No team personified being a .500 squad better than the Diamondbacks last year. They went 81-81, had a Pythagorean win-loss of 80-82, and scored 685 runs while allowing 695. They played the entire season within a 10-game window and didn't fall under .500 until dropping the 161st game of the year.
There's reason to believe in some improvement in 2014. Getting full seasons out of Aaron Hill and Brandon McCarthy certainly will help. Eliminating the abject disaster that was Ian Kennedy is textbook addition by subtraction. Addison Reed provides stability in the ninth inning and allows J.J. Putz and Brad Ziegler to man setup roles. Big-time prospect Archie Bradley could make his major league debut, which could give them solid depth in the rotation.
Entering 2014, the NL West is the Dodgers in one tier and everyone else in another. Thanks to the presence of Paul Goldschmidt in the middle of the lineup, the Diamondbacks will have one of the division's better offenses. Still they'd need to get unlikely production from the starting rotation to really have a chance to push the Dodgers.
MORE TEAM PREVIEWS:
1. A.J. Pollock, CF
2. Martin Prado, 3B
3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
4. Mark Trumbo, LF
5. Aaron Hill, 2B
6. Miguel Montero, C
7. Gerardo Parra, LF
8. Didi Gregorius/Chris Owings, SS
1. Patrick Corbin
2. Trevor Cahill
3. Wade Miley
4. Brandon McCarthy
5. Randall Delgado
Bullpen: Addison Reed (closer), J.J. Putz, Brad Ziegler, Josh Collmenter, David Hernandez, Joe Thatcher, Matt Reynolds
• What will Patrick Corbin do the year after? At 23/24 last year (his birthday is in July), Corbin cemented his status atop the Arizona rotation. The lefty went 14-8 with a 3.41 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 3.43 FIP and 178 strikeouts against 54 non-intentional walks in 208.1 innings. He added more than a full mile per hour to his average fastball and traded in a large portion of changeups, his least effective pitch in both 2012 and 2013, for more sliders. The result was the 14th-best slider in the game, according to Fangraphs, ahead of breaking-ball maestros like Madison Bumgarner and Ervin Santana, and the first step in what looks like it could be a very strong career.
Unfortunately, like many young pitchers in their first full major league season, Corbin came undone after the All-Star break. In the first half, he had a 2.35 ERA and batters hit .204/.267/.332 against him. In the second half, his ERA skyrocketed to 5.19, as hitters slashed .286/.339/.440. Despite throwing 52.1 fewer innings after the break, he allowed more homers, 11 more earned runs and just five fewer hits, all while seeing his BABIP jump nearly 100 points.
While the numbers look worse, his performance may not have dropped off as much as they indicate. His first-half FIP was 3.17, while it was 3.87 in the second half. His xFIP both before and after the break was 3.48. Yes, hitters were squaring him up more often, but the differences in his output can be attributed to the vagaries of pitching performance for non-elite players. Corbin's strikeout numbers are good, but not great. Last year, he got himself in plus counts with extreme regularity, posting a league-high 70.2-percent first-strike rate. While wins are nearly impossible to predict, the Diamondbacks should compete in the NL West, and Corbin's ability to pitch deep into games should give him the opportunity to wring out a few more Ws than you might expect. He's just barely inside my top-40 starting pitchers heading into draft season.
• How early do you take Paul Goldschmidt? While the fantasy community waits to see if Corbin's star is still on the rise, there's no doubt about his teammate over at first base reaching that level. Goldschmidt is firmly among the game's elite after hitting .302/.401/.551 with 36 homers, 125 RBI and 15 steals in 2013, just his second full season in the majors. Goldschmidt didn't leap in just his superficial numbers, either. No matter if you pray at the altar of Harold Reynolds or Brian Kenny, Goldschmidt had something for you last year. He shaved nearly two percentage points off his strikeout rate while boosting his walk rate by 3.7 percent. His isolated slugging was .249, good for sixth in the majors. His .404 wOBA trailed just three players. Perhaps you've heard of them: Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Chris Davis.
