Pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training in about a week. That’s cool, and plenty of Diamondbacks are already in Scottsdale given the team’s headquarters fall inside the Cactus League boundaries. You don’t need a refresher on how the starting staff fared last year. It was a disaster, and even Robbie Ray‘s bright spot (strikeouts) had it’s own detractors (ERA just north of 5). There wasn’t much to be happy about last year, and entering 2017, optimism once again reigns supreme. The collection of arms that are rotation-worthy are exciting and aren’t necessarily bad. Steamer sees the group as just above league average, and there are undoubtedly some talented dudes that will take the hill. They’ll have a better catcher to throw to (on occasion) and the defense will be somewhat improved. Those are very real things that should help them actualize better results.

But as I wrote not all that long ago, there are more starting pitcher candidates than there are rotation spots. That’s obviously not uncommon, but the amount of depth is pretty staggering. Not all of that depth is all that good, but it’s there. Someone’s getting bumped to the bullpen, or even AAA, unless the team wants to go with a 6-man staff. That would obviously put pressure on other parts of the roster and it shouldn’t be anticipated, but a 6-man rotation is at least within the realm of possibility. With the normal five slots in mind, let’s take a look at who’s got a spot locked up, who’s a likely addition, and who may find themselves on the outside looking in.

It’s a Stone-Cold Lock

Zack Greinke, RHP, 33

This is as easy at it comes — Greinke’s not going anywhere given his talent, experience and contract. Trading Greinke is highly unlikely before midseason, and with a strong crop of free agents set to hit the market next winter, he may even last until mid-2018 if the D-backs ever do decide to trade him. He’ll take the ball on Opening Day, provided he avoids injury this spring and the projections like him to get back into form in 2017. He dealt with injuries and a new ball park last season, things he’ll surely be looking to put in the rearview mirror this season.

Robbie Ray, LHP, 25

Ray was the best pitcher for the D-backs last season, at least in terms of total production. He logged a career-high 174.1 innings and ranked near the top of the National League in strikeout rate. His trouble getting through innings efficiently has been well-documented, and without strong command of his secondary pitches (and even his fastball sometimes), he may find himself in the same situation again in 2017. He finally quit messing around with the sinker and found more success with the four-seamer, a pitch with enough velocity and movement to get the job done. The slider wasn’t terrible, but the changeup was, so Ray continues to look to refine a repertoire that’ll let him get in and out of innings without throwing 20+ pitches each frame.

Taijuan Walker, RHP, 24

You don’t flip your most productive player for a young starter without the intent of letting that starter get his innings in. The D-backs’ newest toy will surely get a chance to improve upon his rough 2016 season that witnessed plenty of highs and plenty of lows. It can take young pitchers a while to find their footing and the Diamondbacks will be happy to give Walker his chance to do just that. The raw stuff remains big and there’s a reason Arizona was willing to acquire him — should he find the aforementioned comfort he can blossom into something special. His game log is littered with inconsistency, so finding a groove will be priority number one so that Walker can focus on refining his overall approach to pitching. After all, it’s hard to improve without a strong base to work from.

Don’t Count Your Chickens

Shelby Miller, RHP, 26

It’s easy to forget that Miller is just 26-years old. 2016 was a season season to forget for the righty and he fell apart early in spring and never rectified the situation. With a new braintrust leading the charge, it’ll be intriguing to see how Miller prioritizes his repertoire, specifically if he’ll get back to mixing his three different fastball looks (four-seam, sinker, cutter) and the occasional curveball. This mixture led to strong results in Atlanta, then it was abandoned upon his arrival to the desert. Given the trouble hitters have differentiating pitches that come out of the hand similarly, there’s plenty of supporting evidence to suggest that a return to the Shelby Miller of 2015 can be productive in Sedona Red. A shift out of the rotation seems unlikely as the team needs to do everything they can to help Miller get his value trending back in the right direction. He’s not guaranteed anything, however, and if this spring looks anything like last season, he might just find himself on the outside looking in. Let’s hope that’s not the case.

