The 2014 season was supposed to be the one where the Diamondbacks kicked everybody out of the pool and retook the National League West, but instead, they need the intervention of a lifeguard. Off to a major league-worst 4-12 start, Arizona is already reshuffling its rotation, exiling both Randall Delgado and Trevor Cahill to the bullpen. With roughly 10 percent of the season gone, history suggests the Diamondbacks face long odds even to finish at .500, let alone claim a playoff spot.
The rotation has been at the heart of the team's worst start since they went 3-13 in their inaugural season in 1998. Through 16 games, the starters have an MLB-worst 7.16 ERA, thanks in large part to the league's worst strikeout and unintentional walk rates (6.3 and 3.6 per nine, respectively) and second-worst home run rate (1.6 per nine). They've averaged an MLB-low 5.2 innings per start and delivered quality starts just twice. The staff as a whole has allowed an MLB-worst 6.31 runs per game, and the team's −36 run differential is 15 runs worse than the next major league team and 24 runs worse than the next NL team — the Mets, who beat them 7-3 at home on Monday night.
The loss of Patrick Corbin to Tommy John surgery and the trip halfway around the globe to start the regular season hasn't helped matters, but the Diamondbacks were supposed to have the depth to withstand such problems. Instead, Cahill (9.17 ERA through four starts), Brandon McCarthy (7.78 ERA through three starts) and Delgado (11.05 ERA in his two starts) have been pummeled mercilessly, and Wade Miley (5.04 EA through four starts) and Bronson Arroyo (4.82 ERA through two starts) haven't picked up the slack. Cahill and Delgado have both walked more than 6.0 per nine, while both McCarthy and Arroyo have served up in excess of 2.0 homers per nine.
All of those wretched performances are based upon small sample sizes, but the bottom line is that the starters haven't been keeping the team in games. That at least has camouflaged the (similarly small-sample based) problems of the offense, where Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo are the only regulars who have managed at least league-average production (100 OPS+). Trumbo leads the league in both homers (six) and RBI (18), but since hitting his fifth homer in the team's ninth game, he's fallen into a 3-for-29 funk, striking out 11 times. Outside of that pair, the team has combined for just four homers and a .351 slugging percentage, and as a whole, Arizona's 4.06 runs per game rank just 10th in the league, 0.27 runs per game below average.
Delgado, who wobbled to a 4.26 ERA (89 ERA+) in 19 starts and one relief appearance for Arizona last season, was sent to the bullpen last week, replaced by Josh Collmenter, who spent most of 2011 and part of 2012 in the bullpen; on Monday, he made his first major league start since the end of the latter season. Cahill's spot, which comes up on Saturday, will be taken by Mike Bolsinger, a 26-year-old righty who made his major league debut with three innings of long relief following Collmenter's four-inning, 73-pitch effort. Considered an organizational arm — Baseball America didn't even rank him among the team's top 30 prospects in this year's Prospect Handbook — Bolsinger is a 15th-round pick from 2010 who split last year between Double-A Mobile and Triple-A Reno. He struck out 8.6 per nine in 101 innings at the latter stop, but was touched for a 4.72 ERA in the hitter-friendly league due to high walk and homer rates (3.5 and 1.1 per nine), neither of which bode well for a long-term engagement.
Notably absent thus far is 21-year-old righty Archie Bradley, considered by many to be the top pitching prospect in the minors. After putting up a 1.84 ERA and 9.6 strikeouts per nine in 152 innings at High-A and Double-A last year, he's allowed two runs in 12 innings in his first two starts at Reno. On Monday night, Bradley's agent, Jay Franklin, implied that his client was being kept in the minors so as to manipulate his service clock, telling Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal:
"I think it's very apparent what is going on in Arizona… Every ballplayer that is playing minor league baseball works his tail off to get an opportunity to play in the big leagues.
"Archie Bradley has proven to the Diamondbacks organization that he has deserved that opportunity by keeping his mouth shut and letting his numbers speak for his chance to pitch in the major leagues."
Arizona general manger Kevin Towers responded by noting that Bradley's well-documented issues with fastball command were on display this spring, and telling reporters that he was shielding the young righty from the team's current mess. Via AZCentral's Nick Piecoro:
"I think he needs more time down there as well as I don't think it's a proper environment," Towers said. "With what's going on with our ball club, throwing him in here, he would be viewed as the savior. I don't think it's the right time. If we were playing a little better baseball, maybe. But right now I don't want to put that on him. That's not to say he couldn't come up here and perform like we hope Mike does, but we don't like the environment based on who he is and what people will think once he comes here."
Keeping Bradley on the farm is defensible given his limited experience and the team's desire to control costs, but Towers' team has dug itself a considerable hole with its sluggish start, which has included an 0-5 record against the division-leading Dodgers, who swept them both in Australia and Arizona. No team in the Wild Card era has begun the year by going 4-12 or worse over their first 16 games and still made the playoffs; the last team to do so was the 1981 Astros, who via the strike-induced split season, got a mulligan on their dismal start and then managed to win the second "half" NL West flag. Before that, one has to go back to the 1951 Giants, who needed the miracle of Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" to slip into the postseason and then to the 1914 Boston Braves, whose worst-to-first turn gave them the nickname of "The Miracle Braves." Miracles come in threes spread out over a century, right?
Granted, the addition of two Wild Card teams in each league makes slipping into the postseason considerably easier nowadays, but further review shows that of the 25 teams who have started 4-12 or worse since the start of the 1996 season (excluding the strike-shortened 1994 and 1995 campaigns), only the 1996 Red Sox even finished with a winning record. The 2012 Royals (72-90) and Padres (76-86) are the only such teams since the 2000 season to crack 70 wins, and the 25 teams as a whole compiled just a .407 winning percentage, the equivalent of a 66-win season. Having signed extensions back in February, Towers and manager Kirk Gibson are presumably on solid ground right now, but after a pair of disappointing 81-81 seasons, a plunge far below that could lead managing general partner/blustering desert Steinbrenner-wannabe Ken Kendrick to reconsider his options. The good news is that, aside from a three-game trip to Los Angeles this coming weekend, Arizona's near-term schedule is quite soft, with a May 12-14 series against the Nationals their next against an opponent who finished the 2013 season above .500. The bottom line, though, is that the Diamondbacks need to begin making up ground quickly before this season slips away.