Can you feel it in the air? March is a little more delayed than normal, but it’s practically here, and spring training is officially in full swing with exhibition games due to start tomorrow. A catch-as-catch-can roster was assembled a year ago at this time, but things are a little more focused this time around: there are no more roster battles than there are normally in a normal team’s normal camp, and despite some high profile acquisitions, many more of the faces are familiar. As Jeff reminded us a couple of years ago, spring training statistics are rarely worth the electrons used to make them show up on a computer screen—but no one is saying that the D-backs’ actual play on the field doesn’t matter. There are quite a few things that I’m particularly interested in, and maybe you’re interested in following them, too.

Some of it has to do with how the front office hopes to roll out its 25-man roster on Opening Day, and with how reasonable those plans are shaking out. We’ll get back there. The very first things we see will be much more specific: adjustments in approach, especially for the pitchers. When the D-backs cut ties with Mike Harkey late last season, GM Dave Stewart wasn’t shy about criticizing the former pitching coach for what appeared to be a lack of a plan for at least some of the team’s pitchers, at least some of the time. Mike Butcher is now in D-backs camp for the first time, which seems like it can only be a good thing. When you combine the Harkey criticism with Butcher’s reputation, I think it adds up to a heavy mandate to have a plan. Butcher’s role might not be advice. He could be a little more hands-on, and may have been working with some of these guys before camp opened.

Here’s what I’ll be watching for from afar, and in person later this month.


Chris Owings: how is he finishing his swing? Owings had surgery on his shoulder in 2014, apparently quite a bit later than he should have. When we saw him a year ago (and during the season), we saw something new: a two-handed finish. Owings had done reasonably well in 2014, and took a step backward in 2015. Considering the shoulder wasn’t exactly right in 2014, it doesn’t seem like a huge leap to make to accuse the new swing of making things not so great. Jeff broke down the change in swing (with video) last April, so head there if you don’t remember what I’m talking about. By the end of the season, it still looked like low and away was Owings’s undoing last year, and full extension probably should be harder if you’re gripping the bat hard with that farthest-from-body hand (center of palm) instead of pushing/guiding it (base of fingers).

Fast-forward, and there’s reason to think that Jean Segura was brought in to replace Owings in the 4-man, 3-position time share, rather than to challenge Ahmed for shortstop time. The D-backs aren’t taking chances if they can help it. Meanwhile, as a former bat-first shortstop, Owings has been especially punchless overall by virtue of some very critical defensive reviews: despite a 7.4 UZR/150 at short in 2014 that had him solidly above average, Owings rated poorly at second in 2015 with a -10.8 UZR/150 in more playing time. That doesn’t make him a great Cliff Pennington candidate.

What I’m getting at is this: the D-backs have little reason to play it safe with Owings now, who could end up trade fodder if he starts to look like he could be productive. Maybe the two-handed finish is better for preserving his shoulder, but September was his worst month; it doesn’t seem like he’s growing on him. Don’t be surprised if the former Pacific Coast League MVP gets a public bill of clean health and the green light to finish his swing the way he did when he pushed his way into the MLB picture. We’ll see that almost immediately, or we won’t see that at all.

Robbie Ray: are we done with The Slurge, and will he stay in the zone? Here’s where a new pitching coach can shine. One reason we thought Ray was a great candidate to pick up a Warthen Slider is that he has the velocity for that to play up — but another is that Ray can’t seem to get that wrist snap down with any regularity. His breaking ball has been all over the place, and it looked last spring like the range of movement on the pitch could be explained not by trying two different things, but by hanging the pitch so often that it screwed with categorization.

The D-backs kind of have two options here: they can double down on being more consistent with the pitch he’s used, or they could try out something new. Ray probably could perform fairly well at the MLB level without a breaking ball — his fourseam and sinker move very differently, and he could benefit from refining his changeup craft more exclusively. If that’s the case, there’s no reason to keep him from throwing it in the spring, unless they want the bullets used refining something else. I do suspect, though, that Ray could be throwing something new. Think about it: that would be one reason for the team to prep us all for Ray having to earn a rotation spot. If he’s learning something new, there is good reason to let him pitch in the minors in April, or until a need materializes in the bigs.

