team is low on impact talent is going to probably be mediocre in 2015, or B) there are a lot of interchangeable parts on the D-backs roster and we are about to witness a grand experiment where some cream will undoubtedly rise to the top.
I’m focussed on option B, and yes I know that means that we’ll see plenty of struggles, but I truly believe that D-backs fans are about to witness some successes along the way. Players can’t break through if they’re never given an opportunity, and on this team, there’s no shortage of replaceable players who can and should be swapped out to give others a chance. Think about it: there’s really only a handful of guys who deserve their spot on the diamond no matter what. Goldy, Pollock, Chris Owing and Josh Collementer, some bullpen pieces and maybe Jeremy Hellickson since the team gave up assets for him. Even then “no matter what” might be a little strong. But after that, well, things get pretty dicey.
And that’s fine.
We have to accept that this is the state of the roster right now. It’s better than it was last year and it’s trending in a reasonably good direction. But there are plenty of areas of concern that we here at Inside the ‘Zona will be watching closely. I want to take a stab at some of these and explain why I think there’s plenty to look forward to this season (we’ll do position players today and pitchers on Thursday). Here are just a few of the areas worth looking forward to.
Who Plays Third Base?
This has been a hot topic since Yasmany Tomas was added to the puzzle since the D-backs have Jake Lamb and Brandon Drury in the queue at the hot corner. I’m not going to re-hash my belief that Tomas is better-suited for an outfield corner, nor will I fully discuss why I think it’s just fine that they want to give him a shot at third to start him out. It’s all good, time will allow this experiment to play out and it’ll be fun to see what happens.
As of now, I can see Tomas getting the start at third, Lamb beginning the year in Reno (where he really could use some time) and Drury either starting at third in Mobile or at second in Reno. Either way, Tomas will get a crack at the starting job, and if he can handle it, Lamb becomes an expendable trade asset that has some value. Drury will likely spend almost all or the entirety of 2015 in the minors, so the team can decide if they want to Tomas to stay at third in 2016 and move Drury to second, or, they can decide move Tomas to the OF and give Drury the job provided 2015 goes well for him in the upper minors.
They again, Tomas could quickly prove himself unready for third base during Spring Training and Lamb could open the season as the team’s third baseman. They’d have to clear an outfield corner spot for Tomas if that were the case and I have no doubt that they’d do so to get their newest major league asset into he lineup since they’re paying him his full salary whether he’s in the minors or the majors. In essence, there’s no benefit to sending him to Reno. In this case, they’d have some time to both evaluate Lamb at third as a potential long-term fit and evaluate Drury at either second or third base depending on how Lamb progresses.
That’s a lot of words and a lot of scenarios, but this is all about experiments and, hey, at least there appear to be a number of options. It’s up in the air for now and that’s how it’ll likely stay for at least the first few months of the season. Tomas, Lamb and Drury are important assets and it’s likely that by the start of 2016, we won’t be asking who’s job it is anymore; we’ll have our answer. Until then, it’s something to watch closely.
Can the Middle Infield Progress?
The middle infield logjam had been well-chronicled here but it was finally (somewhat) cleared up winter when Didi Gregorius was jettisoned to the Yankees. A few in the game feel that he was never given enough of a shot and we’ll have to see how he develops in New York to find a resolution. Regardless, the middle infield moves forward with Aaron Hill in need of a bounce-back campaign and Chris Owings in need of proving he’s healthy and can handle a full season at shortstop. These two need to produce for the Diamondbacks to have a chance at getting back to .500 in the near future.
But they’re not alone. I think it’s safe to say that Cliff Pennington is a good defender who doesn’t hit much, but the intrigue revolves around a couple of younger players. Can Nick Ahmed show some of the stick he showcased in Reno in 2014? Does he start the year in the minors? He’ll surely see the majors at some point in 2015, and when he does, he’ll have to prove that he truly belongs. His defensive abilities are enough to keep him around on their own, but if he can do any kind of damage at the plate, he may just force his way into the lineup on a somewhat regular basis should Hill or Owings scuffle.
Then again, Brandon Drury has seen time at second base and should be considered an option there. Most scouts like him better at third, but in the short-term, he could likely play some second if it means getting his bat in the major league lineup. He could be ready as early as August if he continues to tear through the minors and, if third base is clogged up, could see a somewhat significant amount of time in Arizona, especially if any of the second base options suffer an injury. He has the offensive upside that the organization covets and he’ll need a chance to face major league pitching in the very near future.
