Arizona Spring Training Preview
As you are stirring from your long winter’s nap, there is a lot to catch up on from the baseball desert.
With veterans CF Mark Baker, 3B Lonnie Chisenhall, LF Chris Heisey, RF Moises Sierra, SP Casey Crosby, SP Kyle Drabek, C Kurt Suzuki, 1B Jose Lopez, and MR Rafael Dolis departing since the end of last season (in addition to last summer’s trade deadline deal moving CL Joel Zumaya and SP Trevor Cahill), an official tear-down/rebuild is well under way for the Arizona Diamondbacks. While many fans hope that the Diamondbacks have already bottomed out and can look forward to turning the corner in 2017, most team-watchers aren’t quite so optimistic. While the tear-down is mostly complete, the rebuild most definitely is not.
“The moves were necessary, not only to free up budget-space, but also to free up roster-space to allow some untested players to finally get some major league experience. These players have paid their dues; it’s time to find out what they can do. Additionally, the trades brought several highly-touted minor league prospects into the system. That said, 60-wins might be a bit too optimistic for 2017, and possibly even for 2018, since so many of the key acquisitions are still a couple years away from The Show,” said one un-named team source. Spring Training will finally see some open competition for several positions for the first time under GM Schlegel, who is now entering a fourth season with the team. “Players and fans still had dreams of wildcard glory a year ago at this time. Not so this year. Last year we were rearranging the deck chairs, while this year we’re already in the life-rafts.”
The future is now for the pitching staff (well, almost), as three current starters and various relievers all project as being significant contributors well into the future. “They may not all be ready for prime-time just yet, but there is a lot of upside among the pitching staff.” The same cannot be said of the current position players, with many projected as future role players and/or being a long shot to still be with the team when the phrase “clinch a playoff berth” becomes relevant once again in the desert. Only four players remain on the roster from the 2014 playoff team that pushed the Giants to game-5 of the NLDS, and none of the four have an established role now. “Fans will need a scorecard to figure out who-is-who this season, though that anonymity might help protect some of the more hapless players from ridicule.”
RHP Scott Clark anchors the rotation and will be entering his third major league season at the ripe old age of 25. Speaking of old, “Mr. September” LHP Koryusai Jouda (33 years old) and RHP Josh Beckett (36 years old) are still around to lend some veteran leadership (and to spend approximately 60% of the team’s player payroll), though it is hoped that both will spend plenty of their time in the bullpen. Promising youngsters RHP Michael Wacha (25) and RHP David Perez (24) each enter their second major league seasons with a lock on a rotation spot. LHP Robert Carson nominally holds a rotation slot for now, pending a hoped-for competition with would-be rookies LHP Alex Carreras (who helped lead AAA-Reno to the playoffs last season) and LHP William Maddox (one of several hoping to make the jump from AA-Mobile with a strong showing in spring training). Other spare-parts at Reno or Mobile could play a role before the end of the season, such as RHP Jesse Darrah, but don’t look for anyone from the D-backs’ top prospects list to even get a cup of coffee this season. League experts look for Clark, Wacha and Perez to form the backbone of the Arizona rotation for years to come. The next wave of pitching prospects, led by RHP Bill Hauck and RHP Andrew Morales, might be competing for spots as early as a year from now.
There are several new faces in the bullpen, including new closer RHP Tyler Green (2016 PCL Pitcher of the Year) who impressed at the major league level in 2015 but was odd-man-out roster-wise last season. Two Rule 5 prospects will be given every shot at making the team in the spring: LHP Andrew Cave is all but assured of a spot, while RHP Jordan Pries is more of a long-shot (he attempts to make the jump from single-A). Newcomer LHP Evan Rutckyj will also be given a long look. RHPs Erik Cordier, Jose Lima, Mark Montgomery, and David Phelps all look to reprise their roles from last year, though little is assured now that the D-backs finally have some players with options remaining. Look for lefties Michael Blake, Alan Caldwell, Amir Garrett, and/or Jose Jose to possibly get a call-up before the end of the season if they continue to develop — although none of these four are considered top prospects at this point, Arizona now has the roster flexibility (as well as the time) to experiment. Key setup-arm Cordier could be trade-bait before the July trade deadline.