As a kind of separate issue, I will also be keenly interested in where Ray is throwing. We know him well enough now to say: hitters don’t have a ton of trouble making contact with Ray’s offerings. With the non-Slurge pitches, they also had a lot more trouble putting them in play than they did getting the bat on the ball — as Jeff explained thoroughly just last week, Ray was an outlier when it came to his approach with two strikes. The constant foul balls were pretty lame, and as Ray struggled to rack up whiffs, he compensated by throwing outside the zone. Why, though? If hitters had trouble making good contact, there’s a decent chance that pitching in the zone and letting that natural arm-side movement do its work will simply lead to bad contact and easy outs. Ray’s strikeout rate would suffer, but his innings total — and overall results — may not.

Rubby De La Rosa: what is the innovation that Butcher tries for lefty matchups? Sometimes, there are subjects that people are just kind of sensitive about. You know this if you’ve ever compared someone’s baby to an odd-looking celebrity (not recommended). I think we’re all getting the sense that Rubby De La Rosa is that kind of thing for Dave Stewart, especially in the wake of RDLR not getting designated a sure rotation slot, and then manager Chip Hale getting a change of heart that all but guaranteed him one (not recommended). You don’t put Stew’s baby in a corner.

The season had barely begun last year before Jeff noticed a huge uptick in RDLR’s sinker usage, a pitch he’d only thrown the previous season, and sparingly. By June, it was obvious that the sinker was a key reason why RDLR was struggling so mightily against left-handed hitters. By the end of the season, it was clear that lefties remained as RDLR’s biggest problem, and that the sinker was definitely not the solution.

A key piece of RDLR’s attack against lefties will be his changeup, which Jeff is exploring in some depth for tomorrow. But what else? I hope I’m not offending anyone by persisting with the belief that Stew is in RDLR’s corner because his early career has looked a lot like Stew’s. In delving into that comparison last spring, I noted that Stew’s career only took off after he committed to a splitter as his featured secondary pitch, and wondered if that or something like it could be the missing ingredient now. We know that De La Rosa’s fourseam fastball is the variety of fourseam that tends to have the biggest platoon split, and that his sinker is also of a kind that would have a similarly large split. Whether it’s the addition of a pitch like a cutter or whether it’s just a question of approach to the zone or pitching plan, there’s a good chance we’ll see something new this spring from RDLR, and that it will be about equipping him to handle lefties more consistently.

Roster Battles

Reading tea leaves? Sign me up! There aren’t too many Big, Expensive Showdowns this year, but this is still a bread-and-butter and quintessential spring training pastime. Reading into spring games this way comes in two forms: what the team appears to be trying to do, and what appears to be working. You can use your imagination as we tick these off…it won’t take as much brain wattage as it would to dream up Yasmany Tomas at third base. Here’s what’s at the top of my list.

