When it comes to projecting wins, I tend to go with a fairly subjective method, starting with how the team did last season. From there, it's a question of looking at the changes, good or bad, one can expect from that baseline. Was the team unlucky? What players have arrived? Which ones left? Will the ones remaining get better or worse? The conversion of all these factors into a numeric value of plus or minus is, I cheerfully admit, largely an arbitrary one. But I feel more comfortable with it, rather than trying to come up with a projected number of wins made out of whole cloth.
For the Diamondbacks, we therefore start with a base number of 82 wins, and unlike 2007's team, Pythagoras tells us the team was neither lucky nor unlucky. The offense is the area where I expect the majority of any improvement to take place: this is still a young starting line-up, with 'veterans' Chad Tracy and Felipe Lopez still only 28 on Opening Day. Only four NL sides in the past thirty years have had eight full-time position players in their twenties [the Marlins in 2001 and 2007, the 1996 Expos and the World Series-winning 1990 Reds]: health willing, Arizona could become number five. That suggests age alone should be on their side, with additional experience benefiting them at the plate. It's no guarantee, naturally, but the likes of Young, Drew, Montero and Upton did all have notably better second-halves. Sustaining those numbers for the whole year will go a long way to driving the team offensively
Off the bench, things should be better for Arizona too, if only because they can't get much worse. Not just as pinch-hitting, though an OPS there of .656 wasn't good [that's 31 points less than Craig Counsell's career average]. But outside our regular eight and short-time rental Adam Dunn, the only player with ten plate-appearances and an OPS+ better than 83 was Miguel Montero (94). You'd think one of the dozen would have been average, purely by chance. But instead it was over 1,450 at-bats off the bench, most of them not very good. Montero is back, Eric Byrnes should be an improvement over Salazar and Romero, even if both his hamstrings snap on April 6, and Tony Clark... Well, let's just give him the two hundred PA's flushed down the toilet by Chris Burke and see what happens.
The rotation should be a strength, much as it was last season. Brandon Webb and Dan Haren should be among the best 1-2 in the league; Doug Davis will be Doug Davis, in the way only Doug Davis can; while Jon Garland has the potential to be one of the off-season's real bargains [The loss of Randy Johnson was unfortunate, but Garland is likely the more reliable option]. Then there's Max Scherzer, a wild-card who could turn out to be our ace in the hole. We'll see how that goes, but it all seems like a rotation with few obvious weak-spots. It's one that will give the team a chance to win almost every day, and hopefully, a very good chance to win more often than not.
Finally, there's the bullpen, about whom much the same can be said as for the bench - they'd better be an improvement, or else I'm calling in an air-strike. I think if you did Pythagorean analysis on the relief corps [and I'm not sure how], you'd find their 17-28 record was unlucky. Bullpens with 4.09 ERAs simply don't lose 62% of their decisions - at least, I checked the last decade in the NL and couldn't find any that did. I'm not sure we'll quite be able to match that ERA [Tom Gordon < Juan Cruz, let's say], but even allowing for some slippage there, the Diamondbacks bullpen should be capable of a result much closer to .500, simply through regression to the mean.
Now, the tricky bit: assigning a number of wins attributable to each category, which mostly consists of me licking my finger and waving it in the air. I think the offense will shoulder the bulk of the improvement, so +3 there. A little more oomph coming off the bench too, but only about a win's worth. The same from the rotation, who were already about as good as can be expected - what Scherzer does is the key factor there. And give the bullpen an extra 1.5 wins, if they can avoid those pesky late meltdowns. That's a total of 6.5 wins on top of last season's 82, making a total of 88.5: having given the Dodgers 88 wins in my prediction, I'm going to invoke executive privilege and round our number up to 89, and declare us NL West champions.
Ok. Basically, it's just too close too call, with the margin for error in any of these way bigger than the expected gap. I doubt even the most hardened and optimistic of Arizona fans [Susan?] would be anticipating a cakewalk to the title. I do think it will come down to ourselves and the Dodgers, and if both teams remain healthy and play up to their potential, it could be a race not decided until the last couple of weeks of the season. I certainly hope that's the case - and something True Blue Eric mentioned at the park yesterday, that it's decided on the field. While it'd help our chances enormously if Mandy was to choke on his dreadlocks early in April - or, conversely, if Webb was mistaken for a deer in the Kentucky woods - it would be a great deal sweeter if we were able to overcome a full-strength LA team.
One week to go, folks. Time to put your money where your mouth is. How many wins for the 2009 Diamondbacks? Answers and explanations below.