It is still early March, and while we may have a much better idea of who will be playing in the field than we do about who will make the starting rotation, there are still a lot of questions that need to be examined before the team opens the season against San Francisco on April 6th.
First Base: This is the easiest position to consider. Paul Goldschmidt is arguably the best first baseman in Major League Baseball. If he is healthy, he is playing. Despite missing much of last season due to a hand fracture suffered while pinch hitting against the Pirates last August. By all accounts that injury is fully healed and causing no discomfort. Expect Goldschmidt to anchor the lineup for 150 or more games in 2015 while he works on his second consecutive ballot-driven appearance in the All-star Game.
Second Base: While this position has a clear front-runner in Aaron Hill, the Diamondbacks have been asking Chris Owings to get more experience fielding on that side of the diamond. Likewise, one of the team's top position prospects, Brandon Drury, has been getting time at second. Hill had a miserable 2014 campaign at the plate and showed signs of aging defensively as well. With two years and $26 million left on Hill's contract, the team will have a difficult time moving him. The best they can hope for is that Hill has a rebound year to increase his value at the break, or perhaps even in the off-season. In order to do this though, he needs to play. Given that Drury likely still needs a bit more time in the minors, and the other middle infield options are not exactly "hitters", expect Hill to be given every chance to re-establish some value. However, if his performance takes a dive, look for Owings, Pennington, or perhaps even Drury to replace him mid-season. Where will the lineup? That remains to be seen. When he is going right, he makes a good two-hole candidate. When he is not, he is best utilized down in the lineup at seven or eight.
Shortstop: The biggest question remaining here is, "When will Chris Owings return to the lineup?" Still recovering from an injury suffered on an awkward slide into home against San Francisco last season, Owings is expected to miss the first one to two weeks of Spring Training as well. Once he does return, there is still reason for significant concern as to how well he will perform at the plate after missing so much time and having such a slow recovery. Defensively, Owings showed in 2014 he is capable of sticking at short. This will only help his chances of still being the Opening Day starter. If Owings is even 75-80% as effective at the plate as he was last season, he still remains a better candidate than either Pennington or Ahmed. That is, unless Ahmed has significantly increased his walk rate and found at least another 30-40 points in his batting average. If he shows this in March, then Owings could find himself in another battle for the position.
Third Base: That brings up to our first big question for the 2015 lineup. Who will be the Opening Day regular starter at third base for the Arizona Diamondbacks? Highly touted Cuban prospect Yasmany Tomás is the clear front-runner for the position. He has been in Scottsdale working on his fielding since January, trying to make himself adequate defensively to play the hot corner at the MLB level. Whether or not he can make that adjustment still remains to be seen, but early reports from observers outside the PR pipeline do not seem optimistic that he will be ready by April. There is also the fact that Tomás has yet to face big league pitching. For all the questions about how the young Cuban will play defensively, it remains to be demonstrated that he is ready to face off daily against top-tier pitching. Thankfully for the Diamondbacks, there seem to be far fewer questions about whether or not he can hit at the top level. Most of those questions seem to revolve around whether or not he can control the strike zone enough to avoid being an OBP black hole.
Tomás is not alone in looking to secure the job as the team's starting third baseman. Top 100 prospect, Jake Lamb, is also in consideration. Lamb is probably equally worthy of starting at third, but brings an entirely different set of questions. Unlike Tomás, there is no question regarding Lamb's ability to stick at third defensively, as he is graded anywhere from average to slightly above average in that regard, having shown significant improvement in that category over the last two seasons now. Also unlike Tomás, Lamb bats from the left side, a talent which, since the departures of Montero and Gregorius is in short supply for the Diamondbacks. While Tomás made a name for himself with prodigious power numbers, Lamb is more of a doubles hitter with 15-20 home run potential. In his short exposure to the big leagues last season, Lamb did not fare so well. His tendency to strike out and to not draw walks was exposed by major league pitchers. Lamb will need to work on this if he wants to make the 25-man roster.
Third base should probably be too tough to call; however, I have a feeling that unless Tomás falls flat on his face defensively, that he will be given every opportunity to start at the hot corner for the Diamondbacks in 2015, while Lamb returns to Reno with hopes that he can work on drawing more walks while continuing to club ball all over the park. He should probably keep a bag packed though, as truly poor performance by Tomás, or an injury to either one of Tomás or Trumbo would necessitate Lamb's speedy return to Arizona.