Again, we see a lot of candidates and a lot of possible combinations. There are incumbents who the team is counting on, but should they falter, there are others in the wings who are ready for a chance to prove they belong. Can they capitalize on the chance when it comes? We should get some clarity here as the season wears on.
Will the Outfield be Optimized?
Mark Trumbo is a bad defender who wasn’t good at the plate last year. Cody Ross is expensive and coming off of a major injury and a return that was severely underwhelming. David Peralta has some major splits to overcome to show that he’s more than just a bat against righties. Ender Inciarte needs to prove that both his defense and average-isn offense are for real. A.J. Pollock needs to prove he can stay healthy for a full season. Oh, and we may just see Yasmany Tomas thrown into this mix at some point, too. With three outfielders in the lineup every day, Arizona has to have offensive production from this unit.
So, what’s the best combination? Pollock in center is a given so long as he’s able. But in the corners, the D-backs have options. Considering he cost the team Tyler Skaggs and Adam Eaton, Mark Trumbo is going to start every day to begin the season, but given his struggles against righties, that may not be the best idea. A platoon of him and David Peralta makes so much sense, yet I’m not sure we see it. Plus, that may stunt Peralta’s growth as he needs at-bats against lefties to improve if he’s going to do so. Instead, it’s likely Trumbo in right and Peralta in left on most days, and depending on who’s pitching, one should rake and one should suffer in a big way.
That pushes Ender Inicarte, the team’s second-most valuable outfielder, to the bench on a mostly full-time basis and relegates Cody Ross to a bench bat role. No one’s going to quibble with the latter, but Arizona is leaving production, especially that of the defensive variety, on the bench by not starting Inciarte. He showed little in the way of splits last year, making him a good option against both righties and lefties. If the organization chooses to prioritize defense at some point, he could become an above-average option in left field, doing enough in the field to improve upon his average offensive production. Runs saved are valuable, and you may have noticed, the pitching staff could likely benefit from some help in the field.
Tomas is a wild card and should he get moved to the outfield, someone’s gotta go. That might mean sending a major league asset like Peralta or Inciarte to the minors. The team could also just cut Cody Ross, but that would require eating his entire salary, something they won’t be willing to do until at least after the All Star break when they’ve seen enough to know he hasn’t recovered some of his value. Still, Tomas getting moved to the outfield would require some kind of transaction, which could even include the team moving one of Peralta or Inciarte. Either way, this is a secondary concern, but one that will take some time to play out.
Does Hernandez Stick on the 25-Man and Can O’Brien Catch?
We’ve applauded the D-backs for selecting Oscar Hernandez in the Rule 5 draft and it was a smart move considering the catching depth in the organization. But, he’s a 21-year old who’s never played above A-ball and by all accounts, will be in way over his head in the majors. Can the team take up a valuable roster spot on his behalf to let him develop? At this point, that appears to be the plan.
Of course, the other catching talk has revolved around Peter O’Brien and the positive reviews he’s receiving internally. Scouts outside the organization, however, have been pretty united in stating that he’s not a viable major league catching prospect. The raw power he has in undeniable and it plays better behind the plate than anywhere else and the D-backs are doing the right thing by trying to make it work. All signs point to O’Brien being a diligent worker who’s working hard to see to it that he makes it to the majors as a catcher.
Both of these are propositions that are hard to feel confident betting on, however, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the D-backs do add another catcher at some point in the coming weeks. They may want to get into Spring Training before making a move, allowing them some additional time to evaluate the situation. Just as we’ve seen above, there are options here, but no clear ones aside from Tuffy Gosewisch, which doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in the catching department. But we’ll know a lot more in the coming months.
A Shaky but Exciting Situation
People want to know who’s going to start, who’s going to make the roster and what the 2015 Arizona Diamondbacks look like. I think we can pencil in the Opening Day lineup somewhat easily, but it’s not about where you start, it’s where you finish. And if we’re reading into the situation correctly, where this team finishes will be vastly different from where it starts.
And again, that’s just fine.
We’ll have no shortage of situations to monitor as 2015 plays itself out. Third base, outfield, middle infield, catcher, all of these are somewhat up for grabs. The only way to find clarity is to experiment with the options that the team has and that grand experiment is about to begin. Keep your eyes peeled because even though the team won’t contend for the NL West crown this season, their next title run begins this season as the building blocks of the next contender will start to be revealed in short order.
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