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SnakePit Round Table: Into 2018

After last week’s look back at the previous year, our writers turn their gaze forward to next season...

New York Celebrates New Year's Eve In Times Square Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images

What are your pre-season hopes?

Makakilo: My hopes:

  • Starting pitching will be best in the Majors. Will another pitcher emerge like Godley did?
  • Rebuilt bullpen will be the best in the NL West. It will be especially interesting who emerges as the closer!
  • Goldschmidt has a career-best season.
  • Outstanding outfield defense.
  • No significant injuries.

Michael: I’ll stay grounded here and start with a winning record in April, then +10 over .500 or better at the All Star Break. I do think that if the team hasn’t been devastated by then, they should make a run at the Wild Card. Winning the division is probably not likely unless the Dodgers suffer a ton of devastating injuries and the Dbacks have really good luck with injuries and close games.

Keegan: Nothing astronomical from me. I’d like to see the pitching staff continue their development. Patrick Corbin will likely be pitching his final season in Arizona as far as I can tell, so a strong core of Godley, Walker, Ray, and Greinke would soften that inevitable loss. My expectation is that the team will be around 83 wins, but I’ll be grateful for all wins beyond that. I hope that Mike Hazen and his staff have a successful draft to further develop the farm system as well.

James: My hopes are pretty conservative. Mostly, I am hoping the team is able to find a way to creatively maintain this team as a competitive entity. There are some obvious hurdles to that, but I am trusting that Mike Hazen is not going to make a bad deal, just to force the issue. I have high hopes for Robbie Ray for 2018 as well as some modest hopes for Zack Godley to continue to develop a bit more. Overall, I am looking for yet another great rotation in 2018, which should in turn help the bullpen performance, whoever winds up there.

If the season started today, I would be expecting an 81-83 win team. The season doesn’t start for three more months though, a great deal can (and probably will) happen between now and then to change those expectations.

What is the biggest cause for optimism about the D-backs?

Makakilo: In 2017, a winning clubhouse culture was established. Torey Lovullo, NL Manager of the Year, will cement that culture. Mike Hazen has a plan to provide players who will succeed in that culture.

Michael: The team didn’t lose any core players over the offseason and very few players had career years in 2017. The only players I worry about regression are the ones that have plenty of growth left in their game (Ray, Walker, Godley). If the young pitchers can show they can handle a full season’s workload without losing value, the future is bright.

Keegan: Torey Lovullo is returning largely the same ball club, although changes have been made to the back end of the bullpen. Arizona was a successful team last season prior to the acquisition of J.D. Martinez. Not many position players had their best season last year, so we can anticipate some positive regression in that direction. A.J. Pollock is going to be playing in a contract season, so it would behoove him to stay on the field and demonstrate that he can produce as he did in 2015. Some other players to keep an eye on for positive regression are Brandon Drury, Jake Lamb, and Chris Owings. Lamb had another horrible second half, Drury had stage fright playing away from Chase Field, and Chris Owings had fallen off significantly prior to being lost for the rest of the season due to injury. All of these young players are now a year wiser, and have the potential to make another run at it this season.

James: The Diamondbacks will be returning most of the team that went to the playoffs in 2017. Additionally, the team did not succeed as the result of multiple players putting up unsustainable numbers. This gives rise to the cautious hope that the assembled team could be lined up for continued success, both in 2018 and in future seasons.

Which area of the team is your greatest concern?

Makakilo: The outfield needs more depth. Pollock and Tomas seem susceptible to injury.

Michael: Outfield for sure, starting pitching 2nd. I always worry about starting pitching, so take that with a grain of salt (I’ll explain some other time why). With the outfield, the team has a starting lineup of Peralta, Pollock, and Tomas. Peralta and Pollock give you above average production (Peralta 2.5 WAR/600, Pollock 5). The team has Hazelbaker and Fuentes as 4th OF types with Fuentes as an out of options player. Both make a lot of sense as the 4th OF as a LHH, but Fuentes is probably better suited for a defense/baserunning role. My concern is that if Pollock and Peralta are injured that they get zero production from the OF.

Keegan: The future of the outfield and the bullpen. We were outdone by the Dodgers in the NLDS due to their sheer depth, and I don’t think enough has been done to solidify the bullpen. Is Brad Boxberger completely healthy? How will Yoshihisa Hirano adjust coming from Japan to the United States? Relief pitchers seem to be the only players that have gone for a premium this offseason, but I still think there were missed opportunities among lesser appreciated arms who have since found teams. Outside of the bullpen we really don’t have our center fielder of the future if A.J. Pollock signs elsewhere in free agency. Socrates Brito hasn’t flashed more promise than anything other than a AAAA player. With Yasmany Tomas roaming left field, we better have a stud in CF ready to make up for his lack of range.