Catcher: While third base will likely pose the most interesting questions to evaluate during Spring Training, the catching position may in fact produce the most questions. As it stands, Tuffy Gosewisch is in line to be the Diamondbacks' Opening Day starter behind the dish. While there is a general consensus that Gosewisch is a fine receiver that also plays slightly above average defense, it is also well-documented that he is among the very worst of all catchers offensively, putting up numbers that would, for most any other team, put him somewhere in the minors as organizational filler. Backing up Gosewisch is Rule 5 pick-up, Oscar Hernandez, another defensively positive backstop, but one who has never seen a pitch above A+ ball, and has had essentially no success at the plate in those lower levels.
Given this lack of any catcher that appears to be even replacement level for a backup, the team has also opened the competition to every backstop that will be in Spring Training. These candidates that could push their way into the discussion include; Mike Pagnozzi, Blake Lalli, Gerald Laird and Jordan Pacheco. All of these would seem to be competing for the role of backing up Gosewisch.
Of course, there is one more name that has not yet been mentioned - Peter O'Brien, who could make all of this speculation about the catching position irrelevant. The Diamondbacks' top position prospect has been diligently working on his catching skills since he was acquired at the trade deadline last season for Martin Prado. There is a general consensus that O'Brien is already well-suited to face MLB pitching and to hit for very big power. There seems to be no real concern in that department. The big concern is whether or not he will be able to play well enough defensively to remain behind the plate at the MLB level. Reports coming from the PR pipeline have been that O'Brien has improved greatly since he was acquired. Anecdotal evidence suggests that O'Brien has become something of a decent receiver. However, O'Brien still has great difficult controlling the running game, and is also still shows very limited range of movement behind the plate. His large size and still elementary footwork has made it very difficult for him to exhibit the lateral mobility necessary to block big sweeping pitches. Given the pitching profiles for a number of the Diamondbacks' better pitching options/prospects, this does not bode well for O'Brien. If however, O'Brien shows an ability to control the ball in the dirt, and to at least limit the air-mailing of throws to second, expect O'Brien becomes the front-runner to start, forcing a battle between Gosewisch and Hernandez for the role of back-up.
Though it is still early, the most likely outcome would seem to be that Gosewisch is indeed the starting catcher, with Hernandez as his backup, though Gerald Laird seems to possibly have the tools to at least make the Diamondbacks consider returning Hernandez to Tampa Bay. This would put O'Brien back in Reno, where he can continue to work on his defense. Then, sometime around either the break or the trade deadline, I would expect to see O'Brien brought up to get a solid introduction and evaluation as the possible catcher of the future for the team.
The Outfield: There are some things we know about the outfield already. According to Dave Stewart, barring something unexpected developing, Mark Trumbo will be starting in right, and A.J. Pollock will be starting in center. While the number of reasons playing Trumbo in right field has been examined repeatedly, the fact remains that, unless (until) he is traded, playing him in one of the corner outfield positions is the only way to get his bat into the lineup. The team is simply going to have to hope that the trend over the last two seasons of increasing strikeout with decreasing batting average and power does not continue. Trumbo needs to return to his 2012 form if he is going to provide value to the team. The biggest question about Pollock is whether or not he will have any lingering effects from his bout with a broken hand last season. Not known for taking enough walks, the team is hoping he continues to show that .300 hitting stroke. Thankfully, Pollock patrols center field as one of the best at the position defensively. So long as he doesn't completely disappear at the plate, he remains a good candidate to be one of the more productive members of the team in terms of generating value.
The rest of the outfield remains a mystery, one made even murkier by the questions at third base. Is Tomás a viable third baseman? If not, then he becomes a corner outfielder, making the situation even harder to figure out. Assuming Tomás remains at third, the outfield will still have Inciarte, Peralta, and Ross all competing for playing time. Defensively, Inciarte is a cut above the rest. At the plate, Perlata is likely the best of the bunch, though both players have to show that their 2014 developments were not flukes - that they can repeat their breakout performances and avoid significant regression. Ross comes with his own question marks. Has he finally recovered enough that he can at least rake against LHP again? Does he still have average range for fielding the corners in the outfield? None of the three seems to be a terribly safe bet going forward, though there is much debate over the types and amounts of regression or improvement one might expect. Given that both Peralta and Inciarte are left-handed bats, and the relative lack of those on the team, it seems fairly safe to bet that one or the other will be the normal starter in left field, likely platooned with Ross.
