Arizona on Verge of Taking Over NL West – Part One
The 2016 season was a rough one for the Arizona Diamondbacks, to be sure.
After a long stretch of inconsistent and, let’s be honest, sub-standard performances by the entire pitching rotation, manager Chip Hale found himself out of a job. This year brings us a new Arizona GM (Mike Hazen) and a new skipper (Torey Lovullo). So far, it also brings a 26-18 record to the NL West, as both pitching and offense have been meeting expectations.
True, it’s barely two months into the season. However, fans are seeing a young and promising D-Backs lineup is coming into its own, and is emerging as a legitimate contender for the #1 spot in the NL West. Let’s take a look at their starting lineup, and see what sort of production they bring to the table in the National League.
The loss of catcher Welington Castillo to Baltimore leaves backstop duties to be split between Jeff Mathis and Chris Iannetta, primarily. Both are long-time ML vets, and handle the defensive side of the game as well as one would expect from a pair of catchers who have over 1600 games behind the dish between them. Both Mathis and Iannetta will turn on a fastball, from time to time, and could combine for 20 HR and perhaps 80 RBI between them. They are both 34 years old, however, and while Chris Herrmann and fan favorite Tuffy Gosewisch have filled in, neither is a long-term answer.
Herrmann is an interesting utility player; while he has made 11 appearances at catcher so far this season, he’s also played seven games in left field, 1 in right, and 2 at first base. He performed admirably as a part-timer in 2016 (.845 OPS on 5 2B, 4 3B and 6 HR in 166 PA), and while he does have 4 homers and 10 RBI in only 66 PA this season, it may be tough for him to find a rhythm if his AB are limited. It may behoove the D-Backs to get Herrmann more innings behind the plate; he was voted Best Defensive Catcher in the Minnesota Twins organization at the end of the 2012 season, and could be especially valuable if Mathis or Iannetta (or both) go down with injuries.
First base needs no introduction. Paul Goldschmidt has gone about his business since 2012 in relative peace and quiet, swatting his 25-30 homers, driving in runs in bunches and maintaining an OPS of .900+ while stealing 20-30 bags. How many first basemen steal even ten bases a year? Goldy eschews the stereotypical “slow of foot” first baseman model, and thus is a fantasy baseball darling for all that he gives his team. Oh, and he’s been an All-Star since 2013, has picked up three Gold Gloves and three Silver Sluggers, and finished second two years in a row in NL MVP voting. I feel like it’s necessary to mention all of this because Goldschmidt seems to get lost in the shuffle, what with all the talk of Trout, Harper, Bryant, etc. He literally does it all, and he does it well.
Second baseman Brandon Drury was a 13th round selection out of high school by the Atlanta Braves in 2010, then was traded to Arizona in the deal that brought SS Nick Ahmed and RHP Randall Delgado out west. We’ll get to Ahmed, shortly. Drury had little difficulty adjusting to minor-league ball, especially for a 17 year-old kid drafted in the middle rounds. The 2016 season was his first full year in the majors, and he did not disappoint (.282 BA, 16 HR, 53 RBI, 31 doubles in 134 games). Granted, he didn’t set the league on fire, but those totals were just an early taste of what may be to come.
Consider that before this season, Drury had only 22 appearances at second base, and played 29 games at third after being converted from corner outfield duty. A full season from Drury has 20+ HR, 85+ RBI potential, especially if he can convert some of that doubles power to long flies.
The aforementioned and long-awaited Nick Ahmed has left no doubt that he can handle shortstop at the ML level. He certainly left the impression that he was made for the position while earning notice as a top-twenty prospect in three different minor leagues based in large part on his defensive skills. At this point, he profiles as a gap hitter who could put up a few dozen doubles, but he’s got just enough speed to augment his advanced base-running instincts. He has worked at second as well, so that just adds to his value. I can foresee him getting some occasional work in center, if Arizona wants to expand his repertoire; he’s got the speed and athleticism to hold his own, if that happens.
Third baseman Jake Lamb strikes out a ton, but he also draws a fair share of walks, and he had 69 extra-base hits in 2016. He did strike out an obscene 154 times, which almost ruined his slash (.249/.332/.509), but even so his OPS+ was 115, and it’s 138 so far this season. If he can cut his strikeouts by even 10%, he could be one of the best third basemen in the league, overall (with apologies to Arenado and Bryant). He’s certainly a top-ten guy, but he could be even better.
In the outfield, Yasmany Tomas, A.J. Pollock, and David Peralta are an outstanding run-producing trio. Well, when they’re all healthy, that is. Tomas put up an .820 OPS in his second ML season on the strength of 30 doubles and 31 homers, driving in 83 in the process. Problem here is, he’s listed at 250 pounds; he’s a large individual, is what I’m saying here. I see a guy that size in the outfield, I think “back/knee/groin/hamstring injury waiting to happen.” With Goldy at first, a move is out of the question. He’ll produce as long as he’s in the lineup, certainly.
Pollock is on the DL with a groin strain, a bit of a red flag for a base-stealer. He had 39 steals in 2015, but missed all but 12 games last year, and there’s always the chance that this groin injury could be a recurring thing. Still, Pollock also had 39 doubles, six triples and 20 homers in 2015 (he was an All-Star, in that season), and his BB/K ratios are typically very good. Keep an eye on how he performs for that first week or two when he gets back on the field.
Peralta is a gap hitter with extra-base speed and enough pop to send 20 over the fence, in a full season. We have yet to see his best numbers, but a guy who can put up double digits in all extra-base categories, plus swipe 10+ bags, is valuable in any lineup. He was 10th in Offensive WAR in that outstanding 2015 season, and has shown well-above-average range in both left and right field, so keep that in mind when considering what a healthy Peralta can do.
In Part Two, we’ll take a look at the pitching staff, and why a healthy ‘Zona staff could tip the balance of power in the division.
Featured Photo by: Barton Silverman/The New York Times