Wait 'Til Next Year: Diamondbacks show signs of future hope in 2015
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait ‘Til Next Year series. Next up: the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Current Record: 73–80 (.477, third in the NL West)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 20
What went right in 2015: The Diamondbacks are most likely going to finish the season with a losing record, but they are the first of the nine eliminated teams about which it could be said that more went right than wrong in 2015. The Diamondbacks are on pace for a 13-win improvement over their last-place finish in 2014 and, entering Friday’s action, they lead the National League in runs scored. Coming off injury-shortened seasons, 27-year-olds Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock have turned in MVP-quality performances, ranking second and fourth, respectively, in Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement among NL hitters. The teams has also received strong sophomore seasons from the men flanking Pollock in the outfield, fellow 27-year-old David Peralta and defensive whiz Ender Inciarte.
The Diamondbacks' offense has been a success almost despite the off-season efforts of new general manager Dave Stewart. Stewart failed to acquire a viable replacement after trading catcher Miguel Montero to the Cubs and insisted that defensively challenged out-machine Mark Trumbo would be one of his starting outfielders, forcing Peralta and Inciarte into part-time roles to start the season. To his credit, Stewart quickly wised up and solved both problems in early June by trading Trumbo and Vidal Nuño to the Mariners for a four-player package that included catcher Welington Castillo. Castillo, who, ironically, had been displaced in Chicago by the arrival of Montero, has out-hit the latter since making his Arizona debut on June 5, hitting .265/.329/.526 with 17 home runs in 277 plate appearances to Montero’s .245/.333/.418 with 10 home runs in 237 PA over the same span.
A week before trading for Castillo, Stewart added Jarrod Saltalamacchia to Arizona’s active roster. Saltalamacchia had been released by the Marlins just a month into the second season of his three-year, $21 million contract, but he has since rediscovered his 2013 form, posting a 113 OPS+ and combining with Castillo to make the Diamondbacks’ catching corps a strength rather than the anticipated weakness, at least at the plate. Both are poor pitch framers, and Saltalamacchia is bad against the running game as well. Still, what was expected to be an offensive sinkhole has turned out to be the fifth-most productive position on the team (after first base and the three outfield spots) with an adjusted OPS 16% above that of the average major league catcher, even with the weak early-season work of Tuffy Gosewisch and company.
Perhaps most importantly, 25-year-old ace Patrick Corbin made a successful return from his March 2014 Tommy John surgery. Given extra time for his rehabilitation thanks in part to the team’s lack of serious contention hopes, Corbin returned in early July, just over 15 months after his surgery, and has looked every bit like the pitcher he was before the injury, showing his typical velocity and control and posting a 3.28 ERA through his first 15 starts. The D-Backs also enjoyed strong rookie campaigns from lefties Robbie Ray, a 23-year-old starter acquired in the Didi Gregorius deal, and Andrew Chafin, a 25-year-old converted starter who excelled as a reliever who could alternate single-batter matchup appearances with multi-inning outings. Add in a significant improvement in team defense—from 28th in park-adjusted defensive efficiency in 2014 to 13th this year thanks in large part to the play of Pollock, Inciarte and rookie shortstop Nick Ahmed—and the Diamondbacks had more than their offense to be encouraged about in 2015.
What went wrong in 2015: As great as the 25-year-old Ahmed may be in the field and as solid as his double-play partner, 23-year-old sophomore Chris Owings, may have been beside him, both were disasters at the plate. Veteran backups Aaron Hill, still owed $12 million for 2016, and Cliff Pennington, since traded to the Blue Jays, were no better. As a group, Arizona’s middle infielders have hit .224/.272/.338 on the season, significantly undermining their strong play in the field and leaving the Diamondbacks with a lineup that, productive as it might be, is no more than six hitters deep.
Hyped Cuban rookie Yasmany Tomas failed to silence his doubters. Instead, he proved them right about his inability to play third base, his refusal to draw walks (just 17 in 414 PA thus far) and his inferiority to the young in-house options the organization already possessed, including fellow 24-year-olds Jake Lamb and Inciarte, at third base and in the outfield, respectively. To that, he added a surprising lack of power, hitting just nine home runs with an isolated power (slugging minus batting average) of just .132, both figures matched by the weak-hitting Ahmed. Just one season into his six-year, $68.5 million deal, he already seems like an albatross, especially with slugging prospect Peter O’Brien moving from catcher to the outfield.
The much-anticipated arrival of top prospect Archie Bradley was an even bigger bust. Bradley made the Opening Day rotation out of camp and started the year with three quality starts but was hit in the face by a comebacker in this fourth turn. Bradley avoided serious injury but still required a disabled list stay to allow the swelling in his face to subside. After returning in mid-May, he posted a 10.91 ERA over four starts, then landed back on the DL with shoulder tendinitis, which, save for an isolated rehab start, kept him out of action until late August. Bradley pitched well in four rehab starts at the end of the minor-league season but never did return to the major league roster.
The rotation as a whole was the team’s biggest weakness this season. Beyond Ray and Corbin, there was simply no good news to be had there. Default Opening Day starter Josh Collmenter pitched his way back to the bullpen by mid-June. Off-season addition Jeremy Hellickson (4.73 ERA) was just as bad in Arizona as he had been in Tampa Bay over the previous two seasons. Rubby De La Rosa (26) and Allen Webster (25), the fading prospects acquired in the deal for rotation stalwart Wade Miley, continued to disappoint, and 27-year-old sophomore Chase Anderson failed to improve on his solid rookie showing, instead shedding nearly two strikeouts per nine innings. To this point in the season, only the Rockies’ rotation has absorbed fewer of its team's innings than the 61% (5.51 per game) consumed by Arizona’s starters.
Overall Outlook: The Diamondbacks are a talented young team. Castillo, who is under team control for two more years, is the oldest of the nine regulars, and he won’t turn 29 until late April. Goldschmidt is one of the best players in the game, and Pollock, who was just as productive in his injury-shortened 2014 as he has been this year, may be the game’s most underrated player. Arizona’s lineup is already one of the best in the NL, even with poor showings in the middle infield, and top prospects O’Brien and Brandon Drury, both September callups, are going to force Stewart to make some tough decisions in the next six months.
The 23-year-old Drury, who hit .331/.384/.458 after a second-half promotion to Triple A and has hit well in his first 15 major league games, will challenge Lamb for the third base job in the spring. Meanwhile, the 25-year-old O’Brien, who moved out from behind the plate and hit .284/.332/.551 with 26 home runs in 131 Triple A games, will once again make the outfield overcrowded. Those two make the Tomas signing all the more confounding (though Stewart seemed convinced that O’Brien would stick at catcher, an idea that lasted all of 11 regular-season games this year), but they also give Stewart a surplus that he could use to upgrade the rotation.
As for the rotation, full seasons of Corbin, Ray and Bradley seem like a good place to start. Twenty-three-year-old righty Aaron Blair, rated a top-50 prospect by Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus prior to the season, should compete for a spot in camp after a successful Triple A debut, and the team has depth with Anderson, Hellickson, 25-year-old rookie Zack Godley and swing-man Collmenter. The Diamondbacks may wind up being a losing team in 2015, but they could be a front-end starter away from a return to contention in '16. Even if that doesn’t happen, the future seems bright in Arizona.