Saturday, March 29, 2008

Know Thy Enemy: Arizona Diamondbacks

We conclude today's trip around the the NL West with a visit to Arizona. Jim McLennan of AZ Snakepit is kind enough to take the time to give us his thoughts on the 2008 Diamondbacks.

The Arizona Diamondbacks posted the best record in the National League last season, and swept the Cubs out in the Division Series, before falling victim to their own sweep, against the Rockies in the NLCS. This was despite an offense which finished dead-last in the league for batting average, even playing in a hitter-friendly park like Chase Field, and they defied convention by winning their division, even after conceding more runs than they scored.

Perhaps surprisingly, their main off-season acquisition was another top-line pitcher, trading a number of prospects to the A's for Dan Haren, who started the 2007 All-Star Game for the American League. However, the team is relying on improvement from within - three starters (CF Chris Young, RF Justin Upton and 3B Mark Reynolds) who had their first taste of the majors only last season, and the bulk of the regular offense will be 25 or younger on Opening Day. More experience should lead to better things at the plate. Keep a particular eye on Upton, who will be too young to drink until after the All-Star break, but follows the likes of Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, as a rare modern case of a 20-year old being handed a full-time job in the big leagues.

Elsewhere, the team doesn't have a prototypical "slugger"; Chris Young led the team with 32 homers, but also stole 27 bases, the first rookie to do both. However, he also struck out 141 times and needs to improve his plate discipline, with an on-base percentage below .300. The lineup should be well-balanced - nine different players reached double-figures in homers, and there could be even more this year, thanks to Upton and Chad Tracy. The latter is returning from injury, but had twenty HR in 2006; he'll split time at the corner infield positions with Reynolds and Conor Jackson. Even the pitcher's spot could prove productive: Micah Owings batted .333 with 15 RBI, including one game against Atlanta where he went 4-for-5 with two homers and six RBI.

He will, however, be #5 in the a rotation which, with the acquisition of Haren, shapes up to be one of the best in the league. It's headed by Brandon Webb, who won the 2006 Cy Young and improved his stats further last season, though finished second in balloting, behind Jake Peavy. His year included three consecutive complete-game shutouts and a 42-inning scoreless streak, thanks largely to his devastating sinker, dealing with which has been compared to trying to hit a bowling-ball. Haren did drop off somewhat in the second-half last year, but that's because of the incredible first-half. In his first 17 appearances, he was 10-2 with a 1.91 ERA - and in the two losses, he allowed zero and one earned run. Even after the break, he had 11 quality starts in 15 outings, so should keep Arizona in most games.

Behind them, of course, only sits five-time Cy Young winner Randy Johnson, though he is returning from his second bout of back surgery - a relapse of the herniated disk which led to the first operation, ended his 2007 season after only ten starts. When he pitched, he was generally very effective; he struck out more than a batter per inning, and had a K:BB ratio of 72:13, including one-hitting the Rockies for six frames at Coors. Expect Arizona to use him cautiously, but if they can get 25 starts or more from the Big Unit, they'll be happy. Doug Davis's ERA belied his outings, which seemed often to consist of a tidal wave of base-runners, stranded at third. He needs to walk less people to be truly effective, but he's been within one game of .500 every year for the last five, and that's all you need from your #4 starter. Owings, already discussed, will fill things out, and looks to improve on a disappointing spring.

The bullpen was one of the main reasons Arizona had such a good record in one-run games last year. They've lost closer Jose Valverde, who is now with the Astros, but the reliever they got back from Houston, Chad Qualls, is probably not far short of Valverde's level. Replacing him as the D-backs closer is Brandon Lyon, who is not your standard archetype for the position, possessing four decent pitches rather than an overpowering two, and with a far more phlegmatic attitude than his demonstrative predecessor. If he falters, Tony Peña will be there to take up a role he'll likely occupy full-time from 2009, as Lyon will be a free-agent. Behind those two are Qualls and Juan Cruz - the latter had a better K/9 rate than almost any pitcher in the majors last year.

The NL West is perhaps the most competitive division in baseball, with four teams who can genuinely say they have a chance of the title. The Dodgers have the resources, the Padres a 1-2 punch in Peavy and Young that's not far off Arizona's, and the Rockies will be flying the NL pennant above Denver. So it'd be a brave man who guarantees a title for the Diamondbacks. However, they are the reigning champions, and should be better this season than last, meaning it's up to the rest of the pack to overtake them. It's going to be a fun season.

Jim writes about the Diamondbacks at AZ Snakepit.

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