Something else to keep in mind for the outfield though, is that Chip Hale has expressed a desire to keep 13 position players on the roster. If this does come about, expect all five outfielders to make the team, and for both Peralta and Inciarte to get significant at bats through some sort of rotation and defensive replacement scheme. The team could do worse than to run strict platoons in both corner, though Trumbo being a right-handed bat limits right field to a soft platoon at best.
The Bench: Here's what we know about the bench so far. Cliff Pennington will be joined by two of Inciarte, Peralta, and Ross on the bench. There will be a backup catcher, though we don't know who at this point, and none of them look to be worth much of anything at the plate. With two catchers, five infielders, and five outfielders, Hale still has one slot left on the bench. I expect that will be super-utility Jordan Pacheco, who can fill in as emergency third catcher, and can also play pretty much any position except short stop or center field. This is not an inspiring bench, and provides no power threat for late in the game. The keys to this bench are positional flexibility and the ability to go strong defensively in games where the team gets a solid lead.
Wild Cards: There are two players not covered here that could drastically change the look of the infield for the Arizona Diamondbacks. The first is defensive specialist Nick Ahmed. While his brief debut in 2014 was hardly noteworthy, in Ahmed's defense, he was known as a glove-first short stop needing to work on his bat, that spent a great deal of time on the bench after being called up. The scouting report on Ahmed has not changed. He still needs to prove his bat can play. However, given his defensive prowess, a bat that plays is still somewhat nebulous. Should Ahmed find one last developmental step in his bat, he will become a very appealing possibility to slate as the everyday starting short stop.
The other wild card is Ahmed's fellow trade-mate, Brandon Drury. Drury has started splitting his time fairly evenly between second and third base. If he continues to develop his hit tool in 2015 the way he did in 2014, it will not take long for him to force himself into the conversation. However, given the team's current composition, it would likely take some combination of injuries and/or trades for Drury to be brought up before the rosters expand in September.
This team is going to launch some bombs. With Goldschmidt, Trumbo, and Tomás all in the lineup, the number of souvenirs to reach the bleachers should be impressive. With Pollock and Hill both being threats for 15+ home runs, and another 10-15 coming from left field, the Diamondbacks should be clearing the bases with some frequency. The power numbers only get better if/when O'Brien joins the mix, putting four 25+ home run threats all in the same lineup.
One of the first priorities for Kevin Towers was to cut back on strikeouts in the lineup. That philosophy is clearly out the window now. The team as currently constructed, could very possibly give the 2008 team's record of 1,287 strikeouts a run for its money.
Speed on the bases could be a clear plus for the team. While Goldschmidt is certainly not fleet-footed, he is a very smart base runner. Pollock is a speedster and enjoys stealing bases. Owings is also very quick and known for his aggressive approach anytime he is running. Inciarte has the tools of a lead-off hitter, and Peralta has above average skills on the bases as well. When the Diamondbacks get on base, they should be able to do more than just rely on the long ball to create havoc. But, that brings us to our last point.
Regardless of what combination of players makes the final cut, the Diamondbacks are going to struggle in the OBP department. They are going to have to hit, hit well, and hit for power in order to score runs. Only Goldschmidt looks to be a significant OBP threat. Peralta, Inciarte, and possibly Pollock are all candidates to at least be league average with OBP, though Pollock will need to increase his walks to keep his percentage from being too heavily driven by his batting average. Catcher, second, third, and right all project to be below average in the OBP department, with Owings at short also struggling as his percentage is entirely driven by his ability to hit. If the Diamondbacks want to take advantage of their speed, and to not become too reliant on the long ball to score, they are going to need to improve in their overall OBP game.
This could significantly increase the pressure on an already questionable rotation, which will be the subject of tomorrow's review.