With one week to go until Opening Day, it's time to open the last box and come up with a number for Diamondback wins in 2008. To explain my general approach here, I start from a baseline of last year's victory total. Then, I take a modular approach, looking at each aspect of the game and seeing whether it can be expected to get better or worse. This is based on personnel that have come and gone, as well as prospected changes in their performance as a result of agine and other factors. I can't claim that this approach is particularly methodical or systematic, but as famed baseball analyst Bob Dylan once said, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. I am, however, still trying to work out what he meant by "Walk on your tip toes, Don't try "No Doz", Better stay away from those that carry around a fire hose."
Baseline: 90 wins The Diamondbacks had the best record in the National League, and were remarkable consistent throughout the year: they never lost more than 13 or less than 11 games in any month. They were particularly effective at home, going 50-31 while played just about .500 on the road (40-41). As had been documented to the point of tedium, their one-run record was good (32-20), but perhaps even more important was was their phenomenal 24-9 record against the NL East, the highest winning percentage of any team in the majors against another division.
The team were also particularly good against bad opponents, going 45-25, the best in the league. [The strength of the NL West, incidentally, is shown by the gap in the number of games played against weak teams. The poor Giants faced sub-.500 opponents only 44 times - the Brewers played them on 98 occasions] Perhaps of some concern, we only played .500 baseball against the rest of the division, with 8-10 records against the Dodgers or Rockies, and 10-8 facing the Padres or Giants. The team were also best in the league facing southpaws, with 28 wins and only 17 defeats.
Starting Pitching There's no doubt that replacing Livan Hernandez by Dan Haren is a significant upgrade here. Webb looks likely to be a Cy Young contender yet again and has improved his ERA three years in row. The big questionmark is what we get from Johnson; however, last year, he, the Petit Unit and EdGon combined for 32 starts and the same triple-headed monster will likely prove to be our #3 starter again, though the almost-equal division among them may change. In 2007, they delivered a 9-12 record, so I'm hoping for something slightly better.
I want to think that Doug Davis will be a solid presence in the #4 spot, giving us something around .500. However, his peripheral stats were so horrific in the previous campaign, that if he can't cut back on the walks, the losses will pile up quicker than the wins. Was initially feeling good about Micah Owings chances of improving on his 8-8 performance, but that optimism has been shaken by his somewhat unreliable appearances this spring [yes, I know it doesn't count, but when your ERA is in double-digits, that's enough of an aberration to raise warning flags]. Overall, though, I think the plusses outnumber the minuses, especially if we can keep Johnson healthy. Expected change: +3 wins
Bullpen It'd be nice to see the relief corps remaining as rock-solid as they were - the team was 65-8 when leading after six innings in 2007. However, all four Relievers of the Apocalypse basically performed at the highest level we could have hoped for; it seems unlikely they'll all be as good, though I don't know which one will take the biggest step backwards. The replacement of Valverde with Qualls looks like it will be pretty much a wash; Lyon should be okay as closer, and if he isn't, Peña is an adequate alternative. Cruz and Qualls slot in nicely behind those two, and whoever's left will basically be mopping up innings, so will have negigible impact on the win total.
The key question here is probably whether we can reproduce the same record in one-run games, due to good work by the bullpen and bench. The general consensus is that these are a product of "luck", but in three years under Bob Melvin, we have an 82-64 record in them. [He didn't have the same success in Seattle, but it may be a combination of managerial tactics and roster composition - the 2004 Mariners, 20-30 in one-run games, only had one reliever with an ERA below 3.50. Arizona had five] I think we'll do well in close games again this year, just not quite to the same height experienced last season. Expected change: -2 wins
Offense The question is not whether we'll get better here, but more how much we will get better. There were encouraging signs in 2007, where our OPS increased 38 points after we fired hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, and the last month of the season saw our highest figures for BA, OBP and SLG. In September, we had a .272/.354/.457 line, the .811 OPS good enough for fifth-best in the league. It'd be nice, if perhaps wishful thinking, to see us reproduce that all this year, and there are too many variables to be able to count on this. Three starters - Young, Reynolds and Upton - have a season or less of major-league experience, and while I expect all to do well, predicting how much they'll improve is almost impossible.