With 3B Lonnie Chisenhall finally moving on, a full-time opportunity now exists for Drew Maggi at the hot corner. First base has also opened up, with long-time minor leaguers Kyle Greene, Bobby Stone, and Alfredo Zavala likely to battle it out with veteran Bradley Suttle during spring camp. Stone, a 27-year-old who has shown power in the minors, will possibly be given an opportunity to play everyday between 1B and RF. The middle of the Arizona infield on opening day will probably be the the same trio which finished last season — Levi Michael, Chris Owings, and Andrelton Simmons are expected to split most of the at-bats. Of the infield crowd, only Maggi is given decent odds of still being a key piece by the time the Diamondbacks hope to contend again. Stone is a wildcard and is under team control, so he too could be a key piece if the power is there. Both Owings and Michael will likely be given another season or two to show whether they belong. Simmons could become trade bait before the July trading deadline as contenders look for late-inning defense. There isn’t much hope for substantial help for the infield from the minors for a season or two at least (barring a trade/draft/FA acquisition). Juan Morin is hailed as the future cornerstone of the infield, but he turns 17 this month and has yet to play his first minor league game.
None of last year’s opening day outfielders return. Rich Dixon (24-years-old) inherits the LF job, with defensive-wizard Che-Hsuan Lin getting first shot at CF. RF will likely be handed to Bobby Stone for now. The D-backs might carry only four outfielders whenever they need to maintain bullpen flexibility. Look for CF/2B/SS Danny Santana and RF/LF Brent Bowman to both get a shot at making the leap from double-A during spring training, with utility man Kyle Greene also having a shot as a backup at the outfield corners as well as the infield; versatile minor league outfielders Jared Mitchell and Matt Szczur might also get an invite. Only Dixon projects as a possible keeper five years into the future, but the D-backs now have the luxury of allowing lengthy auditions while waiting for the kids down on the farm to develop. Arizona has high hopes for several outfield prospects, with Daz Cameron and Arturo Velazquez at the top of that list, but they are likely 1-2 years away from getting an opportunity.
Another career minor leaguer gets his chance at The Show: 28-year-old C Dwight Childs has power similar to Bobby Stone’s, but is not highly regarded defensively at a position which all but requires it. Kellin Deglan is the defensive sub and the team hopes to not lean on him as much as they did last season, but there aren’t really any other viable options. There is no obvious help waiting in the minors; reports on Matt Hanson are encouraging but he is still a few years away.
The coaching staff is unchanged from last year at the major league level. That is good news at lead scout and lead trainer, but not necessarily good news anywhere else. At least the D-backs have cut their overall payroll for personnel slightly since last year.
Rather, “Look out beloooooooow!” Arizona could set a new MLB-Pro record for futility this season. Almost all of the big bats are gone from an offense that was somehow near the bottom of the league already, and their replacements are anything but a sure-thing. The pitching revamp is much further along but will likely be hampered by its inexperience as well as the presence of Beckett and Jouda for another season. Team defense could be improved from last year (which, given how surprisingly poor it was, would certainly help), but is not anywhere near a level to steal any games in the standings. There may be glimpses of a possibly-positive future this year, particularly on the pitching staff, but that is not likely to be enough to dig the D-backs out of the N.L. West cellar. The smart money is on back-to-back 100-loss seasons. The league record of 113-losses is very much in jeopardy.
Projected Season Highlights:
“With the first pick in the 2017 amateur draft, the Arizona Diamondbacks select …” Given the wealth of pitching prospects added in the past year, both in the 2016 draft and via trades, the D-Backs are quietly hoping for a five-tool hitter to emerge at the top of the draft projections. “A six- or seven-tool hitter is what Arizona really needs,” remarked one analyst.
Promotional dates have been arranged to give out custom-made paper bags with eye-slits already cut in them and tears drawn on the front, in a variety of designer colors: “Collect ’em all … if you dare!” is the tag-line. Ticket prices have also been lowered: “Triple-A Players, Triple-A Prices” is the new marketing slogan.
There is no truth to the rumor that there will be a “Burn The GM In Effigy Night” each Friday and Saturday evening, in place of the traditional post-game fireworks. Sources would neither confirm nor deny whether GM Schlegel now has a gold-plated broom mounted on the wall in the team offices.