The Diamondbacks opening series with the Dodgers in Australia to open the season is the kind of endeavor that will help baseball's global appeal, and it's always fun to see new ground being broken by the sport I love. It was a packed and raucous crowd, unlike anything either team has seen domestically, and certainly got 2014 off to a memorable start. I just hope it's not the highlight of the year, with everything going downhill from there for the D-backs.
I'm trying to be optimistic, but I think my realistic hopes for the season are the lowest they've been for a while. The team seems to have been heading south for the past couple years, with the D-backs' run differential sliding from +69 in 2011, to -10 in 2013, and the team didn't do much over the winter to help reverse the trend.
The front office went into the winter with two goals: add power and a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. Mission half-accomplished, with the big trade for Mark Trumbo in exchange for outfield prospect Adam Eaton and young starting pitcher Tyler Skaggs.. Trumbo will certainly give the team more home runs than it had last season, when the 11th in the NL with 130. However, any positive impact is likely to be severely diluted by Trumbo's low on-base numbers and his transition from first base to the outfield. Having just escaped from one slugging outfielder with poor defense in Jason Kubel, it's a serious gamble for the team to try going down that road again.
The Diamondbacks cashed in the bulk of their best trade chips for this dubious gain, sent money along to Tampa with Heath Bell, and they also looked to the free-agent market for that top-flight pitcher. However, the thin crop this winter, Towers' understandable aversion to long contracts for hurlers, and the draft pick-penalties for some potential arms limited the choices. The team made a run at Masahiro Tanaka, but to no great surprise were outspent by the Yankees. Thus, the team go into the season with their platonic-ideal starter having turned somehow into Bronson Arroyo. While he certainly adds depth -- no harm in that -- he won't be a major upgrade on what they already had..
If the team is to compete in 2014, it will be be through better performance from players also present in 2013. There is some precedent for that. The 2011 division title was driven by Ian Kennedy, Miguel Montero and Justin Upton, who were worth about 10 wins more than they were the year before. Certainly there is room for improvement here, with the disappointing season for Montero and health issues significantly reducing the output from both Aaron Hill and Cody Ross. On the pitching side, Trevor Cahill also underperformed, while the bullpen blew more saves than any in baseball. The arrival of Addison Reed from the White Sox -- and the absence of Bell -- should help the latter issue.
They'll also need Paul Goldschmidt to prove 2013 wasn't a fluke, which shouldn't be a problem. Goldzilla has outperformed expectations at all levels since being drafted, but now appears fully formed, capable of impressing with just about every aspect of his game. (How many first basemen lead their team in stolen bases?) The team MVP runner-up was Gerardo Parra, whose defense will continue to be a joy to watch -- and with Trumbo in left, it will probably need to be. Indeed, last season, the Diamondbacks' outfield defense was arguably the best in the league; given a capacious home park like Chase Field, that's almost essential.
It's still not clear who will be the everyday shortstop. The two candidates are both young, Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings: Going into the hot-stove season, many were expecting a trade of one or the other that never materialized. Both have strengths; both have flaws. Gregorius is likely the better defender, but he can't hit left-handed pitching. Owings has the higher offensive upside, but his minor-league walk rates are awful. As we enter the last few games, Owings seems to have the edge.
There is no obvious ace among the starting pitchers, but they're a generally solid bunch; on any given day, just about any of them should be able to keep the Diamondbacks in the game. The bullpen was a trouble spot, particularly early on last season, bleeding late leads at a terrible rate and it's definitely an area that will need to improve. The closer on Opening Day last year was J.J. Putz, but he has now been replaced by the young newcomer, Reed.. Putz will still see his share of high-leverage work, and I don't expect Gibson to have much tolerance for failure, since the team even has other options, such as Brad Ziegler, who ended the year as closer.
The D-backs are still a fairly young team, so there remains the possibility of growth from the likes of Wade Miley, A.J. Pollock, etc. That, and good health, will go some way toward closing the gap on the Dodgers, though the injury to Patrick Corbin was an ominous start to the season. The Dodgers finished a comfortable 11 games ahead of the D-backs and were the only team in the West to score more runs than they conceded.
So will the additions, improvements from young players, and improved health be enough? I think it'll take something unexpected, the same way Kennedy went from a losing record in 2010, to 21-4 the next year. Such things happen every season in baseball, and if the Diamondbacks are the lucky recipients of some benevolence from the baseball gods, who knows what might happen?