Snakes Alive!

As we were driving back from Phoenix this March, Will and I spent a lot of time talking about what we thought of the various teams we were able to see in action during the early weeks of Spring Training. One of the few points we were in emphatic agreement on: the Diamondbacks were the bottom of the barrel. They were terrible, an embarrassment, a travesty. A lot of this had to do with Yasmany Tomas, the big offseason Cuban signing in whom they’d invested over $60 million. At this point, they were still trying to make a third-baseman out of him and it was painfully obvious that he had neither the body nor the athleticism to make it work. He was Pablo Sandoval without the Panda’s miraculous dexterity. At the plate, he showed off some of his vaunted power, but also a long, loopy, swing-and-miss approach. We were pretty convinced that we’d just seen the next Dayan Viciedo, and that the first major move by Arizona’s new regime was a disaster.

That new regime inherited an organization that, while led by Kevin Towers, probably traded away half of the worthwhile young talent it managed to produce – Max Scherzer, Justin Upton, Trevor Bauer, and Adam Eaton to name a few – and openly fetishized ‘old-school’ skills like ‘hustle’ and ‘grittiness’. Under tough-guy manager Kirk Gibson, the team always seemed to find itself in the middle of a brawl, a pool-related meltdown, or a hit-batsmen battle. By the end of 2014, arguably only the Phillies were in more dire need of a leadership change. Yet the hires the D-Backs made hardly inspired confidence. Dave Stewart, the former pitcher and player agent, came in as a rookie GM and immediately started spewing the same kind of hard-nosed, SABR-eschewing cliches fans had heard from the Towers’ front office. Meanwhile, Tony La Russa stayed on in the ambiguous role of ‘Chief Baseball Officer’; one of the game’s all-time great managers, it was a role in which he was thoroughly untested even as his responsibilities remained somewhat ambiguous.

There came a point in Spring Training where rookie manager Chip Hale all but admitted to the press that Tomas would never be a major league third baseman and he wasn’t ready anyways. It was about the same point that La Russa told an interviewer, “I’ll be brokenhearted if we don’t have a winning record this year”. He was, of course, roundly ridiculed. Was he bullshitting or was he delusional? This team lost 98 games in 2014 and this year’s team certainly didn’t seem much-improved, or at-all-improved, on paper. Their Plan A at catcher was Tuffy Gosewich. Josh Collmenter was the Opening Day starter.

La Russa got the chance to get flogged by the smart baseball folks again just a week and a half ago. The Diamondbacks essentially sold their 2014 first-round pick, Touki Toussaint, to the Braves for about $10 million (the cost of Bronson Arroyo’s contract, also going to Atlanta) and got nothing of value back. La Russa said that the move gave them payroll flexibility to add one or two pieces (add pieces? Is La Russa seriously positioning the Diamonbacks as trade deadline buyers?) “I just know we’re a lot closer than most people think,” he said. A playoff berth this year remains an extreme longshot, but on that count, he might not be wrong. The Diamondbacks, very quietly, have been not-that-bad even in a year where things haven’t gone totally according to plan. In the medium-term future, there’s hope for even better results than that, including cracking La Russa’s vaunted .500 record and climbing into contention. That’s not primarily owing to the unique genius of the new baseball operations guys, it’s because the Diamondbacks are laden with talent. They have been for quite awhile actually, but the on-field results haven’t reflected that because they’ve also jettisoned so much of it (and maybe that hasn’t changed, if the Toussaint trade is any indication).

For starters, it helps to have one of the five best players on the planet on your roster. That’s who Paul Goldschmidt is. He’s 27, and he’s in the middle of his third season as the National League’s best hitter, a duty that he’s fulfilled to little fanfare and acclaim. He grabbed the title from Joey Votto, who had inherited it from Albert Pujols, in 2013. Since the start of that season, Goldschmidt has hit .312/.414/.567, good for a 167 OPS+, and is right now in the middle of his best campaign yet. He’s improved across the board in walk rate, K-rate, isolated slugging, and now has a gorgeous .352/.467/.637 slash line. He’s also a very good first-baseman who runs the bases well, averaging 43 doubles and 18 steals per 162 games. The Diamondbacks have him under contract until 2019, a team option year. He’s the platonic ideal of a #3 hitter, the middle of their lineup is set.

Goldschmidt isn’t the only Diamondback hitter who’s propelled himself to new heights this year. There’s also A.J. Pollock, the 27 year-old former first-rounder who’s just now establishing himself as one of the NL’s top centerfielders. His defensive numbers have always been excellent, and in 2014, he hit very well in an injury-shortened season. His offensive numbers aren’t nearly as gaudy this year but are still solidly above-average. He’s hitting .297/.340/.455  with 9 homers and 16 steals to go with it. Combine that with his great defense in center and you have another All-Star caliber player who’s only accumulated two years of service time thus far.

