Entering the 2017 season, the Diamondbacks had a very narrow path to contention. True, the team is in the thick of the Contention Window, something we identified a couple of years back. Dave Stewart and Company tried to accelerate that timeline, of course, but 2017 was always the season where it looked like things might align. And align things have. Despite Shelby Miller‘s torn UCL, the team has thus far avoided catastrophic injuries. Meanwhile, teams like the Giants, Mets and Pirates have seen their stock tumble while each division has at least one or two teams that appear to be truly rebuilding. As it stands now, it looks like the D-backs will compete with the Cardinals and Rockies for one of two wild card spots.
Encouragingly, the playoff pictures looks like this:
After the D-backs, things fall off pretty sharply. To date they trail the Rockies and Cardinals for that precious, final wild card spot, but they’re not far off the pace. The Rockies’ pitching staff elicits questions and the Cardinals struggle defensively. The Diamondbacks are legitimately in this thing. They can pitch well enough, score plenty of runs and defensively, they’re well above average. This team is relatively well positioned to push forward with winning on the mind. Mike Hazen recently spoke about the need for “sustainability,” something he’s trying to bring to the organization, but admitted that the goal is to win. Should the team get to the halfway mark and still be in the picture, he’ll have little choice but to keep pushing to make the playoffs a reality.
In the open, I mentioned avoiding catastrophic injuries. That’s going to be paramount for the three teams fighting for two wild card spots. A key injury could derail things pretty quickly. The Cardinals are projected for 85 wins, the Rockies and Diamondbacks are projected for 84. There’s very little separating them at this point in time. One injury that’s of note, however, is the groin issue keeping A.J. Pollock on the DL at the moment. He’s expected to miss 3-4 weeks thanks to that one, and with the margin for error razor-thin, it’s worth taking a quick look at how much his absence may hurt the D-backs.
Gregor Blanco was signed for this very purpose in the offseason, and Rey Fuentes was a savvy depth move. It appears these two will fill in for Pollock in his absence, which began May 15th. We can’t say for sure who’ll get the majority of the starts as both bat left-handed there isn’t much of a platoon advantage to be gained. If we assume, for the sake of simplicity, that they split Pollock’s time 50/50, we can attempt to measure how much will be lost with Pollock on the shelf. Using projected weighted runs created on a per/game basis, the situation offensively looks something like this:
Assuming Pollock misses a full four weeks, he’d miss 26 games. He’d create just over 15 runs offensively. Blanco isn’t far off that mark, but Fuentes is. If they split the time in half, we’re looking at something like 3.5 runs of offense lost. This is grossly oversimplified, of course, but we can get a rough idea of the gap. There are lineup considerations to make and Pollock’s injury has had reverberations down the line. Coupled with a few days off for David Peralta, we haven’t quite seen what the lineup will look like when only Pollock is missing, but again, we have an idea of that gap: just a 3.5 runs of offense, which equates to about a third of a game lost.
But that’s not the whole story. There’s defense to be played. Of the two options, Fuentes is the better defender in center. Blanco’s best days are behind him in the outfield. Fuentes is projected as something like a neutral centerfielder while Blanco appears to be just below average. Pollock, on the other hand, is clearly above average. Splitting playing time evenly for Blanco and Fuentes, the team could lose another two runs, pushing the total (offense and defense) to something like an extra half a loss.
All of this is based on projections, of course. There’s a reason for that: when working with samples this small for players like Blanco (9 games) and Fuentes (3 games), they’re about all we have to go on. Pollock has actually hit a touch less than projected thus far in 2017. In nine games, Blanco hasn’t been good at the plate and in just three games, the same can be said for Fuentes. But that’s surely not enough playing time to judge them by. If either can catch some kind of fire and just get closer to average at the plate, they could eat into the half a game lost due to Pollock’s absence. If they both scuffle badly, that half a game lost could grow to something closer to a full game. It’s not a major loss, but it’s a loss nonetheless.
With the D-backs projected to walk the tightrope through the summer months and into the fall, just one loss could potentially make a critical difference. Should Pollock’s injury stretch on, or he re-aggravate it at some point, things could be swayed in an even more meaningful way. There are ways to get that production back, of course. They could look for upgrades elsewhere on the field, but with each passing game comes a missed chance to recoup production. If there’s a move to be made, making it sooner than later could pay dividends. Or, they can stay on track, hope for the best and avoid paying for what could end up being an unnecessary transaction. I’d expect them to do the latter, at least for the time being.
As of now, things are tight. But the team is right where they need to be, and even with Pollock on the shelf for a bit, they can survive. It’s not as if their competitors won’t have their own minor issues to deal with down the stretch, too. A catastrophic injury could change the whole complexion of the race, however, and that’s something we’ll have to keep an eye on. Losing a half a game of production won’t kill the team. Losing a guy like Pollock for the rest of the season might. Replacing a fifth starter is a lot easier than replacing your leadoff man when he’s one of the premier centerfielders in the game. Here’s to hoping Arizona can continue to avoiding massive injuries.
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