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What would it take for the Diamondbacks to contend in 2020?

The vaunted farm system isn’t quite ready, but this team still has a chance for contention.

Colorado Rockies v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

The Diamondbacks are in the unfortunate position of playing in the NL West. Their 80-win* projection might qualify them for the free-for-alls in the Central and East, but with the Dodgers stepping on their throats, Arizona will instead have to aim for a Wild Card spot.

Even with a pandemic-shortened season appearing likely, and all the variance that comes with that, there probably isn’t enough room for the Dbacks to chase down the Dodgers.

*Per FanGraphs. Assuming a 162-game season.

Despite trading away Zack Greinke, the Diamondback rotation appears to be in good shape. Recently poached from their division rivals, Madison Bumgarner headlines a group of high-floor veterans, high-ceiling youths, and Mike Leake.

Bumgarner might be an ace in name only, but he’s still a solidly above-average pitcher. The strikeouts came back after two injury-shortened seasons, and the curveball can take some credit for that. Over the last two seasons, Bumgarner has relied more heavily on his curve, but in 2019, he racked up more whiffs with it. Bumgarner was both wiser with its usage—he used it whenever he was ahead in the count as opposed to waiting to two strikes—and he added more spin and thus more break. Bumgarner has been somewhat homer prone, so there’s reason to be wary of him moving away from Oracle Park. Even with those concerns, Arizona could have done worse with their one major free agent signing this winter.

As good as Bumgarner is, Robbie Ray has a chance to be better. Ray ranked sixth among qualified starters in strikeout percentage last season at 31.5 percent, but his inability to limit walks hurt him. Ray has never been a control maven, and at 28 years old, it’s tough to expect his walks per nine to drop to league average levels. As a fly ball pitcher, Ray might miss Jarrod Dyson in center field, but the rest of Diamondbacks defense ranges from great to elite.

Oft the target of trade rumors, this may be the year Ray finally gets dealt. Ray will certainly be on the move if the Diamondbacks aren’t doing well at the trade deadline (whenever that may be in an uncertain season.) He’s in his final year of arbitration and plenty of contenders could use his services.

Even if the Dbacks have a playoff spot lined up, Arizona might decide that they have enough rotation depth among Zac Gallen, Luke Weaver, Merrill Kelly, and Alex Young to make it through.

Gallen, acquired from the Marlins for Jazz Chisholm, impressed in his rookie debut. He struck out 96 batters in 80 innings, and like Ray, he struggled with walks. He’s had better command in his minor league career, so projections agree he’ll issue fewer free passes.

Luke Weaver was excellent in limited time last season. A forearm strain caused him to miss four months of the season, but when he was healthy, Weaver maintained a solid 21.2 strikeout-minus-walk percentage.

The results didn’t show it, but Kelly arguably got better as the season wore on. He added a bit of velocity on the fastball and with it came more swings and misses. Currently, Kelly is an overqualified swing man, but having him as a sixth starter gives some idea why Arizona would be comfortable dealing Ray if their season goes well.

Then there’s Alex Young who got his first taste of the majors last year. His fastball is lackluster, but his secondary pitches have plenty of movement. He’s an intriguing option to have as a seventh starter on the depth chart.

Of course, a good all-around rotation can only carry the team so far. The Diamondbacks will still need to score runs to win games. In 2019, they were in the bottom half of baseball, and they’ve only slightly gotten better.

Starling Marte is an obvious offensive upgrade over Jarrod Dyson, and that’s not just because anyone would be a bigger threat than Dyson. With a 119 wRC+ last season, Marte has now hit for at least a 112 mark in six of his eight years at the big-league level.

Other than Starling Marte, it’s difficult to find where they’ve unequivocally improved. Stephen Vogt is probably a little better than Alex Avila. Kole Calhoun is better than Adam Jones or Tim Locastro when he’s right, but he’s just a year removed from a full season of being a replacement-level hitter.

Whatever improvement they found might be cancelled out by regression from last season’s major contributors. Ketel Marte’s breakout was convincing, but a repeat performance is unlikely. He’s currently projected to be at an All-Star level rather than an MVP. Christian Walker might never hit as well as he did in the first few months of last season.

Though Arizona has the sixth-best farm system according to MLB Pipeline, they may not be getting much help from the minors this season. The closest players to the majors from their top-10 are Daulton Varsho and Corbin Martin. Martin started five games for the Astros last season and gave up eight home runs in 19 1/3 innings, a total which nearly matched how many he has allowed in his entire minor league career.

Varsho hasn’t appeared above Double-A, and with the season in a state of uncertainty, he probably won’t be a major factor in the bigs except in the case of injuries to the catchers ahead of him.

This season appears to be more of a gap year for Arizona, but it’s not impossible they’ll contend. Perhaps they would have been more aggressive if they were in another division, but they’ve done well to set themselves up for the future while giving themselves a chance in the present.


Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.