Patrick Corbin, LHP, 27

Corbin tried to use his changeup more frequently in 2016 and, well, it didn’t work. The pitch has never fared well and that didn’t change (no pun intended) last season, even if the idea of protecting his elbow from so many sliders was a reasonable strategy. He also struggled to get ahead of hitters as his first-strike rate dropped (again), making it tougher to get hitters in a position to be put away with his wipeout slider. In the bullpen, he got back to basics, pumping sinkers and sliders regulalry, using the changeup far less in the process, and the results took off. The D-backs could take a couple of approaches with Corbin in 2017, letting him continue to throw his slider about 30% of the time in the rotation and hoping his elbow is up to the task. They could also use him as a multi-inning reliever from the left side to help balance the bullpen and provide some length. There are reasons for optimism, but the direction remains unclear. It appears that Corbin’s preference is to get back to the rotation, now it’s up to him to seize the opportunity.

Archie Bradley, RHP, 24

Much like Walker above, Archie Bradley showed flashes of dominance last season, but struggled to string together good starts. At the heart of the issue remains his inconsistent command. Bradley struggles to locate his fastball and get ahead of hitters. At times last season, he simply didn’t know where the ball was going and it was evident. His four-seamer has plenty of juice to get the job done, but he can’t put it where he wants to consistently. His knuckle curveball is a pure put-away pitch when he’s snapping it off well, but when he’s not, it can hang and get crushed. With just two serviceable pitches, he lacks the third pitch to keep hitters guessing. At this stage, they can basically wait for an ill-located fastball to crush or pounce when the curveball hangs. He made too many mistakes to succeed consistently last season and there is clearly work to be done. The question is where that work comes. Heading back to AAA won’t likely prove enough of a challenge for Bradley to make meaningful gains, but the rotation may be full. That could relegate him to relief duties, which may be a particularly good fit, but could also put a long-term end to the hope that he’ll develop into a solid mid-rotation starter.

On the Fringes

Braden Shipley, RHP, 25

The former top prospect got his stuff kicked all around the diamond last year in his rookie debut. The stuff was underwhelming as he sacrificed velocity for command, putting additional pressure on the rest of his repertoire. If that command comes around, perhaps he can dial it back up and he’ll need to do so to become an effective rotation piece. Look for him to push for a rotation spot in the spring and likely end up in Reno to open the season.

Anthony Banda, LHP, 23

Banda took Shipley’s spot atop the prospect rankings, but the overall profile ins’t all that dissimilar. It’s a decent repertoire that doesn’t showcase a true out pitch and forces the young hurler to walk a fine line between effectiveness and destruction. While he’ll get his starts this spring, he’s probably half a season away from cracking the big league rotation.

Matt Koch, RHP, 26

Koch has underwhelming raw stuff and is a prototypical up/down guy. While he’s had some limited big league success, the overall package leaves plenty to be desired. If the D-backs want to get the most out of him, they may need to convert him back to a relief role where his stuff at least has a chance to play up some (though not enough to pay huge dividends). For now, he’ll most likely head to AAA for the start of 2017 and get a chance when an injury arises.

Zack Godley, RHP, 26

It’s not like Zack Godley is bad. He can post acceptable strikeout numbers and gets plenty of ground balls. That said, he’s not good enough to push someone else out of the rotation. With his relative cost and team control, he’s a candidate to steal a few spot starts but should do most of his pitching from the ‘pen.

Keyvius Sampson, RHP, 26

Sampson will be in camp as a non-roster invitee and will get his chances to showcase his skills. Walks have always been a problem and he’s prone to fly balls, and how that package plays in Arizona should be described as precarious at best. If he can be retained, look for him to head to AAA Reno and serve as an insurance policy should disaster strike. A move to the bullpen is also an option. You can never have too much pitching, right?

Josh Taylor, LHP, 24

Taylor pitched better in Visalia and Mobile than his ERA would suggest. He’s got a profile that may allow him to survive as a back end starter with more refinement, but most likely forces him to the bullpen in a middle relief role. He’ll be in Spring Training with the big club as a non-roster invitee. How the team uses him will be intriguing as they could look to jumpstart his progress by moving him to the ‘pen sooner than later.

The Battle to Watch

Without a doubt, the battle(s) to watch will be who rounds out the rotation. With three pitchers for two spots, someone’s going to be left holding the bag. As I recapped previously, I think Shelby Miller has the best chance to stay in the rotation, simply because his profile is least attractive in relief and the team needs to recoup his value (or whatever is left of it). Patrick Corbin has had success in the bullpen as recently as the end of last season, while Archie Bradley hasn’t been able to throw an effective third pitch (in fairness, the same can be said for Corbin) and his power stuff may play up even further in a relief role. Who sticks is anyone’s guess, but if we’re handicapping, I prefer Miller, Corbin, then Bradley. We’ll surely learn more when March rolls around.

