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2007 Team Preview: Arizona Diamondbacks

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2006 W-L: 76-86 (4th place)

2006 Pythag: 80-82

2007 Depth Chart

Coming:

Randy Johnson, Doug Davis, Dana Eveland

Going:

Johnny Estrada, Craig Counsell, Luis Gonzalez, Damion Easley, Miguel Batista, Claudio Vargas, Greg Aquino, Luis Vizcaino

The Diamondbacks In a Nutshell:

Finally, this team belongs to the long-awaited youngsters.  And, uh, Randy Johnson.  Luis Gonzalez and Shawn Green will give way to Chris Young and Carlos Quentin, Stephen Drew will start his first April game, and a couple of catchers nobody outside of Arizona has ever heard of will replace Johnny Estrada.  There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about this season; even more about the future of the franchise.  In the hyper-competitive NL West, however, the D-Backs may have to wait another year before all these 24-year-olds play in October.

Offense:

It would be sad if it weren't such a common story: the D-Backs were a decent team last year at getting on base, but their leadoff man was the weakest link.  Thanks to an uninspiring season from Chris Counsell and some shoddy replacements, the leadoff spot was good for only a .311 OBP.  (Every other spot was .330 or better.)

That'll change this year, if only because there will probably be no one in the lineup that Bob Melvin can so thoroughly misuse.  That said, Eric Byrnes could end up batting first (as he did several times in '06), and he may be the weakest on-base threat of the entire lineup.  All that doesn't matter too much, but it's never a good sign when your #1 guys are OBPing nearly 50 points lower than your #8s.  

The main issue, as I see it, isn't the couple of runs you lose from misusing your hitters, it's the managerial tendencies such lineups are symptomatic of.  Melvin will have a young group to work with, and he must figure out how to get the most of them without having extensive track records to go on.  If that means the top of the order is Eric Byrnes and Orlando Hudson (with Jeff DaVanon filling in sometimes), it doesn't bode well for Arizona.

Enough about that.  As I've already said, there's tons of promise on this team; we can expect a consolidation year in which some of the prospects establish themselves while others flounder.  PECOTA is very optimistic about the five youngsters projected to start this year:

  • Stephen Drew: 287/349/504
  • Conor Jackson: 294/380/486
  • Carlos Quentin: 285/377/486
  • Chris Snyder: 263/340/436
  • Chris Young: 283/363/541 (!)
Those are good numbers no matter how you slice them, but keep in mind that they benefit from context; out of Chase Field, you can knock about 10 points off the OBP and 20-25 points off the SLG.  Park adjustment or no, if Young and Quentin live up to those expectations, Phoenix will be a very unfriendly place for visiting hurlers.

Even if only three or four of those prospects turned in their PECOTA-projected performance, that'd be a big boost for the Arizona offense.  Only two starters last year (Jackson and Orlando Hudson) had an OPS+ of 100 or better last year, and they were at 100 and 101.  Their numbers looked okay thanks to Chase, but it was a pretty lame group.  Whether 2007 brings the D-Backs 78 wins or 88, more of those wins will come from the offense than have in recent memory.

Starting Rotation

For a young team, the Diamondbacks sure have an old starting rotation.  True, any starting five will skew that way with Randy Johnson in the fold, but the inclusion of Livan Hernandez doesn't help things, either.

In the short term, that's another way in which Josh Byrnes has built a high-variance team for 2007.  Johnson may return to dominance in the National League; on the other hand, he's 43 and coming off of back surgery.  The difference between 15 or 20 healthy Big Unit starts and the same number of additional outings from Juan Cruz or Dana Eveland could be what separates a wild card team from one that barely cracks .500.  

Livan Hernandez isn't much of a health risk (he's made at least 30 starts in each of the last nine seasons), but he doesn't exactly guarantee a set level of performance.  His ERA+ in the last four year has been 155, 115, 100, and 94.  94 isn't all that bad for a starter, and certainly not for a starter slotted in behind Johnson and Brandon Webb, but it's another way in which the range of possible outcomes is huge.

The theme continues: Doug Davis is, like Hernandez, an innings eater, and an inconsistent one.  Two years ago he looked like one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball.  Then, that underrated tag got popular while he kept walking guys, and now he's probably overrated.  If his promiscuous free passes last year were an aberration, the D-Backs will be thrilled to have him; otherwise, they'll probably replace him before long with Eveland.

Of course, I've gone all this time without talking about one of the best pitchers in the league, Brandon Webb.  I've ignored him this long because I don't have much to say: the guy's great, I'm sure he'll be great for at least the next couple of years.  There's not much a previewer can do except for that statement of the obvious.

Except for Webb, none of the front four is likely to be much of a factor for the D-Backs past 2008.  On the other hand, Byrnes has built a nice core of back-end guys who will serve him well while his division rivals spend big on the Matt Morrises of the future.  Between Gonzalezes Edgar and Enrique, Juan Cruz, Eveland, and Dustin Nippert, Arizona ought to be set on that front for the next several years.  It won't make a huge difference in the '07 standings, but it will keep enough cash free so that Byrnes can fill other needs.

The Bullpen

Arizona's relief corps is a lot like their offense, only not as good.  I wrote about this group at The Hardball Times last week, concluding that it's as high-variance a group as any bullpen in baseball.  That's thanks to the trio of Jose Valverde, Jorge Julio, and Tony Pena.

In a way, those three guys represent the three stereotypes of power bullpen arms: the on-again, off-again closer (Valverde--think Derrick Turnbow, Mike MacDougal), the volatile veteran (Julio--think Jose Mesa, Joe Borowski), and the unproven young stud (Pena--think Jose Capellan, Joel Zumaya).  In any given year, one of those guys could give you 40 saves and some Cy Young votes.  The next year, they belong in Triple-A.

In part, that's just how bullpens work; as I've found in profiling teams (especially in the lower half of previous-year results), you can pick out a trio in every pen that fits that description.  Some teams rely on it more than others, though.  Guys like Brandon Medders, Brandon Lyon, and Doug Slaten are great to have around, but are a better second three than first.

All Together Now

If the Diamondbacks reach the postseason this year, it will be due largely to fortune smiling on Randy Johnson's back, and a 2006-Tigers-like outcome for the bullpen.  In both cases, the talent is certainly there, but there's simply too much variance to count on enough things falling Arizona's way.

That said, this is certainly a better team than the 76-win bunch of '06, and if Bob Melvin lets his kids play (preferably, batting in front of Eric Byrnes), it'll easily crack .500.  Unfortunately, it'll take more than that in a division where only the Rockies are planning for the future and everyone else is actively spending with an eye on the '07 postseason.