James: The departure of Chris Iannetta and the return of Yasmany Tomás as the team’s starting left fielder both give me a bit of reason for concern. Tomás may or may not be ready by the time the season starts. The problem is, if he isn’t, the team has little depth in the outfield. Should any sort of injury strike the outfield, the team is going to be horribly exposed. The team seems content to run with a catching corps of Mathis, Herrmann, and possibly Murphy. While I am okay with that in principle, I think the team needs to then consider ways to beef up the offense in other places. Left field (especially if Tomás is out) could be one of those places.

Do you expect the team to make further moves between now and Opening Day?

Makakilo: Yes. The D-backs need more depth in the outfield and they need a power-hitter to pair with Goldy in the lineup. The free agent market has developed very slowly this off-season, meaning that circumstances continue to evolve. About when spring training arrives, an affordable opportunity may happen. Maybe a free agent wants a one-year contract at Chase to show-off his hitting. Maybe a team whose trade attempts stalled, decides to explore a deal with the D-backs.

Michael: Depends on what you define as moves. Aside from the 6’2” 270 pound problem in left field, I think the team could do fine with what they have now. The team has a payroll problem that forces Hazen to have to take bigger risks to get the same upside. Corbin and Drury are guys I could see getting moved, I’m not sure for who though. I do think the team should continue to ask if Christian Yelich is available and what it will take to get him in a trade (Duplantier being the only prospect off the table in such talks). Yelich’s age and affordability could make things easier for the Diamondbacks to extend their contention window past this year when two quality players (Pollock, Corbin) leave in free agency.

Keegan: I think there is always opportunity. I anticipate Spring Training to be an active time for transactions due to the lack of movement thus far and because it gives general managers their first opportunity to evaluate their needs. Maybe Baltimore realizes that their expectations aren’t realistic and decide that it is in their best interest to send Manny Machado to the D’backs. Perhaps the Yankees aren’t able to swing Gerrit Cole and decide that they want to go after Patrick Corbin. Another factor to consider is that as teams begin to finalize their 25 man rosters, some interesting players are bound to be cut at the end of Spring Training. I’ve always felt confident about Mike Hazen and his staff when evaluating fringe type players. He is forced into that role because of payroll constraints here.

James: I do think there will probably be more moves. I would not be at all surprised to see the team load up on minor league deals for veteran players as February rolls around. I also still think that one or both of Patrick Corbin and Brandon Drury could be traded. The longer things are drawn out on the Gerrit Cole front and the longer Alex Cobb remains unsigned, the greater the chances of Patrick Corbin heading to the Yankees look. The team’s need to trim payroll just makes a move of one of those players seem too easy to call to ignore it as a possibility before the season starts. I also think that a trade involving Corbin could serve to address the team’s need for more outfield stability.

How do you see the NL West stacking up to this point?

Makakilo: It is stacking up very well for the D-backs, who are back with basically the same core players and a well-rebuilt bullpen. The other teams:

  • Padres are in the valley of a rebuild. Though 71 wins sounds not horrible, their stats show they were much worse than that. Their Wins Above Average (WAA) was last in the Majors. Their run differential and Pythagorean record were last, too.
  • Rockies are like riverboat gamblers. They hope that luck will turn their cards, power hitters paired with a mega-bullpen, into a playoff berth. The odds are long.
  • Giants are in their last hurrah year. Their outfield and third base were last in the Majors in WAA. Their starting lineup, entire rotation, and closer all underperformed their Zips projections (Grant Brisbee). Instead of rebuilding, they are trying to plug the holes before next season when they sink like the titanic.
  • Dodgers will dim this season so they can shine brightly next season. They look determined to stay under the luxury tax threshold this season. Next season they will have increased flexibility to acquire awesome free agents, who will be available. Despite being dimmed, it will be a challenge to wrest first place in the NL West from the Dodgers.