The players who have flanked Pollock in the outfield may not be stars but each are interesting in their own right.  Ender Inciarte, currently on the DL, is a 24 year-old defense-and-wheels corner who is equally capable of handling center. He has an 87 OPS+ in 714 career big-league PAs; his young age says maybe there’s more there with the bat, his minor league numbers say maybe not a whole lot more. David Peralta, 27, also Venezuelan, is more of a corner guy who has a 111 OPS+ through his first 157 career games. Again, not stars, but useful pieces to have on any roster.

Which bring us back to where we began. Yasmany Tomas. After getting left off the 25-man roster to start the year, Tomas only played 5 games in AAA before being called up on April 15th. He played some horrific third-base for awhile until the Diamondback managed to trade Mark Trumbo to make room for him (and shrewdly plugged their catcher hole with the unwanted Wellington Castillo in the process). His defense is at least credible in right field. The results at the plate are mixed, but maybe trending slightly encouraging. He has a 116 OPS+, but also a .389 BABIP. He’s only walking 5.4% of the time, but his strikeout rate is under control. Though he’s currently hitting .314, the power hasn’t really shown up in-game; he only has 4 homeruns and 17 total extra-base hits in 58 games. We know he hits the ball hard, but that’s not what the stats are saying right now.  Yasmany Tomas is only 24, so this is probably a case of wait-and-see, he could still end up being a disappointing Viciedo-type, but an optimist could still hope there’s a Puig-like breakout as a hitter around the corner.

Chris Owings has fallen flat on his face after a promising rookie season last year. He’s moved to second and lost more than a 120 points of OPS; his OBP is an abysmal .253. He’s still only 23, but he doesn’t seem to have any of the skills necessary to succeed as a major league hitter, and he looks like little more than an average fielder. Nick Ahmed, 25, looks like a run-of-the-mill below-average major league shortstop and shouldn’t be long for the starting lineup. Jake Lamb, 24, is more interesting. He hit extremely well in the minors, with some power, and has been above-average since taking over at third. Down on the farm there’s Brandon Drury, a 3B/2B type who’s hit well in the past but got off to a slow start at AA before being recently promoted. Peter O’Brien couldn’t stick at catcher, he’s now an outfielder, but he might be the closest-to-ready bat in the minors. And any day now, Dansby Swanson should sign. Point is, the Diamondbacks aren’t very far away from having a truly deep and well-rounded lineup. In fact, they are 2nd in the NL in runs right now.  Though that is partially a park effects-and-sequencing mirage, it’s also partially due to their top hitters getting on a lot and flying when they do.  Catcher seems like the only position where they may need to eventually turn outside the organization for help.

Pitching is the much bigger problem for this team, though even here, they have some meaningful youth and depth. When Josh Collmenter is your #1 starter though, depth isn’t going to help a whole lot. Undoubtedly the biggest disappointment of the year is Archie Bradley’s ongoing shoulder issues. He’s only pitched 35.2 innings for the team, and he looked awful doing it. Word came last week that a visit to Dr. Andrews is in the offing. Just a year removed from being among the top pitching prospects in baseball, one can only hope now that his career isn’t in real jeopardy.  The good news for the D-Backs is that he’s not their only pitching prospect of note. Braden Shipley was ranked the #26 prospect by BA and, though his results at AA so far are underwhelming, at least he’s healthy.  Aaron Blair was ranked #40 in the preseason and has already jumped his teammate Shipley to AAA. There are also youngsters with room for growth at the major league level. Robbie Ray, in 6 starts, has looked a lot more like the guy the Tigers they thought they were getting when they traded Fister. Jeremy Hellickson will probably never return to his 2011-12 form (FIP didn’t like him even then), but Chase Anderson might be something.  A late bloomer, he debuted last year at age 26 and in 2015, has been the team’s best starter. He’s almost a made-to-order mid-rotation guy. Low-90’s heat from the right side, solid changeup, decent curveball. Good command too, won’t walk too many guys and he can rack up some K’s when he’s rolling, he averaged 9.0 per 9 in the minors. I think he’ll have a real career. Even better is that All-Star lefty Patrick Corbin looks like he’s only one week away from returning from Tommy John surgery. Then there’s Rubby de la Rosa, the flamethrower who might never be as good as his stuff, but who you hang onto anyways just in case he ever learns how to pitch.

Developing pitchers in particular has long seemed to be a pronounced organizational weakness in Arizona – pitchers go there and they founder, or fall apart, while others leave and they flourish. They have an opportunity to correct that impression now, there’s a wave of talent coming, though they still may need to look outside the organization for that #1 guy and, especially, for some bullpen help. But that’s for another day, right now the Diamondbacks are in third place, a couple games under .500, and that’s likely where they’ll stay. The Dodgers and the Giants, who this time refused to just roll over in an odd-numbered year, will duke it out for the division. The big waves San Diego made in the off-season look like they’ve come to nothing, and Colorado is perpetually struggling to get off the mat, now content to just play out the string during what would seem to be the last days of the overwhelmingly bleak Tulowitzki-era. But the Diamondbacks are gathering strength, should the Dodgers or Giants ever falter and give them a chance, they just might be ready to bite.

Featured Image: Via Associated Press

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