Not gonna sugarcoat it, the playoff outlook for the 2015 Diamondbacks does not look great. Most released projection systems have the team somewhere in the 70s for wins. The nicest descriptor for the pitching staff is "upside." The lineup is Paul Goldschmidt and a bunch of guys who could be good if things fall the right.
And speaking of segueways, if things go right is what we're going to discuss today. While it doesn't look good coming in, there is always a possibility that the Diamondbacks take a big, unexpected leap this season. After all, the previous two playoff appearances also came from big, unexpected leaps (let's not talk about what happened in the proceeding seasons, eh?)
With that in mind, we'll look at some things that could go right for the Diamondbacks this season to propel them to contention. These are all somewhat realistic and most reasonable people could see them happening under the right circumstances, so there's nothing like "The Dodgers and Giants get Space Jam'd" Without further ado...
Some of the young pitching performs above expectations/develops ahead of schedule
The Diamondbacks have a lot of potential starting pitchers, but only Josh Collmenter and Jeremy Hellickson seem to officially be locks for the rotation (I'd imagine they'd also trot Trevor Cahill out there by default, more on him later.) To fill out the last two or three spots in the rotation, the team has Chase Anderson, Rubby De La Rosa, Vidal Nuno, Andrew Chafin, Robbie Ray, Allan Webster, and even Randall Delgado or Daniel Hudson. That's just people currently on the 40-man. You also have guys like Archie Bradley, Braden Shipley, and Aaron Blair lurking. That's a lot of quantity.
The Diamondbacks could get an uptick if one or two of those guys establishes themselves above the rest and give the team solid production, rather than a season of growing pains. Who would be the most likely candidates of the group I mentioned? Chase Anderson was solid last season, so he's up there. You hope Daniel Hudson could regain some of his old form in a starting role, but he'll always be the guy coming off two Tommy John surgeries, so there is some wariness there. Everyone else has some degree of upside, but hasn't quite shown it yet.
The basic hypothesis behind the rotation seems to be if you have a lot of pieces, the chance of at least one of them being really good. If you were to give a sub-par bowler unlimited frames, eventually they would throw a strike, just because there will always be a probability of that. If the Diamondbacks rotation unexpectedly gets a double or a turkey, then the likelihood of a winning season increases. If few or none of them hit, the team could still hope for the next two...
Patrick Corbin and/or Bronson Arroyo come back from Tommy John surgery without problems and give the team a midseason boost.
This seems unlikely, but still within the realm of possibility. Corbin will probably not come back until June at the earliest, and the team will probably be careful with him, as he's obviously part of their long-term plans. Arroyo is not getting any younger, and the fact that he developed a problem last season despite his softer-tossing style was... alarming. However, stranger things have happened, and if one of them shores up the rotation, then the Diamondbacks will be in a better place.
Trevor Cahill returns to 2012 levels.
Yes, I said "2012" not "2010". It's becoming more and more apparent to everyone not named Kevin Towers that Cahill's 2010 with Oakland, where he put up a 2.97 ERA, was a bit of a Coliseum-fueled aberration. However, if the changes to his mechanics and arm angle work (too early to tell), then Cahill could feasibly move back into the mid to higher 3's neighborhood of ERA. In some ways, his first season with the Diamondbacks was even better than his 2010 with Oakland. He struck out more batters (156 to 118 in only 3.1 more innings pitched.) He had a better FIP (3.85 to 4.19) , and he allowed four fewer home runs despite pitching in Chase Field. The potential has been there, but for the last two seasons Cahill has fallen off a cliff, Wile E. Coyote style.
And that's always been the frustrating thing about Cahill. If he was nothing but hot garbage, you could relegate him island of misfit starters in your mind (even considering what was given up for him.) However, the fact that he's shown rare flashes of brilliance has made him frustrating to watch, because you know he's sometimes capable of more than he's shown. If he figures it out somewhat in the last year of his deal, then the Diamondbacks are in a good place. Even if the Diamondbacks don't contend, a presumably effective Cahill could become a good trade chip.
The Injury Bug nibbles, but does not bite
There's been a lot of talk that the 2014 Diamondbacks were hit hard by injury, and some people have rolled their eyes at that suggestion, as if it's somehow absolving the team from bad roster construction. However, it is true that there were a bevy of injuries last season that helped the Diamondbacks move from "A very flawed team" to "An eternal grease fire" A team with a healthy Patrick Corbin, A.J. Pollock, Paul Goldschmidt, among others for a full season would have made the team better, relatively speaking.
No team will go through the season with the same 25 guys on the roster for the entirety. That just doesn't happen. The Diamondbacks have to hope that the disabled list stints are short, and don't hit linchpins of the lineup or rotation, or that any injury replacement comes in and production at that position doesn't suffer a drop.
Aaron Hill returns somewhat to form
It is going to be very very hard to move Aaron Hill with the contract he has and the decline in his production that occurred last year. However, if he rebounds a little bit to the Aaron Hill of old (rather than the Aaron Hill of really old AKA his last two seasons in Toronto.), then a big short-term lineup question will be solved.
Mark Trumbo slugs enough to offset a low OBP and sub-par outfield defense.
This seems self-explanatory. I couldn't tell you what level that is, but if he hits it, then the Diamondbacks offense will be formidable in the power department.
Yasmany Tomas adjusts to the Major League game quickly
Whether he eventually ends up at third or in the outfield, if our first prized Cuban acquisition of the offseason can conquer whatever learning curve he needs in a quick manner, then the Diamondbacks will have at least three potential legitimate power threats in the lineup. It may gave bad acid flashbacks of the Mark Reynolds era, but it's generally a good thing if you hit more Home Runs than you expect.
One of the potential Catchers hits well enough to produce positive value
At the time of writing, the best candidate for that would be Peter O'Brien, but his defense is a question. Tuffy Gosewisch is not going to be confused for Josh Gibson anytime soon. Oscar Hernandez didn't hit particularly well in A-ball. However, if one of them emerges as the clear number one, and hits decently, the most likely weakness in the Diamondbacks lineup will not be that.
Pretty much all of this boils down to "YOU SELECTED PLAYERS, PLAY BETTER THAN MY EXPECTATIONS OF YOU PLAYING ARE.", but when talking about a team that is not expected to do much, that's pretty much all an unexpected good season boils down to.