Michael: Dodgers, Dbacks, Rockies, Padres, Giants in that order. Here’s why:

  1. Dodgers are light years ahead of the Dbacks and Rockies in terms of payroll and the ability to construct rosters. They have a dynamic young core of former prospects that have developed into All-Stars as well as the best pitcher on the planet. I could see World Series fatigue being an issue for them and the Astros, although the Dodgers are the one team that’s well equipped to handle that problem.
  2. Dbacks have talent at the right spots (starting pitching, back-end bullpen, CF, SS, 1B, manager). The team needs Walker to take that next step as well as Ray and Godley being able to pitch 200 innings at similar effectiveness in 2018 for the team to have any shot at the NL West title.
  3. Rockies are in a similar situation as the Diamondbacks where one of their core players is on his final year of team control and eligible for free agency (Blackmon). They forked over a lot of money for their bullpen (McGee, Shaw, and Davis combining for over $100M the next 3 seasons), which is a silly exercise because it’s easier and cheaper for teams to develop relievers instead. Likely overcompensation for how the WC game ended? Yes!
  4. I’m not sure 2018 is the year the Padres go for the division yet, but there is talent in their position player group and they seem to be heavy on Eric Hosmer (rumors). However, they lack the pitching to compete in the division and have a very young roster.
  5. Giants didn’t get production from their role guys and Bumgarner playing a fully healthy season wouldn’t get the Giants to even .500. Bumgarner, Posey, and Crawford are still in their primes, but the Giants roster is very old and they have a weak farm system (their 2018 first round pick is their best prospect IMO).

Keegan: 1st- Dodgers, 2nd (Wild Card)- D’backs, 3rd- Giants, 4th- Rockies, 5th- Padres.

The Dodgers should win the division handily. They are one of the most well run organizations in the league currently. I’m not buying the Colorado Rockies “super bullpen”, although their front office certainly is. They are spending a ton of money on a roster spot with a significant amount of risk/turnover in a hostile pitching environment. The Padres appear to be shortchanging their rebuild in their pursuit of Eric Hosmer. I don’t feel that is a move that puts them any closer to a Wild Card berth. The Giants and the Diamondbacks are the two most interesting teams in this division in my opinion. Their 2017 expectations vs. 2017 results were essentially reversed, much to our benefit. A part of me doesn’t believe that the Giants are that abysmal, yet I can still see them being awful for a 2nd year in a row. I’m aware that is a horrendous take, but it is how I feel about them as a team. On the other hand, are the 2016 Diamondbacks or the 2017 Diamondbacks closer to reality? We really can’t know for sure until the season starts!

James: The Dodgers are still the class of the division. It still isn’t even close. After the Dodgers, I see the Diamondbacks and Rockies once again competing with each other for second in the NL West. The Diamondbacks are bringing back a solid group of players that secured the first wild card in 2017 and the Rockies have made a number of strong offseason moves. They still play in Colorado though, and that is tough to overcome. After that, it’s the Giants and Padres.

Predict a Diamondback who’ll have a breakout year in 2018, and explain why.

Makakilo: If the D-backs don’t acquire outfield depth, Christian Walker could play in the outfield. If he is given that opportunity, he will be a breakout player. He was compared favorably to Tomas and Descalso (see this article) . And his MiLB power ranking is 3. At the AAA level, the next highest D-back I could find is ranked 37. I conclude he has the highest chance of any D-back in AAA to have a breakout season.

Michael: Ketel Marte and Taijuan Walker are my two picks, although if I have to choose 1 I’ll go with Marte since he has more growth in his game. Marte’s production at the plate and on the field have improved. Adding walks increased his offensive floor. If he can add a bit more pop and improve his baserunning (and basestealing), he goes from a role guy to a critical cog (which he already is) to the team’s success.

Keegan: I agree with the choices above, but for the sake of variety I’ll make a case for Brandon Drury.

  • Home stats - 236 plate appearances: .302/.369/.528, 123 wRC+, .379 wOBA
  • Away stats - 244 plate appearances: .236/.266/.373, 63 wRC+, .272 wOBA

It’s pretty easy to see that he is two entirely different players at Chase Field and away. That’s to be expected with a hitter friendly ballpark, but not as dramatic as we see with Brandon Drury. What is concerning is that was the case for him in 2016 as well with a similar number of plate appearances. If I’m Torey Lovullo, I’m looking to limit his opportunities away from the Valley instead playing one of the other numerous options on the roster to maximize his value. However, if he can find a way to increase his production on the road and narrow that gap, he is a respectable option at 2nd base.

James: So many players from the 2017 team played right around expectations that it is difficult to pick one. Of the current players, I think Taijuan Walker could still surprise many. When he’s on, he’s dominant. When he struggles, getting through five innings can take forever, but he still keeps his team in the game. If Walker can find some more consistency with his breaking ball, he could become a solid #2 pitcher and help the rotation repeat as one of the better rotations in all of baseball for the last several years. I do agree with Makakilo above, that Christian Walker, if given enough at-bats, could have a solid season. Given that I still think the team is going to look different once April rolls around, I reserve the right to change my answer later.