That side, we are a team mostly on the upside of the aging curve, and we should improve, simply as a result of experience. Jackson and Snyder, in particular, broke out in the second-half and if we can get Tracy healthy and productive again, that'll be a very useful boost. I am somewhat concerned about the bench. This was an area of strength last season and, while I have few qualms about Jackson as an everyday player, we will miss Clark - properly used (basically, at home against RHP), he was a ferocious weapon to have when you needed him. I'm as yet unconvinced Trot Nixon will prove a suitable replacement in any area, offensive or defensive. Expected change: +2 wins
Defense As for offense, much for defense; age and experience are on Arizona's side, almost all around the park. In Byrnes, Upton and Young, we may have the fastest outfield in baseball [something that may also help the offense on the basepaths], and I want to point out that Jackson has been playing first for barely two full seasons' worth of games [257 in the majors, 73 in the minors] so is still "learning" the position to some extent. Hudson seemed to take a step back last year, despite another Gold Glove; he'll likely be reliable, and I don't have major problems at any position. Expected change: +1 win
Intangibles Okay, basically, this is where I take into account the whole Pythagorean thing where Baseball-Reference.com tells me - with a sneer, it seems - that Arizona were +11 due to "luck" in 2007. Some of that has already been addressed under the bullpen section. But I am prepared to concede that it would be unwise, shall we say, to rely on Arizona beating Pythagoras by levels seen once per generation or less. The youth of our team works for and against us here; half our team has never known a losing month, and one wonders how they will cope with adversity if they face it. A good start will go a long way to solidifying the self-belief necessary to repeat as champions; especially since, after the Reds series, we play 22 straight games against our divisional rivals. The NL West title won't be decided in April, but a strong statement early on would certainly be nice. Expected change: -2 wins
Overall: 92 wins
That sounds about right to me; we should improve both on starting pitching and offense, and that will hopefully counter a backslide in the bullpen and any regression to the mean for Pythagoras.
Another day, another one-run game: at least that's something which has carried over from last season. Ten of the last fourteen spring training games we've played have been decided by one run, including the last five in a row - let's hope our regular-season form there will be a little better, as our Cactus League record in them is a mediocre 6-7 since we started. Today, however, we did come out on the winning side, pipping the Giants 6-5. blowing two leads before hanging grimly to another. "Grimly" being the operative word; we sent Nippert to the mound for the ninth with a two-run lead, and there was one run in, plus the tying man on third, before he got an out. However, two strikeouts and a groundout salvaged things nicely.
Micah Owings' control issues continued, with four walks in five innings, giving him 13 in 15.2 for the spring. He did avoid the hits, getting in to the fifth with only one allowed there, though relied severely on the arm of Robby Hammock, who gunned down two Giants' base-stealers in the first inning. But he did waver from that fifth inning, being pulled surrendering back-to-back homers in the sixth. "I'm not concerned, and I don't think anybody should be concerned," Owings said. "The minute you start to get concerned, you start to press. I'm just going to take it each outing, each game, each pitch, and focus on that. I'm not going to start thinking too much." No, that's what we're here for... ;-S Between those two, Medders and Slaten pitched 2.2 shutout innings - good to see the latter back in action.
At the plate, Conor Jackson was the man, driving in three runs, two of them with his second spring homer, though he also hit into a double-play. Augie Ojeda had two hits and two RBI, while Jeff Salazar and Eric Byrnes each had two hits. Chris Burke continued to be the man of a thousand faces, this time playing third-base. He had a hit, an RBI and stole his fourth base, tying him for the team lead with Justin Upton, though Burke has the edge in that his record is perfect, while JUpton's been caught twice. Hammock got another start behind the mask - he now has more at-bats than Chris Snyder, though since he's now hitting .154 after today's ohfer, perhaps he just needs more of them.
Randy Johnson was scheduled to start Wednesday against the Rockies, but will pitch in a minor-league game instead. That's partly to stop Colorado from getting to see him, but also would allow the Diamondbacks to backdate his DL stint at the beginning of the year, since only games to which admission are charged are included. Since his last start was March 21st, that would mean he could return at any date after April 6. He probably won't pitch at all on the opening road-trip; the previously-mooted idea of having him pitch the home opener on April 7th could make sense. That would slot him in between Webb and Haren, and keep him separated from the other lefty, Doug Davis.
Oh, and look! diamondbacks.com has a counter to Opening Day on their home page! Wonder where on earth they got THAT idea from? :-)