There's no question that Goldschmidt is one of the best players in the league, for both real-life and fantasy purposes. You're going to be hard-pressed to find anyone in the industry who would keep Trout or Cabrera out of the top two. Believe it or not, the consensus is nearly as strong for Goldschmidt as the No. 3 player on the board, and I'm one of the supporters. First base may be deep, and it got deeper with Cabrera's move back across the diamond this year, but Goldschmidt was the only player in the league last year with at least 30 home runs, 15 steals, a .300 batting average and .400 OBP. No matter your league parameters, that's a top-three pick.
• Could Archie Bradley make it to the majors this year? If Bradley chose a different path, he could be playing quarterback at the University of Oklahoma right now, or even prepping for the NFL draft. He's probably not upset with his current path, though, the one that has him ranked as the best right-handed pitching prospect in baseball. That path could also have him in Arizona at the ripe old age of 21.
Bradley made 21 starts at Double-A Mobile last year, going 12-5 with a 1.97 ERA, 3.33 FIP and 119 strikeouts in 123.1 innings. While he hasn't thrown a pitch above the Double-A level, he earned an invite to big league camp, and general manager Kevin Towers said he would compete for a spot in the rotation.
Of course, there are all the usual concerns about a young pitcher. First, the Diamondbacks' long-term plans would likely be better served by keeping him in the minors for the first four-to-six weeks of the season. At that point, he wouldn't accumulate enough service time this year to start his free agency clock. That would keep him under team control through 2020. Second, there's the issue of overuse. Bradley threw 136 innings at Low-A South Bend in 2012 and 152 between High-A Visalia and Mobile last year. Towers said he would like to keep Bradley limited to the 175-180-inning neighborhood this season, which would leave the Diamondbacks facing a similar decision that confronted the Nationals with Stephen Strasburg two years ago if they are competing for a playoff spot.
Given the trend to keep top prospects in the minors to get one more season out of a cheap asset, as well as Arizona's non-pressing need for Bradley at the start of the season, the bet here is that he begins at Triple-A Reno. However, he should be targeted in mixed league drafts. This is a guy who can make an immediate impact in fantasy leagues, along the lines of what Gerrit Cole did last year. He's well worth stashing on your bench, even in redraft leagues.
Chris Owings, SS -- Owings hit .291/.361/.382 in 61 plate appearances at the major league level last year after slashing .330/.359/.482 with 12 homers, 81 RBI and 20 steals at Triple-A Reno. Didi Gregorius is a superior defender, but he has a career .255/.330/.369 line in about a full season's worth of plate appearances. Owings could very well hit him out of the lineup.
Wade Miley, SP -- You might think Miley is very young because this is just his third full year in the majors, but he turned 27 last November. He has a career K/9 of 6.5, and doesn't post nearly strong enough rates to balance those low strikeout numbers for fantasy owners. He's no more than a spot starter in mixed leagues.
Mark Trumbo, OF -- There's no great choice for a breakout on this team. Goldschmidt already did it, Corbin doesn't quite have the juice and Bradley probably won't log enough time for it to happen this year. Aaron Hill is a great fantasy player, but he is who he is at this point. The nod, by default, goes to Trumbo, who should put up at least 30 homers for the third consecutive season and 100 RBI for the second year in a row. His rates are going to hurt, but you can balance that elsewhere.
NL-only guys to know
Gerardo Parra, OF -- Parra isn't going to be much of a weapon in the rate categories, but he should give his owners between eight and 12 homers and 10 and 15 stolen bases. That makes him a decent back-end outfielder in NL-only leagues.
Brandon McCarthy, SP -- McCarthy's 4.53 ERA from last year looks ugly, but his 3.75 FIP was actually an improvement over 2012, when his ERA was down at 3.24. That's what happens when you have a .320 BABIP and 68.7-percent strand rate. He doesn't walk anybody and doesn't give up home runs, and has been a 2-win player each of the last two years while making just 40 combined starts because of a head injury.
Randall Delgado, SP -- Once a prize of the Braves' pitching-rich organization, Delgado has struggled mightily since reaching the majors. Still, he's worth a roll of the dice for NL-only leaguers because of his pedigree.