  • Second LHP in the bullpen. Remember last year, when it seemed to come down to Andrew Chafin and Dan Runzler? Stay tuned for a non-Broadway revival featuring a new cast. Matt Reynolds may be in the catbird seat, but there’s a whole host of dark horse candidates, from Keith Hessler to Daniel Gibson to Scott Rice. This is less about the outcome of the competition for me, as much as what the competition will be by mid-March. My money is on Scott Rice, who fits the ground ball plan perfectly and seems most likely to play the Runzler role.
  • Daniel Hudson‘s schedule. The D-backs seemed to experiment with Hudson in 2015’s latest days, pitching him on no days rest twice in the span of one week. He’d done so just four other times last season, with underwhelming results: a one walk, one K abbreviated appearance in May, a perfect 2K appearance in June, a minor 1 ER debacle in July with 2 hits and a walk, and an August stint in which he gave up a long ball. Whether they feature back-to-back appearances at the end of March could give us a clue as to whether or not he’d be next behind Brad Ziegler for the closer role, or whether it’d be Tyler Clippard.
  • Whether Archie Bradley is pitching to contact. As reported by Nick Piecoro in the RDLR rotation slot piece linked above, the D-backs justify the righty’s precedence over Robbie Ray because of Ray’s difficulty in pitching deep in games. To beat out Ray for the last spot in the rotation, Bradley would probably have to look like the more promising candidate along those lines. Last year, we saw a pitcher with an surprising ground ball rate, but who also had an astonishing walk rate — if he’s thrown in the towel for Ks, the remaining question is how willing he is to rack up the BBs.
  • Who between Randall Delgado and Josh Collmenter will pitch the longest appearances? Last year, Delgado was working as a starter for much of the spring, and Collmenter was lining up as the Opening Day starter. Oh, what a difference a year makes. With the additions of Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller and to some extent the larger IP expectations of Patrick Corbin, relief innings are less likely to be in short supply — especially if staying late in games is how the 5th starter battle is won. We’ve speculated on the success Collmenter could have in a short relief role, and believe it or not, but Delgado was so good a reliever last year that many teams had no reliever as good as he. There’s little incentive not to stretch either of these guys out, but whether they’re treated similarly will tell us a lot.
  • Is Jean Segura really playing mostly at short? As noted above, Segura could be seen as a straight up replacement for Chris Owings. Recall, though, that pushing the Tomas-at-third experiment for all of March meant (or justified) moving Tomas to Triple-A to start the year, and meant that the Tomas/Peralta swap couldn’t happen until right now. Segura hasn’t played a single MLB game at second. We’ll learn a lot about the D-backs’ infield plans almost instantly this spring if Segura gets no work at second in exhibition games.
  • Who is picking up time at first base? No, Goldy isn’t going anywhere, but he’s not going to play first in every exhibition game this spring. What I’m looking for, though, is whether Chris Herrmann keeps getting looks there, or Peter O’Brien, or Jake Lamb. Lamb is on the roster, and more than a couple of starts at first sends a signal that the ability to play first will figure less into the competition for the final bench spot. If Herrmann gets more than trivial time there, it tells us the team has an openness to run with him as a third catcher (as the only backup, he’d never play there). If O’Brien, we might infer that the team would be willing to keep him on the roster as a part-time player, which is a harder choice than you might think — especially if O’Brien is “Plan B” long term in the event Tomas gets worse instead of better.
  • Is Phil Gosselin or Chris Herrmann grabbing LF time? That would point in the direction of the D-backs keeping open the option of running with just 4 other OFs, especially if Socrates Brito gets a lot of work in center. There’s more than enough playing time to go around for much of the spring, so this doesn’t cut into Tomas’s time out there—but if they want to try flip-flopping Tomas and Peralta, they’ll follow through even if they both look iffy. They’re unlikely to shuttle back and forth, and Brito is a poor partner for Peralta in RF — if it’s Brito getting LF time (which makes lots of sense) and not Gosselin or Herrmann, the chances of a 5-man OF that includes O’Brien looks a lot more likely, as O’Brien would end up Peralta’s backup in right.
  • And, maybe most importantly (for me): Is Jake Lamb aimed at LHP? I’m feeling as defensive of Lamb as Stew is of De La Rosa, I guess, but despite the premium the D-backs have put on this season, I’d hate to see Lamb’s LHP attempts limited to the point of near-permanently limiting him. Lefties get better at hitting lefties with more practice hitting against lefties, and while “win-now” wasn’t a great excuse last year to limit Lamb’s LHP time, working to avoid a full-on stress fracture in Lamb’s foot definitely was. In the spring, they can limit Lamb without limiting his work against LHP, and I’ll be taking notes. The upshot is that we’ll also learn about Brandon Drury‘s chances of making the Opening Day roster — they’ll be less willing to make Drury a Plan A part-timer than they probably would be with O’Brien, and his best shot at making the 25-man out of the gate could be in the half time role that Aaron Hill saw last year between second and third.

One Response to What to Watch for in March: Impending Adjustments and Roster Clues

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