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Predicting the NL West: Arizona Diamondbacks

And so, on Opening Day for the Diamondbacks, we reach the last of our pre-season pieces, as I try to project how the team might do here. Since there seems to be some confusion, note that the results do not necessarily reflect my own personal opinion: they're a product of a system. Admittedly, one I came up with, but I'm no more responsible for the specific numbers, than Mark Zuckerberg is, for your unfortunate high-school photos showing up on Facebook.

Anyhoo. The D-backs surprised everyone by winning the 2011 National League West, when most people [and I admit to being among them] would have been pleasantly surprised by a finish anywhere but last. Now, the target is on their back as reigning champions, so can they repeat?

2011 Production
It's easy to forget just how bad the Diamondbacks were early in 2011. Through May 13, they had a 15-22 record, and the Astros were the only team in the National League with fewer victories. Prophecies of last place seemed to be coming true. However, even then, there were signs the team wasn't that bad: their last six defeats had all been by a margin of one run, and their Pythagorean win percentage was 65 points ahead of their actual one. When it came, the turnaround was dramatic, the team winning 13 of 14 games to roar from last to first in the division, then fought it out with the Giants, before pulling away with a nine-game winning streak in late August

That run almost cost Kevin Towers and Derrick Hall their hair, but this was a team that was markedly stronger in the second-half, particularly on the mound. While the runs scored per game didn't change too much before and after the All-Star break (4.52 vs. 4.50), the number allowed did decrease significantly, from 4.42 to 3.64. That spurred an increase of 110 points in the team's overall win percentage, though in contrast to the earlier number, Pythagoras still considered Arizona "lucky". This was mostly because of a 28-16 record in one run games, much better than the 66-52 managed in other contests.

But there's no denying the 2011 Diamondbacks were a good team. Indeed, after the early stumbles, they were close to the best in the majors, with no team posting more wins after May 13, than the 79 collected by the Diamondbacks. With a first-half Pythag of .510 and a second-half one of .595, that converts to a base projection of 91.8 wins for Arizona in 2012.

Off-season moves
The Diamondbacks didn't have any major concerns with regard to free-agency this winter - unlike the one looming at the end of 2012, when catcher and short-stop positions look likely to need filling. For now, however, there wasn't much to be done. Joe Saunders looked to have left, still ended up re-signed, and that was the extent of the drama. However, the team wasn't idle, signing free-agent Jason Kubel in a somewhat odd move, spending $15m overr two years on shoring up a position which didn't seem to need it, and also trading future potential for proven talent, with Jarrod Parker going to the A's for Trevor Cahill.

There were also some additional pieces brought in for the bullpen, with Takashi Saito being the first "true" Japanese player to join the Diamondbacks [Japanese-born Stephen Randolph doesn't count1], and Craig Breslow also joining the team, as part of the Cahill trade. But otherwise, it was more of the same, with Willie Bloomquist, John McDonald, Henry Blanco, Lyle Overbay and Aaron Hill all signing contracts which kept them in the desert. But as much a help will simply be Arizona not having some players who were worse than dead-weight on last season's roster....

Arrivals WAR Departures WAR
Craig Breslow 0.5 Sean Burroughs -0.6
Trevor Cahill 3.5 Alberto Castillo 0.3
Chris Jakubauskas 0.1 Ryan Cook -0.2
Jason Kubel 1.3 Collin Cowgill -0.2
Takashi Saito 0.9 Zach Duke 0.0
Amando Galarraga -1.3
Juan Gutierrez -0.6
Ryan Langerhans
Jason Marquis -1.0
Melvin Mora -0.4
Xavier Nady -0.1
Micah Owings 0.5
Total 6.3 Total -3.6

Blimey. If I hadn't already written a disclaimer, I'd be scurrying up to to the top of the piece to add one, because this looks increasingly like an insane number for Arizona. This does explain why the team started off so badly in 2011, and credit is certainly due to Kevin Towers for dumping those who weren't producing without fear, favor or concern about writing them checks to play beer-league softball. Will he be as willing to do so in 2012, if certain members of the roster don't learn from their predecessors' errors? Only two of the dozen departures were better than replacement level, and their collective absence is seen to make Arizona almost four wins better.

And that's before the team even added anyone. Not that many additions - as noted, we didn't have that many holes to fill - but every one of them was a positive contributor to his team in 2011, and so should make the Diamondbacks better in 2012, if they repeat that performance. Was surprised at how highy Cahill was rated in bWAR, even as hie ERA moved sharply upward in 2011 - I think if we get 3.5 WAR out of him this season, we'll have to be more than happy with this. But there seems little doubt, looking at the columns above, that the changes have made Arizona a significantlly better team. But 9.9 wins better? Wow.

There's no doubt that the Diamondbacks remain a younger team, even with Towers' affection for the ol' veteran presence. Half of our starting position players will be 28 or younger, and Saunders is the only one in the rotation who will be older than 27 on Opening Day. Cahill is only 24, which goes some way to countering the signing of the apparently ageless Saito, who will be among the oldest players in the major this year [albeit some way behind the title-holder, obviously]. There seems particular scope for improvement from Justin Upton and Paul Goldschmidt - the latter fills a hole which has been hugely unproductive for the D-backs of late.

Last year, the team's hitters came in at a weighted average of 28.2 years, which is 0.3 years below the median in the NL, and the pitchers were 27.4, under the median by 0.85. The loss of some veterans, as outlined above, has been countered by restocking in that department, but one does also wonder how long it'll be before the likes of Trevor Bauer are seen. His arrival will certainly help drag the average age of our pitchers down further, but for not, the team is definitely on the right side of the age curve, and will pick up 2.3 wins through natural improvement this season as a result.

The main issue with the method here, is it assumes players will perform the way they did last year. While not a bad starting point, a common argument heard against Arizona is that they had a remarkable series of career seasons, unlikely to be repeated. In some individual cases, that's true - obvious example, it's unlikely Henry Blanco will slug .540. Will Ian Kennedy be a 5.5 bWAR pitcher again? Upton, Miguel Montero, Gerardo Parra, Ryan Roberts, Josh Collmenter, David Hernandez had breakout years, and the odds of all sustaining that level of performance are likely slim. And I have qualms about adding Kubel's WAR, since he and Parra will likely have to share playing time.

Of course, there is room for improvement in other areas. We've mentioned 1B, and previously discussed the problems of the #5 spot in our rotation last season. If rotational struggles occur, then it seems likely Towers will have a quick hook, with credible candidates lurking in the wings. Given this, struggles may not last the 7-8 starts given to Barry Enright and Galarraga early in 2011. However, we'll err on the side of caution and penalize the team -5 wins in this campaign; I'm remaining mute on the topic of specifically from where those losses will come.

99 wins. And to save you the bother, here's your reaction. But, breaking it down, we have a team that was pretty good last year - likely a legit 90-win time or so. They dumped the dead wood that cost them a significant number of victories, and added pieces that should make them better. Finally, they're a sufficiently young team, that age and experience will lead to some additional improvement. When you put it like that... There's a reason a significant chunk of ESPN pundits predict Arizona will win the National League pennant [though I'm still amazed there are people picking the Giants].

Personally, I'm erring even more on the side of caution. I don't really give a damn about the specific numbers: as long as we win the NL West, we can do it with 82 victories, for all I care. But I do think this team has talent, depth at most spots, and is fundamentally better than it was going in to last season. That'll help balance the over-performance, and we'll end the year at the same number of wins as last year, 94, and march on to the post-season with every intention of going further.