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Arizona Diamondbacks Spring Training Position Battles: Fifth starter

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Less than two weeks until Opening Day: how are the pre-season questions being answered?

Arizona Diamondbacks Photo Day Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The question

Coming into spring training, it looked as if the front of the rotation was largely set. Zack Greinke would be the Opening Day starter, ahead of new man Taijuan Walker, then Robbie Ray. Shelby Miller was the most likely #4, but the fifth spot was entirely up in the air. The two main candidates were Patrick Corbin, once scheduled to be our Opening Day starter, but who ended 2016 in the bullpen, and Archie Bradley, who became a permanent member of the rotation at the end of May, though has still to deliver on the potential which once had him named as the top pitching prospect in baseball. There was also Braden Shipley, albeit considered as a long-shot.

Spring performances

5th starter candidates

Player ERA IP H R ER HR BB SO AVG WHIP
Player ERA IP H R ER HR BB SO AVG WHIP
Bradley, A 7.98 14.2 23 15 13 2 4 11 .348 1.84
Corbin, P 3.44 18.1 14 7 7 1 3 17 .212 0.93
Shipley, B 4.26 6.1 7 3 3 1 1 2 .304 1.26

Going purely on spring numbers, Corbin appears to be the winner. Not only is his raw ERA significantly better, but his peripherals are also the best, with an impressive K:BB ratio of 17:3 over 18.1 innings. The only bump in the road was likely his March 9th game against the White Sox, where he allowed six hits and three runs over 3.1 innings. But Corbin bounced back nicely since, with a pair of five-inning outings, allowing two runs across those, while fanning eight and walking none. Even before his last outing, manager Torey Lovullo said, “He’s done exactly what we’d hoped all the guys would do. He’s been outstanding with his preparation, following the process and now the execution.”

Meanwhile, main rival Bradley struggled to get out of the gate. Colorado slapped him around in the Cactus League opener, and two starts later, Oakland repeated the medicine. His most recent outings have been a great improvement, and Lovullo was careful to say, “We didn’t evaluate the runs that he gave up or the unearned runs or really even the play that he didn’t make that led to a couple extra pitches and some runs. We evaluated the stuff.” But there was likely too much ground for Bradley to make up. Bob McManaman of AZ Central believes it’s all over: “Go ahead and carve Patrick Corbin’s name into stone. Using a pencil would just be a waste of time.”

But what of Shipley? The team never really made much effort to stretch him as a genuine candidate for a rotation spot. His first three outings saw consistent pitch counts of 36, 39 and 37, a contrast to the gradually increasing workloads given to both Bradley and Corbin. His most recent outing, on St. Patrick’s Day, was only 1.1 innings, which suggests any future role is only going to be on the bullpen. Lovullo wouldn’t commit, saying, “We feel like he still could be stretched out as a starter. It was just the need for the day. He'd still be fine getting stretched out.” But going from 40 pitches to the 90-odd needed, in the remaining time, would seem a stretch indeed.

Conclusion

And lo, as I wrote the above, Shipley was re-assigned to Reno, so is not even going to get a bullpen spot. I thought, as we arrived at Salt River Fields, that the position would likely be Corbin’s to lose. His upside - and I don’t even mean before Tommy John, I’d take the 3.60 ERA he posted over 16 starts in 2015 - had been seen, while Bradley’s still remained theoretical. Add in the relative costs (Corbin will earn almost $4 million this year, Bradley close to league minimum) and this seemed all to point to Patrick having the inside edge.

Corbin’s performances this spring have not been as flashily overpowering as Taijuan Walker’s, but as Lovullo said, he has done everything we could have wanted of him. Of course, there’s the usual warning that spring training performances bear little or no relation to those in the regular season. But a healthy, effective 2015-vintage Corbin would certainly be a big boost to a Diamondbacks rotation that will be the engine-room of any improvement by the team in 2017.

Michael will be along with a closer look at both Corbin and Miller shortly.