2017 Spring Previews

In case you missed any of the other installments in this series, you can find links to each preview piece below:

All the (New) Catchers

Fun and Uncertainty in the D-backs’ Infield

Filling Up the Outfield

A Wide Open Bullpen

14 Responses to 2017 Spring Preview: Starting Pitching Showcases Depth, Questions

  1. Josh says:

    One of the most interesting things to me is the retention of Mike Butcher, and how much of an affect the new FO will have on, and with, him. Obviously they thought enough of him to keep him on board, I’m just wondering what that is.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      Well, part of why they kept him had to do with the fact that his contract ran through 2017. The others let go were all on expiring contracts (I think). They also wanted, presumably, to have some amount of carry-over, especially with the pitchers. Butcher may have new directives to follow, and I agree, it’ll be fascinating to see how his role evolves, especially with Dan Haren and Burke Badenhop on board to help the pitchers and Mike Fitzgerald running the analytics department.

  2. Lamar Jimmerson says:

    I’m curious to see whether Shipley can regain some of his shine. As of July of last year, Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen was still projecting him as a league-average starter, despite lacking a true out pitch or great minor league stats. But he was so underwhelming last year that now no one seems to believe in him at all. Unfortunately, if you just look at his career numbers so far, it’s the latter viewpoint that has the most justification.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      He struggles with command pretty frequently, and that’s really hurting him. He can get the ball over the plate when he needs to (usually), but it’s often a low-90’s fastball without much movement. He showed effectiveness when he reached back for more velocity, so I’d like to see that more often. I don’t think he’s a finished product by any means as the development path was always going to be long for him. There’s clearly a ways to go, but the command will have to come around first and foremost so that he can make the most out of a decent repertoire of pitches.

      • Lamar Jimmerson says:

        The irony is that he allegedly decided to sacrifice velocity in order to improve his command. Last year he had neither.

  3. Matt says:

    What are your thoughts on them really going against the norm and trying the 3 man rotation that is being discussed more and more. I read an article talking about how the Marlins would be an ideal team to try it, but I feel like with Grienke, Walker, and Ray as your top three and then Bradley and Corbin (among others) to bridge the gap to the later innings it seems like a decent fit. Obviously the biggest issue is not really having any shut down options at the end of the game. I just think they have really good pieces to get through two thirds of a game using that strategy. And at this point I’m ok with them trying out just about anything to try and put a winning team on the field.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      We are certainly not opposed to it and have written about it in the past. It can be particularly effective if you mix/match righties and lefties, so maybe Walker/Corbin and Ray/Bradley, with the hope that Greinke just gets through his starts like normal. The tradeoff is that you’re limiting innings pitched on a per-game basis, so what do you do when Robbie Ray has given up just one hit and struck out six through the first three innings and only thrown 30 pitches? Do you pull him anyways? Just something to consider. One of our past posts on the topic is linked below:

      http://insidethezona.com/2015/11/case-2016-starter-committee/

  4. Legendopolis says:

    Any thought that Corbin was throwing the Change more frequently due to concerns (consciously or subconsciously)about his arm holding up? Another off-season removed from the surgery may alleviate that. Purely anecdotally there’s no doubt in my mind he wants to be in the rotation.

    • Puneet says:

      I think the weird thing was when he came back the season previously and threw at the end of the year, he was throwing MORE sliders than normal. So maybe something happened that forced him to dial back.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      I do think that the move for changeups was deliberate to protect his elbow, as we’ve written a few times. Definitely didn’t work!

  5. Dan says:

    Last year Corbin, Ray, De LaRosa et all seemed to have a lot of trouble the second time through the batting rotation. Was it the batters adjusting and the pitchers not adjusting or the catchers calling the game? Comments!

  6. […] Inside the ’Zona previews the battle among Shelby Miller, Patrick Corbin and Archie Bradley for the final two spots in the Diamondbacks’ rotation. […]

  7. […] been fun profiling a couple of upcoming spring battles lately. There’s going to be some kind of rotation battle between some young, talented starters, and it’ll be intriguing to see how all of the infield […]

  8. […] Starting Pitching Showcases Depth, Questions […]

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