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Diamondbacks are looking for a rebound

2020 was a miserable year on the diamond, too. Here’s hoping 2021 can be better.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a tough time to be a member of the National League West. In the last two years, the Dodgers and Padres have each locked up generational superstars for the next decade. LA and San Diego will be fielding Mookie Betts and Fernando Tatís Jr. until the ‘30’s which is cause for great depression considering the talent stacked around them. Teams in the AL West might have to contend with Mike Trout for just as long, but at least they get to hit against José Quintana instead of Walker Buehler or Yu Darvish.

The immediate prognostications for the Diamondbacks, then, look rather bleak. FanGraphs projects the team to finish fourth in the division with 74 wins, and if they want to make the postseason, it’s Wild Card or bust. With one spot going to the runner-up of the arms race between the Padres and Dodgers, that means the final spot will go to the victor of a Battle Royale between the mediocre teams of the National League of which there are several.

It’s an unforgiving system this year, but even in last year’s “everyone gets a gold star” format, the Diamondbacks came up well short. The Diamondbacks finished last in the NL West and the only team in the NL that fared worse in the wins column was the Pittsburgh Pirates. Being better than Pittsburgh isn’t anything to be proud of. It’s like crossing off the free space, but never getting another number called.

There was some nervousness about how Madison Bumgarner would fare moving from the cavernous expanse of Oracle Park to the lively Chase Field, but I don’t think anyone though Bum’s first year in the desert would be that bad. In what was easily the worst year of his career, Bumgarner pitched to a 7.18 FIP in nine starts. Every pitcher goes through rough stretches, but Bumgarner had never seen his rolling FIP (snot)rocket up like this.

FanGraphs

Poor results are one thing, but Bumgarner also posted the lowest average fastball velocity of his career by a wide margin. The lefty has never been a fireballer (Giants fans were freaking out about his velocity when he couldn’t legally drink), but this was uncharted territory. Per Pitch Info, his previous low was 91.3 which he put up in 2017, the Year of the Dirt Bike. In 2020, Bumgarner averaged just 88.6 mph on the heater and topped out at just 90.5.

The good news is that Bumgarner looked more like his old self in the first outing of spring training. The fastball was back up to 91, and he racked up six strikeouts in two innings.

The better news is that Zac Gallen has looked incredible. Before the 2020 season, if one were told that a righty the Diamondbacks acquired in a trade would become the clear ace of the staff, thoughts would immediately go to Luke Weaver who came back in exchange for Paul Goldschmidt. Weaver made a great first impression with Arizona in 2019, striking out nearly five batters for every one he walked. A forearm strain cut his season short, and his return in 2020 was a bit rocky. Instead, it’s Gallen who is most likely to take the bump on Opening Day, and after watching him pitch, it’s easy to see why.

Acquired in exchange for Jazz Chisholm, Gallen has thrown 115 23 innings in his Diamondbacks career. All he’s done in that time is strikeout 135 batters and maintain a 3.66 FIP. Gallen doesn’t light up the radar gun at least not in this era of extreme velocity. His fastball ranks in the 21st percentile in terms of heat, but Gallen’s command has earned him comparisons to Greg Maddux.

Assuming Bumgarner and Weaver both bounce back, starting pitching should be a strength for Arizona. At the back of the rotation are Caleb Smith and Merrill Kelly. Smith got off to a strong start in 2019, but things have downhill from there. Kelly has been generally solid since coming over from the KBO.

On the other side of the ball, Diamondbacks hitters as a whole are looking to put 2020 behind them as well. Arizona ranked 25th in wOBA and 23rd in position player fWAR. The hitters who did most of the heavy lifting in 2020 aren’t likely to repeat or they aren’t with the organization anymore. Starling Marte is a Marlin now. Kole Calhoun likely won’t have 28.6 percent of his fly balls leave the yard even without changes to the ball. ZiPS and PECOTA both have Tim Locastro being closer to league average though PECOTA is a little more optimistic.

The names one would expect to hit mostly struggled last year. Ketel Marte followed his breakout 2019 with a sequel as lackluster as Age of Ultron. Eduardo Escobar fell into an infinite void and was never heard from again. Carson Kelly decided that drawing walks wasn’t actually his thing.

Mostly, the poor performances in 2020 were fluky, and the Diamondbacks should be better just by virtue of playing a normal season. The front office didn’t do much to help in that department, however. Asdrúbal Cabrera was the lone hitter signed to a major league contract over the offseason. The 35-year-old has been a tick below league average the last two seasons. His glove has never been great and it has aged about as well as one would expect a mid-30’s, middle infielder’s to age. Washington actually kept Cabrera at third last year where he was serviceable, and it looks like Arizona will try the same thing.

If recent patterns continue, the Diamondbacks will again be sellers at the trade deadline. Escobar is a free agent at the end of the year, and if he returns to form, it’s tough to imagine him ending the season in Arizona. Even if it occasionally stings, the Diamondbacks have mostly done well in trades since Mike Hazen took over, but a path to contention remains unclear. That’s mostly the fault of the Padres and Dodgers who have put the Diamondbacks into a difficult position, but after this offseason, we’re still waiting to see how Arizona is going to respond.


Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.